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SYFY WIRE Bill Skarsgard

'Barbarian' director on why producers shot down the movie at first & his wild idea for a sequel

Barbarian is a breakout horror hit, but it wasn't always an easy road to get it made.

By Matthew Jackson
Barbarian (2022)

Barbarian is one of the year's most acclaimed genre films, a surprising and exciting horror story that keeps viewers guessing and has critics and audiences alike singing its praises. But it wasn't always an easy road to get to this point. According to writer/director Zach Cregger, it took two years just to get someone interesting in making the film, in part because some of the story's most surprising turns made producers nervous.

**Spoilers for Barbarian ahead.**

The trailer for Barbarian sets the story up fairly simply. A woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) and a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard) find themselves double-booked at the same Airbnb one rainy night in a rundown Detroit neighborhood. After deciding to make the best of a bad situation, they make an alarming discovery in the basement of the home that sets off the rest of the film's horrific journey. Viewers of the film know that it takes some pretty wild turns after that suspicion-laden setup, but according to Cregger, he didn't lay out Barbarian's strange structure in advance. He just started with two people unexpectedly in a house together, and found the rest along the way. 

"When I was writing the movie, Keith was a bad guy," Cregger told The Hollywood Reporter. "I thought that’s where it was headed. And when Tess 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."

Asking that question ultimately led Cregger to the first major structural turn of the story: Introducing AJ (Justin Long), a Hollywood actor accused of rape who finds himself in Michigan to try and liquidate some of his rental properties, including the Barbarian house. As AJ makes dark discoveries of his own, the film then cuts again to a 1980s flashback which reveals Frank (Richard Brake), a serial killer and rapist, who is ultimately responsible for the tunnels beneath the house and the monstrous woman who lives in them. For Cregger, it was all about finding ways to surprise himself while writing the film, but for producers and studio executives, it was often a bit too jarring. 

"It took me two years to get anyone interested in this," he said. "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."

Now, Barbarian is a breakout hit, and Cregger is an acclaimed name in genre filmmaking. As for the world of Barbarian, while he's aware that there are plenty of loose ends left for follow-up films, he's not sure if he'd ever want to return to that world...even if he does have one crazy idea left in his head.

"I don’t think I’m necessarily interested in a prequel right now," he said. "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."

Looking for more thrills and chills in the meantime? Find films like Shutter Island, Brightburn, Truth or Dare, Slumber Party Massacre, The Boy and more streaming now on SYFY's movies hub in the app and online at SYFY.com.