One of the year’s most-anticipated independent horror releases is also one of its least categorizable. Tigers Are Not Afraid, a Shudder release which is now playing in select theaters with more screens to come, has been supported by overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth since its world premiere at Fantastic Fest nearly two years ago. According to director Issa López, “It’s not only or completely a horror movie; it’s not only or completely a fantasy movie; it’s not only or completely a very dark drama or a thriller. It’s all of the above.”
It’s a testament to the film’s originality that perhaps the closest DNA relative it has is one of the most original films of the century so far: Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. A dark Mexico-set fairy tale featuring a cast composed largely of children, Tigers Are Not Afraid follows a girl named Estrella (Paola Lara, a young talent who deserves to be a Dafne Keen-level breakout) who loses her mother to cartel violence and joins a band of homeless orphans to survive, all while trying to avoid the shadowy ghost that’s haunting her. Dreamy magical realism, emotionally resonant drama, and unflinching social commentary all combine to create an authentic, unforgettable feature film.
The road to critical success (Tigers are Not Afraid currently holds a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and is a shoo-in for year-end best-of lists) was not an easy one. In Mexico, López is known as a seasoned writer and director, but her latest project was different from the start; Tigers was planned as a foray into a genre that would most likely need to be independently financed and sold at a festival.
In the early stages, all seemed well: “The script had a lot of heart and people who read the script responded,” López says. “I think it had to do with the fact that it was very vulnerable, and also deeply worried about what was going on and is going on still in my country — and now is going on across the border, too, by the way, to these children. Miracles were worked all along because people would just want to be part of it, which was amazing.”
The plan hit a snag, though, when it came time to get Tigers out into the world. According to López, every major festival rejected the film, and after a full year of fruitless submissions, she became dejected. “It made me definitely question the very quality of the movie,” she admits, “and then eventually after enough rejections, my own talent altogether.”
Finally, López decided to try the genre circuit, and the film was picked up by Fantastic Fest. Fast forward a couple of years, and the film’s latest trailer features what may be the most impressive pull-quotes of 2019, featuring words from Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and Neil Gaiman — ”the unholy trinity of masters of genre,” as López calls them — who all sing their praises of Tigers.
According to López, the horror community has welcomed her with open arms. “It feels like family,” she says. “You get to know these guys either in the festival circuit and you run into each other in one fun city and then the next fun city. Or through social media and Twitter. They watch your movie, they’re curious, they want to know what’s happening out there.”
She describes a community that’s the exact opposite of the typical Hollywood experience. “You know, it’s really cutthroat out there,” she admits. “Not everybody, but a lot of people don’t want anybody else to succeed. The horror and genre community is not like that at all. You watch a movie you love. People go out of their way as filmmakers to support it, to put it out there, to recommend it to everybody. If they have an interview, [they] talk about someone else’s project or their influence. It’s beautiful.”
López possesses contagious good spirits; she’s the type of person to not only remember the journalists who write about her films, but she also sends them (read: me) well-wishes during a health crisis or shares lists of recommended magical realist authors to read via Twitter. When I mention her supportive social media presence, she simply replies, “I have like three followers, but I cheer a lot!”
Positivity is important to her even in the darkest of storytelling spaces. When discussing the thread of hope that runs through Tigers, she brings up “the possibility of light” more than once. Bleak stories are well and good, she says, but they aren’t necessarily motivating in the way she hopes this one can be. “I do believe that there is an answer,” she tells me. “You also want audiences to walk out of the theater feeling that there is something that can be done — so they actually get off their asses and do something! My personal feeling is that if they walk out of the movie theater feeling that it is hopeless, they will not question themselves on how to change it. I can’t help believing in light, but also I think we had to convey the feeling that [although] this is a bad situation, it can change.”
A well-chosen cast of young actors was integral to the found family story that is Tigers Are Not Afraid’s foundation. Estrella is initially wary of the ragtag group of orphans she encounters after her mother’s disappearance, but together, the group eventually becomes the movie’s beating heart. López had a naturalistic strategy for encouraging the kid actors’ emotional performances.
“Because I was working with children,” she explains, “I realized the way to get these kids to give you their emotions — and they’re pretty dark emotions — is to guide them there. You have to go to that emotion yourself. I would sit down with Juan Ramón López, who plays Shine, who is an orphan himself, and we would try to get in touch with that emotion. He would say, ‘What makes you sad?’ I would very honestly say, ‘I am sad that my mom and my dad are never going to see this movie we’re making together.’ And he would understand that sadness and it would be a very, very deep moment for both of us. With that feeling, we would go back to the set and work on the scene.”
Despite its fantastical themes, Tigers Are Not Afraid is actually a very personal movie for López, who lost her mother at the age of eight. Estrella and her ghost are in many ways emblematic of early childhood grief, and the director’s process of excavating those feelings was an unorthodox one.
“In my work, I don’t do autobiography,” she says. “The thought horrifies me. It really scares me. I wouldn’t! But I needed to talk about it, so I think what my mind did is trick me into it. So I started writing this story about the situation of children in Mexico, which was also a ghost story and a genre story, and I never for a second realized what I was doing which was going through my personal experience that I needed to understand. Sometimes you need to see it on a screen to understand what you have been carrying.”
The filmmaker says she told a friend that the film was most removed from her personal experiences, and the friend replied, “You’re joking, right? Because this movie is your life.”
The making of Tigers wasn’t a cure-all for López, but like Estrella, she’s faced her shadows. “I don’t know if I’m cured now of my wound. I don’t think so. But I think at least I’m more at peace with it.”