Writer/director Issa López is an exciting new voice in genre film, although she’s been a successful figure in the Mexican film industry since the early part of the 21st century. Her aesthetic is anchored in a blend of magical realism and the grittiness and stark reality of the real world, all seen from a horror-drenched version of the female gaze. She found success early in her career writing rom-coms and comedies that broke box office records, but left that all behind to focus on creating genre films true to her own creative inclinations.
López’s horror fairy tale Tigers Are Not Afraid had its release in the US theaters in August, and is now playing on the streaming service Shudder as of September 12th, just in time for Halloween.
Tigers Are Not Afraid was selected as AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for September 6, 2019. And, although the film has been shown to nearly universally acclaim (it has a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), the road to distribution has been quite arduous. Tigers had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in 2017, where it won Best Horror Feature. It became a festival darling, garnering over 50 nominations and wins to date, but it took Craig Engler, Shudder GM, to come to its rescue, and bring it to US and Canadian theaters. In a press release, he said, “Tigers Are Not Afraid is a beautiful, haunting film by the amazing Issa López, and easily one of the most moving horror movies we’ve ever seen.”
VERY VAMPIRIC BEGINNINGS
As challenging as it has been for this great genre film to find an anchor in the US market, it has been an even longer road for López to be able to express her own aesthetic as a filmmaker. She found great success in her native Mexico as a screenwriter, and subsequently as director, building name recognition with films that routinely broke box office records, but all while being relegated to the rom-com and comedy genres. Those were not reflective of her passion. As a self-described geek, she spent most of her youth reading comic books and horror novels and short stories.
“I started off in comic books, and it was the perfect mix of horror and comics. Laying around my house for some reason, there were bunches of 70s comic books. They were Giallo-ish, and with pulp pages that would sometimes start to come apart. They were issues of Vampirella. There was also some Creepy and Eerie. It’s kind of a mystery how they got to my house, because they weren’t easy to get. Then following that path, I wanted desperately to ready Edgar Allan Poe, since my mother had read it and she died when I was 8, so it felt like a connection to my mom. My father found an edition of stories by Poe that was illustrated by one of the artists that collaborated on Vampirella and Eerie, so it was the same aesthetic. Horror for me has that aesthetic, which is a fantastic combination of extremely beautiful and sexy, and very disgusting and shocking. All of that informed my aesthetic, and was also my first exposure to English.”
From there, she went on to discover some of the greats of horror fiction. Lovecraft, Machen, Lord Dunsany, and Robert Bloch were favorites. She remembers reading cheap weeklies in Spanish, from a Mexican publishing house. They published Bloch’s Psycho, Blatty’s Exorcist, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Vampire Stories, which opened her up to all things vampire, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and then, a used version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
“It blew my mind, that Steve, who is an incredible writer, used a vampire story to dissect little town America that is rotten to the core. I was not a writer, but I could see the craft of using horror as a tool to explain what’s wrong with society, and it stuck with me. That’s what Stephen King does. I read all of his books. You name it, I read it. When I was 19, I discovered Neil Gaiman. Neil, and the way he told stories, completely blew up the rules, which changed the way I told stories, too. I also read a lot of horror short stories. I still do it today. You grow up, and your tastes change, you might add Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, so I added that, but I’m still obsessed with the work of writers creating horror right now, like Paul Tremblay, who I think is a genius, or Victor LaValle. I never stopped.”
BREAKING INTO ‘EL CLUB DE TOBY’: THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY’S BOY’S CLUB
López started off in university studying architecture, but quickly switched to film school, which was a fearless choice, given the state of the Mexican film industry at the time. In her second year, only 8 movies were produced in Mexico. The industry had died a slow, painful death after being one of the most powerful industries in the world through World War II. During the war, Mexican productions saw expansion throughout the world, but the Mexican industry was squashed when the US industry came back in force when the war ended. It struggled in the following decades, leading to the very few films being released by the same powerful male directors, with the same powerful male-led unions.
“It was basically impossible to break in. It was only when there started being multiplexes that Mexican movies came back, slowly, and I was very early in that movement, with what I believe was the first Mexican romantic comedy after many years. The first romantic comedy of this new era was written by me for Disney, who at this point was producing internationally, with local talent. The reason I was tasked with writing the film was because I was a woman, which was very stereotypical, and a sort of reverse discrimination, that women can do it, but only write female themes on love and rosy things. It wasn’t my inclination at all, but it was something I could do, and it was a way in.
So I wrote this rom-com (2003’s Ladies’ Night), The result I was not happy with, but it was very successful, and it opened a lot of doors for me to continue working. Of course, what was expected of me was only more rom-coms. When I started to direct my own movies, I used the leverage of the faith people had in my name as a writer, but what I was creating was comedies, not romantic comedies, that had an edge. Some of them had social commentary, some were pretty dark, with really deeply flawed characters, and were not romantic. There was a clear division of what I would do as a director, and what I was willing to do as a writer to make rent and buy groceries. I refused to direct rom-coms, not because I don’t like them, with any good story I’m in, but because I felt it was a very dangerous path. Honestly, if you’re going to invest 2 years of your life into something, it had better be something you truly believe in. It better be your first choice as a movie, were you to walk into a multiplex, and pick a movie to see. You have to make the movies you want to see.”
As a director, she found working with the nearly all-male crews difficult, but was determined to get them on her side, as they were extremely talented and obviously essential to her success.
“They were respectful, but it was the kind of respect that behind it, has a lot of skepticism and a lot of coldness. They will do what they’re told, but they won’t go that extra mile you need as a filmmaker. I needed to get them on my side, and yes, I’d have to rely on using old embarrassing formulas, like asking for help when I didn’t need any help at the beginning of a shoot. When that relationship is established, it just flows, which is terrible, but that was the way it was 14 years ago. Once you jump over that barrier of skepticism, they can see you know what you’re doing, and they respect you, and they would die for you, but you have to get them on your side first. No men had to do that.
The other thing that was tricky is as the industry was reactivated, and we had more productions, still it was male-dominated and even though the men making cinema in Mexico were friends, and pals, and we’d go party together, and we were one big happy industry, the truth is there was this thing in Mexico that we called “El Club de Toby”, and it’s boys in their clubhouse. There are no girls allowed, and they’d go party boy-style in boy places, and by that I mean strip clubs, and you’re not invited. So many times, deals are closed in those places, and you’re left outside. It’s happening still today.”
BREAKING DOWN TO BREAK AWAY
After repeated successes in Mexico, López moved to the US. It was in the wake of The Hangover, when ‘bromance’ films were all the rage. Bromance script in-hand, she was invited to make a film with producer Joe Roth and Sony. Little did she know, unlike Mexico, producers in the US were juggling development of 12 or 13 films, only a fraction of which would get made. That film, and several others fell apart in quick succession. At the same time, the writer/director was undergoing an avalanche of personal crises. She had recently had a bad break-up, had lost her father, and had put her dog down.
“I realized that I needed to go back to the center. It’s a huge lesson that when you have nothing to lose, you can risk everything. I knew nobody was going to jump immediately, and do a movie that talked about the things that really mattered to me, but I needed to do it. I sat down to work on something with time I didn’t have, because I had to deliver this other project. I started working on Tigers. I came from a place of pain and fear, and honesty and it dealt with things that worried me deeply, like violence in Mexico, the effect it has on children, the effect it has on women, and magic, and horror, and ghosts, and the fact that in the center of everything I believe in life is, your dead never leave you. They walk with you. I was writing from my own experience of losing my mother, a lot of essential things went into it. That’s the origin of Tigers Are Not Afraid.”
WALKING WITH THE DEAD
Tigers Are Not Afraid has the benefit of being so specific that it becomes universal. The gritty, magical realist story centers on 10-year-old Estrella, who is given 3 wishes by her teacher on the day shots are fired outside her school room, after which she goes home to find her mother missing. She joins a group of homeless children led by a boy named Shine, and together they try to evade violent members of the drug trade. Spirits follow Estrella, and it’s unclear if they are meant to help or harm her. It’s as if these characters are playing in the ruins of their lives. López says this ruin, this violence, has always been part of in the fabric of her country.
“Mexico is a country that has never known peace. The official message of the ruling party is that we have had peace. That’s a lie. Mexico has been perpetually at war. Before it was conquered, the Aztecs had ruled for 200 years, with a rule of blood and conquest, and they would sacrifice groups of 500 war prisoners regularly, to cover their temples in blood. That says everything you need to know about our culture. We don’t know peace. There is an innate crazy violence in who we are, but there is also an absolute joy in the knowledge that we can die any day, and the fact that your dead never go away. They are with you, and they are you. You walk with, and live with the dead. You wine and dine and laugh and dance with the dead. You enjoy life. We have music and comedy and the most amazing visual artists, because it is in the middle of pain, I believe, that the richest and wildest dreams happen. It’s at the essence of who we are as Mexicans.”
Ghosts are found at every turn in the film. Violence and death, and living with it and in spite of it, is something López says she knows about intimately.
“My mother died when I was very young. I never had a chance to say goodbye. It was from natural causes, but it was very sudden. My sister and I never had a chance to say goodbye. An odd thing happens when a child, or even an adult, doesn’t have a chance to say goodbye to someone we lose. You have the feeling that they are around. You feel like you can run into them in the street. You have dreams about them. I lost a lot of people around me. I think that that, combined with the way we are brought up in Mexico, informed me. The rest of the world is obsessed with Dias de los Muertos which, in the end, is about inviting the dead to come join us for dinner. That’s who we are. Death is not a departure, it’s just a transformation, a transmutation into another version of ourselves. We coexist with the dead, and you can see that everywhere in magical realism in Latin America, how the dead just walk into your life any day, to help, or to warn, or to haunt you, or just to chat or have dinner with you. It’s an essential part of how I conceive of the world.”
THE CATHARSIS OF A GENRE FILM
Tigers Are Not Afraid is, in part, about grief, which is a land that exists between life and death. It is a place where too many people live, in too many parts of the world. It is a land many horror auteurs draw from in their work.
“Some of the sweetest, happiest people I know are horror directors and writers, and they write, we write, truly horrifying stuff. That’s the way we process the pain. A lot of the people telling horror stories, if you talk to them enough, you find they have known tragedy intimately. There’s some history of pain. Instead of processing it the way the rest of the population has to, we just tell stories. We tell terrible, horrible stories. That’s how we process grief. I think that’s the power of those stories. When horror is about grief and pain, what happens is, audiences sit down for the fun of a thrill or a scare. You have to be open emotionally to let that happen, then you end up talking about grief. We all know grief and pain. There’s this powerful response. They just embrace and love the movie, and are moved and remember the movie later. It stays with them, because they can relate on a very deep level. They go for the fear, and stay for the grief. It becomes cathartic and very powerful.”
THE BEAUTIFUL DECAY OF TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
The film takes place in locations that represent “beautiful decay”, further affirming its magical realism leanings. She and her team scouted locations in Mexico City for months, finding places with appropriate atmospheres, but much of the scenes are built through production designer Ana Solares’ interpretation of images from the director.
“I had an endless collection when I started writing this script of visual references. I ran into this global movement called “abandoned porn.” My idea is that the movie starts in the real world still populated in cities ravaged by abandonment and people leaving. The kids have to go deeper into the abandoned areas to hide, and those places are partly taken over by nature. I gave Ana all this reference, and she had to create this universe with very little money. In one of my references, I had found this abandoned mall somewhere in Korea, and the lower level had been completely flooded. The entire mall was filled with koi fish. I wanted that, but I couldn’t have it because of budget, but what Ana did for the movie was she created a little pond with fish. She also made the room with grass and a beautiful window, that was so beautiful, for one of the most important scenes in the film. She translated all these ideas and images of mine into gorgeous reality.”
A HORROR INFUSED FEMALE GAZE
There are many aspects of the film that would not exist without it coming from the perspective of a female filmmaker. For example, the line of blood that follows Estrella, which often feels menacing to her, is a reference to menstruation. Female first assistant director Hiromi Kamata even dubbed the line “la menarche”, which refers to a girl’s first period.
“She has to become a mother overnight, essentially. I was struck by the idea that the line of blood follows Estrella when she turns away from seeing the dead. When she loses her mother, the blood follows her. I saw it as symbolic, at least in part, of menstruation, which many see as girl becoming woman.”
Issa Lopez is one of the few filmmakers bringing the female gaze to the genre film, which is essential. The world needs all kinds of stories, by a diversity of voices, because it expands society through understanding. She says the female gaze is important, because it will reinvigorate cinema.
“For me, I think the female gaze is essential because aside from any equality, justice, and fairness issues, cinema is tired. It’s been around for over 100 years. We have this feeling like we’re seeing some of the same stories over and over again. I’m working right now on a werewolf story, and that’s been done before, but here’s the deal. I know if I have a chance, as the member of an audience, to see a tale coming from a perspective that hasn’t been told before, I want to see that. We need to open a window, and have some fresh air in the room. That’s what happens with the female gaze, because it’s bound to be different. We are coming from a different place. We are going to exercise storytelling muscles in ways that nobody has before, because they are different muscles. I want to see those movies. Then of course, there are all the other reasons of fairness, equality, and growth. With growth, eventually down the line, it’s won’t be about the female or the male gaze, they will be just movies.
Ultimately, we can forget about gender, and we should forget gender. Gender is about division. Divisions are not good. I think eventually we are just filmmakers and people telling stories, but in order to get there, we need to represent.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER:
Regardless of a film’s quality, it continues to be a struggle for women to have their voices heard and have their movies seen by wider audiences. After years of creating films in genres that didn’t speak to her soul, Issa López bravely stepped beyond what was safe, and made a movie born from her passion for horror, her commitment to social activism, and her love of the culture in which she was raised. Tigers Are Not Afraid is the result. It’s one of the best reviewed films of the year, but still needs a boost. Powerhouses Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo del Toro have sung the praises of the film and Issa Lopez, and it is to their credit that these successful male writers and directors have chosen to amplify her work. The Alliance of Woman Film Journalists wants to see female filmmakers from diverse backgrounds creating great films in every genre. We celebrate Issa López, and look forward to what’s next for this inventive, fearless filmmaker. – Leslie Combemale