Without the possibility of magic, the world would be a very dull place. But, it’s important to remember that the inverse is also true: without the everyday, magic would be invisible.
The balance between harsh reality and transformative magic isn’t an easy one to make, but writer/director Issa López makes it look effortless in her film TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID. In the film, a young girl must undertake a harrowing journey after the death of her mother in a city torn apart by a drug war.
I had the chance to speak with Issa López about the film’s conception, its breathtaking imagery, and how filmmaking sometimes manifests real-life magic.
I’m curious to know how you conceived the initial idea for this story. Where did the idea for TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID come from, and when did you know you wanted to take that idea and pursue turning it into a film?
Issa López: I was researching for a movie—that, as it happens, was not made—about the origins of the drug war in Mexico. I was talking to specialists and sociologists, and one of them, at the end of the conversation offhandedly said, “You know, this is [all so] horrible.” Then he said, “And then there’s the situation with the children.”
I stopped in my tracks and for the first gave some proper, specific thought to what’s happening [to] the children when all these adults are disappearing and being killed. I hadn’t thought of that before, but the reason I [hadn’t was] because no one was speaking about it. It’s not in the media. This whole fascination we all have with the figure of the drug lord, and the cartel, and nobody is speaking about the children. I felt that that story needed to be told.
I needed the other movie to fall apart on me and for a bunch of personal stuff to happen: my father died, I went through a breakup, I put down my dog—I loved my dog. And [at] that point, I felt it was necessary for me to go back to the basics. [It was time for me to go back to] the stuff that I really cared about, which is genre, and fantasy, and horror, and the stories of [the] people in my country that are going through this.
And I put it together, and that’s how TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID was born.
Wow! I’m happy that all of that led you to this movie.
Issa López: Thank you. I don’t celebrate that I went through a horrendous time, but I do celebrate that my way out of that was a movie that, A). allowed me to express all of that and B). connected so powerfully with audiences.
This film blends real-world horror with fantasy in such a poignant way. As a filmmaker and a storyteller, what’s the trick to making those two pieces work together? Or is there a trick?
Issa López: There is for me. You know, everybody has their own thing. Not all movies are trying to marry those two things. I think that’s where my work and Guillermo del Toro’s work connect, in the sense of setting fantastic, surreal elements and horror elements in the middle of some very harsh reality.
Guillermo does it differently, and he’s a master at it. The way I do it is by making the reality ultra-real. As real as I can. Everything in the movie is done with the goal of making it feel like a war documentary. Then when you insert a fantastic element in the middle of that, like a walking plush tiger, it becomes a shocker. For me, [that feels more real], than an intergalactic attack in New York in The Avengers. And I’m not for a second attacking those movies; they’re amazing and they’re so much fun, but it doesn’t feel real. They’re not trying to make it feel real. I am trying to make it feel real. And I do it by creating a very real universe.
That leads me to a follow-up question. For me, one of the elements in TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID that bridges the gap between fantasy and reality are the incredible visuals based in reality—I’m thinking of the fish in a puddle in a hallway or a grand piano on fire. How early in the process do those images appear for you?
Issa López: When I start thinking about the story, even before writing, I start making these collections of visual references. Sometimes I have several thousand or tens of thousands of images for a movie, especially when several years go by between the original idea and the set as often happens. So I have all these visual references, and as I’m writing, I go through them to enrich what I’m putting on the page, to make it visual and [to make] it a very particular reality.
[I do this] to make a new version of the world where there is beauty in the middle of horror and there is poetry in the middle of devastation. Right now I’m writing a different project, and when I’m stuck in a scene, the question has to be, “How do I make it extraordinary?” [That’s when] I look for an image in my references and I find a variation that will, hopefully, make the scene that you’re watching unforgettable.
So when you have a gang [of] smaller kids and a gang of older kids having a territorial confrontation, it already can be a really cool scene, but what can we add that is going to make it unforgettable? And then you think of a grand piano on fire, and that will set it apart.
You hit [on an image] in one draft, on the second draft you make it better, and hopefully, by the time you get to the set, it keeps changing until it becomes a powerful visual moment. That’s how I do it.
We’re talking about the interplay of magic and reality. And I see a lot of parallels to that in making a film. It takes a bit of magic. Do you remember one of those magical moments that helped make this film a reality?
Issa López: You’re completely right. The movie had no tigers in it. [Not even in] its title. No tigers at all. And [one of my] visual references was a deer in the middle of the rubble of an abandoned theater, and I found that so compelling. So I went to my producer and I asked for a zebra, because I thought it would be so powerful to see a zebra walking down this deserted street in a Mexican ghost town. They couldn’t find a zebra for me. In the end, what they offered me was a tiger. I had a moment there, because you cannot put a tiger in a scene in a movie and then [have it] disappear. It’s too powerful an image to have a little kid standing in front of a tiger. And that eventually became the spine of the movie and the title, right at the end. That’s when magic manifests.
TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID will be released on May 5, 2020, on DVD and DVD/Blu-ray SteelBook.