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Immersed in Movies: Jorge Gutierrez Has a Mexican Feast with ‘The Book of Life’

Immersed in Movies: Jorge Gutierrez Has a Mexican Feast with 'The Book of Life'

As an ode to Mexico and animation, The Book of Life is a breakthrough for both Jorge Gutierrez and Reel FX. Experimental yet accessible with a stunning visual look and tactile nature, it reminds us that the most personal stories can also be universal. 

Bill Desowitz: It took you 14 years to bring Book of Life to life. It’s stylistically rich and such a warm story about family and remembrance. Tell me about the experience for you.

Jorge Gutierrez: It was like my birthday party every day. But there were some rough days when I was the pinata and everyone got to hit me. The Day of the Dead has always been a very important part of my life. It’s a very festive celebration of the life of those who are no longer with us. And so ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved this holiday. And this movie is not about Day of the Dead but for me, it’s the aesthetic and the look of it. It’s so cool and people love it. It’s now about punk rock and tattoos. But my favorite part is the message behind it and this idea that as long as we sing the songs of those that came before us and tell their jokes, they’re here with us. And the moment we don’t say their names and don’t talk about them, then they truly are gone. And that message is what I wanted the whole world to get about this movie.
BD: You had the design down for years but what was it like animating it with Reel FX, which is a huge leap for them?
JG: I had all of these drawings but I really take my sombrero off to Reel FX for not freaking out. And they always supported my vision from day one. I think Reel FX is a young studio without any giant franchises so they weren’t set in their ways. And Fox Animation supported the look, which is not like other films, and to their credit, really got behind it.
BD: It was quite a rendering challenge, so what was it like to make such a tactile feast?
JG: The film is a love letter to Mexican culture and to the history of animation. All the characters are wooden puppets, and the idea is there’s something from stop-motion, there’s something from Japanese animation, there’s something from traditional, classic animation, there’s something from Flash. And again, they all kind of work for this story. When I was at CalArts, I was always told: If you know something works, try something different because now’s the time to experiment. It was very risky in the beginning. We did not have the budget and resources of a studio movie, so we were really smart in only taking chances on things we thought could work, and I think it paid off. 
But it’s a double-edged sword. I like to dream big. It was a little shocking when the first time we cut the movie, my script was way too long. It was almost 180 pages. The first cut was two-and-a-half hours and it was crazy and we brought it back to reality.
BD: What were some of the significant challenges?
JG: Once Guillermo [del Toro] and I embraced the Orpheus myth, I wasn’t sure how we were going to handle the singing and the music, so I went back and started writing in songs that I love, thinking that I would replace them later like Radiohead’s “Creep,” Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” and Mumford & Son’s “I Will Wait.” But Fox gave it to Radiohead and sure enough they said yes and one by one each band agreed to let us use their song and all got behind the message of the movie. And for me the most fulfilling sequence in the film is “The Apology Song” written by Gustavo Santaolalla and Paul Willliams. And after a particularly rough day, Gustavo called me when I was in the car and they played it for me and my family and we pulled over and started crying. It’s the internal struggle of the artist trying to convince the world that it’s worth doing what they do.
BD: Guillermo is great at paring a movie down to its visual essence, so what was it like working with him?
JG: He was amazing, but in the beginning I was having a hard time because I would just say yes to everything he suggested. And he hated that. I think the first time he threw out a terrible suggestion on purpose to test me, I spoke up and said it was a stupid idea and he just slapped me on the arm and said I was finally collaborating. And so we started arguing about stuff and that’s when our relationship really grew. And that’s when you have the most fun. As a producer, he said he was going to be there when I needed him and he was going to disappear when I didn’t.

BD: What was the most complicated sequence to work on?
JG: By far the battle at the end with the whole town. Downstairs there’s a bullfight with thousands of skeletons and upstairs they’re all fighting. We were producing this at the same time just as they are in the movie. It was overwhelming and they were both scheduled at the end and it was really hard. But one of the big mandates was I love “Art of” books and we went out of our way to make sure that the pre-production art was super specific and I knew exactly what the movie was going to look like [when it was fully rendered].
BD: So what’s next for you?
JG: They haven’t announced it yet but I’ll give you the scoop: it’s a Mexican kung-fu movie.
BD: Very cool. Are you re-teaming with Guillermo and Reel FX?
JG: Guillermo likes to produce first-time directors so I think I’ve used that card, and now he can say, “It’s time to move on little bird.” It’s too early to tell about the animation yet.

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