One of the many striking elements of writer-director Zach Cregger’s horror film “Barbarian” is its sense of place; the decaying Detroit neighborhood in which most of the movie is set creates as much eerie dread as the Bates Motel in “Psycho” or the icy research station in “The Thing.” What makes the specifically American location all the more impressive is the fact that it’s not a location at all but a set, and one that’s not even in the Western Hemisphere — working with a local art department, Cregger and director of photography Zach Kuperstein transformed an empty Bulgarian farm into an entire run-down subdivision.
Before Kuperstein came on board, the production had chosen to shoot at Bulgaria’s Nu Boyana studio, with the intent of using the “America Town” section of the backlot. When Kuperstein and Cregger started looking at videos and maps of the streets, however, they realized that their blocking and camera moves would be extremely limited compared to their ambitions. “The line producer suggested that instead of using the studio we build the whole thing from scratch in a field,” Kuperstein told IndieWire. “We were like, ‘That sounds crazy’ — it sounded like way too much to build. But the America Town set was too confining, so we chose the farm location and I’m very happy we did.”
Aside from the actors and producers, Cregger and Kuperstein were the only American members of the filmmaking team — everyone else was Bulgarian, and though he was initially nervous, Kuperstein quickly realized he had the perfect crew. “They were fantastic,” he said. “A lot of huge American movies come through this studio, so this was maybe the smallest thing they had ever done and the biggest thing I had ever done. They brought a lot of experience, but also enthusiasm because they weren’t just cogs in the machine the way they might be on a bigger project.”
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
Bulgarian production designer Rossitsa Bakeva created a street with facades placed to accommodate Kuperstein and Cregger’s pre-planned camera angles (the entire film was meticulously storyboarded), and Kuperstein took advantage of a preexisting element of the farm for the film’s climax. “In the script, the last scene took place on the roof of a church,” Kuperstein recalled, “but there was a silo there, and I just said, ‘Can we just forget the church and make this a silo scene?’ As soon as it came out of my mouth, I thought they were all going to think it was a stupid idea, but Zach said, ‘That’s great. Let’s do that.’”
Since it was too dangerous to put actors on top of the silo, the art department built a full-size replica of the roof on a stage and Kuperstein found an effective, lo-fi way of creating his exterior. “We surrounded the silo with 270-degrees of black fabric, poked a bunch of holes in it and backlit it, and it looked great,” Kuperstein said, “but as they were constructing it, the line producer came up to me and asked, ‘Where is the horizon?’” Kuperstein realized that the horizon always looked right at zero degrees, so he created an adjustable horizon line in relation to the camera for each shot via chain motors.
The house in which the first act of “Barbarian” takes place is another triumph of production design and lighting, and Kuperstein had a simple principle for dictating the camerawork in both the “safe” upstairs and the terrifying basement in which some of the film’s scariest moments take place. “The main references were Fincher upstairs, Raimi downstairs. We tried to be as motivated as possible with the camera movement when things were happening upstairs, and then as soon as the shit hits the fan downstairs it’s all fast edits and fast moves, just trying to amp up the energy as much as we could.”
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
The tight, dark spaces in the basement created challenges not only for those dynamic camera moves (many of which Kuperstein operated handheld), but also in terms of lighting. “I hate it in movies where there’s a flashlight scene and somehow there’s other light in the space,” Kuperstein said. “We did experiment with backlight in the tunnel, but it just looked fake.” In order to shoot with the lowest possible light levels, Kuperstein chose the Sony Venice as his camera and directed the actors to light the scenes themselves with their flashlights, directing them to hold the flashlights in ways that would get the proper bounce off the wall or light the sides of their heads.
Although the majority of the film does take place in that creepy house and the neighborhood exteriors that Bakeva built, the filmmakers did take advantage of the “America Town” set for one striking flashback sequence that provides an explanation for the disorienting horrors of the film’s first half. That passage of the movie has an entirely different look from the rest, with gliding camera moves and extreme wide-angle lenses; it’s a look influenced by the Austrian horror film “Angst,” a 1983 cult favorite that Cregger suggested as a reference point. Kuperstein added to the distinctive atmosphere of the sequence by shooting it in a 4:3 aspect ratio, immediately separating it from the 1.85:1 ratio of the rest of the movie.
Kuperstein noted that throughout the project the back and forth between him and Cregger yielded productive ideas, though they often found that their tastes were slightly different. “We rediscovered the shot list multiple times through the process,” Kuperstein said. “First we talked about it generally, then in the office, then the hotel room, and then when we photo-boarded, it it evolved again. Sometimes there would be POV shots where I thought, ‘We’re milking this too much,’ but Zach made the point that the audience would be more scared looking in front of them at an empty, terrifying hallway than at the actor’s face. I was wrong about that, so I’m glad he pushed for it. Those shots make the movie. It was a really excellent collaboration.”