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Exclusive Interview: Director Gerard Johnstone on bringing “M3GAN” to life

Friday, January 6, 2023 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

In 2014, New Zealand filmmaker Gerard Johnstone first proved his talent for combining horror and comedy with the haunted-home movie HOUSEBOUND. Fans have been waiting ever since for Johnstone’s follow-up feature, and now he’s back in a big way with M3GAN, which he discusses with us below.

A Blumhouse/Atomic Monster production now in theaters from Universal, M3GAN became a prerelease sensation when images from the trailer of its deadly doll dancing went viral (Johnstone discusses that here). In the movie, scripted by MALIGNANT’s Akela Cooper, M3GAN is the creation of toy company product developer Gemma (GET OUT’s Allison Williams): a lifelike little-girl android that can interact with people, react emotionally and spontaneously, and learn. When Gemma takes in her niece Cady (Violet McGraw), who has lost her parents in a car accident, the girl bonds with M3GAN–whose desire to “protect” Cady has violent results. The movie, which is reviewed here, combines dark-humored thrills with satirical jabs at the way technology has overtaken human interaction in parenting.

What had you been working on since HOUSEBOUND, and how did you first hook up with Blumhouse?

I had a lot of projects in development, but this one was a direct offer, and something I didn’t have to pitch on, which is always appealing. I really responded to it; I thought it was going to be a lot of fun to create this iconic character, and also get the chance to say something about what’s happening in the world right now, which is how parenting is relying on these devices.

Was this the first project Blumhouse offered you?

No, they had sent me a few other things, but the tone of this was the most appealing. I thought there was so much I could do with it. It wasn’t a straight horror story, and to me it was clearly a chance to be quite subversive. After I made HOUSEBOUND, which was a horror/comedy, I got offered a lot of straight-ahead, darker horrors, and I found them too bleak. I’m just not very good with things that don’t have some light at the end of the tunnel [laughs], and I felt like if I was going to jump into the sandbox again, I wanted to do it in such a way where there would be a multitude of things going on, and that was definitely a case with M3GAN.

Can you elaborate further on how this movie addresses current parenting issues?

Yeah–I’ve got two boys, 8 and 10, and I was finding it really difficult figuring out, just as a new dad, how to engage with them, how to bring them up, how to entertain them. You run out of impressions and little characters you can do real quick [laughs], and so we’ve got these devices on hand that you can stick your kid in front of, and they’ll be glued to them for hours. That’s useful when you’re cooking dinner or something like that, but at the same time, I just felt like this can’t be good. We live in this time when the research isn’t really out there, but the world is ruled by tech companies, and the pioneers have this philosophy of move fast and break things, and that hasn’t turned out well. [The attitude is] I guess we’ll figure it out, but by then the damage is already done. So this film was a chance to address that, in a fun way.

It also deals with the uncanny valley idea; was that part of your thinking going into the film?

Only when we started to figure out what M3GAN was going to look like. The people who were going to bring her to life were based in Montreal: Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse, who specialize in lifelike prosthetics. When I saw the work they did, and how they could actually make human figures you thought were real, I felt, well, Jesus, why don’t we try to do that with this doll? Instead of just making her obviously a toy, why don’t we see how far we can push this? Then it became exciting, and a chance to push this further into the uncanny valley.

How much of M3GAN is prosthetic, and how much is computer-generated?

She’s very much practical; she was absolutely a physical entity. I think you can tell when you’re watching the film, because of the way physical things occupy space. I knew from the outset that I wanted her to be a real creation that people could interact with. We absolutely had some help with CGI at certain points, but she’s a practical creation, for sure.

How did you find the right actress to play M3GAN physically, and then to do the voice?

It was challenging. The production moved from Montreal to New Zealand, and when we got down there, we found Amie Donald, the performer [who he discusses here]. For the voice, I wasn’t aware of Jenna Davis, who ended up playing M3GAN, but she’s an actress who’s got quite a strong social media following, and she had this incredible voice that was both innocent and menacing at the same time, with a lot of personality. A lot of people auditioned for that role, but made M3GAN sound like a robot, and I always felt that she’s most effective when she sounds as close to a real person as possible. Jenna completely understood that, and brought so much nuance to it.

Violet McGraw already had quite a bit of horror experience, in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, DOCTOR SLEEP and others, so did that play into her casting here?

No, not at all. I hadn’t seen THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, only because I only have so much time in the world to watch things! I really love Mike Flanagan, and I saw the one he did about the priest [MIDNIGHT MASS], which was incredible, but I had not seen Violet at all. She just auditioned, and she was incredible. When I met her, I thought I was going to be meeting this fragile little thing, but she was just personality-plus. In that moment, I realized I was dealing with a real actress here. We actually got a nice note from Mike Flanagan saying the same thing, that he couldn’t speak more highly of her, so that was encouraging.

How did she handle all the scenes where she’s interacting with M3GAN? Were those a particular challenge to pull off?

No, those came quite naturally to her. I think she was curious about that, and it was a lot of fun. There were a lot of technical challenges to overcome; it wasn’t like dealing with a regular actor who could engage with her. M3GAN was a multifaceted creation, and a whole army of people had to come together to bring her to life, but I don’t think Violet ever had a problem with that. What was interesting, though, was that she remained fascinated by M3GAN all the way through the shoot, even the additional photography. You could just tell; M3GAN had that impact on people whenever she was in the room, and everyone just kind of turned their heads. It was the same thing with Violet; she never got sick of staring at M3GAN, because she was so hypnotic and cool.

Was the switch from Montreal to New Zealand due to COVID protocols?

It was. I believe COVID was surging in Montreal at the time, and New Zealand at that point was COVID-free. And because I’m from there, it made sense to see if we could retool this and do it in New Zealand. It was a shame, because I was really looking forward to going to Montreal. It’s so cinematic, and it’s hard to find locations in New Zealand that match the States, but we pulled it off.

You had Jason Blum and James Wan, the two highest-powered horror producers working today, behind your movie; how did that work out? Did they give you a lot of freedom, or were they constant presences on the set?

No, they weren’t on the set. James is very prolific and he’s also a director, so he wasn’t around, but he was a very strong voice of support. Same thing with Jason. They were both very hands-off and curious to see what I was going to do with this. I didn’t feel any pressure from them at all, it was only support, and I tried not to factor in that they’re two of the most important people in horror. I just focused on making the best movie I could, and they were great, and really happy with the end result.

What do you think is the ongoing appeal of dangerous dolls? What is it about the idea that has resonated for so long?

That’s a really good question, and not one I’m sure I can answer, because when I was developing the movie, I never really thought of M3GAN as a doll. At a certain point, I had to come to terms with the fact that that was what we were going to have to create, and a doll would be what we were dealing with. But I will say that when she did come to life, it was apparent that there was an inherently strange quality about something that has a face and can move like we do, even though you know it isn’t human. I think dolls can be incredibly scary, and I find that the more realistic they are, the scarier they are. It’s the whole uncanny valley thing we were talking about, so that’s definitely what we wanted to do with M3GAN: to see how far we could push it.

Has there been any discussion yet about doing more movies with M3GAN, and making her a franchise character?

Yeah, there has been. We’re going to have to see how it does, and hopefully the love that she’s already got from the trailer will continue through the film. That would be great if it happens, for sure. I’m always open to making another one; the great thing about horror/comedy is sitting in a theater hearing people audibly reacting to your movie. It’s intoxicating, it’s something you can’t get enough of, and I’m absolutely open to doing it again.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.