How The Producer Of It And The LEGO Movie Saved Barbarian (Twice)

Some of the greatest Hollywood success stories are the ones that come to fruition against all odds, when Hollywood execs don't realize they're on the ground floor of something extraordinary, pass on an opportunity, and are left to watch as the filmmakers persevere into an absolutely stunning success story. It not only speaks volumes about the industry, but ends up highlighting some of the hardworking individuals that make said success possible. All this to say that it's time to strap in for a story, because the latest addition to the underdog canon has arrived, and it's none other than last month's surprise box office hit, "Barbarian."

If you still haven't seen the film and somehow managed to avoid spoilers, then you should probably rush to your nearest theater immediately. An unpredictable ride from start to finish, "Barbarian" is a movie with more twists and surprises than you could possibly expect, especially based on the trailer or relatively simple-sounding premise. The story follows Tess (Georgina Campbell), a young woman who arrives at her Airbnb to find it already occupied by a stranger. Against her better judgment (and all basic survival skills) she decides to spend the night co-habitating with the fellow traveler (played by none other than horror alum Bill Skarsgård, aka Pennywise from the "IT" franchise). As you can probably guess, some creepy revelations are made and thus starts the wild action of the movie.

A true sleeper hit, "Barbarian" has over-performed way beyond expectations, riding a wave of critical acclaim (including a glowing review from /Film's Ryan Scott) to the top of the box office and growing in buzz thanks to the help of very positive word-of-mouth. But despite all that success, the road to getting this film made was extremely complicated for writer/director Zach Cregger, because almost no one in the industry wanted to make it.

Barbaran was an uphill battle

In retrospect, it's easy to see what a massive mistake was made by the many production companies that turned down "Barbarian." It's especially rough given the fact that this is a small-budget horror film we're talking about, ultimately costing around $4.5 million. Then there's the way that Cregger's script swings for the fences, taking big and interesting turns. But that's exactly what had everyone backing away. 

Cregger unpacked the story in a recent chat with Vulture, revealing that the film was turned down by "nearly every studio arm and production company in Hollywood." As for those that did express interest, their money came with some deal-breaking caveats. But altering the story was never an option that Cregger truly considered. Instead, he was caught between shelving the film entirely or selling his house to self-finance despite the risk of going into massive debt. 

Thankfully, it was right about then that he heard from BoulderLight Pictures, the production company behind micro-budget genre movies like "Wild Indian" and "Gone in the Night." BoulderLight co-founders Raphael Margules and J.D. Lifshitz weren't just interested, but they were onboard with Cregger's original vision. Margules said, "The very reasons people passed on it is why we wanted to do it." To go forth, they enlisted the help of their "industry mentor" Roy Lee.

Getting the producers in place

The co-founder of Vertigo Entertainment, Roy Lee is the producer behind titles like "The Departed," "The LEGO Movie," and the "How To Train Your Dragon" franchise. He was a particularly great fit for this project because of his history with horror, including the US adaptation of "The Ring," Stephen King's "Doctor Sleep" and the very lucrative "It" franchise. Lifshitz was the one to pass along the script and contact Roy, "'This script is really weird. I don't think you're going to want to do it because it's more of an indie kind of thing but give it a read."

In his response, Roy revealed that he loved the script and also noted that Vertigo had passed on it a year prior. Then he cold-called Cregger (who told Vulture that he was playing video games in his underwear at the time):

"He's like, 'I'm Roy Lee. I read your script. I think it's really good. And I was like, 'I don't know you. Who are you?' He's like, 'Oh, I have a company called Vertigo. We made 'It' and 'The Departed' and 'The LEGO Movie.” And I was like, 'Roy, I've been trying to get this movie into someone's hands like yours forever, but I just signed with these guys at BoulderLight and can't bail.' And he's like, 'No, they gave me the movie! I want to make it with them.' So from that moment with Roy onboard, we were off to the races."

Another bump in the road

It should've been smooth sailing from there, right? A production company who didn't want to alter the script and a big-name producer to boot? But things are never so simple, least of all in Hollywood. Despite those positive developments, the producers continued shopping the project to distributors to no avail. Then, around mid-2020, came financing from French production company Logical Pictures. Lifshitz and Margules came through with a $3.5 million budget (primarily from Logical) while Lee pulled Skarsgård into their orbit, as a co-star and executive producer.

By the time 2021 rolled around, "Barbarian" was fully cast and Cregger was deep into pre-production. Principal photography was scheduled to begin in Buklarua, but the night before he was supposed to leave, tragedy struck: the production team learned that the film's financier, Eric Tavitian, had suddenly died of cancer. Margules explained:

"That was really tragic and sad. But we had to go directly from grieving this loss to the next day being like, 'Well, what's going to happen with the movie?' If everybody gets word we just lost our financing, it's going to fall apart. There's a domino effect — theoretically, Bill drops out, and all of a sudden you don't have a movie anymore."

Roy Lee to the rescue (again)

Once again, it was Roy Lee who came to their rescue. The producer reached out to Michael Schaefer, president of New Regency, the production company whose recent docket includes "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Little Women," "The Northman," and David O. Russell's upcoming "Amsterdam." Schaefer signed aboard based on his trust in Lee's instincts; together, they struck up an emergency deal. Cregger said:

"On a Friday, we were dead. And then on Saturday morning, on Zoom, Michael Schaefer basically green-lit my movie and upped the budget to $4.5 million. He goes, 'You're just going to need more money later, so I might as well make it easier for you guys.'"

For a moment there, things were looking pretty damn bleak. "Barbarian" was only in limbo for around 24 hours, but it was excruciatingly long for Cregger and his crew during that time. With their funding up in the air, a line producer fired the entire Bulgarian crew. But once New Regency wired over a down payment, the crew was rehired and preproduction began in earnest, and the rest is (ongoing) history. Cregger sums it up best:

"I had a movie, I lost the movie, I rescued the movie, then I lost the movie again over the course of 30 hours. I aged like 10 years! All's well that ends well. But it was wild."

"Barbarian is now playing in theaters.