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It’s been 14 years since Jorge R. Gutierrez first opened The Book of Life. The director was a CalArts student when he created an animated short film centered on Dia de Los Muertos — the Mexican holiday celebrated by telling stories, preparing favorite meals of the deceased and other commemorations.
The film went on to win a student Emmy and screened at Cannes. Gutierrez got an agent, who told him to turn the short into a feature. “I went to a bookstore and bought a How to Write A Screenplay in 21 Days book, and off I went,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“Everyone said, ‘You can’t make this movie,’ ” he says. He was told there would be no interest in a movie with Latin themes and characters, nor in a children’s film about the Day of the Dead. (Pixar currently has its own animation on the holiday in the works.) “I was just out of film school, I didn’t know any better,” Gutierrez says. “So I put it away.”
It was Nickelodeon that revived the project. Gutierrez and his wife, Sandra Equihua, created the animated series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera for the network in 2007. The comedy, which centers on the Mexican 13-year-old superhero of its title, won five Daytime Emmys over its 2007-2008 run, including awards for Gutierrez and Equihua. Suddenly he started getting inquiries into whether he’d like to make a movie.
He brought out his Book of Life script — “I just ripped off the first page, printed a new page with a new date and said, ‘Here it is!'” — and the project went to Reel FX. The studio asked him who his dream producer would be.
“Like all Mexican filmmakers would, I yelled Guillermo del Toro‘s name out as loud as I could,” Gutierrez says. “And like Mexican Santa Claus, he appeared.”
The pitch was “disastrous,” hurried and uncomfortable due to very hot weather that day. But del Toro was familiar with El Tigre via his two daughters and he “saw through all the craziness,” agreeing to produce. Even with the Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim visionary on board, the project still faced obstacles. “Everyone hears Guillermo del Toro’s making a Day of the Dead movie, they think it’s a horror movie. We had a lot of convincing to do,” says Gutierrez.
They convinced Fox to produce and distribute, and the film opened in October to a $17 million weekend that expanded to a $94 million worldwide gross. It centers on two young men (voiced by Diego Luna and Channing Tatum), one athletic and the other musical, who compete for the love of a beautiful woman (Zoe Saldana) in a journey that spans the living world and the underworld. It features voicework from Christina Applegate, Ron Perlman, Ice Cube and Danny Trejo and original songs by Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain) and songwriter Paul Williams. Singing the compositions was a challenge for Luna, who didn’t have musical training, but “we didn’t want to have another singer,” Santaolalla tells THR. “It was a lot of work, but he certainly found his voice and we got wonderful versions of those two songs by him.”
It was originally a darker story, ending with the hero’s death and without the resolution of the romance. Del Toro’s advice convinced Gutierrez to lighten things up. “When it’s Guillermo del Toro telling you it’s too dark, you should listen,” the director jokes.
Why Dia de Los Muertos? The celebration is close to Gutierrez’s heart due in particular to a friend who died when the director was nine years old. “It’s the way I keep him with me, telling his story,” he says. “I got married on the Day of the Dead because I wanted him to be my best man.”
Trejo’s closest connection to the holiday is much more recent. The Machete actor’s mother died two years ago, and he commemorates her on Dia De Los Muertos. “Instead of being sad, you’re celebrating the fact that they were with you,” he says.
But both note that the film isn’t just a tribute to the holiday. It’s meant to offer a brighter view of Mexico and its culture, Gutierrez says. “We’re in a time where perhaps the news out of Mexico is a little dark. I hope its a reminder that there’s beautiful things in Mexico and they’re blossoming,” he says.
The film received a Golden Globe nomination for best animated feature (losing to How To Train Your Dragon 2). But when the Academy Award nominations were announced weeks ago, it joined The Lego Movie in failing to get a repeat nod.
Was Gutierrez hoping for one? Of course. “I’ve been watching the Oscars with my parents since I was a little kid. To get to go would be a dream come true,” he says. “Forget about winning, I just want to go.”
But he tells THR the film has always been about much more than awards. He’s most moved by the emails and tweets he and the producers receive from parents who say the film has their children reminiscing about their relatives who’ve passed away. “I find myself reading all this stuff and crying,” he says. It’s very overwhelming.”
Jan. 28, 9:45 a.m. A previous version of this story described the main characters as brothers.
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