Among the most exciting and ambitious of the six original animated projects announced by Netflix earlier this month is Jorge Gutierrez’s Mesoamerican fantasy epic, “Maya and the Three.” The filmmaker recently talked with Variety about the series’ origins, inclusive casting and new ways that studios look for talent.
Gutierrez only ever pitched “Maya and the Three” one time, and only when the people at Netflix pushed him to share his dream project that he didn’t believe anyone would let him make.
“So I sat down on Jan. 25th of this year and that was the first time I ever pitched ‘Maya,’” he recalled. “No art, no writing, just an idea. And here I am 11 months later, knee deep in production.”
Although it was only an idea at the time, its roots run deep for Gutierrez. He pointed to two main inspirations: the need for a “bad-ass” female Mesoamerican hero, and his own fascination with fantasy – he has often referred to “Maya” as the Mexican “Lord of the Rings.”
“I started seeing a lot of things I didn’t like as far as not having any lead females, especially in Mesoamerican mythology,” he explained. “So I said I want to have a hero who is a half-god half-human warrior princess.”
He credits the strong female influences in his life for that inspiration: His sister, mother and especially his wife, Sandra Equihua, an extremely accomplished animator in her own right, and the character designer of all the female characters in Gutierrez’s work.
The fantasy in the world of “Maya and the Three” first started to form for Gutierrez when he was only a kid in Mexico City, spending his afternoons wondering the halls of Museum of Natural History. “I would just make up stories,” he remembered.
He credits those meandering afternoons as the likely origin of his fascination with skulls, a trademark of his artwork.
While the fantasy world of “Maya and the Three” is built around the architecture, geography and 500-strong pantheon of Mesoamerican gods, the series narrative will be completely original, following Maya across ancient Mesoamerica on a quest to find three great warriors to help save her people.
“I tell everybody that while it’s inspired by Mesoamerica, this will be as accurate (to that world) as ‘Rocky’ was to boxing. It’s all fantasy and I’m having a blast playing with the history.”
Gutierrez has always been a champion of diversity in voice-casting. “The Book of Life,” for example, boasted a powerhouse cast of American, Mexican and other Latino voices including Diego Luna, Channing Tatum and Zoe Saldana. And with “Maya,” things shouldn’t be any different.
“We are in the very early stages (of casting) but I want people from everywhere. To me if I only cast from one place, it doesn’t feel as worldly,” Gutierrez explained. “I want the world to feel invited into this.”
Although Gutierrez has found critical and commercial success in both film and T.V., with “Maya and the Three” neither format made sense to him, as each has limitations that could detract from the story he wants to tell.
With features, “you can’t make anything over 90 minutes, so I didn’t want to do this as a movie. I wanted do a limited series, basically the best of both worlds.”
A project this ambitious requires a tremendous amount of talent, and “Maya and the Three” will feature Silvia Olivas (“Elena of Avalor”) as co-writer and co-executive producer, Jeff Ranjo (“Moana”) as head of story and Paul Sullivan as production designer, who worked with Gutierrez on “The Book of Life.” As for animators, Gutierrez pointed out that they have had to get creative in their search since the recent boom in animated content has created a shortage of talent in traditional production locations.
“Especially in L.A.,” he emphasized. “We are all fighting for basically the same people, so now we’re looking outside. Before we announced Maya, I would go online and look for artists who were already inspired by Mesoamerica and say to them ‘You already love this stuff, we love it too! Come to our team.’”
He pointed to sites like Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter as modern-day recruiting grounds for studios.
“Maya and the Three” is scheduled for world-wide release in 2021, and Gutierrez has just one request for his fans ahead of that time.
“Please have patience,” he asked. “This is gonna take a while, but we hope it’s unlike anything anyone has ever seen. We are so giddy every day and still can’t believe this is happening.”