In this exclusive interview with the film’s director and co writer Jorge Gutierrez we will get an inside look at what it took to create The Book of Life and bring it on the big screen.
On October 17, 2014 Reel FX Creative Studios and Twentieth Century Fox released the 3D animated feature film The Book of Life. Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin go on a life changing journey after two ancient gods wager the heart of mankind, and to see which one of the boys Maria would pick to marry.
The film features the voices of Diego Luna, (Manolo) Zoe Saldana, (Maria) and Channing Tatum (Joaquin).
Jorge Gutierrez spent the first ten years of his life growing up in Mexico City, and then moved to the border between Mexico and the United States to a small city called Tijuana which allowed him to grow up with one foot in the United States, and one foot in Mexico.
He was very much a child of the border.
During the next ten years he moved to Los Angeles where he had the opportunity to work for various animation studios such as: Dream Works, Sony, Disney, and Nickelodeon. Now he lives in Texas and works at Reel FX Creative Studios which is where they made The Book of Life.
“Animation is my hobby so pretty much everything I do is somehow related. I love painting, writing, and designing so everything I do I try to turn it into something that’s animated,” says Jorge Gutierrez.
Jorge Gutierrez wanted to be an animator ever since he was a little kid as he always loved animation growing up. When he was 14 or 15 years old he learned that he could make a living out of making cartoons, and his goal as a kid was to get into Cal Arts which is an animation school in Los Angeles.
He expressed in an excited voice that his dreams started coming true once he got into the school.
After graduating from Cal Arts Jorge said he created a short film that inspired the The Book of Life.
Jorge Gutierrez also shared that he and his wife Sandra created a show for Nickelodeon called El Tigre.
The talented animator and director explained how he came up with the idea for The Book of Life and what inspired him to write the screenplay.
“The Book of Life is very much inspired by all the stories I heard from my grandfather, and my parents about their lives and so this is a magical realist version of all those stories, and the idea is that the gods are making wagers on mankind and it’s the humans who end up teaching the gods a lesson. That’s what the book of life is about.”
The Book of the Life takes place during the Day of the Dead which is a Mexican holiday where families gather to remember those that have passed on. Jorge Gutierrez spoke from his heart about how much this holiday means to him.
“The Day of the Dead is a very important holiday to me. It’s the day I got married, and it’s a really important part of my life. It’s the way I keep all those people who are no longer here close to me, and so that became the biggest inspiration for the themes of the movie. I always wanted to see my country portrayed in a animated movie, and I kept waiting and it never happened, so I made it my goal to do that.”
The screenplay for The Book of Life was written by Jorge Gutierrez and Doug Langdale who was the head writer for El Tigre.
This was Jorge Gutierrez’s first animated feature and he had told the studio “If you guys don’t like it then you can fire me, but please let me give it a shot.” He wanted to infuse the movie with memorable lines, characters that connect, and have a lot of story devices within the film. In that aspect he says he went overboard throughout the movie.
“I started writing this 14 years ago, so I have been writing it for a long time. I started writing this as a son and now I’m a father, as I changed the script changed. Eventually when I started working with the producers they really had a lot of great ideas and suggestions just like everybody on the crew did and so the screenplay kept changing, and evolving and at some point the movie turned into the journey of what I went through to make this movie.”
He made a comparison between himself and the main character Manolo.
“Just like Manolo who is this artist/musician and is trying to change his town and convince them that what he’s doing is right, that was my journey. As a film maker and as an animator trying to convince Hollywood, to let me make this movie.”
They started the actual script approximately five years ago and throughout the process Jorge says that they must have gone through 30 revisions of the script because it had changed so much due to the team coming up with better ideas.
“I love collaboration, and I thrive on new ideas happening in the spur of the moment. The actors would come up with new lines, the animators would come up with great ideas, and jokes, the storyboard artists would come in with amazing suggestions,” he began.
“So while the screenplay were the bones of the story I feel like the force from the muscle, and especially the heart kept evolving throughout the process.”
Creating the animation and character design for the film was not an easy process nor was it a cheap one.
“We made a 50 million dollar movie, it sounds ridiculous but that’s actually low budget for one of these They usually cost double or triple that amount, so we really had to be conscious of where the money went. My wife Sandra and I are both character designers, so we designed all the characters to be wooden puppets not only because I always loved Pinocchio, and Mexican folk art, but also so we can stay within our budget, where we can go on the artistic side and do amazing and crazy things,” Jorge Gutierrez said.
“Same thing with animation, I had to be really smart with our crew- Our animation supervisor Wes Madell, took it upon himself and the team to give life to our characters. A lot of the characters were never designed to move so he and the team didn’t know how to move them. It was a really difficult process, because I like to dream big, and I like to do things that are really different and with that budget it made things very difficult. But in the end, I could not be more proud of what we came up with.”
Jorge Gutierrez shared the three specific challenges he went through as he was creating the film.
The first big challenge was that as soon as I told people that it was a movie inspired by the Day of the dead, everyone thought it was too dark or too sad, or they thought it was a horror movie because of the dead. Most people think of zombies when you say ‘of the dead.’ It took a lot of convincing the studios that this movie wasn’t about death.
The Day of the Dead is about celebrating life, and it’s a very joyous and happy occasion.
The second challenge was the songs. I wrote all the songs into the screenplay not knowing if I could get the licenses to any of them and so in the beginning I was warned: None of these bands would ever let you, to use their songs. Sure enough Radio Heads Creep was the first one we got. It opened the door to other bands, as well.
The third challenge was convincing the actors to be in the movie. I’m a first time director so I had to do a perfect pitch to every one of their agents, and try to convince them to be in this really weird Mexican movie, so that was very nerve wracking. Essentially in the beginning you hear what the movie is about, and you think wow this is crazy this isn’t going to work, so it took a lot of convincing.
Jorge Gutierrez credits the actors for jumping in, and to this day he is amazed that everyone agreed to be in it. He was also involved in the casting process.
He had wrote the movie for Diego Luna and after he said yes Jorge also wanted Zoe Saldina as he saw both of them in the movie The Terminal. After the two of them were cast then he said: “We have a sensitive soulful Manolo, now I want sort of the high school quarter back, the super hero actor to play Joaquin- So Channing Tatum said YES!”
Going forward this Jorge Gutierrez’s hope to all those families who have yet to see the film.
“The book of life has a lot of messages. I like movies that have more than one theme, and more than one message, and the book of life has three.”
The first theme is: Remember and honor those who are no longer with us, and by doing that we keep love here and we keep them in our hearts. The moment we forget them they’re no longer with us.
The second theme is: There is a life we all live, and some of us are living a life that others have written for us and others are telling us what to do. And the message of the film is please acknowledge where you’re from and love your family but don’t let that dictate who you are. You have to make your own choices, and you have to write your own story.
Third theme: It’s okay to be emotional, it’s okay to be heartfelt through the message.
Special thanks to Jorge Guiterriez for a wonderful interview, and Saxton Washburn for setting it all up!