Working with animals and children are typically the hardest feats in filmmaking. But it was a no brainer for Issa López because that’s what her film “Tigers Are Not Afraid” called for. “Animals can be unpredictable and kids march to their own beat as actors,” says López in a phone interview.
López is about to become a familiar name domestically with the arrival of her bold film that sets a new standard for magical realism in the mold of Guillermo del Toro. Yet López has been active in her native Mexico for the last two decades as a writer and director.
In truth, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” has been making the film festival circuit for the last two years. It’s no surprise that López is now working on an untitled “Werewolf Western” project with del Toro, who himself became aware of López after the word of mouth on “Tigers” started circulating.
The Mexican title for her film is “Vuelven,” which translates as “they came back.”
The lead character Estrella dives to the floor of her classroom in one of the film’s opening scenes. A drug cartel has taken retaliation and the school is merely nearby collateral damage.
The audience sees the world like Estrella sees the world. The dead appear as apparitions and spirit shape shifters are around every corner. Blood runs in crazy patterns on walls and the space she inhabits. Returning home later that day Estrella finds her mother missing, most likely the victim of one of the Huascas cartel’s vindictive attacks.
“When you set out to make a movie, to tell a story, there’s an order to the world,” says López. “For some reason this world has been pushed out of order. My movie is trying to put the world back into place.”
Estrella now orphaned joins up with a group of children, themselves an ersatz gang living in abandoned buildings. One of the kids has stolen the gun and cell phone of the cartel leader, which leads to plot complications as the cartel has now targeted the homeless urchins.
“It’s important to make the point that we live in a world, on both sides of the border, where children have access to guns,” says López. “All of the gun handlers were top professionals. Mexican crews are are used to working with international crews.
“You cannot work with children the same way you work with professional actors. When you produce emotions with child actors whether it’s fear or rage, you’re responsible for taking that kid out of that emotion afterwards.”
As the cartel tracks down Estrella and her new friends she continues to have visions that include one of the kids who’s been killed, a toy tiger and a real tiger. The desolate locations were shot in Mexico City but the story is meant to take place in any big city in Mexico.
“When we shot the tiger scene we had angles with only the tiger and then only the actor. You never know if the tiger is going to look in the right direction or move in the right way for the dramatic scene you are looking for,” explains López.
“For the scenes where Estrella and the animal are in a two-shot the lenses make them appear closer than they are. When we shot them together there was a moment when the tiger looked at the girl and it was a magic moment,” recalls López.
“Now I have to say the tiger was managed by the best animal handlers in Mexico. You cannot see it because we removed it digitally but the tiger has a leather collar that’s attached to a wire short enough that if for any reason it moves towards the little girl – it is after all a wild beast – it would stop short of getting to her.”
Likewise the scenes where the children were on rooftops were shot with the children wearing the same kind of protective wires.
López shot the movie chronologically mainly for the sake of the children, most of whom didn’t know the entire script.
Tigers Are Not Afraid opens in an exclusive engagement at the Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra this Friday.