Animation maestro Jorge Gutierrez’s “Maya and the Three” stands out as not only the most ambitious project of his career, but one of Netflix’s most exciting experiments since diving headlong into animation a few years back. One of the streamer’s first announced animated originals, “Maya” will receive high-profile premieres at the Guadalajara International Film Festival (FICG) and BFI London Film Festivals over the next 10 days before hitting the streaming platform on Oct. 22.
Variety spoke with Gutierrez ahead of the series’ privileged place as Guadalajara’s closing screening, where two episodes will play to close out a week of festivities.
One of the most striking aspects of this show is its disregard for format. At four and a half hours total, most episodes are more than 30 minutes long, but the penultimate episode is only 25 minutes followed by a 43-minute finale. You also have vignettes dedicated to certain characters at the beginning of several episodes. Was that formatting done intentionally? And if so, what was the goal?
I’ve been incredibly lucky in that I’ve gotten to make a TV show and a movie in my career. When we finished “The Book of Life,” I realized there was maybe an hour of stuff sitting on the cutting room floor. All these stories and side characters we just had to cut because we didn’t have the budget. I love cold opens, and if you watch something like the “Lord of the Rings” you see there are cold opens where you get little glimpses at the beginning of the second and third films, and that had a huge influence on me. I’m addicted to back stories, so with “Maya” it was like playing a game of Who Can We Give the Most Tragic Backstory? We really kept trying to up the ante. With “Maya” my main budget was time. I had 270-minutes, so I had to be very clever with the emotion of the show and keep people invested, keeping them wanting more.
I think one of my favorite examples of your bucking format is that although the series streams in widescreen, with the black borders above and below the image, the action often spills over into those margins. What was the thinking there?
I love 2.35:1. It’s the aspect ratio of all my favorite movies, and I thought since this is going to be seen at home where we have that ratio, why not play with that space in the narrative? So we use it to accentuate moments or when characters are so powerful that they break out of the frame. It was like another level of storytelling.
Your propensity for breaking from tradition doesn’t stop with format. Narratively this series regularly leads viewers down one path that we’re all familiar with from other media, only to hit us with a surprise turn just as we’re getting comfortable.
You know what it is? When things get too formal, I notice it. Audiences have seen so much now, so when watching we start to call stuff out hours before it happens. So, knowing that, I think “We’ll give you enough to make you think you know where it’s going, and then we’re going to flip it with a big twist.” We’re still gonna give you the stuff you thought was gonna happen, but it will be delivered in different ways. After all, we can’t make a series about a world fighting for survival and then not have a giant battle for the survival of the world at the end! When we make a promise to the audience we have to deliver.
In terms of its ambition both visually and narratively this series is massive. You’ve created a pantheon of gods, a fellowship of characters and it looks like nothing that we’ve seen before, especially in series. Was there ever any worry that things might get too big?
I’m lucky in that I had a brilliant team around me. I’m like a big balloon and they all jumped on my legs to keep me near the ground. As you said, the more fantasy, the more overwhelming and the crazier things can get, and I think conversely the more you need to stay grounded so it feels real. If you’re not careful you can easily let the whole show become about the plot, let it become about the effects. But at the end of the day it’s really about the characters. We kept reminding ourselves that these are kids, Maya is not even 15 years old, so she’s far from perfect and she makes a ton of mistakes. And I think people will see that in this series, her mistakes define her almost as much as her triumphs.
This series has a tremendous amount of respect for its young audience. How important was it to you that you touch on big topics such as infidelity, death and loneliness in a kids’ program? And that you do so without pandering or talking down?
A lot of those things I learned about from movies, not TV, because when I was a kid, movies were taking bigger swings. I was born in 1975, so I learned about divorce from “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Now as a parent and professional storyteller I want to layer my stuff with all these big ideas and make them a normal part of the world. Maya’s world is fantasy inspired, but all the things that happen in the show – parents who don’t want their kids doing certain things, marriages that don’t work out, people passing away – all these things happen to all of us. So the idea was, all the fantasy needed to be grounded in reality.
From “El Tigre” to “The Book of Life” and now with “Maya,” the work you and your long-time life and career partner Sandra Equihua have done has matured along with you. How have your personal lives, getting married and becoming parents, affected the work you do and the stories you tell?
When we made “El Tigre” we were married and didn’t have any kids, so we were coming from the point of view of kids themselves. With “The Book of Life” we’d made that transition to being parents, but our son was still a baby. Now with “Maya,” even though we based it on Sandra’s youth, I definitely side with the parents on a lot of things. I’m worried about Maya, I’m rooting for her. As a creator you evolve as a storyteller. And, although you get older, the work stays the same, so it’s you who changes.
“Maya” was always billed as a one-off event series, but you’ve also said that you sometimes think of it as a Mexican “Lord of the Rings.” Well, that universe also got “The Hobbit,” “The Silmarillion” and a host of other stories. Would you like to do more work set in the Mesoamerican fantasy world you’ve created?
Anyone who sees this series will know there is no sequel coming, but I do love this world and there are a lot of shared universes within it. I definitely want to do more stuff connected to this, maybe before this time period or what comes after, maybe even 500 years after! Sandra keeps joking that I’ve created the Jorgeverse.