Barbarian marks the feature-film directing and screenwriting debut of actor Zach Cregger, whose inspiration came from a nonfiction book he had read by security consultant Gavin de Becker, in which the author encourages women to listen to the little voice in their head that identifies “red flags” in interactions with men that society has encouraged them to ignore.
“Those red flags are often benign, things like a man doing you a favour that you didn’t ask for, or injecting sexuality into an otherwise sterile conversation, or unwanted physical touching even if it’s not sexual,” says Cregger. “All these things that women have to be careful about, that as a man I never had to consider because I don’t live in that psychic landscape where half the population could be looking at me as prey. It made me realize how different the experiences are of being a man in the modern world and being a woman.”
Born in Arlington, Va., Cregger was a founding member of the sketch comedy group The Whitest Kids U’
Know, which had a five-season series run on IFC. He went on to star in various television shows such as “Guys with Kids” and “Wrecked,” as well as in various comedy features.
De Becker‘s book prompted Cregger to try a writing exercise wherein he would write a scene for a woman
to enter that was loaded with as many of those “red flags” as he could think of. 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.
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 shortterm 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.
Travelling to Detroit for a job interview, a young woman books a rental home in Barbarian. 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.
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.”
For Cregger, Barbarian is “a roller coaster that is designed to be seen in a movie theatre. If you go to a theatre, you will scream, you will laugh, and you will have a blast. I’m not saying that you won’t have a good time watching it at home, but you want to go on a roller coaster at a theme park, not on virtual reality goggles. That’s the difference.”
“It’s supposed to be a big midnight movie theatre experience where you are screaming, grabbing the person next to you and then laughing right after. My favourite horror movie experiences are always in a theatre, and I’m always on a roller coaster. And that’s the goal. There are some social themes kind of being explored in this movie, and if people come away with it and have a discussion about those themes, great. That’s fine with me. That’s not the goal. I don’t want this movie to be too satisfied with itself. I’m not trying to be didactic. I just want people to have a blast. So, I hope it’s a roller coaster. And I think it is.”
The Journey From Page To Screen
Cregger was able to find ways to inject humour into the script.
“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,” says Cregger. “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.”
Armed with a screenplay he crafted, Cregger sent it around to a lot of places that rejected it.
Just as he was about to move on to focus 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 raved about Cregger’s screenplay and agreed to partner with them on it.
“You know, the phone call that you always kind of hope you’ll get one day? I actually got that phone call, and once Roy signed on, the train left the station real fast, and things got serious. So, you never know. It’s 9 a.m. in the morning, I’m in bed playing video games in my underwear, the phone rings, I almost didn’t answer it, and boom, life changed. It’s pretty cool.”
The producers were able to find independent financing, and their financier had a relationship with a line producer in Bulgaria who assured him that he could get the movie made there at an agreed-upon budget. But just as the director-writer was about to leave for Bulgaria, he got a phone call.
Cregger recalls, “At my going-away party with my friends I got a call that our financier had very tragically died. This was on a Friday and, before our Bulgarian team would be dissolved, we pled for one weekend to try and find alternate financing. Roy got the script to New Regency and said, ‘I need you to read this morning, and if you like it get on a Zoom call with the director this afternoon, but I need an answer today.’”
The New Regency team read it, liked it, and after their Zoom call they told Cregger, ‘Let’s make it.’”
“It was just one of those miracle things where we got saved by the skin of our teeth when the good people at New Regency came in and rescued us from obliteration.”
New Regency not only financed the movie but also joined the creative process and was on set every day with the filmmaking team in Bulgaria
The film team had the considerable challenge of shooting a film purposely set in a specific Detroit
neighbourhood 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.
The writer-director says, “I was so lucky that the crews in Bulgaria and Rossi, our set designer, and our art director and line producers Ivan Doykov and Elitsa Dimitrova were so good at what they did, and so resourceful that they allowed me on a micro-budget to go into a field and build our neighbourhood 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 to the eighties. I can’t believe how well they rose to the challenge. The idea of even doing that in Detroit if I did have a budget twice the size would have been impossible because there’s just no way we would have been able to revamp an entire block of Detroit. But due to the talent and hard work of the Bulgarians, we were able to achieve it, and I’ll always be grateful.