“My goal was to make a horror movie that I’d never seen before…” We exclusively speak to Barbarian director Zach Cregger

Cinema, Exclusive, Interviews

In Barbarian, a young woman traveling to Detroit for a job interview 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 judgement, she decides to spend the evening, but soon discovers that there’s a lot more to fear than just an unexpected house guest. 

We spoke to Barbarian writer and director Zach Cregger about horror films and why Bill Skarsgård’s wife became so invested in the movie…

Where did the idea for Barbarian come from?

About 10 years ago I read a book called The Gift of Fear by a security consultant named Gavin de Becker. The book is encouraging people, primarily women, to pay close attention to the internal subconscious alarm systems that everybody is equipped with.

Often in society, women are encouraged to ignore their subconscious little alarm system so that they don’t appear to be a bitch or piss people off or have friction. And he was saying, you really ignore that at your own peril, and he listed all of these examples of situations of women and men interacting where a man would give up these little red flags that were not necessarily insidious on their own but could be indicators of a potential threat. I thought it was just really interesting that it did not occur to me, I’m embarrassed to say, it had not fully sunk in to me how men and women can exist in the same physical space, but in completely different psychic landscapes.

I don’t have to think all the time about the motivations of the men that I interact with because I don’t need to be on guard. I’m not potential prey.

It was a big deal for me to let that in. So I didn’t want to write a movie, I just wanted to write a scene between a man and a woman that I could load with as many of these possibly innocent, possibly nefarious red flags as possible.

So I thought of a double-booked Airbnb, where a woman checks in late at night and she has no choice but to either cohabitate or sleep in her car in a bad neighbourhood. Then I would just give this guy a barrage of little tiny red flags like making her tea that she said she didn’t want, complimenting her name in a conversation that’s not appropriate, touching her things, bringing her luggage in when she said she didn’t want him to. Maybe he’s being chivalrous. Maybe he’s being predatory. I thought if I could just riff on that for a while, that would be a fun writing exercise.

I had no idea I was writing a movie. I was just writing that for myself, and then as I kind of followed my fingers, it turned into what it turned into!

From that beginning, how did Barbarian end up being a horror film?

I love horror. I’ve always been a horror fan and so it just kind of turns me on. The fear and tension and dread. Those things vibrate my little creative tuning fork. So I just followed that.

The initial idea for Barbarian came from The Gift of Fear.

What were your horror touchpoints and inspirations when making Barbarian?

There are thousands! You soak up everything. But there was nothing intentional.

Audition is such a perfect analogy of male predation. So I really wanted to filter Audition into this. I think Audition is the spiritual ancestor to this movie. But it’s all just subconscious. It’s all just percolating in our experiences as people.

You have two genre stalwarts with Justin Long and Bill Skarsgård starring in the movie, and their characters both go against their typecast. Was that always the intention?

I didn’t write with any actor in mind but Bill was the first choice for the Keith character and our producer is Roy Lee, who produced IT and so Roy knows Bill and so he reached out to him.

It’s funny, Bill doesn’t like horror so much, he’s not a horror guy, believe it or not! But he was reading it in bed with his wife and I think he probably would have passed on it except he was reading it and his wife was like, ‘what’s your movie about?’ and he was like, ‘this and this happened’ and then a couple of pages later, she’s like ‘so what happened?’ and he’s like ‘oh, well, now this is happening’ and he realised she was fully invested in the story. So I think he was very hooked by her engagement and that’s what made him take it seriously. Then we got on a Zoom and we really hit it off. I love Bill and it was great.

Justin is the opposite of what I imagine of a character like his – Justin is just so lovable and charming. He’s like a golden retriever, and you just can’t imagine him having a bad bone in his body, which is what I think makes his character so much more insidious and chilling.

If I had gone with my initial gut and cast somebody who’s got a very villainous appearance I would have blown a major opportunity. So I couldn’t be happier with Justin as the scumbag, it’s awesome. And he’s so good at it!

Bill Skarsgård may have passed on Barbarian if it wasn’t for his wife…

Georgina Campbell is great as well as the lead character Tess. Did you work closely with her on the character?

I sent her a couple of books about children of alcoholics. To me that’s the internal motor that her character’s using, but quite frankly I don’t know if she even read them! [haha]

It doesn’t matter if she did or didn’t, she’s so great. She really does show up ready. There are some actors where you need to get into the process and really map out all kinds of things. Then some actors show up and they’ve got it – far be it for me to interfere. Georgina is just so tremendously gifted, that the best thing I could do for her as a director was to stay out of her way and let her do it. It was a joy working with her!

What scares can audiences expect from Barbarian?

I would say it’s a thick dose of dread and tension. Now, I’m not gonna say there are no jumpscares but for me as a horror fan, I tend to shy away from movies that are just jumpscares. They kind of piss me off. I like more horrible imagery, and I like to see things I’ve never seen before. So my goal was to make a horror movie that I’d never seen before. That goes places that I’ve never been as a fan. I wrote it like ‘what would be my favourite thing to happen in this movie?’ That was that was my driving force.

Expect a thick dose of dread and tension when watching Barbarian.

The movie deal with some heavy subjects – what makes horror a good platform to explore such important themes?

It’s so accessible. Everybody is so eager to go on a ride. It’s visceral, so it short-circuits a part of your brain and activates a very primal part of your brain. And while you’re messing with the primal part, you can kind of spoon-feed whatever medicine you want in there. It’s sort of like a Trojan horse!

I don’t think I’m putting any subconscious messaging that anyone would have a problem with. The message of this movie is that men and women occupy different psychic landscapes from each other, and the more we acknowledge that, the better everyone is going to be.

But Get Out, The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby, Audition and Night of the Living Dead, are these amazing movies to be at the forefront of politics or social change or anything like that. It’s because people are ready to be disarmed. Nobody sits down at a horror movie thinking they’re gonna get preached at. A good horror movie doesn’t preach and I certainly do not want to preach with Barbarian. I want people to have fun, get scared, laugh and have that’s it. But if people want to have discussions about other stuff, that’s a bonus.

What do you want audiences to take away from Barbarian?

I just hope people don’t spoil it for their friends. It’s been wonderful to see everyone in the States and in the UK and hopefully in Australia is really taking this protective stance over this movie.

It’s been ‘go see it, don’t know anything about it, go in cold’. That has been what I have seen the most. So I hope that people have a have enough fun watching the movie that they want to tell their friends but I hope that they don’t spoil it!


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