M3GAN Director: “It’s definitely more Hand That Rocks the Cradle with an AI element to it”

Directed by Housebound’s Gerard Johnstone, written by Malignant’s Akela Cooper and produced by James Wan, M3GAN is the latest movie from Blumhouse and follows a sassy, dancing, murderous AI doll who has taken the world by storm since that first trailer was released last year.

When toy-company roboticist, Gemma, suddenly becomes the caretaker of her orphaned 8-year-old niece, Cady, Gemma’s unsure and unprepared to be a parent. Step in M3GAN: Gemma’s AI life-like doll programmed to be a child’s greatest companion and a parent’s greatest ally.

Under pressure from work, Gemma decides to pair her M3GAN prototype with Cady in an attempt to resolve both problems—a decision that will have unimaginable consequences.

We spoke to Johnstone about how the film compares to Chucky, his favourite horror movies and M3GAN’s famous dancing…

There are a few horror films with a doll in the centre of it. How does M3GAN fit in with those other films and what makes it stand out?

Well, the difference between Annabelle and M3GAN is that Annabelle is very front and centre. She’s not lurking in the shadows. She’s there. She has an opinion. And with Chucky it’s like something goes wrong and depending on which version you watch, it’s either a glitch in his programming or it’s a voodoo incantation.

With M3GAN, it’s just that she is the progression of artificial intelligence, making her own moral code and making her own decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong.

The fun thing with M3GAN is she’s a villain that people kind of like, and can really get on side with. They have a tough time deciding who they’re rooting for in the story.

Indeed, M3GAN has a lot of charisma – how did you set out for that to come across in the movie?

A lot of it went into the design. We wanted to make her look as realistic as possible, and we wanted her to have class and elegance and style and sass.

So we worked hard on all of those things, but I could not have predicted how she would be embraced by people. I was at the premiere and it was really interesting. You feel that energy in the room change when M3GAN is on screen. People just love her and they just want to be with her. It’s a testament to the work that everyone put into creating her.

The M3GAN filmmakers wanted the doll to look as realistic as possible

Speaking of which, how did you create M3GAN’s look?

Often in horror movies, they tend to make the villain kind of ugly in a way that we’ve got a reason to hate it. But with M3GAN, I just wanted to have a villain that was beautiful and hypnotic and that in itself became a really sinister characteristic.

We went through a lot of different iterations. We had a 2D concept, and that 2D concep then had to be modelled into 3D, and it just looked different.

It was just impossible to make something three-dimensional out of a 2D concept. [So] from that three-dimensional figure, we had to then build it with real materials and then once you build it with real materials, and stick animatronics inside her face, her face changes again.

We had an idea of how she would look but really she became her own creation just through that model-building process. I couldn’t have been happier with how she ended up looking. Kathy and Adrien Morot, who designed her just did a spectacular job.

M3GAN’s dancing has become a big deal since the trailer came out, but that wasn’t actually in the original script. How did that come about?

Well, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it’s pretty bat-shit! So it just really comes down to how can we top ourselves and at that point in the movie I think we’d earned it.

We just wanted to do something fun. By then, we’d seen her sass, we’d seen her sing and so it just made sense that we should see her dance.

What was it like working with Akela Cooper, Jason Blum and James Wan?

Akela wrote such a great screenplay with such a powerful story, and the structure of that film never changed.

James and Jason were big fans of my first film Housebound and how that blended horror with humour and they wanted me to bring as much of that as I could.

James’ role as producer was really like a mentor to me who was just on hand whenever I needed him. Obviously he was busy making his own big blockbuster movies but we would trade emails about certain sequences, and I would pick his brain about some things because he’s a master and I had watched so many of his movies in preparation to make my first movie. So having him as a resource was very useful, but they really just wanted to stand back and let me make it.

James has Final Cut but he never used it. He really just wanted me to make the movie I wanted to make and he was just so ecstatic with what we did and so it was just great to get their support – those guys believed in it from the beginning.

Are you a horror fan yourself? What are your favourite horror movies?

I am! I never expected to be making two horror movies back to back but growing up I loved Wes Craven and Sam Raimi. Those are some of the most fun film experiences I had as a kid. But I was also a massive kung-fu movie nerd. I love Jackie Chan movies. So I would love to make action movies as well but the first stuff I actually started making was comedy.

I just love it all. That’s probably why M3GAN has so many different genres in it, because I don’t want to be known for doing one thing. I hope that I get to make as many genres as possible.

Gerard Johnstone didn’t think he’d be making two horrror films back-to-back…

As you say, M3GAN has many different genres within it but how would you describe the genre of the movie?

I guess it’s a horror comedy. My wife’s always corrected me. She’s like, it’s ‘a sci-fi comedy thriller’. So she’s probably more right.

We started out differently. If you’re aware of Blumhouse you’ll know that horror is the stock and trade, but to me, it’s kind of more of a sci-fi comedy thriller. It’s kind of a domestic noir as well. It’s quite noirish in style and that was certainly something, in terms of M3GAN – we often thought of her a classy femme fatale.

I think it’s probably more of a thriller, and in terms of comparisons, Childsplay is inevitable, but it’s definitely more Hand That Rocks the Cradle with an AI element to it.

There are some funny elements, some scary elements, but also some very serious elements in M3GAN. How did you go about balancing all of that to create the right tone?

Blumhouse, to their credit, even though they’ve made a lot of horror films, they are as concerned about the heart and the emotion of the movie as much as the jumpscares. So it was a constant conversation, making sure that we were earning that.

In Akela’s script that was always there; the idea of these two fractured family members coming together over extreme circumstances. So that heart was always there.

In terms of bringing the humour to it, casting someone like Allison [Williams] also really helps, who has a really great innate sense of humour and has a really nice dry acerbic delivery. Also [star] Ronny Chieng is just hilarious. Not in a way that’s really broad and goofy – he has a sort of angry energy to him.

We had a really great cast that got the tone and my editor Jeff, was really great as well. We would constantly be monitoring the tone and figuring out if we were earning this moment or not. So I just was lucky to have a really great team.

What do you want for audiences to take away from M3GAN?

I would love it if they would just think twice about letting their kids on screens. So that it makes it easy for the rest of us parents that are trying to not have kids on screens so often. That our kids won’t say: “Charlie’s parents let him go on the iPad all the time.”

That would be great, but ultimately, I just want them to have a blast.

M3GAN will be released in cinemas on 13 January. 

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