Issa López on the Compulsion to Create During the Pandemic

We chat with the director of ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ about her upcoming projects with Guillermo del Toro and Noah Hawley.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
By  · Published on May 7th, 2020

With each passing day of self-isolation, mental health becomes more and more of a concern. The pandemic is scary. The big blank spot that is our future is even scarier. Regulating your social media time is essential, and curating who you allow onto your feed is equally as critical. The anxiety is real. Accept its presence. Concoct a strategy for survival.

One can either block the world outside the window, or they can jump through it and run toward their worries. But if you do leap, be sure to wear a mask, don’t touch your face, keep six feet from others, and wash your hands. We don’t have much control over the situation, but where we can act, we must act. Today, more than ever, it’s apparent that we’re all writing our story.

Filmmaker Issa López is struggling alongside us. She’s currently living in Los Angeles. The sun is shining, and the weather is as ridiculously pleasant as her fantasies advertised. If she tries real hard, straining every mental muscle, the insanity of our global situation can be ignored for a little while, but the unease always returns.

“It tends to come back into your mind,” she says. “Even as I spend the day trying to write, forgetting a little bit of what’s going on. In the morning, I read some papers because we need to know, but then I try to forget during the rest of the day by writing. At night it creeps back into your skull, doesn’t it?”

Over the last two years, we’ve chatted with López on multiple occasions. Her film Tigers Are Not Afraid is a fantastical confrontation with humanity’s ability to turn away from children in peril, and an artful plea for their advocacy. A young girl fights to survive on streets ruled by cartel violence, relying on fairy tale logic and the spirit of her mother.

Initial reviews of the film could not help but draw parallels to the work of Guillermo del Toro, specifically Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and inevitably, the two filmmakers felt compelled to collaborate.

López is eager to create. There’s only one problem. The world is in lockdown.

On the upside, writing requires very little, and if you can’t escape your box of four walls and a roof, writing is your best outlet. López is thankful to have several projects in need of tending. The scripts narrow her focus and allow her various avenues for emotional and critical thought.

“Before all of this happened,” she says, “I was struggling through a second draft of a Western that I’m writing for Guillermo del Toro to produce. That felt very removed from what’s going on in the world. I finished that draft just as this was ramping up, and we received the lockdown.”

Del Toro came to López with the idea of a Werewolf Western, and she took to the high-concept with vigor. She does not want to get too lost in the details of the screenplay, but her excitement revolves around exploring a new White America devouring an older, ancient and mystical America. The West was a country all too happy to bite back at its greedy interlopers.

“At that point, almost to the day that this started,” López continues, “I went into the second draft of an apocalyptic movie that is set pretty much in our time. I’m writing that for Noah Hawley to produce. Its a story about babies not being born anymore. It feels a little bit like Children of Men from a female perspective. It’s not that, exactly, but suddenly I had this monster driven by our endless feedback of news. Plus the panic, the industry of dread, and the distrust. All of these things are totally real.”

The pandemic and the very human alarm attached to it naturally bled into López’s doomsday scenario. She’s not necessarily pleased with the result, but it is a natural reaction to what is occurring. Her writing gives her a space to process her own fear, and reflect on realities that if left unchecked could eat away at her calm.

“It was very precious for the script,” she says. “No doubt, but it was tough because I tried to escape this world with [the Werewolf Western], and then I had to go into this bad world with this story. It was a really, really intense experience. Then after that, once I deliver this draft, I am now writing something that is set in 2007. It’s based on a real story. It’s horror, but I can’t tell you more because we have not announced it yet.”

López cannot contain her enthusiasm when discussing her writing. She needs to get the stories to her audience. She’s aching to get out of her home and behind a camera, and she’s itching to reveal her next film.

“This is a really good project,” she says. “It’s exploring things about being a woman in the world we’re in now…but [the world is] already dead. Right before this all happened, for me, what was really interesting was that we realized that the level of aggression and violence against women around the world, in America, and in Latin America for certain, was getting out of hand.”

López continues: “Domestic violence has always been there, but the anger towards women is kind of exploding. I felt that this project was an opportunity to go into that violence from a horror perspective. I’ve been going through the origins of this distrust, and the way this story mixes hate and love, it’s fascinating.”

Letting the world into her writing is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean she has to like the experience either. The news seeping into her stories irks López as much as it inspires. She’d like to have more Werewolf Westerns in her life.

“It is a love/hate relationship,” she explains. “The real world is going to be an ongoing sensation where it blocks and contaminates what you’re trying to put out creatively. At the same time, that’s the only way, and this is how it worked with Tigers Are Not Afraid, by the way. What’s happening now, with these ideas of apocalypse and these ideas regarding anger toward women, rather than trying to stop it, we can take a moment of counsel and wisdom.”

The fight starts on the page. Taking the world and bending it to your will and to your desires in a script refines the method in which you will lead the rest of your life. Also, your story adds to the stories of your audience. Your film can become a cry for others to rally around.

“Take the kick that your opponent is throwing your way,” she continues, “and use it as a strength for your punch. It’s tricky, and it’s hard to master, and maybe you do it once, and it’s not enough. The next time, the kick is harder, but you’ll get there. The only way to use that massive force that is coming your way, especially in moments like this, is to let it come and then deflect it into your own work.”

Tigers Are Not Afraid is now available as a DVD/Blu-ray Steelbook

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)