The first time I watched TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID I was blown away by its beauty, visual splendor and the deeply disturbing culture that surrounds drug cartels. It’s been four months since I’ve seen the film and it still sits with me just as heavily as it did the first time I viewed it.
When Women In Horror Month came around, I knew I wanted to speak with TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID director Issa Lopez, not just because this month highlighted women within the horror genre, but because I was inspired by her work and dedication to the craft that she loves so deeply. With Women In Horror Month coming to a close, I felt this was the perfect way to remind readers that Women In Horror is an all year thing and really, we deserve more than just a month to highlight the work that so many talented female creators possess.
During my Skype interview with Issa, I learned about what the drug cartel is like in Mexico and how it’s romanticized by the culture, along with the inspiration and hardship she experienced during the film’s initial inception to the rejections she received from numerous film festivals before finding the one that would land her a Best Director award. TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID is a masterfully woven tale with moments of fantastical artistry and devastating horrors. It is a film that is deeply personal to Issa and one that all of us should experience.
“What’s amazing is that dream that I had when we started, with the process of making the movie, of creating a window for the world to look at, both the beauty and the horror of what my country is going through right now became true, and beyond that, amazing, surprising things have happened.” – Issa Lopez
Congrats on all the success so far with TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID! I personally found it to be a film that was heartbreaking, beautiful, and incredibly impactful. How did the concept come about and what inspired you to want to tell this story?
Well, I think it was mainly through two different things. I had moved to LA and had written a bunch of films in Mexico that were very successful romantic comedies. I grew up obsessed with genre (films) and there is a little bit of the fantastical in most of the scripts that I had written before and definitely all of the scripts that I have written since. At some point I knew I had to go and do full genre, I was just trying to find out how to do it. The problem was, as I’m guessing is for many careers but definitely in filmmaking, if you are a writer, director or producer, once you are recognized in one genre it’s so difficult to move into another one.
When I moved to LA it was to shoot a comedy. I had shaken hands with a huge producer there and in my experience, when you shake hands with a producer who says “We are on to make this movie” it gets made, but that’s not how Hollywood works (laughs). I ended up in development Hell with two projects, one of which was that comedy. You know how that works, it’s set up with someone and then it moves to a different production company and then it languishes there, so in the meantime I started developing a very ambitious historical drama about the origins of the drug trade. In researching it, I started writing a movie about how it all started during the 40’s and WWII but weirdly enough every conversation I had with a specialist, historian, or sociologist they would end up telling me how fucked up the drug trade is today. In one of those conversations one of them mentioned Juarez and the murder rate. They mentioned (something to do with) children and I stopped in my tracks and said, “The what…?” which is the stupidest question to ask because we are talking war and just like in every war, children end up suffering as collateral damage. I had never stopped to think about it and the reason I had never thought about it is because no one was speaking about it. No one.
As much as Mexican media and even international media is obsessed with the drug war and the cartels, it is sometimes oddly sexy, which is terrible to say. There is a certain allure in the crime lords and with shows like Narcos, that romanticize the fear of drug lords, which for me is terrible because kids in Mexico want to grow up and become a drug lord. It’s insane. Music, cinema, definitely television, are obsessed with the subject but nobody is advertising the fact that children are left on the side. That was like a huge moment of truth for me, it sounds terrible and kind of messianic but I felt a call, like someone needs to talk about this. It doesn’t mean you are going to change anything but it had to be in the media, it has to be on the screens and part of the conversations.
The other part is, as I said I was going through a very difficult time professionally because I would have never moved to Los Angeles without the security of a project happening. I learned that there is no such thing. I had seen so many people do it and fail and I was always the one who said, “no no no, the only way for me to go there is if I’m absolutely positively sure” and then I moved and guess what (laughs). Then that project (the comedy film) fell apart, and then I went into this huge behemoth of a movie, but there was this voice in the back of my head saying this would probably fall apart also, it’s too big, and if that happens sweetheart, you will have spent five years of your life chasing impossible dreams and not making movies which is the thing you live and breathe for. So that was on the professional side and on the personal side my father had died, he raised me and my sisters so he was both mother and father, and then my dog died, and a relationship ended, and then of course the historical movie fell apart. I had a moment where I was basically looking at my options which were retiring (laughs) and moving out of my apartment in Mexico and renting it and trying to live off the rent of that while starting a career as a cookie maker even though I don’t bake (laughs) or make a movie that matters to me.
In order to survive I still needed to write and sell scripts to pay the rent, but what I did was I started to wake up an hour earlier, which is very hard for us children of the night. The moment I would open my eyes, before even getting out of bed, I would reach out and grab my computer, open it, and just straight out write one scene of TIGERS. It was not a movie that I mapped out. In cinema, some of us are very strict with method, for me every movies a different animal and some of them I need to map out to the last detail and some of them just happen and you can’t stop writing and that’s what happened with TIGERS.
So there’s those two components. Then finally, something I didn’t make the connection with until way later, when I was about to shoot the movie, this is incredible, I was talking with a dear friend of mine after I moved back to Mexico to make this movie. I was saying how out of the movies that I’ve made this was the most distant from my personal experiences, which is a challenge because I’ve never experienced what these kids go through, although I researched and did my homework, this is still very removed from my personal history. My friend who really knows me, turned to me and said, “You’re crazy. Darling, this movie’s about a little girl that comes home and mommy is not there and she doesn’t have a chance to say goodbye and for years she is haunted by the ghost of her mother because she never had that opportunity to look at her and say goodbye, there’s no closure. Until she does that she can’t get out of this spell and darling that’s your story.” I hadn’t seen it like that and it’s crazy how we become completely blind when we are close enough. It was astonishing when she told me that because it was absolutely true. From that point on it was with absolute consciousness that I jumped into the movie knowing that of all my movies this was the most personal one. I know it’s a very complex answer (laughs).
That is quite the journey and I’m so glad you came out at the end with such a deeply personal film. Since it’s release you have been racking up the awards including best horror director at Fantastic Fest, becoming the first woman to ever receive the award! What was that experience like?
That was beautiful because the other thing that happened with this movie was it had a certain kind of magic from the script which I do believe had to do with the absolute honesty that I couldn’t help but inhabit while I was creating the script. It was literally a life savior for me – I was dying inside and this thing was my way of surviving. It was completely honest from draft one and completely raw. The other thing that happened which was very surprising for me was I was going to tell this story about these children in this war survival situation but it was not a genre movie in my head until I started writing. I don’t know if it had to do with the fact that I was waking up and hadn’t come out of that dreamworld you are in, but when I was writing one of the first scenes I had this little girl walk out of her classroom where she sees a dead body and turns around and a line of blood starts following her. I was surprised as I started writing that just as much as I think audiences are when they see it (laughs). It was absolutely honest and absolutely real and absolutely surprising for me, myself, writing it and then directing it. So it was a surprise all along.
When I came back to Mexico, I showed the script around and was very aware this was not going to be easy to finance because it’s the opposite of a commercial movie – there are rules to movies, you are not supposed to kill children and in this film, children died. People in Mexico, yes they’re fascinated with the drug war but they want to see the fun part that they imagine, they don’t want to see the horrible results. So this film was the opposite of a commercial movie and everybody knew me for commercial movies. I was very weary of showing it but people came onboard and they loved the story. When we had the final cut everyone on the team was so in love with it, we had this feeling that things were going to happen with it.
Okay, so this is a true story and it’s kind of heartbreaking but it’s true, and I never tell it but I’ll tell you, what the hell (laughs). The film blew my agents away and everyone that was seeing it was loving it and we felt so damn cocky and we were like “Should we send it to Venice or Toronto?” Like it was our choice (laughs). We ended up sending it to both (festivals) and we got rejected from both. We thought there was some misunderstanding, for sure they didn’t want the movie, so we sent it to Sundance. It got rejected from Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Cannes, Tribeca and every film festival we sent it to for almost a year. It was so heartbreaking and such a reality check. The first two (rejections) you think it has to be something with the paperwork, but around the fourth you have to start questioning your work very seriously. When it’s the seventh, at some point it becomes really heartbreaking and makes you question your ability as a filmmaker. By the summer I figured the film was probably not bad but it’s certainly not good enough and we did our best and I was done. I was ready to forget about it and move on to the next thing.
Then I saw a movie I really liked called THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. I went online and researched the movie and saw that it had won at Fantastic Fest for best horror director the year previous. Everyone had told me about Fantastic Fest so many times, not because of my film, but because I love genre. Everyone was saying that I had to go and that I would love it, that it’s so much fun, and it’s the happening festival right now. So I said let’s try submitting TIGERS to Fantastic Fest and we got in in the late, late submission. The guys at Fantastic Fest told me that their slate was complete, that they were done, but I learned later that they are one of the very few festivals that seriously takes the out-of-the-box films that they receive, without recommendation, without distribution, without knowing the director. They actually look at the movies which is a tough job because everyone can make a movie with an iPhone and edited it in an iPhone, especially genre movies; they receive thousands and thousands of movies, but they take it seriously and try to find the lost treasure.
As I was saying, they were done with their slate but one of their guys was going through the pile and suddenly he found TIGERS and he was amazed and called the programmers and told them they had to see this. Last minute they programmed it and I remember when I saw the program (the film was scheduled) for Sunday at 11:30pm and I thought to myself, okay this isn’t great but to hell with it, I had never seen it with an audience at this point. I went to the festival and all of the programming and organizers were in love with the movie and so excited about it that they were recommending it to everyone. It ended up being a huge hit, even at 11:30pm. Word got out and they had to organize a third screening and I was reading the reactions on Facebook and they were beautiful. When the award came, it was so sweet. From then on, it’s been amazing. It’s been 14 awards now, it’s crazy. We are doing the entire genre circuit, every genre festival that you can imagine is inviting us and is excited about the movie. If I have the chance to be at the screening I go because I love to see it with different cultures. They laugh at different places, they gasp at different places, but the funny thing is, they cry at the exact same places. It’s so beautiful and so moving. It’s been such a joy, especially after all the rejections.
When doing some research on your background I learned that you originally went to school for archaeology studies and then eventually switched to filmmaking. What prompted that switch?
Movies, of course. When I was a kid it was impossible to admit – you are so stubborn, we are still stubborn, but a little less hopefully. I was obsessed with movies, I hated my life, it was horrible. I was a nerd, like all of us genre fans I guess, and I was a book and comic book nerd and I didn’t feel like I belonged and the one thing that I felt could help me leave all that was either books or movies. I loved RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and at the same time I was reading a book about Lost Cities and I loved the idea of being that explorer that goes into the jungle and finds the lost city of whatever, but you have to be six to believe that. That idea got into my head when I was six but didn’t leave until I was 19, when I had to admit to myself that finding the lost city in the middle of the jungle was not what actual archaeology looks like (laughs). Since this was probably not what I saw in my future the other thing I could do was make movies with lost cities and adventures in them. I went back to my true calling which is storytelling.
You kind of touched on this a little bit about your films being shot in Mexico. What do you enjoy most about shooting in Mexico and are you hoping that audiences take away a better understanding of the country through your films?
Yes, absolutely, especially in the case of TIGERS. It’s a movie that I shot in Mexico about Mexico, it’s very deeply Mexican but it is a movie that I, and I think everyone involved, shot with sights of showing it to the rest of the world. It’s a movie that we did with Mexican audiences in mind and it’s adorable to watch it with Mexican audiences because the language and the nuances of these children behaving like adults, there is little cultural details that are specifically for Mexicans and there are some things that are specifically touching for Mexicans, of course. What’s amazing is that dream that I had when we started, with the process of making the movie, of creating a window for the world to look at, both the beauty and the horror of what my country is going through right now became true, and beyond that, amazing, surprising things have happened.
I love doing Q&A’s and I showed TIGERS in Canada and I learned so much about different cultures through the questions they ask, it’s so interesting to converse, it’s almost like I’m making the questions (laughs). I went to Canada and one of the first questions someone asked was “Is this really happening in Mexico, women are being killed and are disappearing like this.” For me, it’s such a huge conversation in Mexico, that violence towards women, that it was kind of surprising that not everybody knows! I said yes and gave a little background in what started in Juarez and how its happening all over the country and then someone else raised their hands and said, “I don’t know if you know this but this is happening in Canada” which made me the deeply ignorant one. I am visiting a country and I should have learned a little bit more about the culture I was visiting. I had no clue and they started explaining that historically, but also lately, there has been a huge national conversation about how indigenous women are being systematically killed in Canada. It’s not a thing indigenous people like to talk about with the white population so the nuances of that are very complicated. What ended up happening (at the Q&A) was there were a bunch of indigenous people in the theater who started raising their hands and telling me their stories, of their mothers and daughters who have been killed and I cannot tell you how intense and beautiful it was. People started crying and hugging each other and I was crying and it became this moment of huge connection between two cultures that are apparently so different but they’re not; we were sharing the same pain. I love filmmaking so much but that moment was one of the most perfect and intense and meaningful moments that I have had as a filmmaker. It justified why I’m doing what I’m doing.
More and more women are becoming involved in all aspects of filmmaking, whether through directing, producing, writing, cinematography, etc. What advice would you give women interested in pursuing a career in filmmaking?
Go for the stories that matter to you. That’s what made a different with me. If you are speaking from a place of absolute honesty, you are going to be heard, eventually. It takes such a stubborness, you have to keep on pushing and trying and knocking on the door and then kicking it until someone gives up and goes “okay send it to me.” If it’s not completely honest, and you aren’t completely crazy about that story, if it’s done to achieve something else, it’s probably not going to take you where you actually want to go. The truth is, where do you want to go with it? Where do you really want to go with this? It has to come from the soul.