The Book of Life is a work of passion. Director Jorge Gutierrez developed it, tweaked it, and loved it for 14 years, and when it opens on October 17, 2014, it will be a testament to his vision and care that greets the screen with countless shades of vibrant color.
The Book of Life spins the timeless tales of love, friendship, good vs. evil, and the shadows of fate. Like every good story there is a hero, or three as the case may be, but the focus falls mainly upon the guitar-strapped shoulders of Manolo Sanchez (Diego Luna), a bullfighter by destiny and a romantic by default.
His heart belongs to Maria (Zoe Saldana), who, as is too often the case, also has the lifelong attentions of Manolo’s best friend Joaquin (Channing Tatum).
Enter La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), two deities twisted in an endless dance of heads and hearts, tied by wedlock and a fire that burns bright upon the fuel of wagers and the souls of men. They, along with Candle Maker (Ice Cube) control the worlds beyond our own, and it is there, we learn, that our loved ones go, leaving memories that we need hold on to for generations to come.
The film is, obviously, a great source of entertainment, featuring wonderful art, a fun soundtrack, and an emotionally engaging story; but it also serves an educational purpose with regard to Mexican culture and spiritual beliefs. The two, entertainment and education, are blended masterfully, and the result is 14 years of work and wonder that Gutierrez is very proud of, and rightfully so—it is a thing of beauty.
The takeaway content, at least for myself, is full of art and cultural appreciation, but also profound quotes that resonate deeper than those from any animated film I have seen since Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. If I had a literal copy of The Book of Life it would be dog-eared and marked with notes, underlines, and circles.
I was invited by 20th Century Fox to attend the premiere of The Book of Life with my family, which we did, and we all loved it. My boys laughed, jumped, and cuddled on cue, and my wife and I did the same but with tears between and songs to sing along to.
After the film I joined a handful of press to interview some of the cast as well as Director Jorge Gutierrez and Producer Guillermo del Toro.
In my question for Gutierrez I asked what it was like to have something that he had been working on for 14 years, a labor of love and passion, and how hard it was to entrust it to other people—to let them tweak it.
He replied, “In the beginning, it was a little bit of just letting go and sort of accepting that this is a giant orchestra and I can’t play every instrument. And so, I’m going to get people who are really good at things I can’t do, and with Guillermo being the perfect example of this. He would suggest all these veterans, someone like Gustavo Santaolalla, who’s won two Oscars . . .”
At which point del Toro added, “Paul Williams.”
“Paul Williams,” continued Gutierrez. “I mean, all these amazing talents. And I just wanted to learn from them and be a sponge and try to sort of get in their heads and go, ‘Well, how do you like to work? Because I’m starting out, and I would love to set you up to succeed.’ And so, that was always my thing. I thrive on collaboration, and I’ve always tried to surround myself with people who are better than me, and who know more than me, so I can learn.”
Guillermo del Toro said, “And I think the key is to cast and curate the people that are around him that are people that are good for him, good matches. It’s almost like dating. You say he’s going to get along with Gustavo. He’s going to get along with Ron Perlman. He’s going to get along with Gabriel Beristain, the cinematographer. And if you’ve been doing it for 20 years, in my case 30 almost, then you know a little bit your way around people and you put them together. It’s a dating experience.”
“And Guillermo was kind of the Ghost of Christmas Future for me,” replied Gutierrez. “He would say, ‘This is going to happen if you don’t do this.’ And I would go, ‘Nah, nah, nah, oh, this guy.’ Exactly what he said would happen every time.”
“I hate being right,” said del Toro, but his laugh suggested otherwise.
The Book of Life is rated PG and also stars Christina Applegate, Hector Elizondo, and Danny Trejo (seen below taking a selfie for the folks at Fandango). It opens Friday, October 17, 2014.
Photo of Danny Trejo by Whit Honea