Tigers Are Not Afraid is a fairy-tale nightmare that takes place in a world that’s all too real. As a drug war rages around them, a group of orphans band together in a part of Mexico City that’s become a ghost town — meaning empty and deserted, but yes, also haunted by angry spirits.
Since its 2017 film-festival debut, Tigers has racked up awards worldwide and writer-director Issa López has been showered with praise from high-profile admirers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro — whose own work, particularly 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, feels like spiritual kin to Tigers — even went out of his way to give López a shout-out at his recent Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony.
With Tigers heading to U.S. theatres soon and a streaming debut on horror streaming service Shudder on the way as well, we welcomed the chance to speak to López about her haunting, harrowing breakout film.
Gizmodo: How did you approach directing young actors in a story filled with such dark, scary material?
Issa López: You have to be very careful. On one hand, I was trying to extract a very, very real performance, because the style of the movie and the spirit of the movie is that what you’re seeing is true. It’s supposed to feel almost like a war documentary.
The performances need to support this illusion and need to be unquestionably true, which means that these kids had to go deep into fear. It’s a scary story. And rage — they were robbed of their lives and their families. And into grief. So first you had to get them into a place where they could produce these emotions in an absolutely believable way.
Honestly, the only way to do that with children is by going through that, not by performing that. They’re not performers. So that was a first challenge, to find kids who were not contaminated by training. I was going for non-actors. And then, the only way to tap into these emotions was by honestly going with them there.
You cannot send kids alone into such territory. You create that relationship with them, of trust. To create fear, [lead actor Paola Lara and I] would go into a dark room and — you know how when you’re a kid, you scare yourself? We would do that together, and I would be scared too. I would tell her, “Close your eyes,” and bring her to the set, and when I said “Action!” she would believe the emotion that we had found.
The same thing with rage, the same thing with grief. I am an orphan myself, I lost my mum when I was eight, and I know the feeling of being robbed of that central figure in your life. And we worked on it, and I had to come into contact with all of this, which is not in my job description.
It’s not something they teach you in [film school] at all! But then, once you’ve gotten there, you have to bring them out, because those are intense emotions, and dark ones. It was a matter of, when I said “Cut!”, taking their hands, and going, “Look me in the eyes. It’s over. It’s a game. Ghosts are not real, your parents are fine, and these are actors in make-up, and you know it.” Break the spell.
It was a huge responsibility, and I didn’t completely grasp the complexities of it until I was working with them. It was scary there for a moment. You’re going to be the main figure in their experience with this thing that they’re going to remember forever.
It can be something horrible, or it can be something they remember fondly as a fun time. Thank the gods that we managed, and they loved it. They still get together. I still get together with them — they’re big now! They grew so fast! But they loved the experience and they miss it, and it was a joy.
Gizmodo: The horrors of the movie come from multiple places. There’s the terror of losing your parents and being hunted by these evil gangsters, but also the menacing supernatural elements, the dark fantasy stuff. How did you decide where to strike a balance between those elements?
López: Oddly enough — while there are two different things [that threaten the kids], in that universe, they’re pretty much the same. Fear is fear and the entire story is told from the point of view of the children. You never know objectively what is going on.
From a child’s point of view, these bad guys who come and take your mum away, and chase you to do… you don’t know what with you, are just as scary as the undead and the ghosts coming for you. It’s up to the audience to decide whether the fantastic elements are from the imagination of the main character, or do they actually exist? She’s the only one who can see them. But it should be a single phenomenon for the characters.
Gizmodo: Tigers are the fantastic beasts of the film. They’re scary and noble and are tied to both the main character’s fairy tales and the neighbourhood’s folklore. Was there a special significance for you that made you want to use tigers as a theme?
López: I’ll tell you the true story. There were no tigers in the movie in the original script. But I’m one of those filmmakers who keeps rewriting constantly, and weeks before going to the set, I was doing my visual path of the movie, and I found in myself — because I was creating this city that is a ghost town, it’s being reclaimed by nature, and animals start taking over.
Movies like 12 Monkeys, you remember the wild animals! It’s such a strong visual. I thought it would make for a really cool image to have [the kids] doing graffiti, then turning around to see a wild animal at the end of the street. The explanation would be right there. Drug lords create private zoos for themselves, and the animals could have escaped.
I thought it would be a zebra. So I went to my producers and I said, “Guys, I’m going to be needing a zebra.” They went, “What? Is it…vital?” I said, “Of course it’s vital! There is no movie without the zebra!” They checked, and there was no zebra with our animal handlers.
But they had a hippo! [Laughs.] That’s definitely not going to work. That’s going to make for a comedic moment. But they brought me a list, and there was a tiger, and I thought, “How cool of an image that this boy turns around and there is a tiger at the end of the road!”
But a tiger, you cannot just throw there and never mention again. It’s too big of a symbol. It’s too powerful. And it’s also scary. It’s kind of a Chekhov’s gun in the sense that once you set up a tiger, you need to give some payoff to that.
I decided to go with it and play with it and let it become a totem, and a tribal thing for [the kids], and a legend. Pretty quickly it became the spine and the spirit of the movie itself. I love it, love it, love it when stories take on a life of their own — and if you step aside and you let them, they end up attuning to their true nature, and that’s what happened with the tiger.
Gizmodo: Tigers Are Not Afraid is a timeless tale, but it’s also a timely tale, not just in Mexico where it takes place, but also in the U.S. where border politics are big news. Do you hope the film will help open some eyes on the American side?
López: I deeply want to believe yes. It’s kind of terrible that when I [wrote the script] about these children left on their own in Mexico, it was necessary to add on the fact that we have an actual war going on. Like any war around the world, it causes pain and tragedy in children’s lives.
So it was a necessary story when I started writing it. But the really sad part is that it’s more necessary than ever now and more timely now because we need to understand what it is that drives these children across the border. What are they fleeing? What are their parents fleeing?
I think this movie does a decent job at explaining the situation they’re in, and we need to understand that these kids have no choice. Their parents have no choice, in crossing the border. I just want to illustrate what’s happening on the other side of the border. This is not a mean invasion to take over America, this is a matter of survival.
Gizmodo: How did you first connect with Guillermo del Toro, and what can you say about your upcoming collaboration?
López: First, I have to say I have really warm thoughts in my heart for [Gizmodo]. The person doing the reviews at Fantastic Fest where the movie opened, he gave me a fantastic review — and the beauty of it is, the headline was “the best Guillermo del Toro movie he never made,” and I had been trying to get to Guillermo but I hadn’t done it!
So when I read that I was like, “To hell with it!” So I went to Twitter, retweeted it and tagged him, and said: “Hey, are you going to watch the movie now, or what?” [Laughs.] So he started listening! So it was really, really helpful.
I had been trying to reach [del Toro] since I wrote the script, through mutual acquaintances, but it was impossible. Now I completely understand why, he is completely flooded with scripts all the time — but at the time I was disappointed.
Then I made the movie and people were constantly comparing it [to del Toro’s work], and asking me if he’d seen it. So I would say “No, but go on Twitter and tell him!” And people did. Eventually, he talked to someone in the press in Mexico, around the time he was nominated [for the Oscar]. And he said, “If you’re in contact with this woman, please tell her to send the movie.” [Laughs.] And I did, and he watched it. I didn’t know what he thought of it until I read his tweet.
So our entire relationship started through Twitter, then he became a huge, beautiful champion, and a supporter, and we’re collaborating on a project right now. I’m very happy!
I wouldn’t say much [about our new project], but he already did, so it’s fine — he told an interviewer that it’s a Western, and it’s a werewolf movie. We have a draft, and we’re super excited!