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‘Barbarians’ writer-director Charles Dorfman on his writing odyssey

May 13, 2022
Photo courtesy of IFC MIDNIGHT
3 min read time

After workshopping his story idea for eight years of stops, starts, and rewrites, Charles Dorfman swapped out his producer hat to take on the role of writer-director for his feature film debut Barbarians. Synthesizing his story, theatre experience, and visual eye, Dorfman created a home invasion thriller that explores questions around masculinity, the masks we hide behind, and what it takes to push a human being across the line between civility and violence.

 The film follows two couples over the course of one day, beginning with Adam (Iwan Rheon) and Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno) waking up in their idyllic soon-to-be home on Adam’s birthday. Eventually, the pair are joined by property developer and social media influencer Lucas (Tom Cullen) and his partner Chloe (Inès Spiridonov) for dinner, who come bearing bad news. As the night plays out, tensions between the two men reach a boiling point — that’s all before several masked individuals break into the house and all hell breaks loose. 

Asked about his story writing process and the timeline of the project from start to finish, Dorfman quips, “How long is the interview?” The story is one he devoted lots of time to, which he began in 2014. During that time he found himself stepping away from and returning to the screenplay, even doing a “page one rewrite” at one point. 

Using his background in theatre, Dorfman acted out parts of the storyline from different characters’ points of view, “eventually landing on [the] theme and then fleshing out [the] plot.” Though he knew how the film would end, he wrote multiple pathways to get there before eventually deciding on the one that was used in the film. 

Dorfman drew on the advice of legendary director Stanley Kubrick, who stated that a film’s narrative structure could simply consist of “six to eight non-submersible units,” to write his story. Dorfman divided the plot of Barbarians into several pieces and posted the resulting script sheets around his house.

“I lived with it for like a year and would just doodle on it,” he says. Through this process, he developed the title cards which intermittently appear during the film, accompanied by the loud thuds of drums. Dorfman says he liked the idea of using these placards as “Brechtian cards,” a reference to theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht, to give the audience the sense they were being told a story. 

One of the perks of being the film’s director in addition to its writer is that Dorfman was able to sculpt the ideas and themes explored in his script into the film’s visuals. He was very conscious of how each section was shot, as well as how camera angles and music could give different sections a different feel, which allowed him to craft the dramatic shift in mood after the home invasion begins. 

“Visually I wanted to incorporate a lot of thresholds,” Dorfman says, discussing how the film ponders questions around right and wrong and the boundary between the two. The film includes lots of doors and windows, as well as natural artwork on the wall, because “in nature, there are no straight lines.” 

The question of boundaries (especially regarding violence and masculinity) is nowhere more evident in the film than in the contrast between the two lead men, Adam and Lucas. While Adam is presented as somewhat meek, such as when he hesitates to kill a fox that wanders into the house, Lucas is a bully who oozes toxic masculinity. 

Both men lack maturity, which Dorfman defines as, “having alignment of thoughts, words, and actions.” This internal lack of alignment and Lucas’s deception of the couple, in particular, open up the avenue to another theme: the masks we wear. 

While the more obvious motif in the film is the physical masks the invaders wear to hide their identities, Dorfman also plays with social media as another way in which humans disguise their true selves. 

"That idea of presenting yourself in a different way to who you are is central to both those characters and the film,” he says, speaking about Adam and Lucas. “And naturally that is what social media is.”

For Lucas’s section at the beginning of the film, the entire sequence is shot with an iPhone aspect ratio, including scenes with an influencer-like tone and other shots that incorporate Snapchat®  filters to once again illustrate the lack of authenticity in his actions. 

Once the project was finally complete, watching it on the big screen with strangers who bought tickets was “life-changing,” Dorfman says. For other first-time writers who hope to eventually turn their screenplay into a film, he advises them to keep the story contained within a genre, but to make it unique and write interesting characters who are demonstrated as much in their relationships as they are in their actions. 

The film isn’t for everyone, Dorfman says, but he hopes those who watch it get something out of it.

Barbarians is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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