Interviews Movies

The Cast of Barbarian on Crafting a Horror and Keeping the Audience Guessing

“It’s a weird movie. This is not a script that follows conventional story beats at all. The structure is strange, and so nobody wanted it for a long time. I sent this script to everyone I knew in town. I knocked on every door and I got no’s across the board. I had a lot of close calls with some exciting people that were like, maybe they were in, they liked it, but then I think everyone got cold feet and everyone pulled out.”

Zack Cregger – Barbarian, director

Traveling to Detroit for a job interview, a young woman books a rental home. But when she arrives late at night, she discovers that the house is double-booked, and a strange man is already staying there. Against her better judgment, she decides to spend the evening but soon discovers that there’s a lot more to fear than just an unexpected houseguest.

Barbarian is a horror film with an ingenious yet very relatable premise, particularly in times when people are forgoing traditional lodging like hotels and motels and instead booking short-term stays through services like Airbnb, HomeAway, Vrbo, etc. But, like Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane when she checked into the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho, you never really know what awaits you when you spend the night at someplace new. And you’re especially vulnerable when you arrive late at night and there’s a convention in town, making it impossible to find any alternatives should your accommodations not be to your liking.

In celebration of Barbarian’s theatrical release, a press conference was held with the film’s director, Zach Cregger, along with stars Georgina Campbell (Tess) and Justin Long (AJ). The trio discussed the inspirations behind the film, character motivations, and the crafting the perfect horror story.

“I had read a book called The Gift of Fear by the security consultant, Gavin de Becker. There was a chapter in the book was really primarily directed towards women, and he was encouraging women to pay attention to these little minor red flags men can give off in day-to-day situations. They can be very innocuous things you might not notice. Things like complimenting you when it’s not necessarily appropriate or doing you a favor you didn’t ask for or touching in a nonsexual way that’s not initiated by you. All these little things seemingly don’t matter, but he was basically saying the gift of fear, it’s important to pay attention to these little red flags because you’re equipped with that to identify potential threats,” said Zach.

“As I was reading it, I just kind of had this epiphany I don’t ever have to think about that kind of a thing, because I’m a man and because I have this level of privilege where I just don’t have to consider half the population might be somebody that means to do me harm for no reason. I just realized I occupy a completely different psychic landscape than most women do. It was kind of a big moment for me.”

“I just wanted to write; I didn’t want to write a movie. I just wanted to write a scene where I could load as many of those little, tiny red flags into an interaction as possible. It was an exercise for me to do late at night in my garage. It’s always a double-booked Airbnb and I’ll make this guy really nice, but I will give him a ton of these little triggers and it was really fun and that was the impetus. I just let myself kind of follow my nose and I didn’t think about where it was going to go ever. I figured my rule was, if I’m surprising myself, then I have to be surprising the audience. As long as I have no long plan, then no one could know what’s coming and so let’s just see how it goes and this is the movie that came out of it,” Zach continued.

He came up with the premise of a double-booked rental house where the woman had to spend the night filled with micro red flags, which he then expanded into a script for a horror movie. Cregger says, “I have a real deep love of horror. I always have. I’m a big fan of the genre. So, it was easy for me to just draw upon all of the horror movies that I’ve watched in my life.”

Ironically, Cregger’s background was actually in comedy. He explains, “My first professional showbiz gig was as a writer-director for a sketch comedy show that went for five seasons. So, I did get to work out my comedy muscle group, as it were. And I think that in horror, you use the same muscle group, as comedy and horror are both about being one step ahead of the audience and zigging when they expect you to zag, and the anatomy of a joke is not too dissimilar from the anatomy of a scare. Both are about timing and tone, so it set me up well to kind of be in the pocket when it came to scares.”

Still, Cregger was able to find ways to inject humor into the script. He admits, “That wasn’t a conscious decision. It’s just that, as a writer, I naturally have a rhythm that I think lends itself towards comedy. So, I decided to embrace that. I didn’t want this to feel like a comedy first; it’s a horror movie first. But I think that it’s a great palate cleanser—that a great release can come when, after a scare, you’re allowed to laugh, and I definitely want to encourage people to laugh during this movie.”

Once his screenplay was finished, Cregger sent it around to a lot of places that turned it down. Just as he was about to move on to focusing on another project, he heard from two young producers who ran a company called BoulderLight, Raphael Margules and J.D. Lifshitz, who were enthusiastic about it and agreed to produce it. They brought it to Vertigo Entertainment’s Roy Lee, producer of such films as The Departed, The Ring, It, The Grudge and The Lego Movie, who also loved it and agreed to partner with them on it.

Cregger describes his experience getting the good news from Lee. “I’m playing video games in my bed at nine in the morning as one does. I’m just depressed as hell, and my phone rings from a number I don’t know. I answer. “Hey Zach.” I’m like, “Yeah.” He goes, “Hey, it’s Roy Lee.” And I don’t know who that is. And I’m like, “Okay.” He’s like, “Yeah, I read your script. I think it’s great.” And I was like, “Okay.” He’s like, “I want to make it.” I’m like, “Okay.” He’s like, “How much do you think it would cost?” I’m like, “Like 4 or 5 million dollars.” He’s like, “Yeah, I think that’s reasonable. I got a couple of notes.” And I was like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.” He’s like, “I’m Roy Lee!” I’m like, “I don’t know. I don’t know who you are, man.” He’s like, “Oh, I made It, The Departed, The Lego Movie.” And I was just like, getting out of bed, turning the TV on.”

“But then I was like, “Roy, I got to tell you. I’ve been trying to get this script in front of someone like you forever, but I’m in business with these guys at Boulder Light. I can’t like bail on them.” He’s like, “No, they gave it to me. I want to do it with them.” And I was just like, “Ah!” It was one of those moments that you just, you wait for the phone to ring, and it be someone like that on the other end of the line. I’ll never forget that phone call. It was great. I was walking on a cloud for the rest of the day. It was awesome,” Zach finished.

The filmmakers assembled a first-rate cast for Barbarian. To play Tess, the story’s unfortunate but determined protagonist, they chose Georgina Campbell, an actress well known for her roles on such series as Broadchurch, Krypton, Black Mirror and Suspicion. Georgia brings a deep empathy to Tess where you believe she could be so deeply empathetic towards the characters that she shares the screen with but also get the audience to get inside of her skin. Tess is used as a vessel for views.

“I got sent the script from my agent and at the time I was thinking about doing a different job. I wasn’t really sure. This script came along, and it had to be quite a fast decision. I read it and I was just completely gripped from start to end. Really, there’s just so many twists and turns which as you are reading it, you’re just so engaged and just keep wanting to know where it is going, where is it going, where is it going?”

“I’ve always really wanted to do a horror film, but I hadn’t come across anything that was right, that I really, really liked. I just loved it. I thought it was fantastic. Tess was constructed by Zach. He wrote her very well. Everything was there. He gave me the book recommendation, which was about fear, so I read that. I think Tess, she’s in the place of the audience. You are viewing everything through her, so she’s very relatable. She was very easy to get into the character, because she’s the person that’s going through all this. So, it’s just reacting, really, to everything that’s going on around her. I think she’s a much better person than me. Braver than me.”

Georgina continued, “Then I spoke to Zach, and he was very passionate and knew exactly what he wanted to do and just seemed like he knew what he was doing and yeah, I was in. Then when I heard that Bill Skarsgård was going to be in it, and Justin Long, I was like, ‘Oh my God. Jesus Christ, I’ve got to bring my A game.'”

“I’m a really huge fan of all of his work, and he’s just a dream to work with. He’s a really charismatic, charming guy. So, it’s very easy in those early scenes to kind of slowly be charmed by him. And also, we had just met each other, and then we went into a scenario where two people had just met each other. So, it’s quite easy in that situation to just let it naturally flow, and also naturally, as we are filming it, we are getting to know each other personally, as well as in work. So, it just kind of all worked really well, which, yeah, I’m glad I love those scenes at the beginning of the film.”

Playing AJ, the owner of the rental house, is Justin Long, who’s probably best known to horror fans for his early role in 2001’s “Jeepers Creepers,” and has gone on to star in such films and series as Live Free or Die Hard, Unsupervised, New Girl, Skylanders Academy and 2019’s Giri/Haji.

Cregger remembers, “When I first conceived of the AJ role, I was thinking of hiring some Hollywood actor, somebody like a Zac Efron with biceps and a jawbone and a haircut and just a pretty boy, because that’s sort of the laziest version of this character. Then I realized as I was sitting with it more that the best version of this character is Tom Hanks. You know, somebody who seems so nice and so charming and so likable. And so, I thought, ‘Who is Tom Hanks, for this age?’ And then immediately I thought, ‘Justin Long, let’s go.’ I think he is just fantastic. He’s so funny. He’s perfect, and I just hope I get to work with him again. I love that guy.

“It was the best written horror script I’d ever read, said Justin. There was something very classic, completely unexpected. I had no idea what was happening. I was so intrigued by it. It was just unlike anything I’d read. Starts off as a well written romantic comedy, which is really hard to do. The dialogue was so fluid and natural. Then there were things happened in it that broke so many rules. I was just so grateful; it was one of those things you read, and you are just so grateful that whoever wrote it wanted me to do it.”

“I loved playing somebody who was that flawed, and somebody who was trying so hard to. The thing I enjoyed about it was…I watched a lot of Bachelor, Bachelorette shows, and you see it with the guys on those shows a lot. They’re kind of presenting in a way they think is cool or romantic, and it’s kind of like bad improv, which says a lot about somebody’s psychology, obviously; like, what they think of as being cool or romantic, whatever it is. And so, that was fun to get to play; a guy who was kind of different when he was talking to his mother, different when he was talking to a friend. And so, that was interesting. It was really fun.”

“I’ve lied before; I’ve tried to put on airs before; I’ve been flawed but there were some really awful things that he does that fortunately for me and people close to me, I couldn’t relate to. You have to create something, and you have to create an approximation of how somebody might feel. And so, I loved that challenge.

The Barbarian team had the considerable challenge of shooting a film purposely set in a specific Detroit neighborhood in Bulgaria. They were limited to two shooting days in Detroit, where they were able to do some exterior coverage, but they had to replicate the street where the story takes place in Bulgaria, because there is no street like that in Bulgaria. Set designer, and art director and line producers Ivan Doykov and Elitsa Dimitrova built the neighborhood from scratch. They erected thirteen facades to be our hero street, and they built them to look ruined, and then they rebuilt them to look clean and pristine for a flashback in the eighties.

“Zach, it was just so prepared, just so prepared. It’s really lovely. He had everything storyboarded, and he’ll be able to explain it better than I would but had photos of how it was going to be shot. And so, when we got there, there was no kind of messing around with where are we putting the camera or what. Every bit of time was used well, and we got to kind of really get into the scenes, and he just is all over everything because he writes, he acts, he directs and he’s doing everything. So, it was just really lovely, really easy and really fun as well. It was a lovely set. He created a really great atmosphere,” said Georgina.

“I got to work with the great Sam Raimi, and they have a similar fusion of being so prepared and knowing what they want, and yet open to whatever changes arise organically. Zach’s an actor, like Georgie, said. So, he has a very good ear for dialogue and for realism, he’s got it, really had his finger on the pulse of what felt real. And there were so many times where, even if it was a line or two in the script that just kind of was clunky or whatever, he was on it before I was, or we were on it together. He’s got a great ear and a great eye. It’s just such a beautiful combination. He’s just great, he’s one of my favorites,” Justin added.

Barbarian releases in theater on September 9th.

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