*Warning: the following interview contains spoilers for Barbarian.*
Barbarian is one of the most original horror movies of the year, and a great film to experience for yourself with little knowledge of how it will evolve and consistently finds new ways to subvert expectations and surprise audience members. And it’s part of what drew editor Joe Murphy to want to work on the project, stating that director Zach Cregger‘s screenplay had tons of energy to it:
“I was really excited about the opportunity to work on it after reading it. It wasn’t something that I expected. Initially, when I read the first couple of pages, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, which was really exciting. It also seemed like a challenge because of its uniqueness, because when you have multiple characters whose perspective you’re going to be telling the story from, it’s a nice challenge in the editing room. You always have to figure out how to keep the audience invested.
In the edit, a lot of that work is done through how it’s shot. But in terms of shaping the pace, and just figuring out what you need story-wise to keep people hooked is always something that’s really interesting. After I met Zach, I was definitely sold. He had such an amazing way of speaking about the film and had a really clear perspective of what he wanted to do. And collaborating with someone that has that kind of vision is always something that I look out for because it just becomes a really fluid and engaging process.”
Cregger had a clear visual logic for the movie that influenced the edit, with Murphy explaining that when he saw the dailies come in, “it really freed me to be able to work on the nuances to examine the performances. I wasn’t trying to figure out how the shots were supposed to unfold. While there’s always some experimentation in the edit, the footage had a really clear logic to it.”
Editing a movie that keeps surprising its audience isn’t a challenge, according to Murphy, but it’s part of the fun of keeping everyone on their toes:
“I feel like it was great to cast Bill Skarsgård as one of the opening characters because it’s a great misdirect. It really helps the energy of the film because it keeps things surprising. He has this vibe of potentially being a romantic interest, but he’s also known for being a villain.
I don’t think there’s really a challenge at all to misdirect. That’s the most exciting part about it. You do know that you need to set certain expectations in the horror genre, but it’s really nice to be able to set up and establish this world that people can spend some time in it and not have any preconceived notions about it.”
Murphy also explained that Cregger designed the movie to misdirect audiences by its halfway mark. With Keith (Bill Skarsgård) dead, the film cuts to black and introduces a brand new character, AJ (Justin Long). The tone of the movie shifts, almost like audiences are watching something completely different, which was the intent:
“That was part of the design from the get-go. The big structure of the film was always there from the script level, and even the idea of like cutting to black, and then cutting into Malibu is definitely something that was there before. I think the thing was experimenting with the nuances of that scene, especially getting the timing right on Keith’s death and nailing that moment. When The Mother (Matthew Patrick Davis) screams at Tess (Georgina Campbell), for instance, it’s those small things, where you figure out the timing. But the concept was always there before. The concept is there from the beginning and for those big chapter twists.”
The movie also switches aspect ratios for a flashback scene, which helps the edit in announcing that it’s time to do something different with the sequence:
“What really helps to have different aspect ratios is that it announces you have something different, but in a subtle way. So that was something that was already planned in and shot for. One thing that we did do, which we found was really helpful in the edit when working on Frank’s (Richard Brake) section, we needed to find some kind of connective tissue. But at the very end. It’s the last shot of Frank’s section when he goes into the hallway. He closes the basement door, and then we cut to a shot of the hallway in the present. That match-cut helped guide us back into our present-day reality. Something we discovered in the edit was that we needed one other bit of connective tissue there to establish Frank being in the house, and in a hallway. That was one of the smallest discoveries we made that just helped guide us through these different chapters of the movie.”
In establishing a sense of tension throughout the film, Murphy explains that it’s found through the dailies, where the editors can start working on how the viewing experience will feel for the viewers:
“You have to go through the dailies and put everything down that you have there. I like to start out with stuff that’s drier in the beginning, without music, to see what’s there. You then start to find the shape as you’re going through the multiple cuts. For me, the tension happens in a really organic way.
You’re just responding to what you were provided, and you’re feeling it out as you go. You’re essentially just vibing about how the flow is when you watch it in sequence. And I think one of the most important things to mention is that it’s all about context. For example, it’s not just a scene where Tess is finding the rope, and going down in the tunnels. It’s also what happened before and what happens after. You have to watch it in those longer sections to really see if something is keeping the tension.
Are you guessing? Are you ahead of the character? Or are you behind the character when it’s something suspenseful? And when it’s something surprising, why does it feel that way? Through that process of layering stuff out, watching, responding, and then revising, you start to find the tension in the sequence.
The screening process is also important, and not just for the audience, but also friends and family or getting feedback from the team. We had excellent producers on the project, and getting feedback from them, for how they’re feeling about this, how the scene is working, that kind of stuff, and that back and forth with working on something, responding to it, and seeing how an audience responds was important. When going through that process of just vibing it out, you eventually end up with a finished piece. We first have to find out what’s interesting, what’s keeping you invested, what’s keeping you guessing, and keeping you leaning into the story. I’m always trying to figure out when I can feel my whole like body leaning into the plot when I’m watching something, you know, which helps a lot as an editor.”
Barbarian is now available to stream on HBO Max in the United States and on Disney+ internationally. The film is also available to rent or buy on video-on-demand.
[Quotes have been edited for length and clarity]