sleeper hit

No One in Hollywood Wanted to Make Barbarian

The horror hit’s journey to No. 1 packed in the twists: “I had a movie, I lost the movie, I rescued the movie, then I lost the movie again,” says director Zach Cregger. Photo: 20th Century Studios

Over the second weekend in September, the low-budget horror flick Barbarian stormed into the multiplex seemingly out of nowhere — an R-rated rollick with no name stars, a director who registers close to zero on the Hollywood heat index, and a marketing campaign that head-fakes what kind of scares (torture porn? Sci-fi?) are even afoot — to murder the top spot at the box office. Since then, the $4.5 million independently financed second feature from comedian turned writer-director Zach Cregger has continued to increase its cinematic body count, clocking in at 92 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and raking in $34.8 million to become late summer–early fall’s sleepiest sleeper hit. Two Fridays ago, Barbarian’s distributor, Disney, expanded its release from 2,340 theaters to 2,890 screens across North America to meet word-of-mouth-driven demand.

For those who have seen the alternately disquieting and hilarious, Tarantino-tinged horror-thriller, Barbarian has become irresistible group-chat fodder: the kind of just-below-the-radar title whose shocks and twists make viewers whoop at the screen before hustling out to excitedly unpack its delights with others who have seen the movie. Perhaps even more shocking, in an era of rampant spoiler spoilage, Barbarian’s primary — and totally bonkers — plot curveball has remained mostly preserved online.

Easy enough to overlook, then, that the little indie almost never got made. Cregger is a co-founder of the cult sketch-comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U’Know (whose eponymous IFC show ran for five seasons). Until now, his TV and filmic oeuvre wholly lacked horror bona fides, with credits as a series regular on sitcoms like Guys With Kids and About a Boy, and as a co-writer and co-director of the 2009 commercial and critical flop Miss March. Attempting to overcome a five-year stint in what he calls “director jail,” Cregger wrote Barbarian in his garage “late at night” and saw it get turned down by nearly every studio arm and production company in Hollywood.

The companies that did express interest, meanwhile, wanted the filmmaker to rewrite or remove all the left-field script elements that critics are now celebrating as refreshingly original. Toward that end, Barbarian follows Georgina Campbell’s character, Tess, as she’s thrust into uneasy cohabitation with mysterious stranger Keith (Bill Skarsgård) when they are double-booked in a sketchy Detroit-area Airbnb owned by Justin Long’s AJ (a douchey TV-actor–cum–landlord facing a Me Too predicament); the trio find themselves dynamically interfacing with the property’s twisted legacy of pain, dismemberment, and depravity. That narrative arc, of course, willfully disregards the standard three-act movie structure and abruptly shifts gears — and characters — about 40 minutes in. “I made a spreadsheet of every production company that had made a horror movie in the last 15 years and sent it out to all of them, and every one of them said no,” Cregger tells Vulture. “They didn’t like that the movie resets on page 50. They didn’t like that there’s a character who’s part of Hollywood. And they said nobody wants to follow a rapist for 30 pages. All of these things that people were picking on, especially the lack of a structure, were the things that excited me the most. I knew that if I were to polish those edges, I would be compromising this thing and defanging it before it had a chance.”

The director was ready to either sell his house and go into “major debt” to self-finance the project or shelve the whole thing when he finally heard from BoulderLight Pictures — headed by then-20-something co-founders J.D. Lifshitz and Raphael Margules, purveyors of micro-budget horror and genre movies such as Becky and Wild Indian. Not only were the partners onboard with Cregger’s vision for the film, they intuited that Barbarian’s biggest liabilities might also be its selling points. “We were completely on the same page with Zach on what we wanted the movie to be,” says Margules. “It’s a weird movie on paper, but it’s never not funny, scary, thrilling, entertaining.” He adds, “The very reasons people passed on it is why we wanted to do it.”

They enlisted the help of their industry mentor, Roy Lee: one of Hollywood’s most rainmaking producers, responsible for the blockbuster LEGO Movie and How to Train Your Dragon franchises as well as the $1.173 billion–grossing It and It Chapter Two. “I called Roy and was like, ‘This script is really weird. I don’t think you’re going to want to do it because it’s more of an indie kind of thing but give it a read,’” says Lifshitz. “Roy called me and said, ‘I really love the script. My company passed on it a year ago.’” 

Lee, in turn, cold-called Cregger (who was playing video games in his underwear at the time), much to the director’s profound befuddlement. “He’s like, ‘I’m Roy Lee. I read your script. I think it’s really good,’” Cregger, 40, recalls. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know you. Who are you?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, I have a company called Vertigo. We made It and The Departed and The LEGO Movie.’ And I was like, ‘Roy, I’ve been trying to get this movie into someone’s hands like yours forever, but I just signed with these guys at BoulderLight and can’t bail.’ And he’s like, ‘No, they gave me the movie! I want to make it with them.’ So from that moment with Roy onboard, we were off to the races.”

The producers continued shopping the project around Hollywood with little success; they say A24 straight-up ignored their overture, and a meeting with Neon (the distributor behind Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite) seemed promising but ultimately went nowhere. Barbarian finally got off the ground in mid-2020 with Lifshitz and Margules wrangling a $3.5 million budget through foreign financing, most of it from the French production company Logical Pictures. Lee pulled in Skarsgård, who had starred as the murderous clown Pennywise in both It movies, to co-star and executive-produce.

By the spring of 2021, Barbarian was fully cast and Cregger was deep into preproduction, with principal photography scheduled to take place in Bulgaria. His bags were packed, cameras were set to roll in a matter of weeks, and a going-away party had been scheduled for that evening when the production team learned that Barbarian’s financier, Eric Tavitian, had suddenly died of cancer. “That was really tragic and sad,” says Margules. “But we had to go directly from grieving this loss to the next day being like, ‘Well, what’s going to happen with the movie?’ If everybody gets word we just lost our financing, it’s going to fall apart. There’s a domino effect — theoretically, Bill drops out, and all of a sudden you don’t have a movie anymore.”

At that point, Lee swung into action, calling Michael Schaefer, president of New Regency (the production company behind The Revenant, Bohemian Rhapsody, and writer-director David O. Russell’s upcoming Amsterdam), to hash out an emergency deal. According to the producers, the executive placed a great deal of trust in Lee’s commercial instincts and quickly warmed to the idea of “jumping onboard a moving train” given how many of the movie’s core components were already in place. “On a Friday, we were dead,” Cregger says. “And then on Saturday morning, on Zoom, Michael Schaefer basically green-lit my movie and upped the budget to $4.5 million.” (“He goes, ‘You’re just going to need more money later, so I might as well make it easier for you guys,’” the producers recall.)

During the film’s 24 hours in limbo, a line producer had fired Barbarian’s Bulgarian crew. But after New Regency wired over a quarter-million-dollar down payment, they were quickly rehired and preproduction continued apace. Extensive sets, including a faux-suburban street and the film’s subterranean murder cavern, were built outside the capital Sofia (exteriors were also shot in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood and on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu). “I had a movie, I lost the movie, I rescued the movie, then I lost the movie again over the course of 30 hours,” says the director. “I aged like ten years! All’s well that ends well. But it was wild.”

Margules and Lifshitz are lifelong friends from Long Island, New York. They founded BoulderLight in 2012 and earned their industry stripes in low-budget horror (the pair’s first film, 2013’s Contracted, carried a production budget of around $50,000). Since then, the partners have branched out into other genres — action and sci-fi, most notably — but make no mystery of modeling their business on that of blockbuster horror-meister Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Productions has carved a lucrative niche producing movies on a shoestring and landing them studio distribution. Blum himself even co-signed them on Twitter. “I get asked a lot who will be the next Blumhouse?” he wrote in a 2019 post accompanied by a photo of himself with Lifshitz and Margules. “Who is a good example of someone on the path to success in Hollywood today? The answer to both is the 2 guys pictures [sic] below.”

But when it came to providing Barbarian with a major-league studio rollout — not just from one of Hollywood’s reigning back-lot empires but from the House of Mouse, filmdom’s most family-friendly, R-rating-averse studio — the BoulderLight guys ceded the floor to their production partners. New Regency had a long-standing deal with 20th Century Fox to distribute its new releases theatrically, a kind of rights-of-first-refusal agreement that carried over to Disney when it acquired Fox for $71.3 billion in 2019. Based on ecstatic test screenings of Barbarian, Disney agreed to go somewhat off brand and put out a film that features (plot spoilers ahead!) a monstrous character bashing a man to death by slamming his face into a stone wall and ripping off another character’s arm to bludgeon him into eternal sleep with it. “Credit to Disney, because they really had a lot to do with this movie’s success, and they completely understood from the beginning how to market this thing,” Margules says. “They talked about how they want this movie to feel like a ‘discovery.’ They implanted that sense of creating something in the audience.”

Cregger, for his part, maintains a healthy disbelief that Barbarian claimed the No. 1 spot at the box office and has continued to gain both cultural momentum and new fans in its fifth week in release. The director has seen his stock rise in Hollywood, too, with the daily arrival of new scripts and filmmaking offers (though he says he is currently writing two new scripts, one of them “way weirder than Barbarian and a lot more ambitious and outside the box”). Not that he’s been letting any of it get to his head. “There are some moments throughout the day where I feel like I’m able to appreciate the insanity of all of this,” Cregger says. “And then most of the time, it doesn’t feel real. I’m afraid to celebrate it, because what if they’re all making a mistake? Quite frankly, my life is the same: I wear the same clothes; I have the same wife; I eat the same food. Most of the time, this feels like a dream that I’m going to wake up from.”

No One in Hollywood Wanted to Make Barbarian