Best known for his stint as one of the core members of the sketch comedy group The Whitest Kids U' Know, Zach Cregger's about to emerge as one of the scariest writer-directors you know with Barbarian — but not without plenty of laughs alongside the terrors.
Barbarian marries a bevy of chilling classic horror aesthetics with modernized sensibilities to a sly, clever, and decidedly dark sense of humor. The film also delivers sharply drawn characters, deceptive tonal shifts, more Hitchcockian twists and reversals than a franchise-worth of thrillers, and perhaps most potently of all, a nonlinear structure that Quentin Tarantino might nod at with approval. And this is all because Cregger was looking to amuse himself with a little exercise in unstructured screenwriting.
"I didn't want to write a movie. I didn't want to show it to my agents or try and send it out. I just wanted to write a scene that was fun to write. So, I picked this Airbnb scene, and I just kind of ran with it, and I let my fingers do the thinking," Cregger tells Metacritic about his initial pages.
In Barbarian, Cregger explores the notion of a sense of personal safety (or lack thereof) that is foreign to him but is one that women experience every day. The film follows a young woman named Tess, played by Georgina Campbell, who travels to Detroit for a job interview and discovers a man (Bill Skarsgard) is already occupying the Airbnb she's reserved. As she contends with the awkwardness of the moment and the increasingly eerie atmosphere, the rental house becomes the stage for an escalating array of horrors. As he wrote, though, eventually a story emerged that he did want to share with the world.
"I'm a big fan of horror and I tend to navigate towards darker aesthetics," Cregger says. "It just felt like a fun playground for me."
Justin Long also stars in the film as a rising Hollywood star whose career is suddenly on the brink of catastrophe, figuring into the overarching story in through one of its nonlinear shifts. He notes that Barbarian starts off as a "well-written romantic comedy" before breaking "so many" rules of filmmaking.
To better explain what that means and his process, here, Cregger talks to Metacritic about his creative and cinematic influences, how his own performing background helped inform his choices as writer and director, and crafting not only the all-important opening sequence, but also the the connections between characters and the reveal of their fates.
From the way you tell this story, I'm already thinking of this as the Pulp Fiction of horror movies. Was that film an actual influence? What gave you the idea for the unique story structure that you employed here?
Pulp Fiction is definitely the structural ancestor. Psycho is, also, you could say. Audition was probably my biggest influence, I would think — the Japanese film. It's an unconventional movie [but] I'm not going to pretend I'm the first to do this.
There's so much packed into this film, and everything feeds on each other and connects and pays off. Tell me where this all came from and how hard it was to craft.
It was a really joyful experience, writing this. I just sat down in my garage late at night and I just wanted to entertain myself. ... The best thing I could have done for this process was turn my brain off and just be an audience member myself. So that was my north star: surprise myself; let's see what happens. And this is the product of that — kind of like the David Lynch attitude. I read his book and that was a really influential book for me: [negativity] is the enemy of creativity, so let's put that out of the equation and see what the subconscious has to say.
Obviously you've got a rich background in comedy and there are plenty of comedic flourishes in this movie, but why was horror a genre that you wanted to play around in?
I just love horror. I'm a big fan of horror and I tend to navigate towards darker aesthetics. I listen to death metal in my headphones to fall asleep every night. I am attracted to horror movies. So, it just felt like a fun playground for me. It wasn't anything more to it.
I feel like there's some connective tissue between doing comedy bits and doing scare bits. You do a lot of subversion, a lot of leading the audience down a path, only to twist them around at the end of it.
Sure, it's true. An effective joke is when you zig when the audience expects you to zag. An effective scare is the exact same thing.
I felt a lot of times when I was writing this movie, I was being bad. Does that make sense? I was like, "Oh, I'm not allowed to do this." That's when I felt the most free. So, I really didn't police myself. I didn't think at any point like, "Oh, it's getting too funny for a horror movie," or, "Oh, it's getting too scary for a comedy." I just didn't care. I just figured if I'm enjoying it, then hopefully somebody else would too, and that was all.
You've shot films before behind the camera. How did this one test or challenge you in the making of it?
Well, this is my first movie. I've co-directed some other things and I've been kind of put on some things, but this is the first movie that is mine — that I wrote and I directed by myself and I saw through from conceit to execution — so that in it of itself is completely unique to me. So, I felt like I had a lot to prove. I really loved the script when it was done, and I felt like, "This is my shot." I worked as hard as I possibly could have with everybody. I was really fortunate to be surrounded by immensely talented collaborators and a cast that just basically did their job. All I had to do was make them look good, and it was a lot of good bounces. Just a lot of things had to go miraculously right for this to get made.
Tell me a little bit about that transition from being mostly known as a performer, to stepping a little bit more behind the scenes and bringing a different skill set more to the forefront.
I prefer directing. I feel like it uses all quadrants of my brain. I'm really grateful that I have the history of acting that I do because I've really been up close and personal when directors are having those conversations with actors, so I feel like I know how to talk to an actor and I know how not to talk to an actor, so that's very valuable for me. But in terms of visual storytelling, I was really lucky to have a very talented cinematographer, and I had, in hindsight, the benefit of it taking me two years to get this movie financed. So, for two years I had nothing to do but meditate and watch this movie in my head every night as I went to sleep. So by the time I got the green light, I was pretty sure what I was going to do.
I've heard you say that with Georgina that it seems like you knew right away who Tess was even before you knew that actor. But with Justin, it was almost the opposite, you had a complete vision but then realized it was better to go a totally different direction.
Yeah, that's true.
That must have been an interesting journey for you to have gone on, to be so certain in one respect and then to do a 180 in the other respect.
I think that if somebody had brought up Justin Long to me at the beginning, at the outset, I probably would've jumped on him. I would've had that realization then, but, I'm embarrassed to say, he was not on my mind because I was so fixated on finding a villain. I wanted a young Willem Dafoe; I was like, "Who's a baddie?" [But then] I just had that realization that it's actually scarier to cast Tom Hanks — to cast a goodie as a baddie, it's way more interesting, especially for someone like this. Once I had that about-face, I was like, "Oh, who's a goodie?" Justin was at the top of the list, and I'm so glad he came on board.
What does it feel like to shoot the things that play so creepy on screen?
There's a lot of those moments in between setups where a giant ghoul is sitting next to somebody eating an orange, and they're just chatting about sports. That's ridiculous. But when the cameras are up and running and we kill the lights and it's pitch black in there, and we're shooting with just an iPhone, it's legitimately pretty creepy stuff. It felt solemn when the cameras are rolling. Then everybody goes out of their way to be a little more goofy in the downtime to kind offset that. I don't want to have a stern, grim environment when I'm working; who wants that? I want people to be laughing and relaxed. So, it's just finding that balance.
Let's dig into some granular detail with that opening sequence. Can you walk me through how you crafted that scene, applying that red flag mentality, and shifting your lens from a male perspective to a female perspective so that the audience really gets teased with that cat and mouse of, "Oh no, it's fine," and "Oh no, don't do that"?
[Hollywood security consultant and expert Gavin de Becker's] book is so compelling, and he has all of these really specific anecdotes and examples of behaviors that men can do that might seem innocuous but could actually be indicative of something serious and dangerous. These little red flags that he discusses in his book are certain things like initiating physical touch when it's not asked for, or injecting sexuality into a non-sexual conversation, or doing a woman a favor that she didn't ask for. These are things that a guy might do thinking he's being chivalrous or friendly. He might have the best of intentions, but you have to understand — or what I didn't understand that I had to understand was — that women have to be on guard more than men do. They have to be thinking of potential threat, and if you don't acknowledge that or take that in, you could be inundating them with exhausting behaviors.
And so, some of those behaviors I took from the book, some I reinvented for myself, but the idea that Keith, he's saying, "Tess, pretty name." That's not an appropriate thing to say in that situation — when she's in your house late at night. Or he's making her a cup of tea that she said she didn't want, or he insists on bringing her luggage in when she didn't want him to. He's touching her things. These are behaviors that he's doing with the best of intentions, but he's unaware of the effect that they're having. And so, to me, I figured the best version of this scene would be something where men might not quite even clue into a lot of his behaviors, but hopefully most women who watch it would be like, "I know. I've been in this situation and this is stressing me the f--- out." That's what I was just trying to do.
And so then, obviously, as other things transpire and discoveries are made, everything he's doing is under a microscope. And it's also, there's a moment where he's acknowledging the elephant in the room that, "Oh, I get it. This must be a weird situation, and you didn't drink your tea, and I wanted you to be here when I opened the bottle of wine so that you could see I didn't roofie you." Again, he's trying to be considerate and he is addressing the elephant in the room, but it's like, "Dude, there's a woman staying in your house late at night, and you're bringing up the potential of roofieing her." It's like, "Come on. This is not appropriate behavior," so that's where that scene came from.
She's catching some of these awkward signals and yet he manages still to disarm her.
He does. And that is the magic of shared taste. What is it that initially drops her guard is, when the camera moves from an OTS to a close up is when he's seen the movie that she is devoting her life to, basically. And he seems to demonstrate an actual appreciation for it, which hopefully the viewer will find is a further cause for concern. How does this guy know about this movie that seemingly no one has seen? Has this been a plan that's been in effect for a long time? I don't know. But, for me, as an adult, when I meet someone who has my shared interests in culture, I can recategorize them from stranger to friend much easier, and so, I figured that would be a good shorthand to wriggle his way into her good graces.
You pepper that scene with little signals of classic horror, but you found ways to keep it very modern, even just in the very concept of an Airbnb.
I never really thought about trying to keep it contemporary. I've been a host on Airbnb many, many times; I've been a guest of Airbnb many, many times. My wife and I went to Europe and traveled around a few years ago and we stayed exclusively in Airbnbs. So, to me, this is my shorthand. I'm the most familiar with this. It wasn't any sort of calculated thing.
That opening sequence is so charged with, is he a serial killer? Is this going to end in sexual violence? And that isn't the big picture story, but there is a thread of that throughout, with Justin's character's tale and through the flashback to what ultimately reveals how we got from there to here.
The opening chapter with Georgina is the negative of Justin's chapter. To me, they are connected in a very deep, fundamental way. So, if her chapter's all about a woman being hyper-vigilant against potential sexual aggression, what's the opposite of that? A man who is completely unobservant to his own behavior. The idea of a man who is everything she's worried about, he is, and yet he sees himself as a good guy, and he's completely unwilling to accept any sort of responsibility or even acknowledge his own bad business, except for this one moment when he's incredibly drunk and he doesn't even really remember it the next day.
It's important to me that they both have to pass through the same prism. It's like a moral test: They have to go through the same eye of the same needle, and she passes and he fails. Her test is, are you going to continue to be subjugated to a dynamic that you didn't choose? And his test is, are you going to be taking responsibility for yourself?
And tell me how the flashback reflects that? Because here's a guy who is a genuine, calculated predator, who knows precisely what he's doing.
Yes. So, he's the distillation of every bad thing about Justin's [character AJ]. So, we meet [AJ] at the beach — Richard [Brake's character Frank] has a giant beach scape in his bedroom and it's Hawaiian music. I'm just trying to do little things of connecting them subconsciously. When AJ is confronting Frank, he's confronting himself. And also, Frank is important because he has created The Mother. To me, The Mother is this reckoning made manifest, this powerful force of nature that is exerting itself on bad-behaving men. This is what it is.
She destroys Keith when he's getting semi-violent, she destroys AJ for what he's done. The homeless guy was fun. I don't know; there's an argument to be made that was out of line. But the soul of her character is, to me, very empathetic. In my mind, she's a true innocent even though she has murdered a few people, but I just see here's as someone who never had a chance.
There's a fun meta quality to the way that, through Justin's character, you get to talk about Hollywood. You're also almost commenting on horror movies throughout.
For sure. In the first scene when Tess says, "Why is it always girls who get their hearts ripped out in these things?", she's talking about horror movies. And then, when Keith says, "Girls can rip, trust me," that's foreshadowing. Neither of them know that they're doing that. That's the most meta the movie gets.
What was your favorite reveal moment that you couldn't believe you came up with and knew the audience was going to lose their minds when they see it?
When The Mother came out of the darkness and destroyed Keith, I didn't know she existed until that moment. I really didn't. I was thinking, what's Keith going to do? When is he going to reveal his master plan? I was writing that movie that you think you're watching. And then, when I got down under the tunnels, I was just like, "I don't like this. No one's going to be surprised by this — that he has some curling mustache trick, so I've wasted my time. I've wasted 45 pages of my time and f--- this movie."
And a giant naked lady comes out and smashes him to death. And then, I was like, "Oh my God. Now I like it, but it's over. I have no idea what this is now." And I thought that was it so I finished it, it was a 45-minute short film that I was never going to make or show to anybody, and about a week later, I was like, "I just can't stop thinking about that. How do I get back in? How do I continue?" And that's when I came to the Justin of it all, and I thought of how to work him towards that.
Get to know Zach Cregger:
Before his horror breakout, Cregger primarily worked on comedies, both in front of and behind the camera, including About a Boy (Metascore: 67), Wrecked (56), Guys With Kids (37), and Miss March (7).