M3GAN director talks designing a new horror icon, exploring grief through absurdity, and the movie's ambitious VFX

Amie Donald as M3GAN and Violet McGraw as Cady in M3GAN
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

A hero is only as good as their villain; a phrase that arguably applies to horror-leaning stories more than any other. So when New Zealand-born filmmaker Gerard Johnstone was brought in to direct Blumhouse's latest M3GAN, which centers on a killer doll, he knew the bot baddie had to be memorable. 

Fortunately, some of the work had already been done for him. M3GAN's script was written by Malignant's Akela Cooper, from a story by herself and James Wan, a filmmaker who knows a thing or two about creating iconic antagonists, having brought the likes of The Conjuring's Nun and Saw's Jigsaw to life. But pinning M3GAN's look down was still "definitely one of the most challenging things to come up with," admits Johnstone.

"There were a lot of conversations," he tells Total Film and GamesRadar+. "Originally, in the script, she was a lot shorter, then the Chucky remake came out and we made her a lot taller. It was like, 'Well, we've got to be as different from Chucky as we possibly can.'

"I thought it'd be really cool if she was the same height as Cady and she would walk around with her, and that was intimidating to some people. Also, I just wanted her to be really graceful and elegant. I was alway thinking of her not just as a horror icon but a movie icon in general. I was looking at photos of screen starlets from the '50s and '60s and thinking, 'I just want her to be as elegant and classy as these people.' I knew that she would ultimately be sinister anyway so it was more interesting to me that we use her beauty as a form of horror in itself. Dolls are just so unsettling. 

"When we were making the film, when M3GAN was there on set, you could feel the energy in the room change. You knew when she was there – and film sets are busy places! It was so fun to see all the guys suddenly stop and just stare at this thing like, 'Holy shit'."

Director Gerard Johnstone on the set of M3GAN

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

While Amie Donald took care of M3GAN's physical performance, and Jenna Davis provided the droid's creepily perky voice, a mix of animatronics, puppetry, and visual effects help bring her to life on screen – not that you can tell while watching. According to Johnstone, it was easily one of Blumhouse's "most complex" movies from a production standpoint, and a daunting process, too, given how expensive the work can wind up being. 

"One of the most exciting things about this project was when we hired the people responsible for making the doll," he explains. "They specialise in making things, like human prosthetics, look so real that you just can't tell they're not. We couldn't tell if we were looking at the actor or if we were looking at a dummy some days. 

"When I realized we could get a team as talented as that to make her, I knew we were going to go as far into the uncanny valley as we could go. I think we've pulled it off. It's a really hard process because if you don't get it right, you're going to blow your budget. It made a lot of sense, just pragmatically, to try and do as much practically as we could. I also wanted to make sure that everyone could get an idea of what the film was, because it'd be so hard when you go into a cutting room with so much that's not there. I just wanted to avoid that, and I love practical effects. Even people that work in CG will tell you that it's always best when you can get a good marriage of the two. There are some full CG elements in the film, not M3GAN, but there are other things that we created in the film that were full CG that were really impressive."

Starring Get Out's Allison Williams and The Haunting of Hill House's Violet McGraw, M3GAN sees techy toymaker Gemma invent a mechanical companion for her newly orphaned niece Cady following the sudden death of her sister and brother-in-law. Preoccupied with work and reluctant to connect with the lonely youngster, Gemma programs M3GAN to "protect Cady from harm, both physical and emotional" – an update that ends up having terrible consequences when the doll becomes overprotective and starts offing anyone she perceives as a threat. Unlike gonzo blood-soaked slasher Malignant, it's more of a slow-burn flick, as M3GAN gradually becomes more self-aware and in control of her own actions with every new update from Gemma. She's only a prototype, you see, and Gemma is in the process of "perfecting" her for her impatient, erratic boss who is desperate to start mass-producing M3GANs and slapping $10,000 price tags on them…

"That's the whole fun of it. Right? You make the audience wait and slowly ratchet up the tension," Johnstone laughs. "We'd decided that M3GAN is like a walking, talking iPhone. It's like, if you figured you'd had enough of your iPhone and you wanted to unplug it, the idea of your iPhone saying, 'Really? I'm not ready to be turned off,' and that's the future we're heading towards if we're going to make these artificially intelligent machines that can think for themselves. It's like, 'Well, Jesus Christ. Is that really a good idea?' Because, you know, if there's no actual off button, I mean, God, you know, what are we setting ourselves up for?"

Violet McGraw as Cady and Allison Williams as Gemma in M3GAN

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Alongside the obvious Black Mirror-esque cautionary tale, the movie has things to say about loss and how we often use technology to "distract us from things we don't want to think about." Johnstone says: "It's really important when you're making a movie like this, that all the bonkers set pieces and the absurd moments are glued together by something that has substance and that has a real message behind it. The whole appeal of something like M3GAN is that it could be a coping mechanism for grief.

"When you're a parent and you see a kid expressing sadness, the first thing you want to do is just stop the sadness. For Gemma, not understanding child psychology, she just thinks 'I need to put a lid on this as quickly as I can.' She doesn't realize that that doesn't actually give Cady the chance to go through the natural grief cycle and come out the other end. That is one of the things that we're most proud of in the film."

M3GAN releases in the US on January 6, and in UK cinemas on January 13. While we wait, check out our list of the most exciting upcoming releases coming our way in 2023 and beyond. 

Amy West

I am an Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, covering all things TV and film across our Total Film and SFX sections. Elsewhere, my words have been published by the likes of Digital Spy, SciFiNow, PinkNews, FANDOM, Radio Times, and Total Film magazine.