Gerard Johnstone has created a horror icon for a new age – and helped cement himself as a filmmaker to watch. Stewart Sowman-Lund checks in with the director of M3GAN.
If it wasn’t for the unstoppable juggernaut that is Avatar: The Way of Water, a New Zealander would currently have the number one film in the world. Megan, styled as M3GAN, is the viral hit of the summer, a teen-friendly horror-comedy that is one part Child’s Play, another part Scream, with a healthy dose of Ex Machina thrown in there as well.
In an age of superheroes and franchises – not to mention in a Covid-19 world – M3GAN has proved to be the rare original story capable of luring audiences back to the cinema. It’s pulled in more than US$50 million at the American box office since opening last week, against a budget of just US$12 million. Critics are loving it, too: M3GAN is now sitting at a massive 95% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (Avatar, for comparison, is at 77%). And now, New Zealand audiences can finally see the film that was shot on our shores throughout 2021.
If you somehow missed M3GAN’s viral marketing campaign, here’s what you need to know. It’s the story of how an orphaned child, Cady, comes to bond with a prototype robotic doll called M3GAN (which stands for Model 3 Generative Android). In case the unnerving design of the titular doll didn’t tip you off somehow, spoiler alert, M3GAN turns out to be more than just a creepy-looking toy. She’s a murderous one as well.
The world was first introduced to M3GAN in October last year when the film’s trailer went viral. In a masterclass of marketing, the teaser included snippets of a dance M3GAN performs during the climax of the film, set to Taylor Swift’s ‘It’s Nice to Have a Friend’. Part of the film’s box office success can be pegged to that trailer, which spawned numerous celebrity impressions online. The dance, it turns out, wasn’t in the original script. “I didn’t write M3GAN dancing; I wrote her on a killing spree,” the film’s script writer Akela Cooper told Insider. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘This is so weird, but it works. That makes the death all the more uncomfortable.'”
In fact, that now iconic moment was a spontaneous creation of the film’s director, New Zealander Gerard Johnstone. Speaking to me the morning after the film’s local premiere, Johnstone says he had no idea M3GAN would become a global hit – even after the viral success of the trailer. “When we made this movie, Covid had just happened and none of us were really sure what the movie industry would really look like. The fact that it’s one of those movies that everyone’s enjoying having a group experience is really sweet,” he says.
“In prep, I still thought this would be something that ended up on streaming. I found out a couple of weeks before shooting that Universal thought this was a really big movie for them. Everything started getting better and better – this great snowball effect – to the point where this TikTok craze starts happening with M3GAN dancing in the trailer and then there are these M3GANs dancing at the halftime show of an NFL game and all of a sudden it’s like she was taking over the world. She’s the gift that keeps on giving but I couldn’t have predicted that we would be the number two movie behind Avatar, no way.”
Early criticisms of M3GAN suggested it was going to be nothing more than a simple rip-off of the Chucky franchise. In reality, M3GAN positions itself to be far more. The fairly basic horror premise of a doll going on a murderous rampage is laden with campy visuals, sharp one-liners and commentary on the risk of children becoming over-dependent on technology. Johnstone was the perfect director to merge those elements. It was his 2014 local hit Housebound, which also deftly combined elements of horror and comedy, that catapulted Johnstone onto the world stage. Much like M3GAN, Housebound paid clear homage to icons of the genre while also managing to carve out its own niche. It was intentionally evocative of early Peter Jackson, especially Braindead (which, Johnstone later learned from Jackson himself, was originally titled Housebound).
In M3GAN, Johnstone says he looked to other famous inspirations. “I think Robocop and [director] Paul Verhoeven were a real influence because he does these really popcorn action movies but with a hidden layer of subtext in it,” Johnstone says. “Gone Girl was an influence – a really unhinged female anti-hero. And Under The Skin, just how unsettling Scarlett Johansson was in it.” Wes Craven’s 1996 masterpiece Scream, one of the first horror films of the modern era to lean into social satire, was another influence. “That film is so funny but so intense.”
It was M3GAN’s script that first attracted Johnstone to the project, though he acknowledges the final product is quite different to what he initially saw on paper. “Structurally, the allegory was really clear: that this was about technology and how it’s affecting our kids and I was really into that,” he says. “The first thing kids see when they run into our bedroom is a mum and dad on their phones… so it was something that was really troubling me. When you’re making a movie, it’s great when it feels like there’s a point.” The script was always funny (Johnstone was hunted for the project because of his experience with horror-comedies), but New Zealand audiences may find it even funnier thanks to a few sneaky cameos. One, featuring comedian Millen Baird, has been described by US media as a scene-stealing moment. “He’s got one scene, one joke but he just completely kills it,” says Johnstone. “That scene definitely speaks to the dry New Zealand sense of humour.” Another cameo – in the opening moments of the film – is so unexpected that some in the audience of the New Zealand premiere didn’t realise the movie had even started.
Comparisons with Child’s Play were inevitable, says Johnstone, and production on M3GAN was even stalled early on so as the impact of the 2019 franchise reboot could be evaluated. That film also satirised the tech industry through the character of a murderous toy. Johnstone says he always felt that the world could handle both Child’s Play and M3GAN. “I knew that Child’s Play was going to be in the conversation but I never thought of her [M3GAN] in those terms” – he references the doll as “her” or by name throughout our interview – “that’s why with the design of her we tried to push her to be much more realistic and more elegant than Chucky.”
That design, with its lifelike but not-quite lifeless eyes, exaggerated facial features and now-iconic wig were the brainchild of Johnstone himself. He was cautious not to allow the design, which was computer generated by Wētā Workshop, to fall into the “uncanny valley” of films like the Polar Express, where characters are contradictorily photorealistic yet devoid of humanity. The final version leaves viewers wondering whether M3GAN is entirely computer generated or a real-life animatronic. That was intentional, says Johnstone. “She’s a pretty seamless creation, nobody can tell what they’re looking at.”
In reality, M3GAN was largely played by 12-year-old New Zealander Amie Donald, wearing a mask that was later brought to life. In scenes where M3GAN was static, the doll was being portrayed by an actual puppet. “I wanted her to be beautiful,” explains Johnstone. “There’s something about beautiful villains that I find really interesting. From the get-go I knew that I wanted her to be beautiful. We kind of settled on this face that was an amalgam of a few different people, like a Russian child model mixed with some other influences.” By the time the final film version was unveiled, those initial influences had dissolved together effortlessly. “She is a wholly unique creation by virtue of the process of building her,” says Johnstone.
While M3GAN is Johnstone’s first Hollywood project, it clearly won’t be his last. He was at one point linked to a major DC project, though that has since been put on ice. Regardless, the success of M3GAN means a sequel is all but confirmed – and Johnstone says he’d love to be invited back for round two.