One of the most visually stunning animated titles of the year, the newly released Netflix miniseries Maya and the Three tells a Lord of the Rings–style fantasy epic through a Latin American lens, following a warrior princess who embarks on a journey to gather three mighty warriors and defeat a vengeful god before they obliterate humanity. Epic fantasy, especially in TV and film, has become synonymous with a homogenous version of medieval Europe, and tales of gods and men are almost exclusively concerned with the murderous, horny Greek gods and the tanned white men caught in the middle of their family squabbles. But with Maya and the Three, Mexican animator Jorge R. Gutiérrez (who previously wrote and directed the 2014 feature The Book of Life) imagines that at the same time kings and knights were all the rage in Europe, the Mesoamerican civilizations were having their own glory days. The result is an epic tale of sacrifice, honor, family, and duty, with a story that encompasses the entire American continent and an impressive cast of Latinx talent that includes Zoe Saldaña, Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Cheech Marin, Rita Moreno, Rosie Perez, and more.
During a Zoom call ahead of the series’s premiere, Vulture spoke with Gutiérrez about crafting his fantasy epic, making the Spanish dub feel like its own thing, playing with aspect ratios, and the importance of representation in fantasy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When you first started this narrative, how did you decide when to cut the story into different episodes?
Early on, this was actually three movies. I was like, I’m a fat guy with a beard, like Peter Jackson, they’ll let me do three movies. And they did not let me do three movies. But by the time Netflix got onboard, I was a big fan of Scott Frank’s Godless [miniseries]. It felt like this wouldn’t work as a movie, but it is not a TV show, it is something in the middle. And that for me also clicked with movie history. I discovered my favorite movies — Seven Samurai; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — at home, watching them on television in Mexico. From the beginning, I said, “A kid today didn’t watch Lord of the Rings in the cinema, they watched it at home.” So that was my intent, to pretend this movie happened many years ago in the cinema, and you get to watch them on TV now.
You also use cold opens in almost every episode to tell backstories to the main characters.
I love backstories, which you get in novels. For this, the cold opens were the perfect moment to meet the characters before anyone else and to see what happened to them. And I also used each of those little moments as nods to other classic stories — like Chimi can be a nod to The Jungle Book, and Picchu could be Conan the Barbarian.
I grew up watching telenovelas and cartoons. And the soap operas, holy cow, they kept getting more and more tragic. So with this, I said, “Each of these kids will be a novella.” In their own universe, they would all have their own novella, so I’m going to up the ante and I’m also going to explore how these kids are broken because of something that happened in their childhoods. But no one’s going to fix them, they’re going to fix themselves, so that was a big idea for the series.
One of the coolest things you do in the show is playing with the aspect ratio, where things pop out of the black bars in a sort of 3-D effect. What was the thinking behind that?
I remember when 3-D movies were the big thing, and then studios had to figure out how to sell that idea to people on television. So in commercials, they would fake the stuff by playing with the black bars. And I always found that really funny, but at the same time I said, “What if we treat that seriously? What if we treat that as part of the narrative and use it to accentuate moments?” The first time it happens, the dad is telling you the prophecy, and then throughout the film, we use it in fights, and when villains are in control, the frame opens; when Maya is about to die, the frame closes. So we started using it as a new narrative tool, just like we use music and color and design. Why not use the actual physical frame?
When you were creating this world, how faithful did you want to stay to history versus making your own version of it? You have Mayans and Aztecs, but also pirates and Vikings in Peru.
It was a mix, but in the research, I did find that the Vikings got to the Americas before Christopher Columbus. And then, hey, wait a second, you know, there were Filipinos coming with the Spaniards during the conquest, and there is proof that Mayans and Aztecs eventually met Incas. So there is history to all this stuff, but then I also wanted to reference Mexican wrestling and take the idea of fighting with a mask to this time period. Just like Stephen Chow can take liberties making Journey to the West, because I’m from Mexico and this is in my blood, I get to have a little more fun than someone from the outside looking in and trying to be extra-respectful. I can be more tongue-in-cheek.
Speaking of remixing history and mythology, how did you settle on your version of the gods and the look of Mesoamerica?
Early on, we had a very serious version of the world that was historically accurate, but rather bland. Then I started thinking of Black Panther and how they made Wakanda as a place that isn’t limited by reality. What we did was make the world follow the characters. Every character looks cartoony, so the world needed to be over-the-top and ridiculous. I grew up going to these ruins, these bones of places, and they tell you to imagine all this in color and full of life. So this was a chance to fulfill that idea that as a kid was hard to imagine.
For the gods, I had a whiteboard with a draft full of everything I found interesting. But a problem with the pantheon is they’re mostly male, so we started doing some gender swaps. Then there were some gods that are considered evil back in the day, like the god of the jungle. But life has shown that maybe that wasn’t a bad thing, so we reinterpreted what people thought was bad, especially when the Spanish got involved. I also based my mythology on Lord of the Rings, because to me that is now mythology for our time. My guiding principle was, what if the ring was alive and the main character? What if there was this object, turned into a person, that everyone wants and can hypothetically change the world? What if the ring chose to take itself to Mordor?
Tell me about casting the series. You’ve got a really impressive group of actors.
I’m super-naïve; I basically put all their names in the scripts as I wrote the characters. And you never do that, it’s bad luck. But I didn’t care. And then I would write them on Twitter or Instagram or even Facebook sometimes. Once Zoe and Diego Luna agreed — because to me, that was the connection to The Book of Life, and I wanted to retell a love story with those two — everyone else started wanting to be in it. To my surprise, they saw me telling them of the character I wrote for them, the designs me or my wife did, and pretty much everybody said yes.
You had some members of the cast reprise their roles in the Spanish dub, including yourself. How involved were you in the translations?
Super-involved. We worked with a brilliant director, Alex Orozco, and because my wife and I were both going to do the English and Spanish versions, I wanted to learn because I had never been a part of dubbing. One of the things we did was we decided to add accents from all over Latin America. We added jokes that are specific to the culture, because I’ve seen enough stuff where the translations or the jokes just make no sense. So we worked extra-hard to make it its own thing. People keep asking me, and I’d say if you’re bilingual you should watch both because they’re very different. They’re just as emotional, but I would even go as far as to say the Spanish version is a little meaner and a little raunchier. We got away with some crazier stuff.
The series, as you say, is not just limited to Mexico, as you visit other parts of Latin America and have a diversity of voices and accents. Why was that important for the story?
I didn’t want it just to be Mexicans; I wanted to invite all of Latin America. Even in the story, Maya leaves her home and meets people from the Caribbean, from South America, and people from Central America, which is what happened to me. I didn’t know I was Mexican until I left Mexico, and then all of a sudden, I’m talking to people from Colombia and Chile and Argentina. I started to realize that we talk the same language, even though we talk with different accents, and a lot of our family values and our views are very connected, but we’re very different. I wanted the cast to reflect that.
Not only is it rare to see a project led by and starring Latinx creators, but it’s especially rare to see an epic fantasy story take place in Mesoamerica. What does the combination of those two things mean for you?
It’s all about seeing yourself onscreen. If as a kid you don’t see heroes look like you, subconsciously you start wondering if you are not meant for these things, and that takes a toll. Especially when you know these mythologies and stories are right there and we just don’t see them. If we don’t exist in fantasy, then there’s no magic in us.
I watched Seven Samurai when I was 9 years old, and afterwards I told my dad that I wanted to be a samurai when I grow up. My dream is that a kid in Japan will see Maya and tell their dad that they want to be an eagle warrior.