It’s not every day that three of the world’s leading masters of the dark fantastique—Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and Neil Gaiman—all sing the praises of the same movie. But that’s exactly what happened with Mexican writer/director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid.
And, these industry lions aren’t the only ones discovering Tigers Are Not Afraid, which follows five orphaned children who tangle with the Mexican drug cartel that killed their families. In López’s magical world, the resilient children see the dead walk and a tiger stalk through the streets of a decimated city. The Spanish-language movie spent the last two years on the genre film festival circuit, winning over both audiences and jurists who bestowed upon it an astounding 55 major awards. Tigers also collected 10 Ariel Award nominations (Mexico’s Oscars equivalent) in 2018. López’s hauntingly beautiful feature just opened from Variance Films in theaters in NYC, LA, and Toronto, with more cities to follow and a Shudder streaming exclusive on the horizon. In the following interview, López dives deep into the making of Tigers Are Not Afraid.
A haunting horror fairytale set against the backdrop of Mexico’s devastating drug wars, TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID follows a group of orphaned children armed with three magical wishes, running from the ghosts that haunt them and the cartel that murdered their parents. Filmmaker Issa López creates a world that recalls the early films of Guillermo del Toro, imbued with her own gritty urban spin on magical realism to conjure a wholly unique experience that audiences will not soon forget.
DREAD CENTRAL: If things went a different way, this film could have been titled Zebras Are Not Afraid or Hippos Are Not Afraid…
ISSA LÓPEZ: The way I love to work in movies, nothing is set in stone. The script is just a tool that needs to evolve and change. And as you get closer and closer to shooting, you find more elements [while] in production—a fantastic location, incredible actors—that don’t look like what you wrote so you adjust for them, you just keep transforming the movie. And I will watch a movie or remember one, and then I incorporate everything in and it starts to gel as you go to the set. And as I was prepping, I was creating this visual universe. I remembered Twelve Monkeys, which is such a fantastic movie, such an influence, with those images of wild animals taking over the city. And I thought it would be so really incredible, unusual and striking, to see a cartel-violence-ridden city in Mexico inhabited by wild animals. But, of course, when I say wild animals, plural, I’m not thinking of the budget we had. So, I thought, “Let’s pick one.” And I wanted to see a zebra; it was going to be so strange and so dreamlike to see a zebra in Mexico City or any of these towns. I went to my producers and I said, “I want a zebra,” and they were already struggling with the budget. They turned to me, they sigh, they know me when I get these ideas, but they know that it’s going to make for an extraordinary universe. They looked and they couldn’t find one and said, “Well, we found a hippo.” And I just pictured this ghost town and this magical moment with the children turning around and looking at a hippo at the end of the street… and that’s not the image I’m looking for.
They went back and said, “Well, there’s a tiger.” And I loved the image. I had been looking for a powerful ending. Many, many times you’ve heard the story, but I know that the very beginning and the very ending are our most important tools, and the ending of a movie is what will make it something that people remember and something that they talk about and they think about later. So, I had a good ending, but not an extraordinary ending. And when the tiger came into the mix, I knew somehow this tiger has to be a part of the ending of the movie and eventually it did, and it became even the title.
DC: Would this film have been as powerful or even possible if not set in the Mexico of today?
IL: Children who survive wars on their own are, sadly, a universal thing. So, a version of this could have happened at many points in history and can absolutely happen in many places in the world now. Actually, there has been some discussion about the possibility of a remake. And my first reaction when I heard that was, “No!” And then one of the producers said, “No, no, no. It sounds very Hollywood, but think about it for a second. Can this movie take place in, say, the US?” This is before we even had children in cages along the border that we have now, before we had children whose parents are taken by ICE, and they’re left alone on the streets. And then you have kids who escape home or bad foster parents, illegal kids crossing the border. And it’s very easy to, sadly, reproduce this universe where the threats of the real world are on one side, and the supernatural [on the other].
DC: The film is very autobiographical. Explain your intimate connection to the material.
IL: It’s a movie that talks about not having your parents with you. That was not my situation. My father raised me and my sister, and he did a good job. But the truth is, my mother died when I was 8 years old. Very suddenly, very unexpectedly. And although it was from natural causes unlike the characters in the movie, just arriving at home from school and not finding your mother there and never being able to say goodbye… In western cultures, we’re protected. Because it was so sudden, me and my younger sister were not allowed to see the dead body or the casket. And there are reasons for those rituals that try to be part of our lives. And there’s a reason your brain accepts death when it sees death. Otherwise, someone just vanished and sometimes you don’t come to terms with that ever. And I had come to terms with it when I found myself making this movie. At the beginning, I didn’t even catch onto the fact that it’s a story about a girl who comes home and can’t find her mother. It took me a while. Someone else had to tell me. That’s crazy. And then I made the connection that I was telling my own story, but in the movie, I approach it way more serious in the context of the violence of the drug war than what I faced. But still, loss is loss, grief is grief. And then the possibility of reconciling oneself with the disappearance of a loved person is always with us.
DC: Your previous films and TV work really didn’t deal with horror/magic realism like Tigers, but your early short stories did. What made you embrace this genre now?
IL: You can never let go of those things. There are many ways to divide humankind, but for me the most important and the most fascinating will always be people who believe in the fantastical, in the intangible, and people who don’t. I’ve always lived on the line between those two. My father was a communist, a pragmatist and an atheist, and my mother was Catholic and incredibly superstitious. And we were given the choice when we were children to pick between those two. And we could never do it. So, there’s a duality to the way I see the world. The male part that sees it pragmatically and very non-magically, and a female part that completely understands that reality is wider than what we think. So, that has permeated my work, definitely my literary work. For a while I was making comedies and that’s the male part speaking. Although there are themes in my comedies about female characters believing in a wider universe and male characters turning their backs on it. It has always been there.
DC: The child actors are so extraordinary. How did you find them?
IL: It was massive. It was a huge endeavor. I was looking for a certain level of absolute realism in the performances. And I knew that if I didn’t find it, our movie was going to fall apart. It holds together because these kids are believable. Because you believe what they’re going through. And then you can add fantasy if their reality works. So, I was looking for something very specific. I wasn’t looking for a look, for a size, anything. I was looking for truth and I was looking for a certain energy in each of them. I needed rage, power and command for El Shine [Juan Ramón López]. He’s not the tallest or the biggest of the kids at all, but he has the power. And I wanted in Estrella [Paola Lara], quietness and a talent to look at things because she’s the one who sees beyond. So, I drove my casting directors crazy. They saw 600 children and they picked only 200 for me to watch and interact and work with. We went on for four months till we got it down to the five we have now.
Once we had them, we created a workshop for a month before shooting. The first two weeks I worked directly with Fátima Toledo, the acting coach from City of God, because I loved the acting style in that; it doesn’t feel like acting. And that was what I was aiming for. So, we brought her onboard, and she basically cleaned the kids of acting devices so they would connect with real feelings. It was beautiful to watch. Then she left, and I used some of the tools she gave me. I had to come up with my own set of tools because, although I have worked many, many times with actors and I love to do it, these are not actors. They are children, they approach emotions differently. So, it was a creative task every day on the set and a challenge every day. But it worked. I was exhausted, but it was completely worth it.
DC: What was the key to getting such realistic performances out of them?
IL: It’s a trick that goes against everything that you traditionally do when directing actors and which is one of the first things that you learn when you’re being very academic. You never act for an actor. You never do that. Most directors, if not all, are terrible actors. I am a terrible actor. You don’t go from emotion. You work from a place of complete rationality to let them work the emotions. With children it’s different. And when Fatima left, I was kind of scared. “What am I to do with these kids?” She’s a very mystical creature, and she said to me, “You need to go emotionally—you—to the place you want to take them.” And then I realized that, first of all, you have to create a relationship of trust with them. That they know that if they follow you, you’re going to take care of them. And even if their instinct takes them somewhere different, if they follow you, it is going to work and you’re going to be there to protect them emotionally too. But the only way to do that is to truly go through the emotions with them. So, for example, I needed to go into the deep grief and rage that El Shine feels in the movie. And, by the way, Juan Ramón López, he’s himself an orphan and I’m an orphan. I lost my mother, and then a couple of years before we showed the movie, I lost my father. And so, we could both relate to the real loss in our lives. And what I would do is just hold his hand and look him in the eye and let him go to that emotional place that he normally didn’t go. And the way to do that was to go there myself. So, it was incredibly emotional to just tap into those deep fears, into those emotions, as it happened with Paola Lara, for example, and you have to be there with them. Then when the scene was over and the emotion was captured, to get them out of there. Because once you take a child into grief or fear, you’re very much responsible for bringing the kid out and reminding them that this is a very serious game, but a game, and that it’s pretend. And the people around them are actors and that there is a crew and that when I say “cut,” the emotion has to end. That’s a tough task for a trained actor. Imagine for an untrained child. But they did it, and I am happy to report none of them required therapy after this, not because of the movie at least. Everything went well.
DC: Were any touched by the Drug Wars in real life?
IL: At the very beginning of the process, the producers and I did consider if that was the path to go. And after much thought, we decided to not go down that road because, unlike exploring these universal emotions with children that aren’t scarred by the violence, to go there and visit those emotions with children who actually went through such events, it’s interesting psychologically, but we’re not therapists. We’re not pretending to do that. And then to create this story in this universe and then throw them back into that universe… What happens so often in cinema and television is people who lived the actual situation portrayed in the movie are taken [back] to inhabit the characters. And then when things go right with the movie, they get a certain attention while they’re making it. Then what are they supposed to do [when you finish]? Just go back into that situation? You cannot be responsible for the future of five children. In a way, I prefer to portray the cases of all these children in hopes of drawing attention to it and getting the audiences to question what we’re doing about that rather than use them to extract that emotion. It was morally really questionable.
DC: Are humans the most resilient when they are children?
IL: Yes. Here’s a really sad fact. In 1985, there was a terrible earthquake in Mexico City and hundreds of buildings fell down. It was a massive crisis, and thousands of people died. One of the buildings that fell was the neonatal wing of one of the biggest hospitals in Mexico City. The doctors, nurses and mothers died. It was terrible. But the babies survived. Not all of them, but the numbers were stunning. As we grow old, there is a thirst, an ability to survive and a toughness and flexibility to accept facts and keep on walking and not dwell in the past that we lose. So many of the things that we have to try to master when we’re adults—patience and flexibility and the talent to be surprised—are things that we have as children. And we have so many things to unlearn to get them back.
DC: Were there any dangers that you faced while you were shooting in these Mexican cities?
IL: Well, no. We never felt that. We shot it in Mexico City, although we were looking for parts that felt like very extreme cities. We created a fictional city that is all the cities in Mexico in a way. Of course, you always take security because you have incredibly valuable equipment. But it was nothing out of the extraordinary, the regular set security. We never felt threatened, although we do portray the violence of cartels and criminal organizations in Mexico. It was important not to name one particular one, not because I was worried about retaliation because to hell with that, but because it was important to me to convey the feeling that this is not about this gang or that gang, this is a widespread problem. And to make it universal and something that we have to worry about beyond the defeating of this gang or that gang. So, I created this fictional organization, but in the end, that fictional organization is supposed to be all of them. Because it was general, we never got a direct threat from any of the organizations.
DC: Do you hope that your movie will be a call to arms?
IL: I hate “call to arms” because although it is a war and it is a battle, it supports the concept of violence, which is exactly what the movie fights. And it’s a tough thing because the kids in the movie held guns and they shoot; all of that happens. But in the end, the way that the kids defeat the bad guys—it’s kind of a spoiler—is not violence, it is by letting the sins of these criminals get to them. And that’s an important lesson. And in the movie, the children themselves have to solve the problem because nobody’s there for them. However, by showing the movie around the world and showing it in Mexico, many times people wonder what can be done.
And the other side effect that is incredibly important and relevant right now is the fact that we’re putting a face and a backstory to the children crossing the border and ending up in cages. It’s children trying to survive. Or when they come with their parents, these are parents that are crossing the border with our children. These kids don’t end up in the situation that the characters in my movie do. So, that is definitely right now, and this was not part of the plan of the movie because the situation was not as massive as it is getting attention now, of immigrants and refugees on and along the border as it was two years ago. It’s incredibly important to react and stop and think about the fact that these are human beings trying to stay alive and trying to keep their families together and that we can’t turn our backs on them.
DC: What was it like working with the tiger?
IL: Well, you write stuff, and it was, of course, made possible by incredibly professional handlers who work often with American productions and are very, very respectful and ethical people. But then the day of shooting comes and you are presented with the tiger. And even though you think you know this animal, it’s never enough. I mean, in the sense of being in the presence of a creature this powerful and majestic, suddenly you feel like you’re 6 years old. And, of course, there’s a leash, which is actually a cable, just to be sure that the tiger is not going to suddenly decide to have a snack out of one of my kids. And, by the way, it was a closed set, and only the most necessary people were there. Me, the producer, my script supervisor, we were all on the second floor. Even though you get excited and you want to be there, you’re not supposed to distract the tiger, affect it or stress it. And so only my DP who was operating camera, the animal handlers and my actress and the tiger were on the set. It was tied to the leash and was happy. Between takes, the handlers would give the tiger a big, big baby bottle of milk. They’re kittens in the end, really big ones. It was such a joy. These are the reasons that you make movies: to be able to play with those kinds of amazing resources. It was lovely.
DC: Was there any pressure to use CGI to create the tiger?
IL: We shot the movie in 2015, and because we had no resources, it took a long time to post produce to get the visual effects. And then we had the year that I sent it to every festival and got rejections. And then the two years since it opened in Fantastic Fest. When we shot the movie, it was changing; some animals, some large cats, were still being used in movies. Now, not so much. And the regulations have changed, which I completely understand because I love animals. Our tiger was never trained to do tricks, which can be cruel. And this tiger, she just did her tiger thing. But I understand how there is a pressure of not using animals for entertainment. It is kind of a loss because nothing compares to the real thing. But you have to make sure that they’re actually treated ethically. It’s very complicated. I completely understand both sides of the conversation and in the future, I don’t know if I would do it again. The world is changing, in some cases for the best.
DC: The world’s leading genre talents—Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman—have endorsed your film. How did you get Tigers to them and how did you first react to their reactions?
IL: My boyfriend told me, “Oh, you’re a hustler.” He’s right! You don’t give up when you’re trying to get something you believe in out there. From conception when I was writing the script, I realized that if Guillermo del Toro read it, he was probably going to like it. And I could never get it to him because he’s not easy to get to. So, I had to shoot the movie without his support.
And finally, the movie was made and it went on the festival circuit. And the comparisons started because, of course, he’s a huge influence on the movie. And when that happened, I decided to give it a shot. I started going on Twitter and just tagging him along and saying, “Hey, Guillermo, everybody thinks this movie will be right up your alley. You want to watch it, maybe?” And it took a really long time, and he never answered. But then people would watch the movie at festivals and go, “Has Guillermo watched it?” Then I would say, “No, but you go on Twitter and you tag him and you tell him.” And people did. And eventually, Guillermo reached out and said, “Can you please send the movie?”
And I did. And as I expected, he loved it and became a champion. Before he did, though, Steve King watched it. The movie won at Fantastic Fest and he watched it and tweeted about it, which is amazing. I had an entire breakdown in tears and jumped up and down. And then immediately after that, I retweeted that tag to Guillermo and said, “Hey, Stephen King watched and he’s not even Mexican! What the hell?” [Laughs] And then Guillermo did and with Neil, too, it was the same because of Stephen and Guillermo’s enthusiasm. Because of my constant pestering, Neil ended up watching the movie and enjoying it and understanding what I was trying to do. At some point, it’s not even about getting their endorsement, which is fantastic. But beyond that, it’s about the beautiful moment when [you realize] the people who made you into the junkie you are, of genre and magic and monsters, watch what you did with what they gave you years ago, and they like it… there’s pretty much no feeling like it.
DC: Even though it’s not really a horror film, it was horror fans and genre festivals that embraced your film whereas mainstream fests like Sundance turned you down. Why is that?
IL: I have no idea why it was not embraced by the non-genre people, but perhaps it is because it contained so much genre. When I finished it, we felt very cocky because it was a movie that was not like any other movie that was out there, which is a valuable thing in itself. We want movies that are different and are not a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. So, we started sending it out to the festivals: Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Tribeca, South by Southwest and got rejections from all of them. And after five of those, you think, “Well, probably the movie is not that good.” But I didn’t give up. And then I decided to go for a genre fest and I was worried that, because it’s not straight-out horror, hardcore horror fans or hardcore fantasy fans were going to reject it. It has so much reality in it. But they loved it. And it just shows how beautiful that is to be open to receive a good story. As long as [the audience] relates to the characters, they completely love it. And not only that, they started championing it. Had the movie been taken by one of the big ones, like Berlin, and I’ve seen it happening so many times, movies are taken there and they have their moment and then they fade and nothing happens to them. It was the best thing that could happen to this movie to be rejected from all of those and be taken by the genre people. And that allowed the movie to be seen by those three masters and all of the beautiful things that have happened happened because it was not taken by these guys.
DC: Have you added more shelving in your home to make room for all the awards Tigers has won?
IL: Some of them are heavy! There are 55 of them. It’s crazy. It got to the point where I created their own little place, which is not so little anymore.
DC: Guillermo del Toro will produce your next movie. Is there anything you can say about it?
IL: Yes. I was not supposed to and I’m very respectful of that, but then Guillermo himself started spilling the beans, and I went, “OK, fantastic. Let’s do it.” It’s a supernatural Western and it’s a werewolf movie. And I couldn’t be more excited. I finished the first draft a few months ago and sent it to him. He really likes it, and we’re working on the second draft.
DC: And what about the project for Legendary Pictures?
IL: That I’m sworn to secrecy. What I can say is that it is a supernatural thriller and has a lot of Mexican and Latin American supernatural lore and elements in it.
DC: Which do you think will go into production first?
IL: My feeling is Guillermo’s. We’re closer with that and I’m super excited about it.