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Secrets of the 2022 Movie Explained by Director – The Hollywood Reporter

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[The following story contains spoilers for Barbarian.]

In his first solo outing as writer-director, Zach Cregger knew he had to make Barbarian count. He’d worked for over a decade to get back into the director’s chair, and he faced all kinds of obstacles along the way. From countless rejections to the tragic death of his financier, Cregger kept persisting, and his belief in Barbarian ultimately paid off as the film opened atop the box office with $10.5 million and boasts a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes among critics. The horror film follows Georgina Campbell’s Tess as she crosses paths with Bill Skarsgard’s Keith and Justin Long’s AJ at the latter’s Detroit-area Airbnb, unlocking the property’s twisted history in the process.

One of the more unique aspects of the film is its narrative structure, which introduces Tess in act one and then resets itself with AJ in act two. As is often the case, this unconventional approach to storytelling was a sticking point during Cregger’s attempts to sell the film.

“Oh, it was [a point of contention] for everybody. It took me two years to get anyone interested in this,” Cregger tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I just kept hearing the same things: ‘You can’t introduce a character on page 50. Nobody wants to see anything about people in show business. We’re following a rapist for 30 pages; that’s just too gross.’ So I knew that these were all barriers to entry, but I also knew that these things that everyone was picking on were my favorite things about the movie.”

Despite the success of the film, Cregger isn’t all that interested in further exploring his story, especially with a prequel, but his reasons are more than understandable.

“I think it would have to tell the story of Frank [Richard Brake], and I’m personally not interested in making a movie about a man who abducts women,” Cregger says. “I don’t want to watch that guy for an hour and a half.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Cregger also explains why he considers his antagonist, “The Mother,” to be the film’s most sympathetic character.

So were you the victim of a double-booked Airbnb? Is that what sparked this idea?

I wasn’t victim to a double-booked Airbnb. I was a host, and I would use Vrbo and Airbnb. So I was always worried that I would double book someone else, which would be terrible. But I went to a wedding one time, and I booked an Airbnb. And when I got there really late at night, it was a really bad neighborhood, and the lockbox code didn’t work. So it was really scary, and I was out there on the street for half an hour. It was just sketchy as hell. I remember a cop drove by, and I flagged him down. I was like, “I’m going to break into this building. I just want you to know I’m supposed to be in there so you don’t arrest me.” And he was like, “Don’t break into the building.” (Laughs.) So I ended up having to go find another place to stay. That actually wasn’t the inspiration for this movie, unless it subconsciously played into it, but I’ve had some friction with Airbnb. I don’t have a bone to pick with them or anything. I still use them and like them.

Bill Skarsgård in Barbarian

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

I love how you used our history with Bill Skarsgard’s work to ultimately throw us a curveball. His character really did mean well in the end. Did you write Keith knowing you absolutely had to cast someone with a body of work that would make us suspicious right off the bat?

No, I didn’t write any actors into this. I didn’t dare think about it. I didn’t write this to be a movie, honestly. I just wanted to write a scene. So that double-booked Airbnb thing was just an exercise for me to play and have fun writing, in a way that a little kid colors with crayons. When I was writing the movie, Keith was a bad guy. I thought that’s where it was headed. And when Tess [Georgina Campbell] went downstairs with him, I was like, “Okay, whatever he is going to do, we should probably do it now.” But then I just had this moment where I was like, “This sucks. Everyone is going to expect him to do something, but I can’t think of anything that would fulfill what our imagination is.” I was out of gas. I was like, “I’m dead,” and I just stared at the screen. 

And then I was like, “A big naked lady comes out and smashes his head into pieces.” And now it was fun. I liked it, but it was over. So I thought it was just going to be this 45-minute short film that was never going to get shot, and I just put it away. But I kept thinking about it, and then a week later, I thought, “The first chapter is all about a woman being hypervigilant. She’s a detective. Her brain is working overtime to categorize behavior, to assess threat, asking, ‘Is this man a sexual predator?’” So if that is the DNA of act one, then act two should be the inverse. I wanted this to be two sides of the same coin.

So the opposite of a hypervigilant woman is a man with no awareness, and I thought of that chapter as a response. So if I could have a man [Justin Long’s AJ Gilbride] who is a sexual predator, who has no conception of the damage that he’s causing to the people around him, I could bring him through the same crucible that Tess has to pass through. That was interesting to me. So they both go through the same eye of the same needle. It’s a moral test. She passes, and he fails.

Justin Long in Barbarian

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Justin Long, at least in my experience, often plays characters who are likable to a fault, but here, his character, AJ, is a sexual predator and obnoxious actor. And just when we think he’s going to atone, to some degree, by saving Tess, he shows his true colors yet again by shoving her off the tower to distract The Mother. So to really land that final act of selfishness, I wrongfully assumed that you purposefully cast someone that the audience has a history of rooting for on screen.

Yeah, I didn’t write it with anyone in mind, but as we were putting together our list of names that we were going to go out to for the AJ role, I thought about it all wrong. I was like, “I need to cast a big Chad — some guy with biceps, a jawbone and a haircut that just makes him look like a douche.” And it took me a beat to realize that’s the wrong way to think of this. That’s too on the nose. I was like, “A more terrifying sexual predator is somebody who is charming and not threatening and likable and disarming.” And so I was like, “The best version of this is someone like Tom Hanks. And who is like Tom Hanks? Justin Long.” So once I had that sort of mental pivot, he was the first person we went to, and I’m so glad that we got him. 

The structure is fascinating as you introduce Tess in act one, AJ in act two and then you flash back to the ‘80s. What inspired that approach?

Stephen King says that when he writes, he’s like an archeologist. He unearths these dinosaur bones one after another, and he never knows what dinosaur he’s going to end up with. So I wanted to write that same way, like David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish, where you just turn your brain off. I wanted to get my head out of the equation. I wanted it to be subconscious and literally just follow my fingers. So I never outlined. I didn’t know what was going to happen. So as these radical twists and turns happen, that was just me thinking, “What would I like to see happen next? What would be the most interesting thing for me that I’ve never seen before as a viewer?” So I really didn’t think about it too deeply. It was not a planned structure. Sometimes, when you write that way, you write yourself into a dead end or off a cliff, and you waste time. But with this one, I was lucky enough to land the plane, to mix metaphors, but I’m happy with how it came out.

I’ve been told many times that third-act flashbacks are a barrier for executives, so was your structure a point of contention along the way? 

Oh, it was for everybody. It took me two years to get anyone interested in this. I just kept hearing the same things: “You can’t introduce a character on page 50. Why is AJ in show business? Nobody wants to see anything about people in show business. We’re following a rapist for 30 pages; that’s just too gross.” So I knew that these were all barriers to entry, but I also knew that these things that everyone was picking on were my favorite things about the movie. The structure, to me, is what makes it so special. So I didn’t stop. I just kept trying. And eventually, I found the guys at BoulderLight who, who got it immediately. And then they gave it to [producer] Roy Lee, who got it immediately, and then we were off to the races.

So what can you tell about The Mother (Matthew Patrick Davis) and Richard Brake’s Frank?

There’s an ADR line that we put in later where the homeless man [Jaymes Butler] explains that [Frank] used to bring women down there. And then he started making babies with them and then babies with the babies. So if you make a copy of a copy of a copy, you end up with something like [The Mother]. So as much as I normally would like to just leave things to the audience, to ruminate on and decide for themselves, I do think that The Mother is his offspring. He is probably her father and grandfather. So she has been raised in this pitch-black dungeon, and she exists in a binary where she’s only witnessed two forms of interaction: this videotape of smothering mother love and this horrific violence that her father has shown her.

So she doesn’t know any in between. We only see her being smothering or horrible. We did a lot of research into feral children, and she’s not too dissimilar to how actual feral children behave as adults. If you are not exposed to the English language before the age of two or any language for that matter, you’re never going to be verbal, ever, because those synapses, those neural pathways never connect. If they don’t do it at that crucial age, you will be a monosyllabic person. So the way she speaks is true to how someone like that speaks. Now, she has a little more strength and power; I’m stretching credulity there, but that’s okay. It’s a horror movie.

But to me, she’s the most sympathetic character in the whole movie. I think of her oddly as an innocent. Someone referred to her as a combination of Leatherface and King Kong, and I thought that was really apt. You can get behind both of those characters. There’s real humanity there. The most interesting movie monsters are monsters that you can sympathize and empathize with, and when she finally dies at the end, there’s a collective groan of pity. If everyone was like, “Yeah, she’s dead!” then I would’ve failed. It was important to me that we see her as a human.

Did Frank abduct women so he could create babies for The Mother to take care of as her own and in doing so, hopefully keep her at bay? Or was he more interested in his own twisted satisfaction?

I don’t think that he was product-minded. I don’t think that having progeny was a big part of his goal. If you look at the amount of videotapes he had, you realize how many victims there were, so there’s something else going on with this guy. So I don’t think [progeny] was necessarily the goal for him, but he didn’t discard The Mother when she was born. There was something in him that kept her around. I don’t quite know what that was, but it’s intriguing to think about. 

Did Frank build the tunnels himself? Or were they already there, as part of a history that’s yet to be defined?

In my mind, he built them.

Since the movie is set in a dilapidated neighborhood near Detroit, I have to assume that you’re commenting on Michigan’s real-life blight and neglect, especially since you flashed back to a time in which the same neighborhood was idyllic. So was that your actual thought process here?

It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to make a big statement about Michigan. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’ve been in those neighborhoods before. I have friends that live in Detroit, and I’d go visit them, yearly. There are more and more places like that in America, but Detroit was the big one. So it just felt ripe for a neighborhood where you can do almost anything, and no one’s going to notice because it’s abandoned. It’s also cinematic and creepy. So I’m happy if this movie raises conversations about that, but it wasn’t my agenda. There’s all kinds of things going on under the surface of this movie that people can talk about, and that’s great. My only agenda is for people to go and scream and laugh and have a good time. That’s the first-and-foremost goal. Everything else is just a bonus. 

This story seems ripe for a prequel. Have you tried that idea on for size yet? 

I don’t think I’m necessarily interested in a prequel right now. I think it would have to tell the story of Frank, and I’m personally not interested in making a movie about a man who abducts women. I’m more than happy to have that be the setting for another story like Barbarian is, but I don’t want to watch that guy for an hour and a half. I could be thinking about it all wrong. Maybe I’ll change my tune, but at the moment, no. There’s a sequel I joke about that I would love to watch, which would be The Mother surviving her gunshot and having to integrate into society. She could attend community college and get her learner’s permit and get a Tinder profile. (Laughs.) That would be fun. I’d watch that movie. I don’t know if I’d make it, but I’d love to see it.

The flashback has such a dreamy, otherworldly quality to it. Do you chalk that up to steadicam, a particular lens choice and color grading? 

So there’s an Austrian film from 1983 called Angst, which is pretty much the movie I just said I would never want to watch. It’s about a man who just travels around hurting people, and it was filmed in an amazing way. They used a SnorriCam where it’s mounted to you and it kind of follows you around. So the visual vocabulary of that movie is amazing, and I love the look of it. So I just wanted to use that visual motif for the Frank story. We got a Steadicam, we put on a 12mm lens and we just swirled around him. It just really makes him feel like an alien occupying our familiar suburban place. It seems menacing to me, and I liked it a lot. 

So have you submitted your resignation to SAG-AFRA to focus on filmmaking only? Is Barbarian going to be your Taylor Sheridan-type exodus from full-time acting?

(Laughs.) I don’t know! I haven’t made any decisions. I’m in Barbarian. I’m the friend in the bar. So I’m open to acting in the future, but this is such an exciting, thrilling, new thing for me. I really enjoy directing, so I’ll be focusing my energy more on this.

Did you ultimately decide to make your own luck after waiting for an opportunity like this for a while?

Yeah, I made a movie that I really was not proud of over 10 years ago. I co-directed it with someone. I took a script I didn’t like, and I was enticed to do it. And when it didn’t turn out well, I just convinced myself that I was in director jail. I just convinced myself that everybody knew about my failure and everybody was talking about how I botched this thing and no one wanted to hear from me anymore. So it took me a long time to get over myself and to realize that no one was thinking about me that much. It’s not all about me. And if I was going to get back on the horse, then I had to get back on the horse. So I just started writing, and I wrote a bunch of scripts. Some of them were good, some of them were bad. And eventually, I got this. So it was a long process. It was like 10 years of me working back into this position.

So I got hung up on something stupid, but I worked my way through it. It’s when Tess insists on washing Keith’s bedsheets before sleeping in them, only Keith undoes it all by doing his duvet trick for her.

(Laughs.) I never thought about that! That’s so funny.

But it no longer mattered because she was more comfortable with him by that point.

Yes, you’re right. What a good point. Her guard had been dropped. I have a thing about clean sheets, and it’s directly from my wife [Sara Paxton]. She is very particular about washing the sheets regularly and all of that. So that was from her. 

Georgina Campbell in Barbarian

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

We haven’t talked enough about Georgina Campbell’s performance. Can you tell me about a moment in which she bowled you over? 

Georgina is one of those actors who is white hot on take one, and that’s actually really rare. So I knew not to waste her early takes because she’s going to be great immediately. I do this a lot as a director where I’m like, “Let’s just shoot one even though we’re still tweaking the lights. Let’s just get in the groove, guys.” But she would just start throwing fastballs, and I was like, “Okay, let’s take every take seriously with her because she’s just so brilliant.” She can do it all.

It was also really hard for me to direct her in the scenes where she’s screaming and crying because, as an actor myself, I just know what that requires. There were moments where I would tear up watching her, just because I felt so awful for this person. When you watch somebody do that 15 takes in a row, it’s just grueling. So her stamina is really something I appreciated.

She’s also so giving. Actors are moody people. Actors can be very difficult. Actors can say, “I’m done.” That happens a lot. But she and Justin were such good sports. And that’s not to say Bill wasn’t; his part just didn’t require that of him. So for people of this caliber to trust me and give their time and their image, a lot of blessings came together. 

In closing, I know you talked to my colleague Chris Gardner about the Kim Masters/The Hollywood Reporter cameo in the film, so I just want to say thank you for making me look cool in my screening room. I got at least one head-turn to check for my reaction, and that’s more than enough in my book.

(Laughs.) That’s so fun. Well, I thank you guys for letting us use it. I’m so glad Kim gave us permission. It was one of those things where if I didn’t get The Hollywood Reporter, it wasn’t going to feel authentic. It’s like having a 555 number in the movie; I hate when I get a 555 number. [Writer’s Note: 555 numbers are non-working numbers that were designated for use in film and television.] So I wanted it to be The Hollywood Reporter. I didn’t want to have to do something [made-up] like Entertainment News Today or whatever. Maybe that’s a real thing. I don’t know. We filmed three different plates of what’s on the phone, and there were a couple of fake ones. So it was a big win for us when we got the green light that we could use the real deal.

***
Barbarian is now playing in movie theaters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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