You almost certainly already know about M3GAN. The killer AI doll – full name Model 3 Generative Android – has been omnipresent on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and every other social platform (Mastodon?) since the horror movie’s trailer debuted last year. With the added boost of the writer of Malignant – everyone’s favourite ‘what the heck did I just watch?’ horror of 2021 – the robot movie is pure viral gold.
Allison Williams stars as a woman whose life changes very quickly in two different ways. First, she finally cracks the tech behind her long-gestating AI doll companion and, secondly, she unexpectedly becomes the legal guardian of her niece. Putting the two together helps to bring young Violet out of her shell but also exposes some flaws in M3GAN’s programming. It seems she loves her new friend a little too much.
In the director’s chair is Gerard Johnstone, helming a new movie for the first time since his 2014 debut Housebound. In this interview, he talks about what prompted his long absence from the director’s chair, dealing with viral fame, comparisons to Chucky and why the change to a PG-13 rating somehow made his film darker and scarier, even without blood splatter.
The Digital Fix: This film is a wild ride, and I think it’s especially interesting because, even before people have seen it, it already has a bit of a viral head of steam. That must be interesting for you?
Gerard Johnstone: It is really interesting, and it’s so unexpected. I thought that dance sequence was going to be a surprise that I had hidden up my sleeve, but I can’t be mad at it.
Universal put it all throughout the trailer, almost as if they fully knew people were going to recut it and make more trailers. The thing was just multiplying. I’m really ecstatic with the results.
Is it a bit of a double-edged sword, in that maybe people might be expecting a different film from what they get?
No, I think that’s pretty on point tonally. The film is pretty bonkers. But it’s also nice to know that we have a couple of other things up our sleeves. If people think that’s crazy, you just wait and see what’s coming. As long as they don’t show those other things, I’ll be happy.
It’s interesting because, in a way, when you make a movie like this that’s so short, you don’t get a chance to fully set things up that suddenly appear in the third act, and you worry.
But there’s something in the trailer that almost sets up that something exists before it gets into the movie. So now we don’t have to worry about the fact that it wasn’t quite set up because people are aware of it. It’s worked out.
It has been a number of years since your last movie project [Housebound in 2014], and you’ve done TV in the meantime. Was it a case of waiting for the right project to come along, or was it a case of trying to get stuff made and not being able to?
Both of those things. I don’t know if I’m being picky, but it’s just understanding what it is that I do, I guess. I can do a certain thing quite well. Also, I made a horror film, so that put me in a certain lane and so I would be getting a lot of horror films.
To do a horror film that has all of the things I like in it is really hard. This script came along and I was just really excited by it and the potential of it. It had so many things in it.
One of the reasons why there was lots of time after Housebound is because I was a new dad and my kids were quite young, and we were very focused on raising them. We lived in New Zealand, not Hollywood, and we were very focused on them. And so this script came along that was all about the anxieties of parenthood and balancing your career with your children, so it was kind of perfect really.
What delayed it was that the Child’s Play reboot came out and that had an AI element, so we had to wait and see what that was like. It was really good, but it felt like we had something different to say. Then the pandemic happened.
We were gonna shoot in Montreal, then we had to shoot in New Zealand, and then we shot in New Zealand, but then New Zealand got shut down. This film was supposed to be something I jumped on to and was over in a year. It ended up taking about four years. But it’s worth it. It’s a long journey and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
You mentioned Child’s Play. Don Mancini is up for a cross-over with M3GAN.
I saw that. You couldn’t get higher praise, really. Child’s Play was one of those naughty films you weren’t supposed to be watching as a kid but had the most fun watching. It’s awesome.
When we were making M3GAN, I was never consciously thinking about Chucky. I never thought of her as a doll. I was thinking of her as a robot, as something that looked very real.
It was only really once the film was coming out that I was again aware of inevitable comparisons to Chucky. But I don’t mind it at all. When you walk around the Universal Studios lot and you see Chucky there, the idea of M3GAN being next to him is just great. I’d be thrilled to see that.
I don’t know how much you want to demystify it, but what was the process like of shooting with M3GAN? How much human being, how much CGI?
I’d love to demystify the process, but I’ve been told to keep tight-lipped. For good reason because it does kind of spoil people’s enjoyment of the film. So many people worked so hard so that you couldn’t tell what you were looking at, myself included. I will say that it was very challenging. It required some very talented people to just be absolutely on top of their game.
I can’t wait to talk about some of the things that Amie Donald, our performer, did. I’m not gonna say what she did, but I’m really looking forward to talking about it because it was quite miraculous. I will say that she is real. M3GAN is a real animatronic doll that moves, and I was just so impressed.
Even when you look at lifelike robots, there isn’t anything that looks as good as M3GAN does. Look at Sophia. She’s kind of creepy-looking. We haven’t had a lifelike doll that looks as good as M3GAN, so I was really impressed.
We talked about virality earlier, and obviously, your screenwriter [Akela Cooper] had probably the biggest viral hit of 2021 with Malignant. Obviously, you wouldn’t have seen that when you took this on, but how gratifying was it to see the success that she had knowing you had her script on the way?
That just speaks to how long it took us to get going. I think we were the first one. Then she wrote Malignant with James [Wan] afterwards. It was awesome.
Malignant was just so fun, and when I saw it, I was like, ‘this is a party. This is so fun’. I’ve been a fan of James for a long time, and I’m so impressed with his body of work and how he handles tone. It was really great to be working with Akela. She’s really awesome, and she came up with a really great story that I was really affected by and inspired by and related to.
You mentioned tone there, and I wanted to ask about pitching the tone. This was classified at PG-13 in the US. Was it always aiming for that, and was that something that bothered you at all? I know some horror filmmakers want the freedom of an R.
When we started out on this journey, we had a different classification. But strangely, there was a sweet yet still subversive tone to M3GAN that I thought, with a few changes, could fit in the PG-13 universe. So we went in that direction.
You’ll probably see some things in the trailer that you’ll notice are different from the movie you end up seeing. But I was happy to make it PG-13. One of my favourite horror films of all time, Drag Me to Hell, is PG-13. That just proves you can do it. The Ring is PG-13 as well. Blood and gore and everything is fun, but it’s harder to get that same effect without showing all of that.
Universal, to their credit, gave us the money to reshoot things – we didn’t make cuts – and I’m happier with the version that we went out with. We got to make some of those scenes a bit more artful and clever. The sound design that goes into it just actually made it so much more effective. The PG-13 version in a couple of the kills is more violent than the R version. It’s surprising. Maybe one day you’ll get to see both to compare.
If you want to know how to watch M3GAN (trust us, you do. Read our M3GAN review if you don’t believe us), we’ve got you covered. We’ve also a guide breaking down who the doll in M3GAN is. If that’s not enough, we’ve also got a list of all the new movies coming in 2023, including Mission Impossible 7, Barbie, and Oppenheimer.