From producer Ridley Scott and his son, director Luke Scott, Morgan offers a thrilling, visceral and intense movie-going experience, questioning what happens when the creation surpasses the creator? And what’s more dangerous—this genetically engineered wonder or the corporation that is overseeing its development?
Kate Mara plays a corporate troubleshooter who is sent to a remote, top-secret location, where she is to investigate and evaluate a terrifying accident. She learns the event was triggered by a seemingly innocent “human,” who presents a mystery of both infinite promise and incalculable danger.
That mystery is Morgan, the next step in human evolution and a bioengineered being with synthetic DNA. At one month, she (it) was walking and talking; at six months, she exceeded her creators’ wildest expectations. Morgan is enigmatic and unpredictable—a lab-created being with emotional capacity and conflicting traits that blur the line between being human and synthetic.
A noted commercials director who has also worked in various capacities on his father Ridley’s epic and acclaimed films, Luke makes his feature directorial debut with Morgan.
The story’s themes clearly resonate with the young filmmaker, whose short film, Loom, shot on 4K 3D, was a kind of precursor to MORGAN. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, the short was about a man hiding an artificial being in a genetics workshop.
Some of the ideas explored in Loom were expanded upon in screenwriter Seth Owen’s original script for MORGAN, which entered the prestigious film industry “Black List” in 2014—compiled annually from the suggestions of more than 250 film executives who contribute names of their favorite scripts written that year.
Scott was intrigued by Owens’ unusual approach to some of the big scientific questions of our time: if artificial intelligence becomes as smart, if not smarter than humans, then what do we have to offer? Would artificial beings like Morgan be the next leap in our evolution?
Even more significantly, Scott wondered, “What motivates us to synthetically produce or reproduce a human being? These are issues that encompass faith, morality, science and technology.”
To further explore and immerse himself in this bleeding-edge research, Scott visited Queens University’s microbiology labs. There, he learned that investigations in this area, though pervasive in the scientific community, were still taboo outside the halls of academia and laboratories—and that advances in this field were happening at warp speed. “It’s all pretty remarkable,” says Scott, whose penetrating queries sometimes caught the labs’ professors off guard.
Scott and his casting department’s biggest challenge was finding their Morgan—the artificial, yet organic being that would represent Scott’s vision of the next step in human evolution.
The actor would have to portray a character that is physically, mentally and intellectually amplified. She would have to balance these enhanced attributes with a clear emotional interpretation of her/its world, and the flawed people with whom she interacts each day. “That’s one of Morgan’s many ironies,” says Scott. “Morgan is as imperfect as a human, but in other ways, she is absolutely perfect.”
Finding an actor who could convey these contrasting traits was no easy task. “We needed someone who could meet the role’s physical requirements, and had the skill to project somebody who is in many ways childlike,” says Scott.
Before finalizing casting, Scott and his teams wrestled with how to characterize Morgan. She? It? Human…or something else? “I came to identify Morgan an ‘it’ because I’m essentially the scientist who created her,” Scott says with a laugh. “But we always intended Morgan to be somewhat feminized because there is an inherent strength to the feminine form.”
The “it” designation notwithstanding, Scott says that at least in terms of appearance, Morgan is not a monster. The character’s enhanced abilities would be hidden in an unremarkable, innocent-looking frame. “We created something that was familiar and recognizable. I reasoned that if I were a scientist designing this kind of being, I would go out of my way to create something that was indistinguishable from a human being.”
After a long search, Scott chose Anya Taylor-Joy to portray Morgan. He had been impressed by her performance in director Robert Egger’s award-winning feature debut The Witch. “In that film, I saw that Anya had a unique delicacy and access to her emotional landscape that is critical to the character of Morgan,” says Scott.
Unlike her director, Taylor-Joy eschewed research into the field of synthetic life, opting instead for numerous discussions with Scott. “We didn’t discuss specific scenes,” says the actress. “It was more about Morgan’s viewpoints on certain things and events.”
Kate Mara, who had just come off a starring turn in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster, Oscar-nominated The Martian, portrays Lee, who holds the power of life or death over the subject of her investigation, and was attracted to the story’s human elements, as well as to its different facets.
“There’s definitely drama there, as well as a lot of thrills, action, and sometimes horror. But most of all, it’s about what it means to be human. I like that it’s so layered.”
One of the more daunting challenges for both Mara and Taylor-Joy was the brutal fights waged between their two characters. Designed and choreographed by stunt coordinator Paul Herbert and his team, the battles royale are among the film’s centerpieces, revealing unexpected facets of what appeared to be a trouble-shooting corporate “suit” and an innocent-looking “experiment” gone wrong.