By Clark Collis
August 20, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT

Getting an endorsement from Stephen King or Guillermo del Toro or Neil Gaiman would be a great achievement for any director. So, how did filmmaker Issa López feel when this trio of luminaries all gave the thumbs-up to her film Tigers Are Not Afraid?

“You know, really, these are the three guys that shaped the dark part of me, no doubt,” says the Mexican writer-director. “There’s so much of King [in Tigers Are Not Afraid], there’s a lot of It, there’s a lot of The Body, which is what inspired Stand By Me. Guillermo del Toro — it’s not even worth going into that, there’s so much of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth in the movie. And Neil Gaiman with Sandman. So, the three of them. And then, getting them to watch it — a movie that nobody wanted to watch — and not only that but becoming champions of it and vocal. There’s no way to describe how it feels that the heroes that inspired you become your friends and your allies. It’s beautiful.”

Tigers Are Not Afraid stars young actress Paola Lara as an orphan named Estrella who joins a gang of kids in an unnamed Mexican town and attempts to evade the murderous attentions of a drug cartel. The fantastical twist? She is armed with three wishes. The result is a remarkable and unforgettable mix of real-world horrors and beguiling fantasy which was embraced by the genre festival circuit after it premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2017.

“The audiences from genre festivals — they’re incredible,” says López. “They become true fans. They don’t simply like a movie, they become champions.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the initial inspiration for Tigers Are Not Afraid?
ISSA LÓPEZ:
I was researching [a] movie that fell apart about the origins of the drug cartels during World War II. I talked to a bunch of journalists, and specialists in politics, and sociologists. Invariably, the interviews would veer into the situation currently in Mexico, and in one of those, someone said, “Of course there is a problem with the children.” That stopped me in my tracks, because I realized I had never given it any thought, which is terribly embarrassing. Nobody is talking about these kids, and like anywhere in the world, it affects children. It displaces them, it harms them, it leaves them on their own, and nobody’s telling their stories. So, that stuck with me, and then somewhere else I read about parts of towns have become ghost towns, and it felt so appealing to put these children that are stranded, taking over one ghost town. This was my opportunity to go into my favorite thing, which is genre, and I just went for it.

What was it like casting the young actors?
It was very difficult. I was going for a certain tone in them that is ultra-real. The movie is shot with a very very clear intention of feeling almost documentary, and then in the middle of this, the fantastic elements and visual effects come. I wanted to experiment on how visual effects feel on an ultra-real universe. So, the performances had to belong in this world, they had to be beyond natural, going right down into the documentary-reality. It’s not easy to find children — or adults for that matter — that can deliver that.

So, we made an open casting call. My casting director saw 600 children. I saw 200. It was tough, because they’re lovely and funny. They never read a script. I cast them through improvisation and they’re lovely when they improvise. Finally, we wound it down to this five, and I worked with the final five, and then two weeks to open them up and train them a little bit before going into the proper rehearsal with Fátima Toledo, who is the acting coach that worked on City of God, and who has a fantastic eye for this. Then she left, and I was on my own devices with these kids, and it was a tremendous experience. I love working with actors but I had never had to go there emotionally with them, which is what Fatima left for me. Kids will trust you, and will go with you on a journey [but] you have to go yourself. So, if I wanted fear, we had to work on fear together, or grief, or rage.

Shudder

Is it true the film was rejected by a lot of festivals?
Honestly, we took a year sending it out to all the festivals from Sundance, to Cannes, to Venice, to Toronto. Every festival rejected the movie. After four [rejections] you go, You know what? The movie’s probably not good, which means that I’m probably not good.

I was very close to giving up and then I had a moment of, What about the genre festivals? Because it is genre. I started with Sitges and Fantastic Fest. Sitges rejected it, and then Fantastic took it, and the rest is history. The movie exploded, the reviews were really good, and all the pain and horror of that year ended up not really mattering.

I think it shows the broadmindedness of a lot of the horror community that they’ve really embraced the film, because while it is technically a genre movie, it’s not your traditional horror fare.
That was a worry in my mind, that horror audiences, or completely genre audiences, were going to reject it. That never happened. Some of them say, “You know what? It’s not really a horror movie, but I still loved it.” And some people love it as a horror. And some people say it is a horror movie about the real horrors of the real world. But it was beautifully received and it traveled around the world. I honestly believe that had the movie opened at Berlin or [somewhere else] it wouldn’t have the attention it’s got now.

Tigers Are Not Afraid opens in New York on Wednesday and Los Angeles on Friday, followed by a national rollout. The film will then premiere on the Shudder streaming service.

Watch the trailer for Tigers Are Not Afraid, above.

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