‘Barbarian’ and ‘Smile’: How Two First-Time Horror Directors Delivered the Year’s Best Scares
This year has seen a banner run for the horror genre, with a slew of fresh filmmakers delivering new twisted visions. Among the most striking, nightmarish releases of the year were Zach Cregger’s Barbarian and Parker Finn’s Smile, both directorial debuts that caught the attention of both seasoned horror heads and mass audiences who actually left the house to squirm and squeal in crowded cinemas across the country.
Both features earned critical praise, topped the box office in their debut weekends (with Smile going on to gross $216 million worldwide), and generated the kind of giddy you’ve-gotta-go-in-blind buzz that movies today often lack. But they also show how different two horror hits can be, with Smile a somber exploration of trauma and “a love letter” to cursed chain movies like The Ring and It Follows, while Barbarian revels in its gleeful holy shit! twistedness. Bold choices highlight each director’s visual panache–from the many upside-down establishing shots that place us in the Smile protagonist’s unraveling headspace to the way Cregger makes the trappings of a nondescript midwestern Airbnb feel nearly as disturbing as the villainous labyrinth in its cellar.
The differences in the films themselves also carry through to the demeanor of the directors. Cregger, 41, is gregarious and bombastic in conversation, no doubt owing to his background in comedy as part of sketch group The Whitest Kids U’ Know. Like Barbarian, Cregger is winkingly self-aware, often cutting himself off when he feels he’s getting too in the weeds on his creative process, even joking that some of his thoughts on screenwriting are a little “wu-wu.” Finn, 35, is more reserved and strikes the profile of the more traditional genre director. (In one Barbarian scene, he eagerly and correctly spots an homage to Gerald Kargl’s 1983 horror movie Angst.)
After making their marks in the horror genre—and the cinema world at large—GQ invited Parker Finn and Zach Cregger to a conversation to talk about the efficacy of jump scares, designing nightmarish monsters with practical effects, and how unpleasant writing a script can be.
[The following contains spoilers for both Barbarian and Smile.]
GQ: What do you remember about the first time you saw each other’s films?
Zach Cregger: It’s funny because we watched both of our movies in the same room, just a few weeks apart. Parker came to see a screening of Barbarian that American Cinematheque was putting on in Santa Monica and then a month later I went back to the same building because American Cinematheque was putting on a screening of Smile. It was really fun to be in a good horror movie audience with a crowd that was all in.
Parker Finn: Beyond Fest was involved. Yours was an early screening and then Smile actually opened for like, Beyond Fest proper. It was funny because both of our movies kind of came out of nowhere and it was exciting to see that crowd both times be so wild and so vocal.
The movies that you made are on different ends of the horror spectrum. Smile is unrelentingly heavy and its levity only comes from the overwhelming number of scares, while Barbarian has a lot more straight-up humor. Did you each set out to make a movie on one distinct side of the genre?
Finn: I wanted the movie to be designed to scare you. That was the whole point. I’m sort of drawn to mean-spirited, upsetting movies and it filters into my work, but I like to also keep the audience in mind and give them an experience that is–I really love anxiety. I really wanted to create an anxious, dreadful experience that is also going to get you to jump out of your seat. There are moments of levity in there, but I really love if I can get an audience so nervous and squirming in their seats that they start laughing because that’s the only thing they know what to do with their bodies [after] how fucked up whatever’s happening on screen [was]. Pushing all those points of discomfort is really fun for me. Maybe I’m fucked up.
Cregger: Parker, I gotta ask–are you an anxious person?
Finn: I think I’m a fairly neurotic guy, yeah. I keep it inside pretty well, I bottle it up.
Cregger: Does writing a scene of pure, unfiltered anxiety scratch an itch?
Finn: Yeah, I think so. Anxiety is such a palpable thing even though it’s hard to really define and put into a box, I think you know it when you feel it and it’s something that is so stressful in real life, but so weirdly entertaining on screen. I find myself obsessed with exploring anxiety for some reason. Are you an anxious guy?
Cregger: Not so much. I certainly have my moments, but I wouldn’t characterize myself that way. I certainly don’t write to exorcise any anxiety that I have. I do get anxiety if I don’t write. I think it’s more about, “I should be writing.” To me it feels like a monkey on my back [saying] “You haven’t written anything in a while, you’re a piece of shit.” My writing process is not about getting what’s in me out, it’s more just trying to have fun.
Finn: There’s a lot of me personally in my stuff, but it’s filtered through the lens of genre and totally disguised in a way. It’d be very hard for me to engage with something directly, to make it [too] autobiographical. Taking things that you think about or you feel or that come to mind and then exploding them to their worst possible version, that for me is really interesting on the page.
Zach, you’ve said Barbarian was an exercise in getting into the mindset of a kind of anxiety that you aren’t familiar with, like a woman recognizing when a situation is unsafe, which seems like its own challenge.
Cregger: I’d read a book like 10 years ago that I think about all the time. It’s called The Gift of Fear. [And it says that] every situation that you’re in where you’re interacting with strangers has a context. It’s a different context for every participant. It just felt like a fertile playground for tension and a way into a scene. I didn’t sit down to write a movie, I sat down to write a scene just for fun and as I went, not knowing what was gonna happen, I allowed it to do whatever it wanted to do and Barbarian came out of that. For me, the best thing I can do to write is just to try and be a little kid with crayons. To be that free and that playful and let it be fun. Obviously, a lot of dark shit is gonna come out of that because, like Parker, I’m fascinated with the worst things. My favorite art is pretty dark shit, so that’s what I think of as fun.
Finn: Is there a character in your movie that [you identify with]?
Cregger: All three characters are me. The Mother’s not, but Tess is me, truly, because to me she’s the child of an alcoholic, which I am, so her whole shape is about “What does the person I’m with need?” That’s the problem with people like me, my siblings, other children of alcoholics—whatever relationship dynamic we’re in, we want to take the form that is the most pleasing to the other person, which is why Tess’s whole problem is that she keeps going back for these men and becoming what they need her to become. The literal extreme of that is infantilization, which is why of course she’s gonna drink from the baby bottle. Her arc is to separate herself from the infantilizer. Pulling the trigger at the end, that’s me wishing I could draw some sorts of healthy boundaries in my own personal life. And then AJ, yes, he’s a despicable rapist, and I can honestly say I [am not that], but who among us has not had bad inclinations? There’s aspects of my personality that are narcissistic and shitty. And Keith, the way he behaves in the house, the overexplaining and the need to be like “I saw you didn’t drink your tea so I thought I’d wait [to open this wine],” every woman watching that is like “What a fucking creep!” I probably would have said all that shit. I would’ve definitely over-talked and tried to make a woman feel too comfortable and in doing so made things worse.
Finn: It’s amazing, too, how people, based on life experiences, view that scene. Obviously, Tess is our lens into it, but you can also feel being on the other side like, “God, I’m trying so hard to not be awkward or freak this other person out and I’m just making it worse through every attempt.” I feel that so much.
Cregger: There’s an argument to be made that Keith is a total mensch. But there’s also an argument to be made that Keith is an asshole to a degree. When she says, “There’s something bad going on here. I saw something in the basement that is not okay,” he could A) believe her and choose to leave or B) say, “Ehh, I gotta see it for myself,” which is ultimately what he ends up doing. He doesn’t believe women, but also, I know myself and if my wife was like, “There’s a creepy room in the basement,” 10 out of 10 times I’m going down to look at the room.
Even though your films aren’t slashers, both of you offer unique spins on the “final girl” archetype with Rose and Tess. When you were writing the movie, how aware did you want the characters to be of the tropes and conventions of the horror genre?
Finn: I wrote the movie to be a love letter to these feelings of a cursed chain movie. They’re utterly ridiculous on paper, but I was like, “Can I put a real character in there who has personal melodrama and psychological stuff going on in her life and drop her into the situation where the external circumstances are dovetailing with her internal situation?” People who love horror tend to be very savvy because they watch everything, and for me it was a constant attempt to simultaneously lean into and out of expectations. I think the comfort of the movie’s structure allows for these scenes that really come out and surprise people. As far as Rose being aware, she spends half the movie not believing it’s actually happening [to her] and then she’s convinced it’s real.
For me, I don’t think about horror movies, I think about if I was suddenly dropped into this scenario, what would I do? I love the cosmic absurdity of her whole situation. It’s so horrifying to experience as a person, but gleefully ridiculous and fun for an audience. I love pairing those ridiculous circumstances with something that is really heavy and relatable as far as the character stuff and everything with her history. She’s so wrapped up in how everything is happening psychologically that there’s not a lot of self-awareness of the fact that she is being beset by a horror movie.
Your character is a mental health professional, it makes sense that she’d be highly skeptical of something supernatural.
Finn: It would take such overwhelming, undeniable circumstances, and even then, Rose recognizes the patent absurdity of it all. That’s why it’s so hard to tell anybody about that. I think if your spouse or partner or whoever came home and had been acting really strange and then started telling you, “Hey this is what’s going on”—everyone gets mad at her fiance [Jessie T. Usher] in that scene, but what would you do?
Zach, what about you?
Cregger: I had the same process as Parker where when I’m writing I don’t really think about, what is a horror movie convention? I’m just an audience member myself and I’m trying to make my characters as intelligent as I can, even though I think the prime criticism of my movie is that people think Tess makes some pretty idiotic decisions. I buy that she would do that shit because I feel that’s who she is, that’s her nature, but maybe I didn’t make that clear enough. I dunno. Go watch that movie where she doesn’t go downstairs and I’ll do this one.
Cregger: When I write, I feel like it’s not up to me what happens, almost. I don’t feel like, intellectually, I decide anything. I’m trying to receive from the story what it wants. I’m trying to follow the strongest vibrations. That sounds really trippy and weird, but it’s the best I can do to describe it. Stephen King has that really amazing quote about how you’re a paleontologist unearthing a dinosaur skeleton one bone at a time and you don’t know the shape of the dinosaur. That’s what I do. I’m really just following my nose. The idea of horror tropes don’t really ever occur to me.
Finn: And you’re following your nose literally while you’re writing pages of the script?
Cregger: Literally, like line-to-line. I can say this totally honestly: I did not know The Mother existed in the basement until she appeared in the darkness. That was the first time that idea ever occurred to me. The page before, when [Keith comes crawling out of the dark], I was thinking, “Maybe he’ll inject her with a needle or he’ll handcuff himself to her or she’ll black out?” I thought that’s what would happen and that I’d have another chapter where he’s still gaslighting her but they’re handcuffed together and then maybe he’ll die and she’ll be handcuffed to a corpse in this weird dungeon. And then I was like, “All of this sucks. There’s no way anybody cares, we all saw this coming.” And then I was like, “Naked lady comes out.” That’s like the beginning and end of that thought process. That’s a really fun way to write, though.
Finn: That’s interesting. I have to know what my end is before I start writing. That is usually a litmus test for me. I do a lot of notes and journaling about the idea for a long time beforehand. For me to open Final Draft and start writing means I have a pretty clear destination of what I’m doing. It’s amazing that you did that because Barbarian is so good and it feels so intentional. Part of its charm is the whiplash, “Holy shit!” Every two minutes you’re like, what the fuck is going on with this movie? That’s maybe reflective of you as the writer behind it hacking your way through the forest with the audience. With Smile, especially with the structure of both Rose’s personal journey and the high concept within it, I always knew there was going to be a cyclical nature to how I was gonna get from the beginning to the end. And then in the process of writing, you end up throwing out a lot of things because while you’re in it, things start speaking to me. I write very instinctually once I have the plan, sometimes that means going against the plan. [But] going against the plan for me is possible once I already sort of have the plan.
Cregger: I get that. And I don’t always write from this Stephen King kind of blind crawling [perspective]. I’m pretty much done with my next thing and I had the end in mind early on. I wrote about 40 pages, then I thought of what the ending was gonna be, then I was like, “I’m in love with that ending, I need to hit that. I dunno how I’m gonna hit it, but I’m gonna.” So I definitely see the value of that. I dunno, I hope that for my life–Parker, you tell me–but I hope I never write two movies the same way.
Finn: I learn something from every new thing that I write, also. I hope to come out the other side a better writer, more informed about my own process, which is a constantly evolving thing. But with each project, I take the thing that worked from it and I’ll carry that forth with me and all the stuff that was either frictional or difficult, I’ll leave that behind for the next project. When I’m getting ready to start writing something, I always have these cornerstone images or, like, moments that are really distilling the whole movie into certain images or moments that are gonna happen inside the movie. Oftentimes, those remain intact from before I started writing to the finished product and they really inform me about what the movie is and how everything should feel. They end up being some of my favorite moments.
Cregger: That’s so great, because that’s your subconscious guiding you. I’ve probably talked about this too much, but I’m a disciple of David Lynch and his writing process and transcendental meditation, going deep and letting the ideas appear to you. What you’re describing is that, the things that appear to you as these little guideposts. That’s so fucking exciting to me. Those are gifts, those are really sacred gifts
Finn: At least for me, the process of writing, it can be a bit of a slog.
Cregger: Horrible! Horrible! Misery. Isn’t it funny how it really is a miserable process? I always talk about how writing should be joyful and fun and like a little kid with crayons and that is part of it and then there’s a huge ocean of it that is total agony and I’d rather go to the dentist all day than sit there and stare at my computer and wrestle with this thing.
Finn: Growing up, you see all these depictions of writing and it’s always some guy at a typewriter with a glass of wine or a coffee, smoking cigarettes and it just looks so romantic. I’m like, fuck, writing is not that at all. It’s mostly just cowering in the dark of your room being like “This is terrible and everyone’s gonna hate it.” It would have been nice to be writing when it was just word processors and not the entirety of the internet at your fingertips.
Both of your films play with a classic horror question: how much exposition is too much. In Smile, Parker explains how the entity’s curse works very thoroughly, but not what it is. And Barbarian has that flashback scene that gives viewers a framework for who The Mother is and what’s been going on in the house.
Cregger: I’m a big fan of less is more. The flashback is more about the rhythm of the movie. I couldn’t go from Justin’s tape measure falling in the pit to the bottle. It was too unrelenting. I know people need a moment to decompress and then we’ll ramp it back up later. It was always my vision to do the flashback and I thought the flashback was enough. Now, we tested the movie and people did not understand what The Mother was. They were like, “Who is this woman that lives there? Is she his mother? Is she the woman he kidnapped in the flashback?” It was very clear from the test cards that it was impeding people’s enjoyment of the movie. So I added a line of expositional ADR that the homeless man says, “He used to bring women there and then he started making babies with them. And babies with the babies. And you make a copy of a copy of a copy and you end up with something like that.” That little seven seconds—and believe me, it’s [only] fucking seven seconds—[was enough to help] people understand that she’s his inbred great-granddaughter and his granddaughter and his daughter and that’s why she’s like that. We put that line in and we jumped like 10 points. For horror, as much as I think ambiguity is a strength, to a degree you have to make sure people are following the thread. What about you, Parker?
Finn: I agree with you that less is more. I think that things that can’t be easily defined, the unknown, are always the scariest. One of the hallmarks of the arena that Smile is playing in tends to get really specific with that stuff and I, from the beginning, was like, absolutely not. I want to do something where we don’t give it a name, we don’t give it an origin, but I wanted to make sure people understood how it was operating. I find that exposition on that kind of stuff always defangs it a little bit. When I first turned in that draft, that was definitely a question from the studio of, “We need to know where this thing came from.” That was a hill that I was willing to die on because for me that was really important.
The importance of the pacing of the Barbarian flashback never occurred to me, but that’s a really good point.
Finn: What’s great about Barbarian and that cut to the past, if you’re gonna do some amount of exposition, what’s great about it is nobody is saying anything, we’re just watching. For me, that moment, which I’m sure was intentional, feels so much like the film Angst.
Cregger: I’ve said this in every interview: I directly lifted it from Angst. Angst is the prime inspiration for that scene.
Finn: It’s just so uncomfortable to watch that you forget you’re even watching exposition. The best movies kind of teach you how to watch them. I think the reason why that cut to the past works so well where it’s placed is because of that first cut to Justin’s character. Zach’s movie is teaching us how to watch it, so we go with it as it happens.
Cregger: It’s like, “I didn’t fail you before. I didn’t abandon you. I’m not gonna this time.” I think people are inclined to feel safe by that point, hopefully. That’s kinda the ultimate sin that any movie could ever commit is when you’re watching it and you don’t feel like you’re in safe hands. You don’t trust the storyteller to take care of you.
One thing I really wanted to ask you guys about is your utilizations of the jump scare. Smile is just bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. The sheer number of them starts to change your reaction. At first you’re watching through your fingers then you’re laughing with it and then you’re back at this “Oh God” moment. In Barbarian, they’re a little more scattered, it’s not really a jump-scare-heavy movie. Beyond just startling the viewer, what value do jump scares bring to your movies?
Cregger: Parker, go ahead, man. This one is all you, baby.
Finn: [LAUGHS] I’ve always appreciated a well-executed jump scare. I think a lot of times people talk about jump scares with too broad of a brushstroke. Saying “I don’t like jump scares” is like saying “I don’t like music with guitars.” When I set out to do Smile, I wanted the jump scares thematically to be matching what is going on in the movie. So this thing that comes into Rose’s life, the Smile, its whole design is to traumatize her over and over again and lower all of her defenses. I wanted the audience to be experiencing that right along with Rose. The jump scares that are happening to Rose are also supposed to be breaking the audience down and getting them to this place where I can do the ending that I am going for.
Going into the movie, the whole concept throughout it was to place the audience in Rose’s subjective. So I wanted to make sure that the jump scares in Smile are loaded with so much dread and anxiety and keep cranking that up and then when these jump scares hit they’re not designed to release any of that. Instead, it just doesn’t reset and everybody feels safe again. Hopefully, after each scare, which is real and not a bird flying out of a cabinet or anything like that, they have this weight, but as you move forward you’re just more unsettled. The jump scares hopefully aren’t what’s scary about Smile, but they’re there to enhance and play out the experience of it.
Cregger: I agree with you. There are a lot of horror-heads who talk about jump scares as this derogatory term, but I promise you, every one of them loves a horror movie that utilizes jump scares. It’s just about how you do it. Where they get problematic is if that’s all your movie has to offer. I have two intentionally lame jump scares in Barbarian and they’re all in the first 20 minutes because the movie for me is so much [more about] trying to trick you. You think you’re watching this [type of] movie but you’re actually not. I have this scene where Bill [Skarsgard] comes up behind Georgina with the phone and I do this really corny [HORROR SOUND EFFECT] and it’s like, “This movie sucks.” She’s waking him up on the couch and it’s this predictable, jack-in-the-box that’s getting wound. Hopefully after that, people think they are smarter than what they’re watching, that they’ve got it all figured out. It’s kind of like a boxer who’s throwing a couple of weak jabs and then hopefully can punch you really fucking hard in the face later when you don’t see it coming. It’s up for debate whether I pulled that off or not, but that was my plan.
I love jump scares a lot, though, I feel like there are all kinds of rules I wish I had for myself as far as what makes a jump scare acceptable and what doesn’t. If you do a little thing and the score goes “BUH,” is that a violation? I don’t think so. My favorite fucking jump scares probably come from David Lynch, and that’s all he does. It’s like, “Let me show you a thing and blast you with the score,” and it’s so good. Who can say what’s good or bad? When people think of a lame jump scare, they say the same thing, “I hate a jump scare and then the cat jumps into the frame.” It’s always the cat. I dunno how many times that happened in the ‘80s, but it must have been one too many.
Finn: Yeah, totally. And here’s the other thing: if the jump itself has no bearing to what’s going on with the character then yeah, it feels a little false and cheap. But if it’s directly tied to story and has consequences, I think that’s a really interesting way to use the craft of cinema. I also think that there’s a lot of intention and method that goes into crafting a good jump scare. If you’re doing it the really bad way, it is cheap and lazy, but if you’re doing it the right way, then you can tell if a whole audience reacts to something in a big way, clearly the film is doing its job.
Cregger: Your jump scare in Smile where she’s looking at the soundwave and then leans back, that got me so big, dude. That is one of the best jump scares I’ve seen in years. I’m such a fan of that fucking moment, it killed me. I was embarrassed, I was at the thing sitting next to producers and agents and all these people and I was like “Oh fuck!” It was not a dignified moment. [Laughs] And I know it’s not easy. There’s a lot of forethought, there’s a lot of pacing and consideration. It’s very well constructed and it pays off beautifully. Anybody who thinks they can just crank out jump scares of that caliber is kidding themselves.
The last thing that I wanted to ask about was creature design. In Smile, it doesn’t really become a component until the very end, though there is a certain amount of it with the smile face itself. But there definitely are some similarities between Barbarian’s Mother and the shape the smile takes when it starts off as Rose’s mother. For each of you, how did the initial design come about?
Cregger: I’ll go first because mine will be really short and simple. Parker’s creature design is way more intricate and interesting. There’s a book I had as a little kid, it was an illustrated Beowulf book and there was a drawing in there of Grendel’s mother that I was obsessed with. I took that drawing to my team and I was like “This.” We did it and there’s no more to it than that.
Finn: What I was always interested in about Smile was the fact that, despite the supernatural goings on in it, I feel like hopefully no one is anticipating that there is gonna be this big giant monster at the end, it’s this hard left turn. So that was alway kind of a goalpost, and I really wanted to do it practically. I love practical effects, I grew up on them. That was something I was extremely adamant about. When Rose’s mom shifts into this nightmarish version of herself, the idea there was reducing Rose back to her 10-year-old self when her mother felt sort of like a monster.
Cregger: How did you do that first iteration where she’s this giant woman? Did you cast a woman and put prosthetics on her?
Finn: It’s a man. He’s got some prosthetics on him, but he’s like 6-foot-5. The trick to that first moment, that reveal, is that we built a smaller version of that hallway, which involved a bunch of platforming beyond that. There’s a minimal amount of prosthetics, but I met with a bunch of creature body performers and he had the right look to start with.
With the final creature, I had written into the script exactly what it is and does at the very end. I wanted to show it, but I wanted to be incredibly restrained with how much we see it and how long we see it [for]. I had drawn a really rudimentary version of that final wide tableau that we see it in and I wanted it to almost feel like a romantic or baroque painting. Then I worked with a concept artist to take my little shitty drawing and turn it into a piece of art. We had some other concept art around then we passed that along to StudioADI, Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis. Those guys are legends to me. They worked with Stan Winston to build the Alien queen in Aliens. They did Pumpkinhead. Once I had convinced the studio to let me do it practically, we needed all that runway. So honestly, that monster was the last thing we shot and we had to figure out how all that was gonna work. There was a little bit of engineering because we had to create a fake Rose also to be able to open its mouth that way. To go all the way through to being either the second-to-last or last day of production, then it suddenly being on set was really full circle. It was one of those moments you don’t get to see on set that often, where the whole crew was gathered around looking at this big giant monster doing its thing. It was a lot of fun to get to make what felt like classic movie magic.
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