Zach Cregger spent many years making the series The Whitest Kids U Know, writing and directing most of the episodes with the late Trevor Moore. The two of them also co-directed a few comedy features, but none of Cregger’s past work hinted at the horrors that lurk within his new movie Barbarian, which hits theaters on Friday.
The creepy genre film stars Georgina Campbell as Tess, who arrives at her Airbnb in a run-down section of New York state, only to learn that the house has been double-booked and Bill Skarsgård’s Keith arrived there first. The two decide to share the house, but odd occurrences begin to happen that make Tess uneasy. The owner of the house (Justin Long) eventually shows up to find out what’s going on, and he, too, makes a shocking discovery.
Barbarian is definitely one of those movies that you’ll enjoy more the less you know about it, and the rare film that doesn’t give everything away in its trailer.
Below the Line hopped on Zoom with Cregger to talk about Barbarian, including the amazing house that was built on soundstages in Bulgaria, whose crew Cregger praised quite generously in the following interview. [Note: We both tried to keep it vague when it comes to spoilers, so don’t worry too much about that.]
Below the Line: I’m convinced that Barbarian is the craziest movie Disney has ever released. So what got you going on this? I know you’ve directed a few films before…
Zach Cregger: No, no, I haven’t. I’ve co-directed a couple of things, but this is my directorial debut, where it’s my movie. I just started writing late at night, one night, in my garage. I wanted to write a scene just for myself. I wasn’t trying to write a movie. I just wanted to have fun creating something like I used to do when I was a little kid. I just started with this one scene. I didn’t outline anything; I just kind of followed my nose and unearthed the dinosaur, as Stephen King would say. He has that analogy [about] writing, like, ‘You’re an archaeologist, and you’re digging up bones, and you don’t know what bone you’re gonna find next.’ I just kind of took that approach, and this is what came out of it.
BTL: Was this something you wrote pre-COVID?
Cregger: I wrote it in 2018.
BTL: I originally wanted to ask if you were from Detroit or had been based there since there seems to be so much stuff that’s almost an indictment of what’s happened there over the past few decades.
Cregger: I have friends in Detroit, and I would go visit them a lot. One of my friends is a real estate developer in Detroit, so I was very familiar with the inner workings of someone like this character who would have properties that he would rent out in Detroit, so I did know the terrain.
BTL: I believe you shot the film in Bulgaria?
Cregger: We shot in Bulgaria. We shot in Detroit, we shot in Malibu, but yeah, mostly Bulgaria.
BTL: I was wondering because there were certain outdoor scenes that looked similar to the Detroit in Don’t Breathe, and I think the sequel was shot in Bulgaria?
Cregger: Don’t Breathe was filmed in, I want to say, Estonia. I’m not sure. [Editor’s Note: It was actually Serbia.] It was kind of like what we did, because I talked to Fede [Alvarez] a little bit before I went off and did this. He shot in Detroit for some exteriors, like we did, and then he would shoot a lot of his interiors in Eastern Europe.
BTL: You have Arnon Milchan as your producer on this, and he’s kind of a legend, so how did you get the script to him? Did you just send it to him?
Cregger: We raised independent financing, and then our financier, very tragically, passed away at the very last minute. Like, the day of my “Going Away to Bulgaria” party, he died, and the movie was essentially scrapped. That next day was a Saturday, and Roy Lee, our producer, sent the script to the good people at New Regency and was like, ‘This movie needs rescuing. Read this, and if you like it, get on a Zoom today with the director and talk to him.’ On that Zoom, they said “yes,” and they pulled us from certain death, and they didn’t mess with my movie. They were like, ‘We get it. You’re about to go shoot. All good. The script is cool, go make the movie.’ That’s how New Regency came in.
BTL: A lot of the movie is just one or two characters at a time. It doesn’t demand 200 extras, so it seems like the kind of movie that might have been easier to make during COVID.
Cregger: A first-time director’s dream! No, it was good.
BTL: Zach Kuperstein, the DP, has done some pretty amazing stuff before this. Why did you choose him to shoot it, and did you do a lot of storyboarding or shot lists together?
Cregger: He was the first DP that I had a Zoom with, and we hit it off so much I was like, ‘Guys, let’s go. Let’s make this movie.’ He has this process that really worked for me, where we would go to the location weeks in advance and talk through every single shot and we photo-boarded, we picked the lenses, and the angles, and everything. Weeks out, we knew exactly what we were doing. All I had to do when I showed up on set was make sure it looked right and talk to the actors. There was no hand-wringing and planning — all of that was already taken care of. That was something I’m going to take with me. If I ever get to make another movie, I will do that again.
BTL: I’m also interested in how you worked with Production Designer Rossitsa Bakeva, who I believe is Bulgarian. Did you end up having to build the entire house?
Cregger: We built every level of the house. We built the whole street that the house is on, so we had 13 facades of other houses on this block. You know, it was tough. We had to work remotely through Zoom at very odd hours, because of the time difference, and then there was a language barrier. So, it was not without its friction, at times, but she is an amazingly gifted talented art director. She was able to pull out miracle after miracle, and ultimately, the movie looks like what I had in my head. There’s no higher praise I could possibly give than they gave me what I imagined. So, 10 out of 10, A+. Thank you, Bulgarians. They were great.
BTL: Were the basement levels built on a stage, as well?
Cregger: All on a stage. Even the ground floor with the living room and the bedroom, on a stage. They were laid out next to each other, so we had to do a little bit of trickery here and there, but not much.
BTL: I’ve always felt that when it comes to horror movies, production design, sound and music are all crucial, though I’m sure that having a good script and decent actors helps, too.
Cregger: Jordan Peele said to me before I went off and made this, he was like, “All you need, dude, is good acting. If you have a horror movie with good acting, you’re already in front of the pack.” So, I was really, really lucky to have the cast that I had. Right there, I knew I was in good shape.
[SPOILER: The next couple of questions and responses may be considered a little spoiler-ish if you haven’t seen Barbarian]
BTL: How did you figure out how you wanted to decorate or dress the lower levels? There are some rooms that are kind of minimal, but other rooms that are pretty insane. Did you draw anything when working with the art team on the designs?
Cregger: I didn’t draw anything; I kind of had it in my mind. It was really kind of color-coded, so I knew I wanted pink here and blue here, like baby colors. [On] the top floor, there’s some pink and some blue at play as well. I talked a lot with Rossi, she had some really great ideas. I don’t know if you noticed in Frank’s room, there’s the big beachscape on the wall, and I was especially thrilled with that because when we meet AJ, he’s at the beach and I tried to draw the parallels between these two characters. Frank is kind of the crystallization of AJ. He’s, like, everything that’s toxic and terrible about AJ, boiled down to its essence. I wanted the idea that AJ is confronting himself down there, so that’s a little visual clue that this is him. That’s the kind of thing no one would ever notice. That’s just for me, but I liked it that’s in there. It’s texture.
BTL: While I want to avoid spoilers, I also want to talk about the makeup. Obviously, Frank was a pretty big makeup job, but there’s also a creature that involves a lot of makeup. Who did you go to for those special effects and prosthetics makeup work?
Cregger: A lot of the department heads in Bulgaria, I didn’t really get to, like, audition. They were assigned to me, so I was a little nervous because I don’t know these guys. And so, there were two women in Bulgaria [Alis Shopova and Alexandrina Dermendzhiyska], and [I was told] these were going to be my effects [people], and they were fantastic. I mean, the proof is in the pudding. They did a great job. I knew I didn’t want to do any computer effects. I wanted to go into this, like, “What did John Carpenter have at his disposal when he made The Thing?” That’s what we get. We don’t get anything else from that. Because I just hate when I see a CGI scare. It takes me out of it, I don’t buy it. I really wanted to stay everything in-camera, so I had to really rely on these guys to pull through, but they really were the right people for the job. They did great work.
BTL: I never realized that when you film in a place like Bulgaria, you end up using local department heads.
Cregger: You work with the tools that you have, and they’re great tools. Don’t get me wrong, they were awesome. There’s just not a big variety to choose from.
BTL: I also want to talk about the music and the sound design, and how they’re blended together. As I mentioned, sound is one of two crucial things for a horror movie to really work.
Cregger: Crucial, and my composer was this woman, Anna Drubich, and she came in at the 11th hour. She had three weeks to score this entire movie, which is unheard of. She totally stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park. It was really a blitz. I’m so proud of the score that she came up with.
BTL: Did she work closely with the sound designer, as far as where to leave spaces? There is stuff in there that’s hard to differentiate as music or sound design.
Cregger: Some of the sound design was me and the sound team, but there was a lot of overlap between this. I had gotten very, very meticulous with my temp score, so by the time that I hired her, it was probably frustrating working with me because I was very specific about exactly what was going to go where already. I don’t think she had as much wiggle room as maybe some composers are used to, but also, when you only have three weeks, wiggle room might not be your best friend. You might just want to get the thing done.
BTL: When did you actually finish this? I feel like the movie almost came out of nowhere.
Cregger: We filmed it in 2020. Maybe 2021? I really don’t know — my brain is liquid. We filmed it last year. Last August is when I returned from Bulgaria, so I had a long post process for this. It was almost a year of post. I mean, the movie’s been done for months, but I had plenty of time.
Barbarian opens exclusively in U.S. theaters on Friday, Sept. 9. All photos courtesy of 20th Century Studios.