The Book Of Life pays homage to Mexican tradition and old toys

Famed film-maker Guillermo del Toro takes on an animated love story centred on death

“The secret is that when you’re talking about death, you’re talking about life. And that is the message in the movie.” - Producer Guillermo del Toro (right), on The Book Of Life, which is written and directed by Jorge Gutierrez (left) -- PHOT
“The secret is that when you’re talking about death, you’re talking about life. And that is the message in the movie.” - Producer Guillermo del Toro (right), on The Book Of Life, which is written and directed by Jorge Gutierrez (left) -- PHOTOS: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX, REUTERS

As a director and producer, Guillermo del Toro may not be as well-known as, say, Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.

But the Mexican film-maker is certainly getting there.

On the back of hits such as the science-fiction blockbuster Pacific Rim (2013) and Oscar-nominated fantasy Pan's Labyrinth (2006), he has made a brand out of his unique cinematic vision, which has seen him translate his horror and comic-book fixations into unforgettable monsters and robots on screen.

That, and his growing resume as a tireless producer and writer, can be enough to get even the most unpromising project off the ground.

One such endeavour was the animated feature The Book Of Life, which opens in Singapore today.

Produced by del Toro with fellow Mexican Jorge Gutierrez in the director's chair, it is a love story inspired by Mexican folk art and tales of the world of the dead - an unusual proposition that was repeatedly rejected by movie studios, which felt it was too different and, well, too Hispanic.

Add to that the distinctively old-fashioned wooden figurines that Gutierrez wanted to use as main characters and the not exactly family- friendly theme of death and no one in Hollywood wanted to touch it.

But there is nothing del Toro likes more than a lost cause.

Speaking to Life! and other press in Los Angeles, the 50-year-old, who has produced animated hits such as Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) and Puss In Boots (2011), declares: "For me, lost causes are the only ones that are worth fighting for."

And he was interested in The Book Of Life - a tale of a love triangle comprising three childhood friends voiced by Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum - "because the things that make the movie great now are the things I knew were going to get us a lot of nos from the studios".

Gutierrez, 39, had tried for 14 years to drum up interest in his story.

He says: "Ever since I was in film school, I wanted to make it. When I got out, I pitched it to every studio and everybody told me the same thing, 'You're just some dumb kid out of school, no one's interested in the subject matter and there's no audience for Hispanic movies.'"

He eventually took it to one of his idols, del Toro, a compatriot who had gone from directing small horror flicks such as Cronos (1993) and Mimic (1996) to starting a major international franchise with Pacific Rim (2013), which flopped in the United States but was a hit overseas, earning US$411 million (S$523 million) in total and paving the way for two sequels.

At first, del Toro was not that keen on The Book Of Life - he had heard too many sub-par ideas for films about the Day of the Dead, the Oct 31 to Nov 2 Mexican holiday during which, it is believed, the spirits of the deceased come back to visit their loved ones.

"In the last 15 years, I'd heard many Day of the Dead pitches and I didn't like them because they were all either postcard-folkloric or coldly calculated things. None of them felt personal," says the director, who was also behind the acclaimed Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy 2 (2008) comic-book adaptations.

Gutierrez, whose creation of El Tigre: The Adventures Of Manny Rivera, a popular Nickelodeon animated series about a teenage boy with superpowers, had found a fan in del Toro, who watched the show with Marisa and Mariana, his teenage daughters with wife Lorenza.

According to del Toro, Gutierrez's passion for his Day of the Dead love story was evident as he showed him his drawings for the film, which he had an ambitious plan to animate using computers, to create folksy wooden marionettes against a kaleidoscope of colours and rich detail.

Growing up in Tijuana close to the US border, Gutierrez was determined to make a film that would be a "love letter to my culture and my country" and a tribute to the wooden toys he played with as a kid from a humble background.

He says: "I grew up not watching people like myself on the screen, so that's been my mission, to see our culture and our history up on the screen like something normal."

All this impressed the older film-maker, who says: "He was not doing this to make money, he was not doing this to buy a Corvette, to have a house in Malibu… he was doing it to breathe, it was his life. And those are the movies I try to produce, movies that mean that much to the director."

Producing any project is not a decision taken lightly by del Toro, a renowned workaholic who often oversees a multitude of projects concurrently. Right now, that includes the ongoing vampire television series The Strain, which is based on a series of books he co-wrote; next year's Crimson Peak, a horror film starring Charlie Hunnam and Jessica Chastain; and the upcoming instalments of Pacific Rim and Hellboy.

"I am so busy, I don't have a personal life, I am a ruin," he says affably, revealing that he takes his family with him wherever he goes.

With The Book Of Life, another selling point for him was its unabashed sentimentality and old-school values.

"There is a huge need to be able to be emotional and for us to not feel bad about recognising that we are all flawed," del Toro says.

"I love flaws and that's why the puppets in the movie are all chipped, their paint is all worn, they are not perfect. Nobody in the movie is perfect but nobody in the movie is a villain either. It's such a humanistic film."

The horror maestro also insists that the macabre storyline, which sees the main characters interacting with their dead relatives, is ultimately life-affirming.

"One of my favourite moments in the movie is when a character says, 'What is it with you Mexicans and death?'" he says, grinning.

"It's a question that an audience member could pose anywhere - in China, in Italy...

"The thing that is important to know is that the Day of the Dead is about life. It's an emotional connection you have with the people who came before us and them telling us, 'You have to live.'"

He adds: "When I was a kid, I used to go with my grandmother to clean the grave of my grandfather in the morning and she would tell me stories about him that she hadn't told me before.

"So the secret is that when you're talking about death, you're talking about life. And that is the message in the movie, which is an incredibly vital and powerful one."

The Book Of Life opens in Singapore today.

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