SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for “M3GAN.”
“M3GAN had to be perfect. We couldn’t have one hair out of place,” director Gerard Johnstone says of the murderous AI doll at the heart of his latest film. “It was actually a horrifically difficult shoot. It was so hard.”
“I had a really great team around me, who were all having fun and reminding each other, ‘Hey, this movie is fun.’ That was a real joy,” he adds. After the challenging shoot, Johnstone himself finally remembered the humor: “It was amazing when the first edit came in to be reminded, ‘Oh, this film was actually quite charming and fun.’”
Now that the film has scored a killer $30 million opening weekend, it seems all the hard work was worth it. In an interview with Variety, Johnstone breaks down the film’s original ending that was scrapped, why he’s hoping for a sequel and how Kermit the Frog inspired M3GAN’s original song.
We don’t often see children get murdered in horror movies, but “M3GAN” pulls no punches with Brandon’s death. Did you get any pushback surrounding that scene?
No one ever pushed back. That scene is like wish fulfillment of any parent that sees just some a-hole kid who you know is going to turn out to be a monster and bully or push around your kid. It was sheer joy. Young Jack [Cassidy] is such a sweet kid, but he just makes such a good bully. He’s actually a sweetheart, really. But when he gets going, he reminded me of a young Ben Affleck. Because it’s in the woods, it’s almost like a dark Grimm fairy tale at that point. It’s like a lesson for kids who are contemplating being an asshole: just be careful.
How did you land on the final design for M3GAN?
We did thousands. The one we ended up with came really late in the game, and we went way out on a limb in some regards. She had to look iconic. I just kept saying, “Does it feel iconic enough?” Also, she had to move, so there had to be a functionality to it, and a degree of class and sophistication. It had to be something that we hadn’t seen before. She couldn’t do the doll dress like “The Shining” girls — we’ve seen that. “Annabelle” — we’ve seen that. There’s a little bit of Barbie to her, I suppose, but like a 1950s Barbie. There were definitely a lot of iterations to her.
Was that moment when M3GAN sings “Titanium” in the original script?
No, it wasn’t. But the great thing about this movie is that M3GAN was just the gift that kept on giving. It was just all these opportunities that we thought, “Well, she can do this, maybe she can do this.” It was a scene where she was trying to reassure Katie. And I was thinking, “Well, what’s the best way to reassure her? A lullaby.” I don’t know how that song…maybe it was playing, or maybe it just made sense, because Megan was made of titanium. I just remember thinking, “This would be really funny.”
It’s so delightful to watch that scene, because people just don’t know we’re gonna go there. And it’s the same thing when we first meet her, when we had that presentation with Cady and she breaks into song. We’re already impressed with what she can do. When she starts singing, it just takes it to another level. I have to give credit to Akela [Cooper] and James [Wan]. It’s very difficult to start with a blank page. It’s easy for me as a director to come in on the top and say, “Hey, you know, it’d be funny if you did this.” All the hard work is kind of done at that point. This is kind of like the fun icing on the top.
Let’s talk about that other musical moment: M3GAN’s original song, “Tell Me Your Dreams.”
The idea was in the brief I gave [composer Anthony Willis], “She’s gotta make some algorithm based upon Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder and Kermit the Frog’s ‘Rainbow Connection.’ It’s got to be all of those imbued into one.” He brought all of this Disney wonder into it. He’s given me a credit on the song! It’s a very simple song, but it took forever to just think of. But that’s what these algorithms are: if you make these AI generated songs, they’re so simple. And they almost don’t make any sense. But they sound like something that you’ve heard before. That was the whole idea.
Supervising puppeteer Adrien Morot told me there was once a more CGI-heavy ending that was scrapped. Can you share what it was?
They had this battle with Bruce, and there was gonna be one more part of it where they thought they’d got away, and Bruce essentially…they leave the workshop where they had this big battle, and then they hear a “ka-chunk!” and it’s Bruce’s head being thrown. And then, through the smoke of the doorway, M3GAN emerges just as a disembodied torso, and Bruce is holding her from behind and clomping along the corridor. It was great, and I was really in love with it. But we couldn’t do it for a number of practical reasons. We tried to shoot that version, and the physics didn’t work out. There were all these logistical things. So that’s why we end up doing the version we did. But I love the version we did, even though that was a cool idea. I love the version we got because it made Cady’s character so much more interesting.
The ending leaves things open-ended. Are you open to more M3GAN in the future?
How can I not be? Now that the film’s finished and that people that are embracing it. There are so many ideas that we had and facets of M3GAN’s personality that we wanted to explore. I totally think there’s there’s more to say. And I know that M3GAN would have more to say. I would love to do another one. Hopefully soon, while it’s still fresh in everyone’s minds.
Who would win in a fight: M3GAN or Chucky?
M3GAN is becoming more self-aware. She’s got artificial intelligence, which we all know will end up running the world one day. I’d like to think that M3GAN would tease Chucky out until she finds out every single weakness, and then she can exploit them. And that would be a very convincing one, I think. No disrespect to Chucky! “Child’s Play” was one of my favorite films as a kid. I’m saying this with the utmost respect.
This interview has been edited and condensed.