For producer Guillermo del Toro, The Book of Life -- starring Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana and Diego Luna -- was an important movie for him to produce. It was the brainchild of a director from his homeland of Mexico, Jorge R. Gutierrez, and was a love letter to that country’s traditions, culture and the people that make up the past -- but was still quite universal in scope.
As seen in The Book of Life trailer, the film centers around the Day of the Dead, but that is merely the vehicle for telling a story that is also quite the fairy tale and timeless romance -- all features that compelled del Toro to add the film to his jam-packed schedule.
“The thing that is important to know is the Day of the Dead is about life. It’s Carpe Diem, seize the day with mariachis. The guys that came before telling us, ‘You have to live.’ It’s an emotional connection to the people that came before you,” del Toro said.
The subject of death is handled so beautifully in the film as in it’s a connection to the past that truly allows us to see the future. Del Toro has many fond memories of living the film’s themes.
“When I was a kid on the Day of the Dead, my grandmother and I would clean the grave of my grandfather in the morning, make it all nice. We spent the day talking about people that weren’t with us,” del Toro said. “The secret to talking about death is that you are talking about life. That is the message of the movie and it is an incredible and vital one.”
The Book of Life was not the first pitch the legendary filmmaker had heard over the years that dealt with this subject, but it was the only one that came from the heart. “I heard many, many Day of the Dead pitches and I didn’t like it because they were all coolly calculated things and none of them felt personal. And I met with Jorge and I immediately connected to it because it was personal to him,” del Toro admitted.
Even more importantly, he wanted to produce the movie to protect it. “One of the reasons I was interested and the things that make the movie great are the things I knew were going to get us a lot of ‘no's’ from the studios. For me, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for,” del Toro said.
Del Toro was a fan of Gutierrez’s from his work on El Tigre and when he finished The Book of Life script and met the man, he signed on immediately. “What was evident was this movie was his soul. He was not doing this to make money or to buy a corvette or a house in Malibu. He was doing it to breathe. It was his life. Those are the movies I want to produce, the ones that mean that much to the director.”
As they went from studio to studio, del Toro was right -- the no’s came fast and furious. One of the reasons was because of the look. The characters are animated wooden puppets, essentially. And they feel incredibly authentic to Mexican culture.
“The thing that made it great was the thing that we kept getting no, no, no’s for. I kept telling Jorge, we’re getting ‘no’ for the right reasons, which means we are preserving what makes the movie special,” del Toro said. “We felt we needed to protect the spirit of it and we could make concessions -- tweak it here, tweak it there, but not touch the heart of the movie.”
Then they went to Reel FX and Fox, and they got it -- immediately. “We connected on a visceral level,” he reported.
Del Toro said that Reel FX and Fox bucked the norm in Hollywood. “You hear it all the time, ‘Bring us something new and fresh.’ Then you show up and it’s like you brought them a dead rat,” he said and laughed.
“The usual stuff in animated movies, they homogenize their look and the emotion feels pre-fabricated. I knew we were coming from a genuine place to embrace a culture. This movie is a miracle that we got it made.”
The Book of Life features some fantastic music throughout, including a mariachi version of I Will Wait by Mumford and Sons, Do You Think I’m Sexy by Rod Stewart and even Creep by Radiohead. But, there are also original songs -- one sang by stars Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana as the star-crossed lovers let their feelings be known.
“Their voices are unadorned. They are not super-processed,” del Toro said of Luna and Saldana’s pipes.
The song, I Love You Too Much, is delivered in a classic manner, one that del Toro admitted he did himself when he was wooing his wife. “I serenaded my wife for many years. I stood by the balcony with the mariachi and you go, ‘Here we go,’” del Toro said.
“Diego has that purity, that simplicity. The movie is a marriage of high technology and sophisticated storytelling with an emotional directness and cleanness and simplicity that makes the fairy tale feel ancient and oral tradition and the singing needed to feel that way. When he sings under her balcony, I Love You Too Much, we wanted it to be the simplest thing ever. We didn’t want the orchestra to start it. It was a guy saying, ‘This is how I feel.’"
One thing that is also brilliant about the film is that it is framed by a narration by Christina Applegate as a museum tour guide telling the story to some children.
“What was important was to make it about a beginning and an end that feels ancient -- you need a narrator. You need a root to The Book of Life -- the power of Mexico,” del Toro said.
It leads to a universality of the film. “One of my favorite moments in the movie is the line, ‘What is it with you Mexicans and death?’ That’s a question an audience member could have anywhere, in China, Italy, anywhere. But the power of it is to bring it full circle the way that Princess Bride comes full circle and it now is much more meaningful. It’s beautiful. It’s the essence of the movie.”