M3GAN Director Gerard Johnstone on Viral Success & the Sequel
ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with M3GAN director Gerard Johnstone about the massively popular horror movie, which is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digitally. The director discussed how surreal the film’s success is and his plans for the sequel.
“M3GAN is a marvel of artificial intelligence, a lifelike doll that’s programmed to be a child’s greatest companion and a parent’s greatest ally,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Designed by Gemma, a brilliant roboticist, M3GAN can listen, watch and learn as it plays the role of friend and teacher, playmate and protector. When Gemma becomes the unexpected caretaker of her 8-year-old niece, she decides to give the girl an M3GAN prototype, a decision that leads to unimaginable consequences.”
Tyler Treese: I really enjoyed M3GAN. I thought it was so great that it was rated PG-13 because when I saw it, teenagers were all in the audience. The theater really got behind it and it seemed like the intended audience since everybody had a blast. Can you speak to that rating and doing PG-13 horror? It seems like there’s a negative attachment to that from horror buffs, but this clearly worked.
Gerard Johnstone: Yeah, it’s funny. Often when I see the criticism, when they say, “It would’ve been so much better if it didn’t hold back.” I don’t know if they’d get what they thought they wanted, if it would really impact them that much. I mean, I haven’t had enough of a conversation with those people, but I felt like tonally, the film was so close to PG-13. I mentioned it in pre-production. “Should this be something that we are considering?” The producers felt quite strongly to make it an R and I guess my schizophrenic hardcore horror younger self was like, “Yeah, okay, cool, let’s go for it!” But it seemed not necessary and when we went PG-13, there was only a couple of cuts we needed to make.
I think it’s always better if it can play to a bigger audience and it’s great to hear that friends of mine have taken their kids to see it and it’s just something to do. Look, man, when you’re a parent and you’re trying to take your kids to the movie, Puss in Boots [The Last Wish] is the only thing out. No wonder that thing’s crushing at the box office, because there’s nothing else to take your kids to.
I watched the unrated cut and I thought was what was interesting that nothing was really lost by going PG 13. You still get the payoff and sometimes letting your own mind fill in the gorier details, gets the job done, and is just as effective. What was your takeaway from seeing the movie in those two different forms? I thought that was so interesting that both worked so well.
I haven’t watched the unrated one since we finished it in the edit suite. I have to wait and I still haven’t had time to watch it [Laugh]. I feel good about it. Like always, I wish I could have had more time to finesse, but I feel good. I talked to someone who definitely loved the unrated version. It’s just different people like different things, I suppose.
One thing that really stood out about the film was the great marketing that Universal did. How was it seeing that they went fully behind it? It was so fun seeing them trot out the different M3GANs all over the place into different cities and different events. How was it seeing that they were that behind the film?
Just incredible. [It] feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had just been to like a Dodgers game at SoFi Stadium a couple of weeks before. I got to go for free because a friend was going and it was like, “Wow.” Like I’m not really a football guy, but being in that stadium was unreal. Then seeing, a month later, some M3GANs walking out in a halftime show … I understood what a big deal that was because I’d been in that stadium. It was incredible. Just how the film blew up and managed to get everywhere. It seemed like every week there was … next thing you know, Drew Barrymore was dressing up as M3GAN and there’s an SNL skit. It was just awesome. Yeah, it was very, very gratifying.
I have to imagine it’s a bit surreal seeing a project you put so much work into really enter pop culture to such a level. We’re seeing it go viral on TikTok, the dance scene went crazy. What stood out about seeing this character that you put so much work into just be received so well?
It was a hard, hard movie to make and getting those decisions right was really tricky. Getting a costume for her … I remember the film nearly … to the detriment of my prep, I was working on that costume, getting it right, and I think that getting that right … I felt vindicated, really, that I had spent that time just making sure that the costume was iconic, because I just don’t know if it would’ve … I don’t know. I don’t know if she would’ve resonated if we hadn’t got those details right. So yeah, it felt really good, but it also just told me that I had known nothing about the state of the world. I was not aware that this thing would blow up on TikTok. I was on the fringes of everything, and I knew what TikTok was, but I get it now. The world is such a crazy place, but it seems to work in our favor.
It also has to be very vindicating that M3GAN 2.0 was already announced immediately after. How exciting is it that this universe is going to continue and these stories will get to still be told through the success of yours?
Oh, it’s great. Walking around Universal Studios and seeing all these iconic characters … it’s just incredible to think that M3GAN could be alongside these characters. That she could be her own institution and that I had a hand in creating that is really cool. When you get into making movies, you hope for something like this to happen, but you can never really expect it. So yeah, I feel great. It’s almost like now I can relax [Laugh].
I know we can’t talk any details, but have you heard ideas about maybe where the sequel will go?
Yeah, James [Wan] had an idea that he was kicking around and I think it’s a good one and I think it helps give us a clear direction of where we could go in the sequel and I’m talking to them this week about it. I think it’s important to analyze what really worked well on the first film and figure out where we have opportunities to explore other things and bring a freshness to it and somehow give people what they want and all the things they loved about the first movie, but in ways that they’re not expecting.
I was so impressed with how you were able to balance horror and comedy. My favorite scene was when M3GAN sings “Titanium.” How was that song choice chosen?
I remember I was working on that scene and I was writing various heartfelt things that M3GAN could say to Cady. Every version of the scene was just kind of meandering off and not really feeling like it had an ending. When I was thinking about a scene later on where I wanted to have M3GAN on the piano and do a little Lestat homage. I ended up coming across a YouTube video of someone playing on a toy piano, singing that song, and I just realized, “Holy shit, that’s perfect. The lyrics of that are so good.” So I went and kind of put that in and it was just one of those things that instantly made me laugh. But it’s a testament to how much fun it was to write a character like this. She just kind was the gift that kept on giving.