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Animated 'Book Of Life' Celebrates Día De Los Muertos

Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna, left) meets Carmen Sanchez (voiced by Ana de la Reguera) in the Land of the Remembered. (20th Century Fox & Reel FX)

Correction:

In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say that Reel TV is located in El Paso, Texas. It's actually in Dallas.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) — a holiday that celebrates those who have passed — will come alive this Thursday in the movie The Book of Life. It is director and animator Jorge Gutiérrez's first feature film, and he says it's his own take on what happens after death.

Set in the 1920s in Mexico, the animated movie centers on the fiery and brave Maria Posada (voiced by Zoe Saldana), and her two suitors: the handsome town hero Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and the soft-spoken Manolo (Diego Luna), who comes from a long line of bullfighters.

And, as one might expect in a film about Día de los Muertos, some of the characters are transported to the afterlife. At first, it looks like a lively Mexican fiesta, filled with music and bright, colorful papel picado — cut-out paper decorations.

"If you do something memorable, and you live a life that others admire and others look up to you, and you pass away, you get to go to the land of the remembered, this beautiful land that is all about memories," says Gutiérrez, who was born in Mexico City. Ruled by a sensuous "La Muerte" (voiced by Kate del Castillo), this land has "epic fiestas, and all you-can-eat churros."

But if you were a bad person, Gutiérrez says, you go to the land of the forgotten: "It's the void of life, the void of color, the void of anything."

Here was this Mexican kid saying, 'Hey, it's a movie about death for children!' And so I kind of scared everybody, and everybody turned me down.
Jorge Gutiérrez

The Connection, Brought From Childhood To Film

Gutiérrez says these are ideas he's wanted to share since his childhood, when his best friend died at the age of 9. "My parents set me down, said, 'Your friend, Mauricio, he is with you as long as you tell his jokes and you remember him and you keep his memory alive by talking about him,' " Gutiérrez recalls.

He never forgot Mauricio. So Día de los Muertos — celebrating the lives of those who came before — has always had a special meaning for Gutiérrez. He even proposed to and then married his wife, Sandra Equihua, on the holiday.

Later, as a student at the California Institute of the Arts, Gutiérrez wrote his own Day of the Dead story, with ideas and characters based on himself and his family. His 3-D film Carmelo won a student Emmy Award in 2001 and was shown at the Cannes film festival. Gutiérrez tried pitching it as a feature to all six major studios.

"Here was this Mexican kid saying, 'Hey, it's a movie about death — for children!' And so I kind of scared everybody, and everybody turned me down," Gutiérrez recalls. "They said, you know, 'You're just a kid out of school, and this subject matter is too ... too weird, and honestly a little dark!' "

Gutiérrez and his wife, Sandra, who was by then his artistic partner, went on to create Mexican-themed cartoons for Sony and Nickelodeon, including El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.

Eventually the studio Reel FX understood the Day of the Dead story Gutiérrez was trying to tell. They encouraged him to persuade Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, his hero, to produce it.

The 'Worst Pitch Of All Time'

"This will go down in the history of cinema as the worst pitch of all time," says Gutiérrez. He says he took all the artwork he had created for the film and set it up near the pool at Del Toro's art house in Los Angeles.

"And it's so hot that I'm drenched in sweat. He's sweating, and he goes, 'You have five minutes to pitch me.' And before a word can come out, my people betray me," Gutiérrez says. "There must have been like 10 gardening guys in the house next door, and all the lawnmowers and leafblowers went on at the same time, VAAAAAAA, making this horrible noise. So I'm yelling the pitch — 'cause he says 'don't stop' — 'AND THEN MANOLO PROPOSES, WITH ALL HIS HEART,' and he can't hear me, and I almost fall in the pool three times. ... Disaster.

"So we go back in his house — and I'm drenched in sweat, he's sweating — and I'm ready to just shake his hand and get out of there and say I got to meet him. And Guillermo goes, 'Jorge, that was a terrible pitch.' And I go, 'I know, I know. I'm so sorry I wasted your time.' And, you know, I get up to shake his hand, and he goes, 'No, no — sit down. I know exactly who you are."

Del Toro says he agreed to produce The Book of Life on the spot. "Yeah, my daughters and I used to watch El Tigre on TV, and we loved it. He has a uniquely Mexican style, and when he came in I was already a fan."

On Keeping His Influences And Staying Authentic

To show the culture's complexity, the soundtrack includes Mexican bolero and norteno versions of songs by Radiohead, Rod Stewart, Mumford & Sons and Biz Markie. It's the kind of musical mixture that Gutiérrez says he heard while growing up in Tijuana, near the U.S.-Mexico border. He was influenced by He-Man cartoons, as well as Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created much of the Day of the Dead iconography.

As an aficionado of folk art, Gutiérrez even had a team of Central American artisans carve wooden puppets of the movie's characters, which were later rendered by computer animation.

"Jorge wanted to create this world that felt handmade, with wooden puppets and metal and paint," says Del Toro. "Really feels very much like Mexican baroque."

And at the film premiere on Sunday, some fans said they think that this film showcases Gutiérrez's artistry, which to them felt more authentic than what some other studios had envisioned for similar movies.

"I — along every other Latino, pretty much — were outraged and shocked when Disney tried to copyright the term 'Día de los Muertos,' or Day of the Dead," said cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz. By contrast, he said, 20th Century Fox's new film by Gutiérrez and Del Toro is much more grounded in the culture.

"To have two people that understand the topic thoroughly and respect it, and can play with it, it was good," Alcaraz said. "It's a playful way to treat a serious topic: You love your family, you know; you miss your family; one day you'll see your family again. And that's what the Day of the Dead holiday is all about, is remembering your family and remembering that love, so that's what Book of Life is about."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Day of the Dead holiday, celebrated throughout Latin America, is a chance for families to gather and remember the lives of loved ones who've passed on to the afterlife. It's that idea of crossing over into another kind of existence that captured the imagination of animator Jorge Gutierrez. He's made a 3-D film centered on the Day of the Dead, and even though it's his first full-length feature, he managed to convince an Oscar-winning Hollywood filmmaker to produce it. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has their story.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The "Book Of Life" is set in 1920s Mexico and centers on three friends - feisty Maria, voiced by Zoe Saldana...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOOK OF LIFE")

ZOE SALDANA: (As Maria) Did I mention I studied fencing?

DEL BARCO: ...And her two suitors, Joaquin, the local stud voiced by Channing Tatum...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOOK OF LIFE")

CHANNING TATUM: (As Joaquin) Hey, girl. I get that a lot.

DEL BARCO: ...And soft-spoken Manolo, voiced by Diego Luna. He's supposed to follow his ancestors and be a bull fighter, but he doesn't want to and ends up apologizing to a bull in the ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOOK OF LIFE")

DIEGO LUNA: (As Manolo Sanchez, singing) I'm sorry. Toro, I am sorry. Hear my song and know I sing the truth. Although we were bred to fight, I reach for kindness in your heart tonight.

DEL BARCO: This being a Day of the Dead movie, some of the characters are transported to the afterlife, something Mexican-born director Jorge Gutierrez says has fascinated him ever since his childhood, when his best friend died.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: My parents sat me down, said, your friend, Mauricio, he is with you as long as you tell his jokes and you remember him and you keep his memory alive by talking about him.

DEL BARCO: And that's what Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead is all about, celebrating the lives of those who came before. Later Gutierrez proposed to and then married his wife on the holiday so his friend Mauricio could be there.

GUTIERREZ: I said, well, I want him to be the best man in my wedding, so we have to get married on Day of the Dead, so he can come. He was at the wedding, and, you know, maybe it's the tequila talking, but I remember my favorite wrestler showed up, who had passed away. All these family members from different eras, I could feel they were there with us. And so with Day of the Dead being such a beautiful thing and such an important part of my life, I really wanted to pass that to the world.

DEL BARCO: As a student at the California Institute of the Arts, Gutierrez wrote his own Day of the Dead story with ideas and characters based on himself and his family. He used it to produce a 3-D student film called "Carmelo" that won a 2001 Emmy and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Gutierrez tried pitching it as a full-length feature to all of the major studios.

GUTIERREZ: Here was this Mexican kid saying, hey, it's a movie about death for children, and so I kind of scared everybody and everybody turned me down (laughter). They said, you know, you're just a kid out of school, and this subject matter is too, too weird and honestly, a little dark.

DEL BARCO: Gutierrez and his wife, Sandra Equihua, by then his artistic partner, went on to create Mexican-themed cartoons for Sony and Nickelodeon, including "El Tigre: The Adventures Of Manny Rivera."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EL TIGRE: THE ADVENTURES OF MANNY RIVERA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Son of White Pantera, a noble super hero.

DEL BARCO: Eventually a studio in El Paso called Real FX understood Gutierrez's idea for a Day of the Dead movie and encouraged him to approach Guillermo del Toro to produce it.

GUTIERREZ: This will go down in the history of cinema as the worst pitch of all time.

DEL BARCO: Gutierrez says he took all the artwork he and his wife created for the film and set it up near the pool at his filmmaking hero's house in LA.

GUTIERREZ: And he goes, you have five minutes to pitch to me. And before a word can come out, my people betray me. And it must've been like 10 gardening guys in the house next door, and all the lawnmowers and leaf blowers went on at the same time, making this horrible noise. So I'm yelling the pitch to - 'cause he says, don't stop. And Manolo proposes with all his heart. And he can't hear me, and I almost fall in the pool three times - disaster - so we go back into his house, and I'm drenched in sweat. He's sweating, and I'm ready to just shake his hand and get out of there and say I got to meet him. And Guillermo goes, Jorge, that was a terrible pitch (laughter). And I go, I know, I know, I'm so sorry I wasted your time. And, you know, I get up to shake his hand, and he goes no, no sit-down. He goes, I know exactly who you are.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Yeah, my daughters and I used to watch "El Tigre" on TV and we loved it. He has a uniquely Mexican style, and when he came in, I was already a fan.

DEL BARCO: Del Toro says he agreed to produce "The Book Of Life" on the spot.

DEL TORO: I could see through his nervousness how important it was to him. It's a gorgeous movie, and we wanted very much to show and represent how powerful the Mexican visuals and sounds and music and the sense of life are, you know.

DEL BARCO: The soundtrack includes Mexican Bolero and Norteno versions of songs by Radiohead, Rod Stewart and Biz Markie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOOK OF LIFE")

CHEECH MARIN: (As Pancho, singing) You, you got what I need. But you say he's just a friend. But you say he's just a friend. Oh, baby you...

DEL BARCO: Jorge Gutierrez says he wanted an older look for his film, so he reached back to folk art. He had a team of Central American artisans carve wooden puppets of the movie's characters, which were later rendered by computer animation, says producer Guillermo del Toro.

DEL TORO: Jorge wanted to create this world that felt handmade with wooden puppets and metal and paint. It really feels very much like a Mexican Baroque.

DEL BARCO: At "The Book Of Life" premiere on Sunday, some of the audience members said they were glad Gutierrez's movie got to the screen before a proposed Disney-Pixar film on the same subject. Disney had tried to co-opt the very name of the holiday.

LALO ALCARAZ: I, along with every other Latino pretty much, were outraged and shocked when Disney tried to copyright the term Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead.

DEL BARCO: Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz says he's especially glad "The Book Of Life" was directed and produced by two Mexicans.

ALCARAZ: To have two people that understand the topic thoroughly and respect it and can play with it - it was good. It's a playful way to treat a serious topic. You love your family, you know. You miss your family. One day you'll see your family again, and that's what the Day of the Dead holiday is all about, is remembering your family and remembering that love. So that what "Book Of Life" is about.

DEL BARCO: "The Book Of Life," written and directed by Jorge Gutierrez, opens two weeks before the Day of the Dead, November 2. Maybe his old friend Mauricio will visit a theater. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say that Reel TV is located in El Paso, Texas. It's actually in Dallas.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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