Today on Art of the Cut, one of the most talked about films at the moment, the horror film, Barbarian, currently on HBOMax. With us to discuss this film today is Art of the Cut's first-ever guest host: multi-Emmy-winning editor Stephanie Filo, ACE. Steph has been a guest on the show before, and I saw her post several times about this film on Twitter as a self-proclaimed "fan-girl" of the film, so I thought with her knowledge of editing and her love of the film, she'd be the perfect co-host. Also with me are the film's writer/director, Zach Cregger, and the film's editor Joe Murphy. Joe and I have one degree of IMDb separation, as we've both co-edited with Jamie Kirkpatrick.
Stephanie Filo, ACE, has edited A Black Lady Sketch Show, for which she won multiple Emmys and was nominated for an ACE Eddie. She also won a Peabody Award for her editing of the documentary Surviving R. Kelly and edited the recent Dahmer series available on Netflix.
Zach Cregger is probably best known as an actor in TV series like The Whitest Kids U Know, and Wrecked, as well as the feature films Miss March and College.
Joe Murphy's credits as editor include the feature films Swallow, Don't Come Back from the Moon, We Summon the Darkness, and The Sound and the Fury. Also, TV series like Kingpin and A Friend of the Family.
Writerdirector Zach Cregger and editor Joe Murphy discuss the editing of Barbarian
I am so excited to have these three people here with me. I'm going to introduce each of them, so you get a chance to hear their voices. First is Steph Filo. Steph's been on Art of the Cut before, and she's one of the Emmy-winning editors of A Black Lady Sketch Show. And she cut Netflix's current Dahmer TV series. I know she was just in New York City cutting a feature film. So she is a busy woman. We're super excited to have you here, Steph. Thanks for joining us.
FILO: Steve, Thank you for having me.
Steph has been tweeting about this — saying that this show is her top theatrical experience of the year. Can you explain what that means? Top theatrical experience of the year?
FILO: It was just so much fun watching this in the theater because I went in knowing absolutely nothing. I hadn't seen the trailer. I hadn't even seen the poster for it. And I just thought, sure, it's a horror movie. I love horror. I’ll go watch it. The theater was laughing, screaming, crying, and yelling at Tess for doing certain things. It was just so much fun. And by the end, the audience all kind of felt like we were all friends by the end, so it was really just a really special experience.
I love it. We also have the film's director, Zach Cregger. Zach, thanks for joining us here on Art of the Cut.
CREGGER: Happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
And his editor, Joe Murphy. Joe, thanks for being on Art the Cut today.
MURPHY: Thanks so much for having me.
So ladies first. Steph, what would you ask either one of these guys about this production?
FILO: The editing is so brilliant in this. Congrats to Joe.
MURPHY: Thanks so much.
FILO: I was curious how you guys came to be in each other's orbit. What was the process of finding the perfect editor for this? What was your collaboration process like during all of this?
CREGGER: I was already in Bulgaria in the midst of production when I started the hunt for editors. This is my first movie, so I don't really know what the normal timeline is as to when people hire editors. I imagine people will generally pick their editor much sooner than I did. We were actively shooting. I went through a list of probably 12 editors. I did Zooms with six of my favorites. I remember that there was a conversation I had with Joe about a specific scene in his feature Swallow — which I really liked — and I remember being very impressed with that and the way that he was able to break it down. Then Joe talked about a scare in the movie The Birds, and you were able to conjure up exactly how the scare was cut together. It was very casual, but he broke down this scare in his mind at an atomic level. He understands exactly what's going on. That was very impressive to me. There was also an energy that I just really responded to it.
Actually, I was an editor. That was my first job out of college. So I just know the intimacy that is required. Can I be in a room for 8 hours a day for however many months with somebody is a big part of the thing? I remember thinking, “I like Joe. He's smart. I like his taste. He could map that scare out. Swallow is cool.” That was my experience. Joe. I don't know about yours.
MURPHY: I felt really similar. It was a really nice conversation that we had on the Zoom meeting. I really enjoyed your perspective on the film. I loved the script as well. But Zack had a really specific way of talking about his directing approach for the movie. I found it really inspiring what he was planning to do for the film. So it was exciting to me that we were getting along, and I was really happy that I was brought on board.
Georgina Campbell as Tess in Barbarian
Zack, are you telling me you shot this in Bulgaria?
CREGGER: I'm telling you, I shot it in Bulgaria. (everyone laughs)
FILO: What led you guys to Bulgaria?
CREGGER: So the original financier that we had arranged for the movie was this French company called Logical. They had filmed in Bulgaria previously on other productions. They had a good relationship with a production company in Bulgaria called Dare. Tragically, our financier passed right before we left, so we had to find alternate financing at the 11th hour, but we kept our Bulgarian production in place because the momentum was there.
I’ve got to say, it was wonderful. Dare Films in Bulgaria treated us excellently, and we got a ton of bang for our buck.
The whole block that the house sits on was built from nothing. Those 13 facades we built from scratch in Bulgaria. We did go to Detroit, and we did film in Brightmoor, and there's a lot of stuff that is actually in Detroit, but all the interiors and our hero street is constructed.
And the interiors, I'm assuming, are on a stage.
CREGGER: On a stage, yeah. Every part of the house is on stage.
The biggest challenge of shooting in Bulgaria was finding anything that was remotely American. There's just nothing. So we had to build it. You couldn't fake it with some other neighborhood because it's such an Eastern bloc country. The architecture is so alien.
Did you ever see the film Crawl?
That was all shot in Europe, and that was supposed to be Florida.
CREGGER: We were one of nine major productions shooting in Bulgaria at the time. It's pretty common now.
Bill Skarsgård as Keith in Barbarian
Let's talk about sound design. That starts from the opening logos.
CREGGER: We just had a great crack team. It was some of the guys that did Spider-Man and that stuff. We did it at Sony. For me, as a first-time director, I'm walking in, and they're like eight people in the room all focused on the sound. It was amazing to have these pros who knew exactly what they were doing. They really came loaded with just a lot of plush options. For me, it was just about addition by subtraction. They had too many options — which was their job — and I got to just go through and thin it out and give it a haircut. It was really wonderful.
Joe, tell us a little bit about what you were doing to make the editor's cut, and the director's cut sound like that before it gets to the sound guys.
MURPHY: There wasn't a ton of sound work, honestly, that we were doing in our first initial cuts. We got some temp design. We had some temp recordings for the creature voice. But we were planning on relying pretty heavily on the sound department teams to really fill out those soundscapes.
Obviously, we had stuff in place, for example, for a specific scare or to kind of set the general tone and vibe. But, that was something that we actually knew we were planning for the future. Basically knowing that there's going to be a team of people that are going to be specialists in this area that will really help fill that in and help set the tone.
CREGGER: It was amazing to see the transformation when you get the final sound in. Especially in horror, I underestimated how crucial the sound is. You can tweak the visual all you want, but if the sound isn't there, the scare is not there. So there are a lot of scenes that I was kind of frustrated with on the day during production.
For example, the head rip at the end. I didn't think we got it. I really didn’t. I felt like the effects didn't work right. There was no blood. We only had one take of it, and it just wasn't what I had in my mind. I remember coming back to America and thinking, “I don't know what to do. My movie's broken, and nobody knows it but me.”
Then you get in the post, and we put this great, sickening bone snap in there and this bubbling, gurgling, spewing of blood in the audio. It just sounds disgusting and ghastly. I guess we tricked everybody into thinking this is a working scene. That's a lot of what editing is, right? Something is broken, and you think, “I don't know how to fix it.” You have to just — like with bubblegum and duct tape — hope nobody notices.
Then eventually, some of the things that you think are severely injured become kind of your favorite moments.
Steph. That shot worked for you, right? It worked for me.
FILO: Yeah, it's very effective.
Speaking of sound, the score in this movie is unconventional and goes different places. I'm curious about what you used temp score-wise and finding that tone and balance throughout.
MURPHY: The temp was actually from a bunch of different movies. Actually, Zack made some of the temp tracks himself. What was the program you used?
CREGGER: In Ableton, there’s a plugin called Omnisphere that is basically just ready-to-go stuff. I would just go home and spend an hour plunking in a bunch of different sounds and then bringing those in. Some of those are in the final movie.
MURPHY: There are a couple of those. We temped a lot from the horror film, Saint Maud. We pulled a bunch of their temp score, cut that up, and used that.
CREGGER: The remake of Candyman. We used a lot of that. I think we used some Hereditary. I would just go through movies that I like. Like, Saint Maud is probably my favorite horror movie of the last four years so we ended up using most of that.
It's funny now because when I watch Saint Maud, any time our temp comes up from that — and we so much of it — that I can't enjoy Saint Maud anymore because I’m thinking, “Oh, this is that moment when AJ’s going down the hallway.”.
MURPHY: It's that weird thing with temp music. It just stands out to you whenever you watch the original film.
CREGGER: I don't think I'll ever do it this way again because it was really hard for me to divorce myself from the temp. I became so attached to the temp score.
We had a composer who was an excellent composer. I think it was on me, though. I could not divorce myself from the temp love and everything he would give me that was new. It just wasn't right to me. He was probably giving me gold. And I just was not in a place to receive it, so we had to make a change, so we brought composer Anna Drubich on with three weeks to score the entire movie. So this was like a blitz at the end. It was a real panic, but she was excellent. She really rose to the challenge. I'm really happy with what we have.
I’ve got a question about a specific edit, which I really liked. I've seen this done in other films where you don't bother putting the dialogue in on a dialogue scene. That happens when Tess goes for her interview with the documentarian, and they're having lunch. You don't hear what they say because you don't really need to, right? Was there actually dialogue there? Did you record it? Could we have heard a scene about the documentary interview?
MURPHY: No, there was no dialogue. There wasn't anything there. It was really great as a moment of tension. There was some debate on whether that beat needed to be in the movie. I think when we landed on that moment with some tense, foreboding score underneath it, it really helped set a really nice tone before we send Tess back into the house.
CREGGER: I think in the script that scene is written: “We watch them from a distance. It looks like it's going well.”
I had no idea that people were going to infer from the angle that we chose that it was the P.O.V. of potentially Keith stalking her into the city.
MURPHY: Yeah, that's funny, Zach. I kind of always thought that myself. It feels like this creepy moment of someone watching her. So that's interesting that we never had that conversation.
CREGGER: No, it never occurred to me.
One of the things that I thought that the documentarian lunch scene helped do is let you know that somebody is waiting for Tess. Otherwise, you don’t know that anyone cares about Tess. You don’t know if she has a boyfriend or a dog or a family waiting for her. So maybe she's going to disappear, and no one will ever know.
CREGGER: It does seem pregnant. It does seem like it should pay off somehow. But I think there are a lot of things that this movie sets up that it doesn't pay off. I don't think that's a bad thing.
FILO: Every time you intro a new character editorially, it seems like the style changes a little bit. The first time we see A.J. is obviously after that amazing reveal. Then the moment we meet the Richard Brake character, the aspect ratio is different. You're doing match cuts throughout that section. What was your process in figuring out how to approach those intros editorially?
MURPHY: Honestly, Zach had a lot of that stuff mapped out beforehand. He did excellent work with his DP, Zach Kuperstein, where they had a clear visual plan of how they wanted to distinguish the different chapters of the movie.
I think the thing for me with those different chapters was how do we approach them to keep the momentum going so we don't feel like the movie is starting over again each time. One of the things that was so nice about what Zach did is the comedy with Justin in the AJ section really buys you that time and basically helps create some momentum in that section of the film. We're in a totally different land. We're really entertained. You get a chance to know him and the tension can be woven in as his section progresses.
Then when we go into the Richard Brakes section. That was one of the areas where we did start to feel a little bit of the sense of, “Is this film going to start over and have another 20 or 30-minute chapter?” We did end up thinning out that section quite a bit because we started to feel like people were getting kicked out of the dream of the film.
CREGGER: I think that’s dead on.
As far as those specific transitions go, it's funny, there were a lot of cuts that I wanted to cut to black and let black just be on the screen for like three or 4 seconds. I tried to use that a lot in this movie. One of our producers had an allergic reaction every time there was black on the screen: “Take it out!” And I hate to say it, but he was right.
MURPHY: No. He was right.
CREGGER: Some of those things that are so abrupt are really what makes those moments sing.
** SPOILER ALERT **
For example, when AJ falls into the pit. You see that Tess is alive. She shushes him. Then it SLAMS to that beautiful, bright blue day outside, and we're back in time. We don't know where we are.
God forbid I would have put 3 seconds of black in there, which I had originally.
Justin Long as AJ in Barbarian
It works so well as a straight hard cut.
CREGGER: However, I defended to the death the black from Keith's head smash when Mother screams. We do go to black for a few seconds before the guitar begins.
MURPHY: Oh, yeah. You need a breath there, for sure. The black works so well there.
** END SPOILER ALERT **
There was a really nice moment that we discovered in the edit — it's a really small thing — but it was a little callback to the empty hallway of the house. In present times, right after the Richard Brake character goes down into the basement and we're in the 80s hallway, there's a close enough of a match cut to the present day, empty hallway that we associate with Tess. We discovered that one day in the edit. It felt like a nice bookend, just helped put a little button on that 80s flashback.
CREGGER: That was great. I remember, Joe, you found that. I wasn't even around. I came in, and you said, “Check this little thing out.” It was such a perfect way back to the present. Sometimes you need to orientate the audience and sometimes you need to disorient the audience. You have a very good internal compass as to when that's important.
There are so many things that I really thought were broken — that were irreparably broken — and Joe would solve them.
** SPOILER ALERT **
For example, when Tess is chased into the house by Andre. We think for that moment, Andre's bad. She slams the door, and that became this really long oner that follows Tess as she's calling 9-1-1. She moves through the house. She's locking the windows. She's going room to room, locking everything.
** END SPOILER ALERT **
She goes to the back door. She locks the back door, and then she returns to the front of the house — it's all in one. I really worked hard. We shot like 19 takes of this thing. It was a lot of energy on set. She comes back to the windows. She's looking for the man, and he's not there. And it just was death. It was just like death. Our best take was boring, for whatever reason. It just wasn't working.
But you needed the story. It was a story beat. We couldn't get away with jump cuts. That didn't feel right, I thought, we have a real problem here, and I am out of ideas. Then I came in one day, and Joe said, “I think I might have a solution.” He took scenes that were coming later in time — where she's packing her bags. So as soon as she slammed the door, cut to her packing her bag. She's loading stuff from the sink. And her shirt was different. She'd already taken her jacket off, but then he cut back to the earlier thing where she calls 9-1-1 and her jacket is back on. It's the kind of thing where “Yes, it's out of sequence in time, but the story now flows perfectly.” And nobody's ever noticed the little continuity error that her jacket's off and then her jacket’s on. It’s just little things like that. It was kind of an ingenious solve that you had, Joe.
There were so many instances of that where I had really shit the bed in production, and then Joe…
MURPHY: It's so funny you bring that up because I actually totally forgot about that. When I'm watching the movie now. One of the things I really like to try to do is just look at stuff like it's the first time, even though I know it's kind of an imagination game, you know? I actually totally forgot that that's how we rearranged those scenes.
** SPOILER ALERT **
There’s another scene where the unhoused guy pulls Tess out of the basement. They have this conversation on the street. The camera's kind of swirling around them. We had one good acting take — and it's not the performer's fault. It's just about timing and camera placement — and then we had a bunch of great takes, but the sun came out of cloud cover. So there are boom and camera shadows all over the actors. That was another scene where we were really in trouble. I thought we were going to have to go back to Bulgaria and, like, reshoot.
** END SPOILER ALERT **
It's incredible, Joe, how you were able to get in there and just by the skin of our teeth make that scene work. That was one of the scenes where producers would come in, and before they’d even watch it, I’d tell them, by the way, don't get any notes on this next scene because there is no wiggle room! This is what it is. This is the only way it works at all.
Joe, how much did you feel like you needed to buoy his spirits when you were working on scenes like those? To let him know everything was going to be okay, that you were going to be able to take care of it.
MURPHY: Editing is such a process, you know? And things just don't work no matter how brilliant they are just because they don't work yet, you know? I just kind of trust the process and try to be a reassuring collaborator, and as we go through and watch stuff and really just identify, “how are we feeling when we're watching a scene?” I try to think about “how can we get closer to where it should be with each revision?” Just kind of writing as drafting. I really feel like with editing, it’s kind of the same process. The first draft is going to have moments of genius and great stuff, but it's just going to be a bloated first draft, you know? You keep whittling through.
I actually feel with that process just to be as reassuring as possible to your collaborators because you know eventually, you're going to get there. You have so many tools in your toolkit, too. As long as you have the feeling that you can find in the raw footage, if there are some dramatic issues we have to work out, I know there's going to be a way to get there.
Trust the process and listen to how we're feeling and don’t get too caught up or worried about whether things really work or not.
CREGGER: You were very good at being a soothing presence, you know? I could very easily begin to spiral over, “Oh God! This is doomed!” And you had to be a therapist as much as an editor, I think.
MURPHY: That comes with the job, though. I feel like that's pretty normal. You're spending all this time together working on this creative project. That's just how it is. There are going to be ups and downs.
FILO: Joe, you touched on something that I've been thinking a lot about since I first saw this movie, which is the blending of horror and comedy. I feel like editorially, those two kinds go hand in hand a lot of the time because it's so much about the art of the misdirect…
FILO: … and the element of surprise. I was curious how you found the balance for that? Was there ever a time when it was way too funny or way too scary? What did you do collaboratively to get to where we are today?
MURPHY: Zach, I feel like it was always about repeatedly going back to the film to watch it to figure out what we needed to trim, and then occasionally — if we took too much out — we had to throw a couple of things back in.
For the comedy section with Justin, there was so much that he gave, I think that section was hard to know what to take out because there were so many funny moments. There was a cut scene that I liked where AJ goes to meet the realtor who rents out the house. It's a very funny scene, but tonally wasn't quite working in the piece. It definitely tripped up some audience members. Not everyone found it as funny as maybe I did.
CREGGER: I rewatched that this week and I thought, “I really love this scene.”
MURPHY: It just didn't fit, but you wouldn't know that in isolation. But by watching the movie and sort of trying to vibe stuff out. Our audience screenings were so critical for us in that regard because it gave us an opportunity to put it in front of people, and see where people were laughing. When people are leaning back and their attention is sort of wandering. That was really our guide for working with that on a more macro level.
Zach and I had a lot of discussions about P.O.V. in the edit, which is really critical. I think for horror and comedy. The art of the reveal. One thing I really appreciated is that Zach wanted to see what characters were seeing, not always their face. That was something that was very powerful in terms of creating tension but also creating a surprise, which you can get both a scare or laugh out of.
CREGGER: I have a very, very strong conviction that in horror, if a character is moving towards something spooky, anytime I'm looking at the character's face, I'm not afraid. But any time I'm looking over their shoulder or in their POV, I am shifted into prey mode, where I am now engaged. I'm scanning for the threat. That's when my brain lights up.
I really can't stand it when I watch a horror movie, and it's just on the person moving down the hall. I try and do that as minimally as possible.
Georgina Campbell as Tess in Barbarian
Speaking of the scene where Tess is traveling down the tunnel, I was struck — as an editor — by the fact that that scene could have gone on forever, and it could have gone on half as long as it was. What was the decision between the two of you where you thought you had enough tension but were not boring anybody? How far can we stretch it?
CREGGER: In the script, it's really long — that scene of her going down the stairs and finding the cages — it's really spaced out in the script. So, I shot it, and I always imagined it and conceived of it as being paced kind of the way that it is ultimately.
It is interesting. Coming from the comedy world where you cut something together, you show it to a crowd and can immediately quantify how you're doing because you get this audible reaction. With horror, you can kind of feel the energy in the room, but you don't really know. Are people freaking out at this moment or not because so much is just this silent dread that you're doing. You can't quantify silent dread so much. So it's a new thing for me trying to gauge how effective something is when I'm watching with people.
The first screening we ever did, I was kind of convincing myself that the movie wasn't working at all until this one woman in the back of the room shrieked in the middle of the movie. Then I thought, “Okay. I guess it's going great.” It's such a hard thing to be able to determine.
Joe, thoughts on some of the moments in the film?
MURPHY: Honestly, the thing I remember most about working on Barbarian are some of the smaller acting beats we were working with.
** SPOILER ALERT **
Like in the Tess-Keith interaction on the couch — finding the right moments in back and forth for them there so we can really sell this build between the two of them, so she's invested enough to go down in the basement to find him.
** END SPOILER ALERT **
Stuff like that was really where my mind goes when I'm thinking about the movie.
CREGGER: Me too. I definitely get much more in the weeds and joyful when I am cutting two actors talking to each other. Constructing a jump scare just feels to me like there's a potential for failure. But when we’re cutting fun dialogue of two great actors going at it, I could do that forever. Maybe I shouldn't be a horror guy.
I think after this film, you should definitely be a horror guy. Steph, thoughts?
FILO: Yeah, you should definitely be a horror guy.
Were there any movies that inspired you when you were writing this or that you were thinking about tonally as you were coming up with this story?
CREGGER: I think that my biggest inspiration for this would probably be Audition, the 1999 Takashi Miike film. I think that's a really subversive movie. It’s also a movie that's about male privilege and sexual predation. It's a commentary on that, which Barbarian sort of is as well. But it also ignores the traditional structure that we've all come to embrace. But it does it in a way that's never boring. It's not trying to be avant-garde. That's just what that story demands to be. It also shocked the hell out of me. That movie made a huge impact on me when it came out. But also, Psycho is definitely an ancestor of this movie.
I had a rule with my cinematographer and with Joe too: Barbarian was Fincher upstairs, Raimi downstairs. Upstairs, Fincher has a very specific motif of when he moves the camera. And it's a beautiful thing: when an actor moves, the camera moves. So if an actor is seated and they stand, the camera will rise just that much. The camera will not move until an actor moves.
I really loved being able to use his vocabulary, and then downstairs with the wide angle lens — it was just time to just crank everything up to 11. You get these big sprints down the hallway, and it's handheld. You're using a 12 (12mm lens) all of a sudden. You get to let things linger a lot more. You can just be much more kind of punk rock and silly down there. That really works for the editing as well.
At about the halfway point, the film takes a huge 180. What were the macro-pacing considerations of getting back to Tess? Were there versions that returned to the Tess quicker or versions where AJ’s story plays out longer?
CREGGER: That was one of the biggest locking of horns that we had with the studio. They wanted to just get AJ into the tunnels. Get to the horror sooner. I understand where they're coming from, but there are many scenes in the movie that really had to be fought and won, like the bar scene, A.J. calling Megan and leaving the voicemail. Pretty much every scene from Malibu until when AJ went into the basement was on trial, and some died. Like Joe said, the realtor scene was drastically reduced.
MURPHY: We took some big chunks of some scenes out, like when AJ calls the realtor, for instance. We did a number of cuts because a lot of that was done in long takes. We had to find the right moment to sort of connect parts of that phone call together.
CREGGER: And in retrospect, I think that was the right move. I'm really happy with where it landed. I'm glad we were pushed to condense.
I agree with you in saving as much of AJ’s story, that there's enough stuff that things wouldn't pay off as well.
CREGGER: I agree. When AJ’s talking to his friend at the bar, we're seeing him in action rewriting history, which he also does at the end of the movie. Also, on the phone, when he's saying to Megan, “People have different versions of the same thing.” That's a vital part of who he is being revealed. It's not arbitrary to me to have those scenes in the movie.
The big comedy moment when AJ comes up from the basement, if you haven't realized who he was before that, it wouldn't be funny.
CREGGER: Yes. Good point.
But instead, the audience totally understands who he is and why he's doing it. I truly laughed out loud.
FILO: You guys did a really good job with that character. Ultimately he's not the greatest person. But I think having that extended beat with him helps us kind of like be interested in what this journey is going to look like for him, even if we know he's not the nicest of guys.
CREGGER: We got so lucky to have Justin as our actor. He is such a joy to watch that it helps us to win some of those battles.
Let’s talk about the flashback section, back to the 80s.
MURPHY: Zack had actually designed those scenes to kind of flow in that manner where Frank is sort of center-punched in the frame. Then you cut to him in the grocery store from behind him again, center punch in the frame. That was very much part of the visual design that he had laid out.
The eighties flashback was another place where they showed some of the scenes that have been cut out. Can you talk about what happened there? How much you decided to stay in the 80s section?
CREGGER: Yeah, we lost a good chunk of the Frank stuff. There were two main things that were reduced before Frank knocks on the woman's front door. We had a very long tracking shot of him moving around the house and studying the house. What would be his best point of entry? And he stops in front of the bathroom window, and he cocks his head. Then when he goes in, he has a longer conversation with the woman in her kitchen and has her try the sink in the kitchen and check the lights. Then he goes into the bathroom and unlocks the window.
I loved it because it made the bathroom unlocking of the window feel much more like, “Oh, now I see what he's been doing.” I understand that we cannot dawdle with a man walking slowly through the grass. It’s a horror movie. We're almost to the third act. But I feel that by losing that, we did dull that moment. It still rubs me kind of the wrong way. I don't think I would change it if I had my druthers, but I still kind of smart from it.
** SPOILER ALERT **
And then, when he gets back to his neighborhood, the neighbor and Frank have a much longer conversation. But again, it just felt like, “What are we doing right now?” The information has already been conveyed. We get that Frank's a serial killer. All the puzzle pieces are there. We don't need to hang out any longer in the front yard. It's time to get the movie going again. That one hurt mainly just because Kurt is a personal friend of mine who did me a favor by coming to Bulgaria to shoot this scene, and then I cut his scene by two-thirds.
MURPHY: At least we kept a third of it. There was a version that we didn't have anything in.
CREGGER: That’s true.
MURPHY: It was pretty critical, I think, to cap off the Frank section, to have that interaction with the neighbor there. It didn't feel complete without something.
CREGGER: And there's something so powerful about the way that Richard says, “I'm not going anywhere.” It's the right cut.
Can I say something weird? Do you know what my favorite cut in the whole movie is? Joe, you're going to think you're crazy, but my favorite cut in the whole movie is when — every time I watch it, I think, “Look at that beautiful goddamn cut!” It’s when AJ is at the top of the stairs with the flashlight and the knife, and he says, “All right, bitch! Get ready to get fucked.” And he's coming down the stairs, kind of like an army guy. It cuts from a low angle, looking up at him. And then it cuts on this one step in the middle of the steps to the profile of him creeping down the stairs with the flashlight. And I don't know why, but that edit from that low to that profile just gives me a dopamine hit every time I see it.
MURPHY: I really like that cut as well too.
CREGGER: I want to know from you two, do you have this on your movies or shows?
Georgina Campbell as Tess in Barbarian
CREGGER: That little cut that no one cares about is like my favorite thing in the whole show. I just love it.
FILO: I always get paranoid that I'm going to get a note to remove it. That one thing. But yeah, yeah, yeah.
My favorite cut is AJ from the basement to AJ at his computer.
CREGGER: That's a much more effective edit. It definitely elicits a response. But there's just something about that little step that just feels like poetry to me.
Steph, do you remember the shot that Zach described earlier about unlocking the bathroom window?
You got that, right? I understand your pain in missing that scene, but I totally understood what was going on. I didn't need anything else.
CREGGER: It's not that I worry that it's unclear what he's up to. It's more that it felt like a payoff to a riddle. Now it just feels like a piece of information.
Got it. Yeah, I get that.
FILO: This made me think about restructures throughout the process. Did it start in a similar sort of structure that it's in now, or did you play with a lot of different orders?
MURPHY: I think it's basically in the same structure that it always was from the script. We did some minor tweaks as Zack had mentioned with the packing and the police. And there is a section near the end of the film, too, that we needed to do some experiments with after Tess escapes. We tried a bunch of different versions of the cross-cutting between Tess on the journey, looking for help from AJ and Frank in the basement, but nothing was wildly divergent from the script.
But we had to find some specific moments that we needed to kind of cut back and forth between to make that most effective. I think there was a nice discovery — Zach, I can't remember if this was in the script or not — when we do cut to the empty upstairs before Tess breaks in. We timed it in the movie where it happens right after AJ starts playing the tape. For me, it always had this sense of something deathly and somber. I really like that beat, actually, going to the empty upstairs and just the objects before she breaks in.
There's a montage of the upstairs being empty before she breaks the window.
MURPHY: That whole section was something that we were just trying to figure out exactly the right specific cut point in between the scenes.
** MAJOR SPOILER ALERT FOR MOST OF THE REST OF THE INTERVIEW **
CREGGER: Originally, Frank pulls the gun out and just puts it right up to his head. And you found a way to break that shot up, so it looks like he's aiming it at AJ, and then we go back out. We check in with Tess as she gets in the car, and then he puts he completes the motion. But originally, that was just one fluid motion that you were able to effectively break up and buy us a whole extra beat with AJ and Frank, which really saved us. That was another Joe Murphy magic moment.
That is super powerful if that's the way it was shot because I love the fact that you thought that he was going to kill AJ.
CREGGER: That was not the intention when we were shooting it, but Joe built that.
Another thing that was interesting is when Tess crashes the car into the Mother, we think the Mother's dead. Frank has killed himself. AJ has the gun, and he's moving towards the exit, and Tess is going down with a flashlight. Originally we had all these other really cool-looking shots of AJ moving through the tunnels with his flashlight and his gun. We’re cutting from him moving to her and her moving to him. I felt like we were building towards this inevitable car crash that was going to be so tense. The first time we showed it to our friends and family screening, everybody hated that scene. They didn't hate the scene, but they got it, and they knew what was going to happen.
When we took all those shots of AJ out, and we just let it be a montage of Tess moving down and down and down. Then you see the flashlight, and the gunshot goes off. It made that moment just really so much more sharp, jarring, and effective. That’s something we would never have known unless we showed it to and audience.
That's the classic: You’ve got to stay ahead of the audience, right? You can't let the audience get ahead of you.
There's a moment when AJ pops a video cassette into the video player, and yet we never see what was played. Did you shoot that?
CREGGER: I would never shoot that. No. That was always the way it was supposed to be. Better to infer.
MURPHY: We discovered a fun moment in the edit when Tess and AJ finally escape from the house together. We needed a beat to kind of reset everything. There was this great wide shot that Zach had shot that actually had the Mother on the hood of the car.
CREGGER: And Tess is in the driver's seat!
MURPHY: But it was a great shot.
CREGGER: Like a Gregory Crewdson photo. Really wide.
MURPHY: And we couldn't use it where it would have necessarily been intended, so through a little VFX magic, we were able to repurpose it and get rid of Tess in the shot and also cover the Mother with smoke. So it became a little establisher right before Tess and AJ exited the house because we just needed a beat there.
CREGGER: Little tiny things make all the difference. Like, for example, when the Mother jumps off of the roof at the final, the climax of the movie. That breaks down: we have this overhead shot of Tess going off the edge and a close-up of her face as she's falling. Then her P.O.V. of the roof kind of moving away from us. In that P.O.V. shot, the Mother enters the frame and kind of dives past camera. Then we found a profile shot of the mother, kind of wrapping herself around Tess, and they fall out of frame.
Now I'm very aware that gravity doesn't work this way. We've entered Sam Raimi territory. But it was so much worse in that edit. People were just squirming at that. People still laugh now when they see the Mother jump off the roof. That's awesome. I love it. But I think it was getting really “groan-ey.”
I went over to Jordan Peele's house and showed him the movie at a early cut, and the only edit note he had for the whole movie was, “Take that profile shot out, and that whole thing will work so much better.” He was dead right. You don't need to see her catch Tess. But just the inference that the Mother jumps off, that's all you need to know. Then when AJ looks over the roof we see the position of their bodies. It's like everyone's able to retroactively piece together what has happened. It's such a better scene.
Less is more.
CREGGER: Yeah, less is more.
FILO: I don't know if this was your intention either, but that scene when we see the final moments of Tess and the Mother looking at each other, I almost felt for the Mother more than anyone thus far in the movie. Was that an intentional vibe that you were going for?
CREGGER: Very much so. I think that the Mother is the most sympathetic character in the movie. I think of her almost as innocent, even though she murders three people.
Just to prove that that was my intention: we shot the video that's on the TV of the Mother nursing the baby. The actor, Matthew Patrick Davis, who plays the Mother, came up with some gestures that we could give the woman in the nursing video that Matthew could then mimic. So the kissing of the hand and placing the hand on the forehead was filmed for the woman in the nursing video to do so that the Mother could replicate that gesture right before she's killed. It was definitely part of the plan.
FILO: It's a really effective moment.
CREGGER: Thank you. It's probably my favorite moment of the movie, actually.
MURPHY: It’s a nice discovery, though, and audiences are really responding to that. In the initial friends and family and also the test screenings, you could hear some cries out for the Mother.
CREGGER: And originally, it didn't end on the gunshot. Originally we cut out to a very wide shot, and that's where the Mother is killed. Too wide for any kind of glorification of violence. It's just a very small pop. She just kind of falls, and then Tess sits up.
Now that shot’s in the post-credits, but originally it goes from that, and then it goes to her walking through the neighborhood and kind of gathering herself. Then the music fades up as she's walking away. And people were not loving it, you know? And I get why. It felt like: “So wait? Now it's over? When do we feel like we're out of this thing?”
I remember we were kind of racking our brains on what we could do. I called Joe and asked, Can you just try cutting to credits on the gunshot in the closeup? I felt this tinge of: “No one will let us do that.” That's against the rules! And that's like that. I thought, “Maybe that's the ultimate reason to do it.” It was so immediately clear once you cut that together, “This is the way it is. This is better.” That was good.
Steph, tell us more about your theatrical experience. Unfortunately, I watched this on my laptop.
FILO: I saw it on a weird day. It was like a Tuesday or something. After work, I was exhausted, and I think the whole audience was too. Also not knowing what we were getting into. Then, almost immediately, the minute Tess first goes into that house, we're like, “No! What are you doing?”
So it just kind of built into this really fun, immersive experience.
CREGGER: Let me ask you, Steph — so I've seen this a bunch of times with audiences, and the first handful of times people around me would be saying to the screen, “Stupid! NO! Oh my God!” At first, it really hurt my feelings. Now I've kind of come around to understanding: This is part of the joy of all horror movies. I still really grapple with it. It's like when you see a character do something that you would never in a million years do in a horror movie. Is there any part of you that is like docking points from the movie when that's happening? I really would love to have a better understanding.
FILO: I feel like it tells you more about the character. Because if that was me, I would absolutely not go in this house in the first place. I definitely would not go down the stairs. Don't know about you guys.
I would not pull the rope coming through a hole in the basement wall.
FILO: I feel like it’s more about the character, and maybe she's a bit naive perhaps. To me, it's more interesting to watch because you're wondering where is this going. It doesn’t dock points.
CREGGER: When I hear women in the theater say, “No! Oh, stupid!” I think, “Oh, they hate the movie.” Then I don't think they are hating it.
Two cultural things: One, you mentioned Jordan Peele. His movie Nope. Most of the stuff in that movie was about “Nope! Wouldn’t do it! Nope! Not a chance!”
I definitely had those moments, and I think Steph, in the questions you prepped for this interview, you wanted to ask, “Ask those guys if they’d go in the basement.”
CREGGER: No way, no way, no way.
MURPHY: There was something about Tess that was quite interesting when you were mentioning the character stuff, Steph. Something that we discovered in the edit was that Tess's decision to go down to try and find Keith. There was this extra scene where she tries to get help.
CREGGER: Yeah, she calls 9-1-1 again.
MURPHY: Yeah. It really ended up not serving her character, actually, when we looked at it in the cut itself. It was a moment when she wasn't as strong. It made her decisions seem less impulsive, too. Once we had taken that out and went right to that shot that Zach designed of the chair getting dragged and put into the door, it actually gave Tess a stronger energy. There was more of an impulsive drive. And also, I kind of believed that she could try to be the heroine here.
That phone call kind of took that energy away. But it was a really interesting discovery to see how just by losing that moment, it changed the shading of her character. It made her really grow.
She couldn't call 9-1-1. She was in Bulgaria!
I definitely had multiple times in the movie where I said to the screen, “No! Don't go! What are you doing? Are you crazy?” But it doesn't ruin the appreciation of the film.
FILO: Joe, this movie takes so many twists and turns. It probably put you in a weird headspace as you're cutting it. Was there anything you did to prepare for that?
MURPHY: Before I started working on it I just started watching a ton of horror movies. All different kinds, shapes, and sizes, American and foreign ones. Just to sort of get myself in that vibe and also look at different strategies that people employed and music and score and everything else. For me, doing that kind of research is the most fun part of the process. That was definitely something for me that was helpful.
Even when I was working on the cut, particularly the editor's cut, I was checking out other horror movies just to kind of help keep inspiring new ideas.
Steph, you had a question for Zach you wanted to ask if we had time.
FILO: I do. I have a question that's not Barbarian-related.
FILO: I read a long time ago that you guys were doing a Whitest Kids movie, and I love that show. ("Whitest Kids U'Know" 2007-2011 fuse.tv)
CREGGER: Thank you!
FILO: I was wondering what was happening with it.
CREGGER: It's an animated film. We were able to record all of the voices before Trevor died. So that's all intact. We've been crowdfunding it, and we are really close to the home stretch. It's pretty much almost all animated. I just saw the cut. It's like 95% there. Now we just need to raise a little bit more money and take a little bit longer because of his death. So the momentum really got kind of halted, but it's about sound design now, and we have to score it and all that stuff. But it is going to be done. I want to say within a year, it should be out in the world. I'm really happy with it. I think it's a really good final, final thing for us. I think he would be really proud of it.
FILO: Oh, nice! I’ll be looking for it.
CREGGER: Yeah. I hope you like it.
FILO: I'm sure I will.
CREGGER: It's called Mars.
Zach, Joe, Steph, thank you so much for joining me. This was a super, super interesting conversation.
CREGGER: Thanks for having us.
MURPHY: Thanks so much.
FILO: Thank you.