Horror movies don’t often fare well at the box office in the early months of the year, especially when they score a PG-13 rating, as audiences are often more focused on awards contenders than teen-friendly thrillers, though that all changed this year thanks to the killer-doll film M3GAN. Not only was the project a surprising success with its box-office returns, but it also performed just as well with critics, so much so that the sequel M3GAN 2.0 was confirmed. A key component of that success was director Gerard Johnstone’s contributions to the Blumhouse Productions effort, who is tapped to return for the sequel. M3GAN is out now on Digital HD and hits Blu-ray and DVD on March 21st.
The film is described, “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 (Allison Williams, Get Out), M3GAN can listen and watch and learn as she becomes friend and teacher, playmate and protector, for the child she is bonded to. As Gemma faces pressure at work from her boss (Ronny Chieng, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) to deliver a finished version of M3GAN, she suddenly becomes the unprepared caretaker of her newly orphaned 8-year-old niece, Cady (Violet McGraw, The Haunting of Hill House). Gemma decides to pair the M3GAN prototype with Cady in an attempt to resolve both problems — a decision that will have unimaginable consequences.”
ComicBook.com caught up with Johnstone to talk to developing the film, a key scene going viral on TikTok, and the future of the franchise.
ComicBook.com: Now that M3GAN is out on home video, and there’s the theatrical cut and then the unrated cut, was there a specific scene or sequence that when you knew you were getting to release the unrated cut that you were most excited for audiences to be able to see an extended or a more gruesome version of?
Gerard Johnstone: No, because both of the cuts happened at the same time. It’s not like I got a break, and came back and was like, “Now I’m going to do my director’s cut.” They were both made at the same time. We had made the unrated cut and then we shifted to PG-13. Although I was worried about deadlines, I was excited by it and I thought it was the right way to go, and I was able to do re-shoots and things. But trying to find harmony between the two, because I had to reshoot certain things that made some scenes better, but I couldn’t necessarily just plonk those into the R-rated cut because they were going on different tangents.
Writing Ronny’s character was really fun. Having this toy company CEO swearing like a sailor, that was immensely joyful. And then casting Ronny Chieng and just hearing every second word come out of his mouth be an F bomb, that was the hardest sacrificial lamb to give up. I’m really happy for that to go back in. In terms of the gore, I think maybe it’s just the Brandon [kill] is just slightly more intense, but that is definitely more intense and people get to see that blood that impacts bigger. You’ll really get to see the damage that the pressure washer did on Celia’s face and that kind of stuff. But no, overall it’s more the language. I’m from Scottish heritage, so I could swear.
You spoke about Ronny’s character and he gets to bring so much comedy to the film which, as a baseline, doesn’t have a ton of comedy, but his character definitely leans into the comedy and then that alters the tone. When you’re bringing this movie to life, how do you walk that line of leaning into the camp, but still making it horror? Was that something, just from day one, it was in the script, then it was in the shoot, then it was in the edit? Or was it that you had to manipulate it retroactively of it being a little bit too scary, this is a little bit too campy?
Well, it’s definitely something that I bring to the table. It wasn’t in the script that came to me, but I saw an opportunity for the film to be funny and to be about the zeitgeist and to be about how hard it is to be a parent, and I was a parent in the 21st century, so that was all of the things I brought to it. But I learned a lesson on Housebound, that even if you’re going for humor, it can diminish the scares. It just completely erases all tension if we’re not taking these situations that seriously.
When it comes to Ronny’s character, in particular, I had wanted to cast someone that was really funny in that role, and I think that’s a good example of Ronny being a really fun choice because he’s a comedian, but with a smaller profile. Some people are seeing him for the first time, and it’s unexpected that he’s as funny as he is. I think that’s a consideration. I think the other part of it is just … I think music is a huge component, just making sure that the music is like the straight guy in all of this and playing certain things deadpan as much as we can.
Some audiences’ first look at the movie was really just TikTok, just seeing the dance, just seeing only that. Nobody could have expected something like that to take off in that way as strongly as it did, but do you remember when you were filming that scene or just when you were filming that sequence, if it dawned on you or the cast and the crew, did you know you had caught something special, but didn’t know how to quite quantify it? Or did it completely take you by surprise that something so brief blew up in such a specific way?
Definitely the latter. The dance sequence was just one of a hundred scenes that were incredibly difficult to shoot at the time. We had no time to dwell and even pat ourselves on the back and say, “Wasn’t that great?” It was like, “Jesus Christ, did we get it? Is [M3GAN actor] Amie [Donald] okay?” Because she had to do all that stuff in a mask that she couldn’t really see out of, so the whole time you’re just hoping she’s not going to have a really bad fall. It was really that. But it was joyous to see, and what was great about that dance being played in the trailer as much as it was, is otherwise the trailer was very straight, and I knew this would happen, that the trailer would come out and they would market it as a straight horror movie. And I get it, because I almost did the same thing with Housebound, but that dance was like this great little Easter egg in there that’s told everyone, “Hey, this is kind of absurd.”
It was almost like it was a code to say to the audience, “Are you okay with this?” And largely they went, “Yes,” and it meant that every trailer after that was the exact tone of the film, which was like, “This was bonkers.” The other thing is, I knew that the film had more in store, as well. I thought if they liked the dancing, wait until they hear her sing.
I know it’s super early because the sequel was only announced two months ago, but as far as that process goes, are you going to sit and wait for Akela to come back with a script? Is it going to be a collaborative process? Are you going to be collaborating more deeply with the script this time around?
Well, I can’t say too much about those sorts of things. All I can say is that I’m here in L.A. and been thinking about it, working on it, and I’m just catching up with them this week to talk about it and do a debrief. It’s really important to do a debrief on the first movie, like a post-game analysis, and look at what worked and how we can do it again. I mean, Jesus Christ, it’s difficult to replicate the success. No one was expecting that, so it’s daunting, but exciting at the same time.
Since you can’t talk about that, since it’s Akela, James Wan, Blumhouse, there’s so many other franchises out there, either before M3GAN 2.0 or even after M3GAN 2.0, is there another big franchise that you’d love to get involved in?
Yeah, James Bond. It’s on every director’s bucket list. It’s like, “Let me do a Bond movie.” Well, let me do one movie first where the budget is a little bit more than 12 million dollars, and then maybe I can talk about doing a Bond movie. But yeah, there’ll be little coded “please let me make a Bond movie” scenes all throughout M3GAN 2.
M3GAN is out now on Digital HD and hits Blu-ray and DVD on March 21st.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.