For all the works that U.S. studios make that are set in foreign countries, it's tough to come up with American animated films that are genuinely linked to the country that they portray. You've got things like Madagascar and Ratatouille set elsewhere, but these and others don't engage with the culture of the location they're set in quite as much as they should. With Jorge R. Gutierrez's debut feature film, The Book of Life, hitting theaters this weekend, it's an appropriate time to discuss the way films reflect the culture of their location.
The Book of Life is an animated film heavily based in Mexican culture, grounded in the history of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead); a holiday in which individuals gather to remember friends and family who have passed away. Listening to producer Guillermo del Toro, writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez, and actress Kate del Castillo discuss what the film meant to them was as delightful as it was eye-opening. It's the kind of conversation one would never expect when discussing a kids movie, but it's steeped in representation and what that means for audiences who are tired of seeing the same thing, regardless of ethnicity.
"More than anything, the message of Día de los Muertos is very universal," Gutierrez explains when asked how they planned on attracting audiences who weren't Latino. "As long as we tell the stories of those who are not here, as long as we sing their songs, we cook their favorite dishes, we tell their jokes, we keep them in our heart, we keep them around us. The moment we don't, then they really are gone. And I think that's a very universal idea. Guillermo always quotes Hitchcock by saying 'In order to be universal, you have to be specific.' And so our movie is very authentic to Mexico, but the messages and emotions are for everyone."
With that said, del Toro chimes in with exactly what folks who complain about the lack of diversity in film want to hear, "Ultimately, film is a banquet. The more dishes you have from around the world, the better the banquet is. To me, this is like eating out. When you go to a Chinese restaurant, you want it to be truly Chinese. If you go to an Italian restaurant, you want it to be really Italian. And this film is unapologetically Latin and Mexican."
And it's the truth. Even though The Book of Life's narrative is framed by a presumably American tour guide at a museum telling kids the story of Día de los Muertos -- a topic many considered too dark for children -- the film maintains a warm vibe and never comes off as condescending when presenting its audience with the weight of death.
There's a multitude of Latino actors (Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, and the aforementioned del Castillo, among others), gorgeous scenery design that is based on wooden puppets and folk art, pop tunes covered with a norteño twist, and the Spanish language peppered throughout an English script (that almost makes you wish the whole thing had been Spanish).
"The film is so authentic and that's something you don't find often in the industry," says Kate del Castillo, who voices La Muerte in the film. "The story is beautiful and it's such an honor to lend my voice to this iconic character. When they told me I was invited to do it and work with these amazing artists, I was just blown away."
Needless to say, both director and producer thought del Castillo was perfect for the role of La Muerte.
"I think Kate was ideal because she has a strange and very powerful quality which is that men like her, but women love her," del Toro says. "She is a woman who personifies strength; she's authentic, she has strong opinions, and I think that we need to reward people in our society who take risks with great roles. She and Zoe [Saldana] both make it a point to take roles that make them great role models for girls. Girls can dream of being tough astronauts, presidents of the United States, or whatever they want, the more roles we give them to watch."
The notion of being able to represent something for so many people is an essential factor for all three. No Good Deed, del Castillo's other just-released film this year, was a big moment for her because of the way she was cast.
"The role was for a Caucasian -- a totally American, white girl -- and I love that about it because they gave me the role after watching my reel," she explains. "It's getting better every time; it's just too slow."
After del Toro nods in agreement. "There's no real good model or bad model of a Latin career. Many Latin careers have to be lauded. What I think is fantastic is what she's saying: that you can be considered not better or worse, but exactly on the same level as any actor or director."
And so much of what these three are doing with The Book of Life, and their work as a whole, is inspiring audiences like them to go out and tell their stories. More than anyone else, they're telling kids that they have the opportunity to make films like this, as well.
"As a kid, my father would tell me the story of his grandfather on Día de los Muertos and say, 'Jorgito, what are you gonna do? What are you gonna do so that one day your kids are telling your story?' And that was a big challenge to me, and that's sort of what the movie is. We challenge the audience; tell your own story, write your own tale," he says.
Without Guillermo del Toro on board though, Jorge R. Gutierrez's film would have never come together the way that it did; unsurprising considering the way he commands the room by telling the studio "screw that shit" when they try to end the interview earlier than necessary. "You produce only the movies that you think the world needs," he says. "Sometimes they come out great, sometimes they don't."
But Gutierrez couldn't be more thankful for someone like Guillermo, who essentially made his dream come true. "A director of his status and experience and pedigree, to look for first-time directors like me to take under his wing, that's amazing." he says. "The biggest thing for me is that he's always been there on a human level. He could sense these problems, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the phone calls and visits would always come at just the right time."
With production long behind them, what awaits the three now is the prospect of Oscar season, which could snag them an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. As the chat winds down, Guillermo del Toro closes things up with a story about a friend of his: Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón.
On a night close to one of the Oscar ceremonies, in a hotel room, "Cuarón said, 'Whatever happens tonight or doesn't happen tonight, those movies tomorrow will be the same movies they are today. With or without an award, with or without the box office, we made movies that we could be proud of.'"
Movies to be proud of are exactly why people like Kate del Castillo and Jorge R. Gutierrez are making films like The Book of Life with Guillermo del Toro. As he says, "When I was a kid, there was one model for a Latin American filmmaker to follow: serious drama, local, small-budget. It's a great model, but whenever I expressed a desire to do something different, people thought I was crazy.
"Now, there's every model. There's people that can do great TV shows, great dramas, great comedies, great movies that cost $150 million. Kids can say 'I want to make an animated movie like Jorge, I want to make Harry Potter like Alfonso,' and no one's going to tell them they're crazy. That is a really, really great reward we have."
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The Book of Life opens in theaters Friday, October 17.