‘Book of Life’ director talks about the ‘heart’ of his Best Animated Feature Film contender

One of the unique fixtures of an opening weekend in Los Angeles, whether it's an art house release or a studio blockbuster, are filmmakers and sometimes stars popping their heads into a theater to see how their baby plays. Well, if you're going to a screening of the new animated feature “The Book of Life” in the Southland this weekend, there's a good chance you might see Jorge R. Gutierrez dropping by your theater.  

“Book” is Gutierrez's directorial debut and a project he's worked diligently to bring to the big screen for 14 years. The talented animator has received advice about handling the release from the film's producer, Guillermo del Toro, but Gutierrez jokes he's not listening to it.

“He said don't read the Internet, don't read any reviews, like, don't look at the comments,” Gutierrez says. “But I am a masochist, so I'm reading everything. And then this whole weekend I'm just going to try and see it 10 times in different places with different audiences. I just want to learn. I want to know what connected, what I can do better on the next one.”

Gutierrez says the film has its origins in a short he created while at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) that won a student Emmy Award and played at the Cannes Film Festival. After an agent told him he should turn it into a feature, he bought the book “How to Write A Movie in 21 Days.” (And trust, he's not the only filmmaker who has, either.)

“I've always loved mythology and fairytales and myths,” he says. “And honestly, I've always loved the films of Guillermo. So I took all the stories I grew up loving from my family and that's where the movie came from.”

The beautifully designed film tells the story of a love triangle set on Mexico's Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday. Our heroes – Manola (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana) – become the subject of a bet between Death “gods” Xibala (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo). While the storyline is mostly predictable, Gutierrez, his co-writer Douglas Langdale, his animators and voice cast bring unexpected heart to the tale – so much so that it might even impress Disney Animation honcho John Lasseter.

“From the beginning, the message of the movie was always play from the heart. That's kind of my mantra in real life,” Gutierrez says. “Anything I do I try to put my guts and heart into it, because it's so hard to do these things and I can't imagine doing it without heart. So when I was writing the script with my co-writer, I cried a lot. I would break down into tears and some of the actors did, too. And this whole process has been so emotional. But it's been very much one of those things that, I know a big studio like 20th Century Fox and Reel FX are supporting this movie, but they really took a chance on a very heartfelt little film.”

But “The Book of Life” feels just as epic and rich as it does “little” and heartfelt, thanks largely to Gutierrez's insistence that the production didn't skimp on backdrops. Those are the sort of details that might help it earn a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar nomination. So if you're a fan of animation, realize it's more than just the family-themed TV spots and check it out.

“The Book of Life” is now playing nationwide.