M3GAN – A Classic, scary, scream-in-your-seats horror

When it came to the ideal screenwriter to flesh out the premise for M3GAN – a killer-doll movie that was Annabelle meets The Terminator – producer James Wan, the filmmaker behind the Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring franchises, and Blumhouse, the producer of the Halloween films, The Black Phone and The Invisible Man knew they needed a strong female perspective on the story and that storyteller Akela Cooper was a perfect choice.

M3GAN would be Cooper’s first screenplay for Wan’s Atomic Monster, but she would go on to write 2021’s Malignant for Wan as well as next year’s The Nun 2.

Their first meeting with Atomic Monster was memorable.  “We were all just horror fans,” Cooper says. “They said, ‘Do you want to take a crack at this idea?’ and they liked my take. That got me in the door, and that led us to this fruitful relationship.”

As a Black woman writing horror, Cooper is also opening doors of her own. “A few years ago, I was on a horror panel at the Austin Film Festival,” Cooper says “There were several Black women in the front row. I was introduced as the writer of Malignant and Nun 2. Afterward, they came up and said, ‘We didn’t know Black women could write horror.’ I told them, ‘We can write anything.’”

Screenwriter Akela Cooper

For M3GAN, Cooper tapped into her own fears as she began to build the premise for the film: a professional woman, Gemma, who finds herself unprepared to care for her recently orphaned niece. “I used to babysit my niece and nephew, and I realized how scared I would be if I suddenly had to take care of a young child full time,” Cooper says. “We needed to push our heroine, Gemma, out of her depth to give her that solid arc into adulthood. She doesn’t know how to deal with this role she’s been thrust into, so she brings her career into it. That’s M3GAN. Gemma’s failsafe is, ‘Now, I can take care of my niece without actually having to take care of her. I don’t know how to deal with childhood trauma, but this robot can do it.’”

Cooper leaned into the fact that Gemma was not only shirking her guardian responsibilities but also creating a greater problem by refusing to be an emotionally present adult for her niece, Cady. “There’s a therapist who tells Gemma that her niece is going to form this bond with this robot, and it is not going to be good,” Cooper says. “We had to make sure to start Gemma in the most uncomfortable spot possible and arc her toward full responsibility for Cady.”

Gemma’s guilt will later be compounded when she realizes that M3GAN’s more horrific actions are driven by a programming decision that Gemma herself created. “That was a request from James,” Cooper says. “That actually makes it worse for Gemma, and more heartbreaking, because she tells M3GAN to protect Cady at all costs…and the doll takes it literally.”

On a broader cultural level, the film explores our increasing dependence on technology to run our lives … and the potential threat if that tech begins to exceed our control.

“The science and the A.I. aspects were fascinating with which to play, as they are so relevant to today’s world,” Wan says “We rely on technology so much in everything we do. For these devices to turn around and attack us would be horrifying. That’s the thing that we wanted to try and capture with M3GAN.”

“Akela’s so smart, savvy, and good at structure; she knew exactly the movie that I wanted to make,”says Wan “She is not afraid to push things that others might deem ridiculous or over-the-top. She understands that you must lean into concepts that might be a bit more far-fetched to stand out from the crop of recent horror films.”

M3GAN is a marvel of artificial intelligence, a life-like doll programmed to be a child’s greatest companion and a parent’s greatest ally. Designed by brilliant toy-company roboticist Gemma (Get Out’s Allison Williams), M3GAN can listen and watch and learn as she becomes friend and teacher, playmate and protector, for the child she is bonded to. When Gemma suddenly becomes the caretaker of her orphaned 8-year-old niece, Cady (Violet Mcgraw, The Haunting of Hill House), Gemma’s unsure and unprepared to be a parent. Under intense pressure at work, Gemma decides to pair her M3GAN prototype with Cady in an attempt to resolve both problems—a decision that will have unimaginable consequences. As M3GAN and Cady develop an unbreakable bond, Gemma grows more and more terrified that the very creation she invented to help Cady heal is learning at an exponential rate…and that M3GAN may be perceiving “threats” to Cady that do not exist.

How M3GAN originated

Not so many years ago, M3GAN executive producers Michael Clear and Judson Scott were riffing at their Atomic Monster office alongside producer James Wan and colleague Rob Hackett.

“We’re all film nerds and were talking about the fact that there are not enough killer-doll movies,” James Wan says. “That led me to say, ‘It’s funny. There is a perception that I make those kinds of films. Strangely enough, none of my dolls kill anyone. They are a conduit for a supernatural entity or a demonic force that lives within. For example, in the case of Saw, Jigsaw has a puppet that he talks through as a mouthpiece.’”

As the conversation progressed, they hit on an idea: “‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a killer-doll movie that was Annabelle meets The Terminator? Instead of being a supernatural film, we thought it would be great to do a ‘technology gone awry’ version of that,” Wan says.

“What I’ve learned from Annabelle is how beloved she is by girls,” Wan says. “We knew that this part of the horror audience is very important to us, so we needed to have a feminine energy and perspective with M3GAN.”

The Journey from Page To Screen

Jason Blum’s Blumhouse and James Wan’s Atomic Monster have long been the two most prolific and iconic creators of modern horror.

M3GAN is Blum and Wan’s second collaboration; the first being the Insidious franchise.

To helm the film, Blum and Wan hired New Zealand native Gerard Johnstone, director of the 2014 horror comedy Housebound.

Director Gerard Johnstone

M3GAN has a specific tone that can be hard to achieve,” Blum says. “I loved Gerard’s first movie, Housebound. It was a fine balance between capturing the brooding dread of a haunted-house story but bringing in a quirky sense of humor. For M3GAN, the idea of a robot friend that turns into a killer doll is terrifying, but there’s a dark humor simmering just below the surface of that idea. If you have a director that doesn’t embrace that, the movie will never work, and Gerard understands that in an effortless way.”

M3GAN has a specific tone that can be hard to achieve,” Blum says. “I loved Gerard’s first movie, Housebound. It was a fine balance between capturing the brooding dread of a haunted-house story but bringing in a quirky sense of humor. For M3GAN, the idea of a robot friend that turns into a killer doll is terrifying, but there’s a dark humor simmering just below the surface of that idea. If you have a director that doesn’t embrace that, the movie will never work, and Gerard understands that in an effortless way.”

M3GAN is classic, scary, scream-in-your-seats horror, but Wan and Blum knew that it was not a film that should be treated in a deadly serious manner. “Gerard brought a tone that walked this fine line,” Wan says. “If it leaned too far one way or the other, the film would collapse. He knows how to get us to scream when we need to and to laugh when we need to—and chuckle at these quirky things M3GAN does.”

It was Johnstone’s idea, for instance, that M3GAN would be dancing while also committing violence in one unforgettable (and instantly meme-able) scene. “There are such absurd moments that Gerard added, which gives it that fun, camp feel,” Akela Cooper says. “I didn’t write M3GAN dancing; I wrote her on a killing spree. When I saw it, I thought, ‘This is so weird, but it works. That makes the death all the more uncomfortable.’”

Johnstone says that Housebound has been influenced by a Wan and Blumhouse horror classic, so he was relieved that they were keen to have him direct M3GAN.

“That made me feel less guilty about how much I’d stolen from Insidious to create the scares in my film,” Johnstone says. “It was an interesting first meeting because, although James is the undisputed master of creepy-doll movies, none of those dolls had actually moved or even spoken, so figuring out how to bring M3GAN to life was exciting new territory for all of us.”

When he read Akela Cooper’s script, the director was drawn to the interplay between technology and parenting in the modern world. “There have been obvious comparisons to Child’s Play,” Johnstone says, “but what drew me to the project was a chance to make a modern morality tale about parenting in the 21st century. As a new dad, I was troubled by how pervasive smartphones and tablets were becoming, and M3GAN was a chance to satirize that.”

Notably, Johnstone himself is pretty hands-off when it comes to modern tech. “Gerard is not on social media at all,” Wan says. “He’s the perfect director for this job because he doesn’t like it in that respect. He can make a movie about technology going bad with the correct perspective.”

That meant, however, that Johnstone had a steep learning curve about the cutting edge of what artificial intelligence can do. His wife ended up being an invaluable resource and unofficial tech consultant. “She was constantly handing me New Yorker articles on A.I. and cyber psychology and waking me up whenever I fell asleep reading them,” Johnstone says. “We also had some wonderfully smart people weigh in on the script, such as ALEX KAUFFMANN from Google. Through that process we were able to understand how these machines worked and pepper scenes with insights and verbiage that gave them legitimacy and a unique perspective.”   

Tonally, Johnstone was inspired by darkly comedic domestic noirs that featured femme fatale anti-heroes such as Gone Girl and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle as well as some other unexpected influences. To a certain extent, I was also influenced by The Omen, in that M3GAN’s a bit like an A.I. anti-Christ,” Johnstone says. “I also felt there was a little of Pinocchio in the DNA of M3GAN, and that Gemma was a modern-day Geppetto.”

On a human level, Johnstone also wanted to explore how we manage our own ambitions with responsibilities as parents in the modern age. “We fool ourselves into thinking we’ll be able to spend time with our kids once we take care of everything else—our careers, finances, etc.,” Johnstone says. “But by then they’re not kids anymore. I can attest to the fact that parenting is difficult. There is a certain fantasy wish-fulfillment aspect of M3GAN, that she can do all the tedious things you don’t want to do. But the flip side is that if you give your child over to a machine like M3GAN, good luck getting them back.”