In Los Angeles’ famed Four Seasons Hotel, the stars and creators of the new animated film Book of Life gathered to talk about their project and the fun of putting together the colorful film. Center stage was director Jorge R. Gutierrez, for whom the project is something he has dreamed of since film school. However, studio after studio turned him down feeling the project was just too risky. After “the worst pitch ever” to the brilliantly creative Guillermo del Toro, Gutierrez got his shot.
“He was sweating,” del Toro laughs, remembering the meeting. “I told him that pitch was ‘terrible.” Gutierrez expected to shake the hand of his hero and just go home, but Book of Life was something special.
“Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for,” del Toro comments, in reference to the project. Del Toro knew Gutierrez wasn’t doing this for a new car or a house in Malibu. “This movie was his soul; he was doing it to breathe.”
And Book of Life is a new breath for a Hollywood that has grown stagnant and fat off of the same themes and sequels over and over. Cynical films choose to make their characters super human and free of flaws. “The new punk is emotion,” del Toro challenges. “I love flaws.”
When asked about the strong female characters in the film, Maria (Zoe Saldana) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), Jorge Gutierrez perks up with a smile. “People ask if this is a feminist film. If feminism means men and women are equal, then this is a feminist film.” His character designs prove this as well. While Gutierrez designed the male characters in the film, his wife Sandra did all the female design work. Together since high school, the two sweethearts have stayed and worked together though thick and thin. “We’ve never had our hearts broken. It keeps me a kid at heart.” The character design also speaks to the power of men and women. The male characters have a small triangle missing from their eyes, while the women’s eyes are whole. Gutierrez explains that this is because in this story the men are looking for something and the women are already complete.
Music also plays a large role in Book of Life as evidenced from the soundtrack. Raised just south of the American border, Gutierrez grew up with music of all types. “One ear was to the United States, one was to Mexican music.” Gutierrez didn’t believe he would be able to get all the music he wanted for the film, but he got what del Toro calls the “Holy Grail” when Radiohead agreed to let them sample Creep for the film. Manolo (Diego Luna) gets to sing the famed song hummed by depressed teens everywhere. Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana were not entirely prepared to sing for the film, but their voices lift beautifully. Zoe Saldana admits she is “not as tone deaf” as the thought. At first, Diego Luna contemplated having someone else sing his parts, but admits he didn’t want his kids to be disappointed in him. “The torro song; I still have nightmares,” Luna admits. However, the actor has nothing to worry about. The song I Love You Too Much is hauntingly beautiful in both English and Spanish on the soundtrack. The voices are strong and unadorned, not processed to death.
It isn’t just the recently discovered musical talent of Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana that take the stage in this film. Placido Domingo plays Skeleton Jorge in the film. A two am phone call sealed the deal for his role. Ice Cube plays the Candle Maker in the film and was delighted to play a god. While he does not use his singing talents in the film, he did joke with the audience that almost very role he plays involves him using some line from one of his songs. Ron Pearlman plays the trickster Xibalba, La Muerte’s husband, in the film. When asked if doing voice work with Guillermo del Toro was different from his other acting work he comments, “I don’t have to wear pants.” Pearlman is gruff, but jovial coming off project after project with del Toro. La Muerte herself, the beautiful Kate del Castillo, jokes about her favorite place to get churros (Disneyland) and seems to keep a regal presence even when speaking.
Book of Life not only manages to gather amazing talent, but it helps discuss a difficult topic for children: death. “They are ready to listen,” Saldana says. The film explores the concept of death via Dia De Los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. The holiday in Mexico is used to celebrate our loved ones who have passed on and spend the day reminding them they are loved. While the United States isn’t known for a culturally cheerful look at death, the beautiful world of Dia De Los Muertos opens up a chance to talk about the inevitable and the celebration of those who have come before. The film provides a window into the beautiful Mexican culture, which is often pushed aside.
Loaded with talented actors and passionate film makers, Book of Life is destined to become an animated classic with adults and children everywhere.
Book of Life opens nationwide October 17, 2014.