Darkness suits Issa López. Her black leather jacket and highlighted gray hair feel like a natural fit. However, as the Mexican director and seasoned writer walks into a West Hollywood restaurant for our conversation, she drags a bright pink suitcase. Inside are the outfit options she was considering for the photo shoot to follow, all of which she eventually rejected in favor of the look she’s wearing: the real her.
The filmmaker’s affinity for otherworldly beauty is made evident in her masterful genre stunner “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” now playing in a limited theatrical release, in which she uses horror and fantasy to address the side effects of the drug war in her native Mexico. It marks her first foray into cinematic darkness but an instant homecoming. As with the looks in her suitcase, López can pull off any tone, but it’s in the creepier corners of imagination where she finds solace.
As she says, “Horror goes directly into our most intimate, primal emotion, so if you can squeeze your way there you have the audience’s heart and ear. Then you can go into their other fears, the ones they really don’t want to go into, the real ones.”
Before the resurgence of Mexican cinema in the early 2000s, López wasn’t certain she’d ever work in film, much less direct her own ideas. “It was a really melancholic way to go through film school,” she recalls. Television had a more feasible entry point. Writing a 21-page episode a day for telenovelas constituted an on-the-job platform to hone her narrative aptitude.
Later, penning rom-coms for sale, or “wrong-coms” as López humorously dubs them, gained her access to the big screen just as major U.S. studios started producing movies in Mexico. These included box-office hits “Ladies Night” and “Niñas mal,” and more recently Pantelion’s “Pulling Strings” and “A la Mala.”
Although signs of her profoundly incisive approach to comedy flourished in her directorial debut, “Effectos secundarios,” starring “Roma” Oscar nominee Marina de Tavira, it was her second feature, “Casi divas” (known in English as “Road to Fame”), a biting comedy dealing with racism and violence against women in Mexican society via a soap opera talent search, that cemented her knack for harnessing popular modes of entertainment to dissect urgent matters.
“Tigers” was the natural next step to go deeper into social commentary and observe what afflicted her country. But its financing required intense negotiating, given that she was trying to make something far removed from what was expected of her. “I wanted to make a movie about the children that are left forgotten on the side of the drug war,” she says. Initially, a fable-like approach wasn’t an imperative quality to the piece, but as the writing progressed, ”Genre squeezed its way in.”
Described by López as a little bit “Lord of the Flies” and a little bit “Goonies” — formative staples for her — “Tigers Are Not Afraid” was born out of her realization that entire areas of some Mexican cities have become ghost towns as people flee or disappear as cartel-related violence explodes. An unknown number of orphaned children have resulted as the collateral victims of the gruesome conflict.
An orphan herself, López, who was 8 when her mother died, understood that feeling of loss. Her ravishing vision is told from the point of view of kids left behind in a deserted town where Los Huascas, a cruel gang, governs. Ten-year-old, Estrella (Paola Lara), whose mother has vanished, befriends El Shine (Juan Ramón López) and his group of parentless boys to face their inhospitable reality. López infuses their ordeal with macabre presences from the afterlife and magical allies.
Shot primarily in Mexico City’s Azcapotzalco municipality and the Colonia Guerrero neighborhood, “Tigers” shifts between gritty realism reminiscent of a war documentary and a sensorial feyness created by Martin Hernandez’s sound design and cinematographer Juan José Saravia’s wizardly use of shadows. Through it all, the image of a tiger, both as the heroic figure in a story that Estrella and El Shine cherish and as graffiti art, accompany the young protagonists.
Curiously, the film’s now emblematic tiger entered the picture by accident. “It happened because we couldn’t find a zebra,” López says. In response to her intention to add an imposing animal to the story, her producers suggested a donkey painted with stripes or a hippopotamus — offers she declined. Serendipitously, a tiger became available and shifted not only the symbolism embedded into the movie’s fable, but also the plush animal that’s enchanted hearts wherever it’s traveled.
López is proud that nearly every component of the artisanal production was made in Mexico, including the dazzling visual effects that complement the battered aesthetic of the magical realist universe she devised. Although her new ventures have required her to move to Los Angeles and write in English, her country remains an immense resource for inspiration.
Homegrown influences like Roberto Gavaldón’s “Macario” and her love for luchador movies (which has evolved into an ironic fondness for their outrageousness) shaped her relationship to the supernatural and fantastical. Yet no other reference is stronger than the work of Guillermo del Toro, especially “Crimson Peak” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” to which “Tigers” has been deservingly compared.
Ever since she completed the script, López chased the Oscar-winning director to no avail. It was only as the movie rose in acclaim on the festival circuit that Del Toro took notice. Upon watching it, the master of monsters raved on Twitter and quickly became the film’s de facto godfather.
Del Toro even acknowledged López and “Tigers” at the recent ceremony for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Immeasurably grateful, López reached out to thank him for such generosity, to which he asked only that she do the same for someone else in the future. He’ll be producing one of her upcoming projects — a genre outing, of course.
Other titans have also weighed in to endorse López’s magical achievement. Author Stephen King and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman have been vocal about their fandom for “Tigers,” awarding a near surreal level of validation that still feels like a waking dream for López. “Those are three gods for me,” she says. “I learned to tell stories because they were there.”
Craig Engler from Shudder, the distributor finally bringing “Tigers” stateside two years after its release in Mexico, shares in the excitement for the title that his company chased through multiple distribution snafus. “It’s a wonderful film in that it’s grounded in realism but has this fairy tale quality to it. It really has to be experienced and seen to be believed.” It’s also not lost on him that opening the film in 2019 provides a distinct context.
López too is saddened that “Tigers Are Not Afraid” continues to prove so timely, as refugees flee war-torn nations, Mexico included, and children are separated from their parents and caged. “Watching ‘Tigers’ you can understand why children or families would cross the border,” she says.
“It’s very important for me that people walk out of the theater feeling that (a) the situation is desperate, because it is, but that (b) there is hope,” the director says. “At the end [Estrella] looks at the tiger in the eye and she is fearless, because she went through hell and came out on the other side.” Darkness, in fact, compels her because it’s always followed by light.