We’ve all heard of red flags in different situations—they can clue in our intuition and sometimes, help save lives. And that idea, or more so, the ignoring of those tiny gut feelings is what fueled writer-director Zach Cregger’s first feature film, ‘Barbarian.’
“I had read a book called the ‘Gift of Fear’ by the security consultant, Gavin de Becker. There was a chapter in the book that was really primarily directed towards women, and he was encouraging women to pay attention to these little minor red flags that men can give off in day-to-day situations. They can be very innocuous things that you might not notice,” explains Cregger. “As I was reading it, I just kind of had this epiphany that 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 that 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.”
That moment led Cregger to start working on the idea for ‘Barbarian.’ As a horror film, it’s meant to have the classic attributes of jump scares, terrifying characters and a story that sends chills down your spine. But at its core, it began from a more nuanced point of view.
In the film, we open with Tess (Georgina Campbell) who just arrived in Detroit in the middle of the night at her Airbnb. It’s pouring outside, and it’s dark all around, and as she runs up to the front door she realizes there is no key in the lockbox. Then no answer from the rental company through Airbnb when she tries to call. And as soon as she’s ready to give up, a light comes on inside.
Enter Bill Skarsgård’s character, Keith. After talking with Tess, he claims he also rented the same Airbnb for the weekend, and after he shows Tess his own reservation, she realizes that there must have been some glitch. And even though Keith seems nice enough—like offering to sleep on the couch, going to the car himself to bring in her bags, or even waiting to open a bottle of wine so she can see there’s no tampering with it—there are still some of those triggers involved with him that Tess sees, and she wants to find a hotel.
But, everything is not what it seems, and it keeps unfolding that way in ‘Barbarian’ from start to finish. And that’s part of the reason why Campbell wanted to sign on.
“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 is it going, where is it going, where is it going?” says Campbell. “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. [But] I just loved it, I thought it was fantastic. 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.”
We see Tess and Keith eventually have a conversation that, at its core, started the whole idea for Cregger. Tess, who finally warms up to Keith explains her situation to him, and how things would have been different had it been him who was on the front porch at 3 a.m. Since she’s a woman, there’s a lot more fear that went into even stepping inside of the front door. Had Keith been in her shoes, he would have waltzed right in not thinking about how possibly, someone was out to hurt him.
‘Barbarian’ doesn’t begin and end with Tess and Keith. There are a few more characters that come into the mix, and let’s just say some are more unsavory than others. One is AJ (Justin Long,) an actor at the top of his game who we first see driving down the PCH in California. After getting a call that changes his life, he has to head to Detroit to liquidate some properties—including his house which acts as an Airbnb.
“It was the best-written horror script I’d ever read. There was something very classic and completely unexpected… I had no idea what was happening, [and] I was so intrigued by it,” explains Long. “It was just unlike anything I’d read…it starts off as a well-written romantic comedy, which is really hard to do and then the dialogue was so fluid and natural. Then there were things happened in it that broke so many rules.”
Long’s character offers some levity that the actor is known for, but AJ is unlike any role you’ve seen the typical charismatic “nice guy” in. And it helps add to the spontaneity of the plot.
“There was only one or two moments where I felt like I couldn’t relate… 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. So, that was a challenge, but a fun challenge,” continues Long.
Even with the powerful characters, it took Cregger some time to get ‘Barbarian’ in motion, especially because of the unconstrained nature of the story.
“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,” the director explains.
Then came the call from Roy Lee. Lee who’s produced films both in and out of the horror genre (‘The Lego Movie,’ ‘It’ and ‘It Chapter Two’ just to name a few) worked with the up-and-coming group behind BoulderLight productions to greenlight the film, and they began production in Bulgaria.
Then all they had to do was find the cast, beginning with the heart of the story—Tess.
“I think Tess, she’s in the place of the audience,” says Campbell. “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. But, I think she’s great….I think she’s a much better person than me. Braver than me.”
‘Barbarian’ is meant to keep audiences on their toes, and it also showcases the ability of the cast and crew to meld genres. It’s supposed to be shocking at moments, funny at a few others, and overall, a whirlwind of what could possibly happen next?
“Look, I just want people to have fun,” finishes Cregger. “This is not a movie with an agenda. If people take anything away from it, I hope it’s first and foremost just a really good time, I think it’s pretty scary, and I think it’s pretty funny. And that’s the goal.”
‘Barbarian‘ releases in theaters Sept. 9.