It’s been three years since Mexican director Issa Lopez made the astonishing magic-realist horror Tigers Are Not Afraid. She spent a year entering the film in festivals and having it rejected, before it finally made its debut at Fantastic Fest in September 2017. Since then, it has had a tiny cult following picked up from the festival circuit, but has been stuck without proper distribution. The film has now finally had a small US theatrical release and is coming to Shudder, in both the US and the UK, in September 2019. Those of us lucky enough to have already seen Tigers Are Not Afraid have formed a devoted and passionate fan-base, singing the praises of the film on the internet. It is incredibly exciting that at last more people can discover this truly special film, which lingers with the audience long after watching. Set amongst a gang of orphaned children, seeking answers and even vengeance over their missing mothers, the film combines a heart-wrenching drama surrounded by the drug cartels of Mexico City with a horror-fantasy, in which dreams, wishes and fairy-tales are interwoven into the harsh reality of these children’s existence.

We spoke to writer-director Issa Lopez about working with the incredible child actors, the location scouting process, the influences of magic-realism and how it feels for the film to be finally getting more widespread attention.

JC: Thank you for finding the time to talk, I know you’re very busy at the moment.

IL: Don’t worry, it’s always my pleasure. As I was telling a friend, talking about the movie that you loved making, it’s never difficult.

JC: I have to ask about the kids first of all. How did you find them and how did you build the trust with them? Did you have much time for rehearsal?

IL: Yes, my casting director is amazing and they’ve done every movie that I’ve done. They knew that I was looking for something that felt real. The point of the movie and I think the spine of the movie is the clash between an ultra-real universe and almost war-documentary style of storytelling and filmmaking with the fantastical elements. So, for that to hold on, the acting style had to live in this ultra-real universe and particularly with kid actors, it can be difficult. There’s a certain tone that kid actors get that is definitely, you know… fictional. So, we created an open casting call and they saw 600 kids. I only saw 200, which is a lot, I can tell you! But … of course it was an endeavour, but it was such a joy because no kid that I read, no kid that stayed and made the movie ever read a single page of a script. They discovered the story – the ones that I ended up having in the movie – they discovered the story as we were shooting it and we shot the movie chronologically. So a lot of the reactions you see are real reactions to the events that they were discovering were happening to the characters.

In the end, from 200 we went down to 100, to 50, to 20, to 5. And with those 5 I had an entire month, it’s such a luxury, but it was vital to nail those performances. Or the movie was going to be dead in the water. So, I had a month, we talked to the parents (me and the producers) to get them on board and to feel that they could trust me and the production. It’s a dark subject matter but they saw that we were going to take care, that we were responsible adults. So during that month, I enlisted the help of a Brazilian amazing acting coach – her name is Fatima Toledo – who also worked on City of God, which was a reference for me for a lot of things in the movie. She worked for a couple of weeks with me and the kids, specifically cleaning vices – of the perceptions the kids had about what acting was and getting them to experience – in real time – the fiction. And the beauty of working with children is that they haven’t lost the ability to pretend, they still know how to “let’s pretend that this is a haunted house” and they just go there, fearlessly and we don’t shame. And we lose that when we grow up. And so we created this environment where I would go with them to the pretend world and I would play “let’s be scared together” or “let’s feel this loss” or “let’s understand the rage of having everything in your life being taken from you” and they would come with me, quite easily and beautifully, if they understood that I was going there with them.

But really the complicated part and something that oddly enough, you’re not prepared to do, is to take them out when you say cut. Because they get there, they trust you and they go there. But these are some powerful emotions that you’re getting them into and for them to understand that the moment that you say cut, there are no ghosts, those are extras, they’re wearing make-up and we’re going to go and have lunch now. And that when they’re alone at home, or with their parents, there isn’t a monster in the closet, that was the tough part and it was part of the same thing, it was a matter of trust. So, it was an intense trip as a director to have to go there emotionally and then bring them out for every day of shooting but it was beautiful, it was an adventure.

JC: The locations are incredible, all the sets you managed to find – well, my question is how much were they sets and how much were they found spaces? How much decoration did you have to do or was it very much what you managed to find, how it already was?

IL: It was a bit of both. We didn’t have a lot of money because well….we didn’t have a lot of money (laughs). And what little money we had went into casting and visual effects and the training of the kids, all of that. And time – because you can’t work that many hours with kids – so it required a lot of shooting time. So we shot the entire movie in Mexico City, except that one last shot in the wide field, which we shot right outside Mexico City. The thing about Mexico City is it’s a massive, MASSIVE place. So if you look hard enough, for long enough, you are going to find pretty much anything you’re looking for. So we really had to hunt down these abandoned places that would embody a ghost town that we could also intervene. We found incredible locations – that abandoned hotel, where they find the fish, or that abandoned spa for the final chase scenes. Of course, there’s grass inside rooms, there’s fish in the lobby – all of that was us. And I had an incredible, really talented production designer – Ana Solares, who has worked with Peter Greenaway, for example. And with very little money, she created the universe with me and the visual references in my head of how nature claims back a city and turns it into an enchanted forest of sorts.

JC: As well as the sets being stunning, the cinematography is stunning as well. Your use of lighting all the way through is so beautiful. How important was it you to have that contrast between the state that these poor kids are living in, the poverty and hardship, but contrasting that with something that’s incredibly beautiful to look at?

IL: Well I am a firm believer in beauty in horror. And beauty in decay. And beauty in remains. One of the biggest inspirations, visually is this entire global movement called Abandoned or Forgotten and it’s people who are urban explorers, looking for abandoned places around the world and they capture beauty in that desolation. And I thought it was central to the storytelling and spirit of the movie, to capture the fact that without losing reality, these kids are able to find beauty and make beauty, wherever you put them and that’s what we were looking for with the photography.

Juan Jose Saravia, my DP, who is an amazing collaborator – what we were trying to do, camera-wise was that for most of the movie, until that last act at the spa, is hand-held and it’s really jumpy and it’s always from a very low-angle. And what we were trying to achieve there is the sensation, that we the audience, we the camera are the 6th kid in the gang. So, it’s always jumpy, as they are, they’re never still. It’s always hiding behind something, if you look at the frame, there’s always an element cutting the frame, they’re always hiding. And it’s always from their point-of-view, which is lower than an adult.

JC: How important is magic-realism to you and to your culture and did you take any specific references from literature or painting?

IL: I grew up with a very, very intense diet of horror cinema, on the one hand – you know, the 80s cinema of Spielberg and literature from Stephen King. But at the same time, my father would never let us escape and he would drag me and my sister to watch Tarkovsky movies (and there is a lot of Tarkovsky in the aesthetic of this) and Fellini movies and Bergman. It is a very weird mixture of – I’m talking cinematographically here – you have things that come from Fanny and Alexander and things that come from The Goonies. But at the same time, it’s very important, as I was reading Lovecraft and Poe and King and Machen and all of the masters, I was also reading Garcia Marquez, Borges, Cortazar and Isabel Allende.

And you know, this is a very personal movie. A movie I wrote without a plan. Because I was so busy delivering the scripts that I was hired to do, I had to write at a very early hour, which I never do I am a night person. So I would set my alarm for earlier and in the dark, when it went off, I would just look for my computer in the dark, I would bring it out and I would write one scene every day. It didn’t matter if it was a half a page or an 8-pager. So there was, a little bit I think, of a dream quality instilled in the flow of the work and with access to all of those things that nourished me. Finally, in paintings – another thing that I was obsessed with growing up is the paintings of Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington who are huge surrealist, incredible female painters. You can see a lot of Remedios Varo in the movie too.

JC: Lastly, it’s been such a journey to get the film actually released and seen by people. It debuted at a film festival two years ago and it’s only now getting a release in the US in theatres and it’s finally going to come onto Shudder. I’m wondering how those last couple years have been for you and how it feels now that people are actually getting to see and appreciate your work?

IL: The thing is, it sounds agonic to be giving birth for three years. However, this is how it played. It’s longer than that – the year before it opened, I sent the movie to every festival, every major festival – I sent it to Venice, to Toronto, to Sundance, to Tribeca, to Berlin – name it, I sent them the movie and it was rejected from all of them for a year – it was heart-breaking. And just about the time that I was ready to give up, I thought what the hell, I’m going to send it to the genre festivals and it was immediately taken by Fantastic Fest. It opened there and exploded. And if you’d asked me how I felt, how was the response to the movie, 3 or 4 months after Fantastic Fest, I would have told you in all honesty that I could not believe what was going on and that I felt incredibly lucky and that the movie had given me everything it could give me and then some.  Because having the support of heroes of mine like Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, that alone is worth more than I could have ever dreamed for. And then it kept on happening and it just never stopped.

The thing is we couldn’t distribute the movie in the US because there was a pre-existing deal with a distributor who was absolutely the wrong distributor for the movie. The pre-existing deal had to do with financing the movie, we took money from everywhere we could and it was very difficult. So a lot of people wanted to distribute the movie earlier on but the truth is, it was a very complicated negotiation and the movie was getting older and they just backed out and I understood. But Shudder never ever wavered. And it got to the point where it was a matter of pride. We were going to make this happen. I would never have imagined that two years later… I was honestly a little concerned that audiences, especially general audiences, were going to be like; “you know that movie, I’ve been hearing about it for two years, it’s old news” but that’s not what happened. What happened is, it just kept on growing, the expectation and the love of the people who saw it on the festival circuit. It’s been such an incredible, successful – you know, a limited opening, because it’s arthouse. But, it’s been just amazing, the reception and two years later, I’m saying “I can’t believe what this movie is still doing.” It’s been incredible. Just beautiful.

JC: I’ve watched the film twice now, I watched it again this morning and I was still sobbing all the way through. So thank you for breaking my heart but thank you for making it, because I love it so so much.

IL: Before this movie, I never expected to be so happy about making people cry. That’s my favourite, whenever someone tells me that they cried a lot. Thank you so much.