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Barbarian Director Zach Cregger Talks The Film's Stars, His Horror Inspirations, And More - Exclusive Interview

It's challenging to make a fresh horror film these days, but Zach Cregger's "Barbarian" surprises and simmers at every turn. Like the characters, viewers jerk along a series of twists and turns through creepy tunnels underneath an Airbnb from hell. While "Barbarian" doesn't exactly sound like a typical Disney movie, the studio believed in and supported writer-director Cregger's vision for the film.

"Barbarian" features stars like Justin Long (AJ), Bill Skarsgård (Keith), and Georgina Campbell (Tess) — all while criticizing some of Hollywood's most toxic traits and calling out behavior that's threatening to women. Cregger isn't just a director and writer, either. He has a long list of acting credits on shows like "Friends with Benefits," "About a Boy," "Guys with Kids," and "Wrecked." Cregg also served as an actor, producer, writer, and director on "The Whitest Kids U'Know," along with producing Hulu's "Sasquatch."

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Cregger discussed working with the cast on "Barbarian," his horror influences, infusing critical social issues into the film, and which musician turned the director down when he asked for rights to a song.

Top tier talent and musical obstacles

The movie has some Hollywood heavy hitters between Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Richard Brake, and Kate Bosworth. What were some of the highlights of working with this group? Did any of them ad-lib or bring anything new to their roles that you loved?

Bill is the perfect combination of attractive and terrifying, so I knew that the moment Bill Skarsgård opens that door, people are going to be like, "He's bad." That's a joy. Justin is hysterical, and he plays a pretty despicable character. The idea of the charming guy next door, America's sweetheart, Justin Long, playing a complete dumpster fire, I thought was a pretty fun thing to do. Watching him breathe life into that character was really exciting.

The movie touches on some historical moments and uses some great classic rock picks. What went into deciding on the era of the flashback scenes and songs like "Heat of the Moment"?

The flashback scene is another way to subvert the rhythm of the movie and also give us a little bit more backstory of what's to come. That song, "Heat of the Moment" by Asia ... Originally, we had a Jackson Browne song in there. We had to request personally from him permission to use it, and he said he didn't like horror movies, and we couldn't use it. I was like, "All right, see ya." Then we put the Asia song in, and I was like, "It's even better. I like it more." It's one of those songs that's like, "It's the perfect Saturday afternoon in Michigan, playing from somebody's window. It puts you right in the time period." It totally worked.

Tackling sexism through horror

The film tackles so many critical issues like sexual assault in Hollywood, sexism, the predatory nature of people, and even depicts a police officer refusing to listen to a woman just because she's disheveled and he doesn't believe her. Why were these such important topics to hit? How do you think that more movies can broach these subjects in surprising ways like "Barbarian" does?

I had an awakening later in life where I realized that there [are] a lot of seemingly innocent behaviors that men can have that are threatening to women. Guys — I'm talking about myself here — don't realize this. They're little things like doing a favor when you weren't asked to do a favor or touching in a non-sexual way when it's not called for. Things like that are not necessarily nefarious, but they have to be taken seriously by a woman because there are men out there with bad intentions. As a man, I don't have to think about that because I don't have to treat half the population as a potential threat to me.

I wanted to write a scene where I could load those little red flags that a guy might not be aware that he's putting out there — I wanted to load as many of them as I could into one interaction. He's making her tea that she didn't ask for. He's bringing her luggage in [when] she doesn't want him to. He's saying, "Pretty name." That's not appropriate in this situation. I knew that if I could pull this off, I could be walking a really exciting tightrope of like, "Is this guy actually bad, or is he just oblivious?" That's how it began.

Horror meets Disney

This movie is unlike anything I've ever seen before on Disney. Why was this the right place for "Barbarian," and what did some of those early conversations look like to get Disney on board?

It was a really interesting way this movie got made. It was an independent movie. We raised money independently, and we were about to go shoot it, and our financier tragically passed away. At the 11th hour, New Regency swooped in and saved us. They wrote a check and left us alone, and they're partnered with Fox, and Fox is run by Disney. Very much by accident, we kind of stumbled into the loving arms of Disney, who took great care of us. Honestly, they took great care of us. It worked out. A tragic situation worked out for the best in the long run for the film. That's how we got here.

Next stop, zombie Mickey, maybe?

Yeah. Who knows?

The movie is pretty intense as is, but was there anything that you wanted to do that got scrapped for any reason?

There was a scene where someone gets baby birded with a rat. Now, I'll let that sentence linger, and you can think about it however you want. We did have to cut that, and it was the right move to take it out ... It was intense, but the only way to keep that scene in would be to reveal too much, too soon, so we decided it was best to hold off.

Writing so good even the writer is surprised

"Barbarian" goes in so many different unexpected directions, and you're both the writer and the director. What was your process like in subverting fan expectations? What were some of your influences for both the writing and the film's direction?

I knew that if I didn't know what was going to happen, the audience wouldn't know what was going to happen. Writing it, that was the deal. I had to surprise myself.

In terms of directing, I watched a ton of movies. I've always been a big horror fan. I had a very big reaction to the film "Audition" by Takashi Miike. That's a movie that does a similar kind of a turn that our movie does. That gave me permission, like, "You can make a movie that goes totally bonkers, and it can be a real joy." I was inspired by that.

Was there anyone you wanted to get on the film that you weren't able to?

I couldn't be happier with what we've got, so no, not really. No.

"Barbarian" releases in theaters on September 9.

This interview was edited for clarity.