One of my very favorite films of 2019 is Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid, which enjoyed much success on the festival circuit over the last year, and will be arriving in theaters in Los Angeles this weekend, with a national theatrical rollout to follow (the film will also be available on Shudder later this year as well). This writer was thrilled to have recently caught up with López to discuss blending the real-life horrors and fantasy for Tigers Are Not Afraid, and she also chatted about why genre elements can be essential to heightening a story for viewers, her experiences working with the film’s young co-stars, and more.

I'm so happy that I finally got to see this film, Issa. I don't know how I kept missing it at festivals, but it was just so beautiful and so wonderful. So first of all, congratulations. It is something very, very special and I really see what all the fuss is about.

Issa López: Thank you. It's always nerve-racking when you're going to have people that know genre, and know movies, watching it because it's your little baby. But now, with all the fuss, it makes me so much more nervous than normal because the expectations are gigantic. I'm so glad when I hear someone that I know has been circling around a movie for so long because the appetite grows. So thank you for liking it.

You're very, very welcome. I would love to talk about the story. Obviously, the story taps into these very real-life dangers and the horrific things that these kids are facing, and then you blend in these fantastical elements to it. Can you talk about finding the balance between realism and fantasy here? You do an incredible job of nailing that balance.

Issa López: Well, first of all, the fact that you perceived it as easy, thank you. Because that's what you strive for, that it looks easy. The hardest tricks, what you want to achieve is for them to look the way that a good gymnast looks on the floor. And yes, it was one of the biggest challenges. Especially because what I got my mind on from the very beginning was to present the world that was extremely real, that felt a little bit like a war documentary and you would feel the reality of these children that survived the drug war on their own. It has to feel like an absolutely undeniable real place. And then in the middle of that, I wanted to have ghosts and flying dragons and trickles of blood that move on their own and plush toys walking around.

But it has to belong in this universe. And it has to be believable and not break the sleight of hand of what you're seeing is real. And it was a big, big challenge. We had to work with visual effects that would feel absolutely integrated and part of this broken universe. And that's the heart of the movie: that magic. In this ultra-real world, you need to believe that the children can have all these magical things.

Yes, absolutely. And I would love to talk about this cast because everybody always says, "Oh, don't work with kids. It's so hard to get kids to do what you want and everything." But the performances in this movie are absolutely incredible. These kids did stuff that was beyond the years of actors that I know have been working for decades. How was it working with them?

Issa López: Yeah, they were really amazing. The truth is that the kids were the other big challenge that we were facing. Even when I was writing the script, I knew that I was creating a whole universe, a whole movie centered on the performance of five children. And I needed to achieve this effect of ultimate reality that I was going for. It shouldn't feel like fiction. It shouldn't feel like performing. It should feel like real reactions in the real world. So, it was a massive challenge.

I didn't want professionally trained actors, either. So, what we did is we set up an open casting call, and my casting directors, who have done every movie with me that I've done in Mexico, they saw 600 children. And then, I personally saw 200 and worked with them. And we slowly cut them down to 50, and to 20, and to the five that you saw. So it was a long, long process. And then I wanted to break preconceptions they had about acting. And what I did is I thought about the movies that for me were a reference of these hyper-real performances with children.

I thought of City of God, the incredible Brazilian movie, and I looked up who had trained the children in City of God. I tracked her down, and I brought her to Mexico to work for only two weeks with me and the children at the very beginning of the prep with them. What she did is she pretty much cleaned them of biases of what they thought was acting. I selected them based on their energy, not their performances. They're not actors. She took away that thing where when you say, “Action!” They become completely stiff and artificial. She opened them all to go to a real emotional place.

When she left, I was panicking because I love working with actors. It's one of my favorite things in the world, but this is a completely different animal. Before she left, she said to me, in a very sensei kind of way, she said, "You need to go with them to the emotional place you want them in." That was very confusing because one of the things you learn very quickly in academic directing, is that you're not supposed to be the emotional one. You're not supposed to act with actors. And I don't act. I'm a terrible actor. But what I did is, if we were going to portray rage or grief, I would personally sit down with them and talk about that because I'm an orphan myself. So, I talked with them about how to access that pain and that grief, and I would go there myself, which was exhausting, but the results are there. And it ended up being not only a very, very powerful film experience, but a very, very powerful personal experience.

Wow, that's incredible. There’s no denying that you could have done this story a very straightforward way, where it was just these kids trying to outrun this gang. But the genre elements really add to it, and I'm a big believer that sometimes to reach audiences in a very deep and emotional way, genre stories can be the best way to do that. Is that something you recognized as well?

Issa López: Completely. Movies have been made about children in war zones. Some of them are amazing and we know them. Just last year we saw Capernaum, and before that, we saw Turtles Can Fly. We've seen them and they're beautiful, but people don't always want to watch them. And I understand why. There is this over-exposure to real-life horror, and the last thing you want to do is go into a movie theater or press play in a streaming service, and be fed more of that real-life horror. But genre films are different. If you are telling a fairy tale, or if you're telling a horror movie, and if at the beginning of the very real horrors of the movie you've established, absconded, a trickle of blood that follows one of the characters who have three magical wishes, it's different.

It opens the door to audiences. You're not lying to them. You're saying these stories happen in the real world, but I'm going to take you into this universe, true fantasy. And then it gives them access to that, A. And B, it absolutely opens up fear and horror, opens up to their most intimate, absolutely secret places. And it's the best possible tool to tell a story that needs to be heard, as is the case with these children, particularly now with what is going on across the border with these concentration camps and understanding why they leave. They have to run away from their homes and their parents trying to get them across the border because they are escaping these realities.

[Photo Credit: Above Issa López photo from Issa López's Instagram page via Shudder.]

Heather Wixson
About the Author - Heather Wixson

After falling in love with the horror genre at a very early age, Heather Wixson has spent the last decade carving out a name for herself in the genre world as a both a journalist and as a proponent of independent horror cinema. Wixson is currently the Managing Editor for DailyDead.com, and was previously a featured writer at DreadCentral.com and TerrorTube.com where her online career began; she’s also been a contributor at FEARnet as well as a panelist for several of their online programs.

Wixson recently finished her first book, Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures, and is currently working on her second upcoming book project on special effects artists as well.