Making ‘M3GAN’: inside the creation of horror’s viral new villain

Hey doll! We meet the team behind the killer kids' toy tearing up TikTok. Her next stop: the multiplex

M3GAN hasn’t opened in cinemas yet, but it already feels like a cult classic. When the trailer for this outrageously entertaining horror film dropped in October, the internet went wild for its title character: a highly sophisticated robotic doll designed to “pair” with her child owner. M3GAN’s impressive if slightly unhinged dance moves became a TikTok meme; and on Twitter, she was embraced as an instant gay icon.

Allison Williams, who stars in the movie as M3GAN’s inventor, says she spotted the character’s potential to go viral as soon as she read the script. “I just thought, ‘If there’s a chance we can make M3GAN iconic, this is going to be so much fun,” she tells NME via Zoom from an LA hotel room. “And when I saw her for the first time, I was like, ‘Chef’s kiss! She’s just unreal.'”

“M3GAN is fierce, fully confident and bursts into song occasionally”
– Allison Williams

M3GAN isn’t just unreal, she’s a little too real for comfort. She looks like a doll but is also spookily human – in the movie, several characters mistake her for an actual little girl – and begins to behave like a sentient being: one who takes loyalty to extreme lengths. “Everyone has that friend who’s like, ‘If he’s meant to you, I’ll kill him,'” Williams explains. “But M3GAN’s like, ‘I actually will kill anyone who’s mean to you. She’s fierce, fully confident and bursts into song or dance occasionally – who doesn’t love that?”

Directed by Gerald Johnstone, who previously made the grimly hilarious New Zealand horror flick Housebound, the movie follows M3GAN as she becomes dangerously attached to Cady (Violet McGraw), the lonely and vulnerable girl she is paired with. After Cady loses her mum and dad in a car crash, she is sent to live with her Aunt Gemma (Williams), a brilliant inventor who’s much better at programming than parenting. It’s a culture shock for both of them: when Cady arrives at Gemma’s house, her aunt scolds her for picking up a toy that’s not meant to be played with because it’s “a collectible”.

Allison Williams
Allison Williams as Gemma in ‘M3GAN’. CREDIT: Universal

“When I first read the script, I thought Gemma was awesome,” says Williams, who is also an executive producer on the movie. “I love the idea of this very career-driven, genius roboticist who is kind of focused on that to the exclusion of everything else.” Though Gemma’s guardianship gets off to a rocky start, she soon finds the perfect distraction for her grieving niece. Her name is M3GAN – short for Model 3 Generative Android – and she’s the seemingly flawless prototype for the lifelike doll that Gemma believes will become a revolutionary, “must-have” toy.

Because M3GAN is programmed to respond to Cady’s every need and adjust her behaviour accordingly, she quickly begins to fill the parent-shaped hole in her life – one Gemma isn’t ready to take on yet. “And then as I carried on reading the script,” Williams says, “I was sweating and panicking because I didn’t know who I was rooting for and I didn’t know what was going to happen. That’s always a good sign in this genre.”

‘M3GAN’ hits cinemas on January 13. CREDIT: Universal

Having starred in 2017’s zeitgeist-grabbing horror smash Get Out, which won Best Original Screenplay at the following year’s Academy Awards, it’s a genre Williams knows a thing or two about. Is her bar for saying yes to another horror movie sky-high after appearing in Jordan Peele’s modern masterpiece? “Well,” she says with a smile, “I’m not like, is this [film] gonna win an Oscar?”

Then, after letting out a laugh, Williams gives a more serious answer that gets to the crux of M3GAN’s appeal. “For me to ask someone to leave their house in this day and age and pay money for a movie ticket, I really have to believe that I’m going to give you entertainment and you’re going to have a blast,” she says. “That’s kind of the litmus test for me to decide whether something is worthwhile.”

Powered by AI, M3GAN is a toy doll with a dangerous difference. CREDIT: Universal

Williams punctuates her point with some unexpected modesty. “That’s always the bar because I am a good actress, not a great one,” she continues. “I couldn’t lie to you about whether or not I thought [a film] was worth going to see. And I don’t want to have to.”

You might not buy Williams’ claim that she is merely a “good” actress – you’ll definitely disagree if you caught her brilliantly cringe-inducing performance as wannabe singer Marnie in Lena Dunham’s Girls. But, there’s no denying that M3GAN is an absolute blast. It’s not just gory, scary and twisty, but also kitsch, hilarious and pretty surreal. As the title character’s desire to protect Cady intensifies, her behaviour becomes increasingly psycopathic, but she’s still capable of disarming us with a moment of sweetness.

‘M3GAN’ director ‘Gerard Johnstone. CREDIT: Universal

In a standout scene, she responds to an awkward question from Cady by breaking into song with a few bars of Sia and David Guetta‘s ‘Titanium’. M3GAN may sound angelic as she trills the uplifting lyrics, but we know by this point that she’s anything but. “That song immediately popped into my head as being pretty perfect because [M3GAN] literally is made of titanium,” says Johnstone, the film’s director. “It’s a really dramatic moment where M3GAN is being asked if she’s done something really terrible, so I wanted her to skirt that question in a way that felt comforting”.

M3GAN is the latest super-buzzy horror movie to emerge from Jason Blum‘s Blumhouse stable, which previously gave us Get Out, Paranormal Activity and Insidious. When M3GAN was announced in 2018, Blum said Johnstone was the ideal director because “we needed someone who can do the thrills and set pieces, but who also has a cheeky approach”.

Violet McGraw
Violet McGraw plays Cady, M3GAN’s child owner. CREDIT: Universal

Johnstone certainly repays the faith put in him by Blum and the movie’s other producer, Insidious director James Wan, who also co-wrote its story. The end result is a deft blend of seemingly competing tones: one minute M3GAN is delivering killer dance moves, the next she is quite literally a killer. At times, this film is so frightening that 11-year-old McGraw says she “probably wouldn’t be allowed to watch it” if she weren’t one of its stars. “M3GAN is really creepy and disturbing,” McGraw adds, “but at the same time, she’s kind of cool”.

Johnstone says he could fully lean into the film’s comic moments because the screenplay by Akela Cooper, writer of 2021’s awesome haunted house flick Malignant, had such sturdy dramatic beats. “Akela did a really awesome job of setting everything up: the characters, the conflict and the mechanics of the story,” he says. “But comedy is my first love, so I’m always looking for an opportunity to create a gag. And they [Blum and Wan] embraced that – it was very much what they wanted.”

“This film reflects the way we’re using technology as a crutch”
– director Gerard Johnstone

However, Johnstone also believes that beyond the gags and gore, M3GAN taps into an eternal dilemma for any parent. “This film reflects the way we’re using technology as a crutch,” he says. “Bringing up children is very difficult and time-consuming. Like, trying to figure out how to relate to a child and entertain a child and get on their level, it’s just so exhausting. That’s why parents are so quick to say: ‘Just take the iPad while I make dinner because I can’t deal with you right now.”

In the director’s eyes, the lifelike robotic doll invented by Gemma is simply a logical – if sinister – extension of this crutch. “M3GAN is like an iPad with legs,” he says. “And what’s so terrifying is that she can do all these things that a parent can’t do, but also do things that they can do, but do them even better.”

M3GAN first went viral on TikTok in 2022 when the trailer landed. CREDIT: Universal

Johnstone hopes the movie might make audiences question the ethics of relying more heavily on artificial intelligence. “First and foremost, I want people to have a blast,” he says, echoing Williams’ party line. “But if it does manage to provoke a little bit more thought about the role of technology in our lives by holding up a mirror to our society, that would be the icing on the cake.”

M3GAN may be a timely movie, but it also owes a debt to horror’s past – in particular, the OG killer doll, Child’s Play star Chucky. When the trailer dropped in October with the tagline “meet #M3GAN – your new best friend”, Chucky’s Twitter account tweeted that “everybody’s tryna be me”. Given that M3GAN and Chucky share the same parent company, this was clearly clever marketing rather than the start of a spat. Still, Johnstone acknowledges that “we’re standing on the shoulders of giants in terms of other horror icons that are out there.”

M3GAN, horror’s next cult icon? CREDIT: Universal

Interestingly, he also says that M3GAN’s impeccable retro dress sense was inspired by a very different screen legend: Breakfast at Tiffany’s star Audrey Helpburn. “We wanted to make sure that she was icon in her own right, but rather than turning to other horror icons, I wanted her to be influenced more by screen icons of the ’50s and ’60s,” he explains. “I wanted her to have elegance and class.” During the creative process, giving M3GAN a touch of class evolved into making her even more lifelike.

“I started to think, ‘Shit, maybe she shouldn’t look like a toy,” Johnstone says, “and that maybe it would be more interesting if she looked really real.” To this end, the Canadian company he commissioned to bring M3GAN to life “actually specialises in making very realistic prosthetic doubles”. The character we see on screen has the voice of Disney Channel actress Jenna Davis, but is actually portrayed under genuinely incredible prosthetics by Amie Donald, a young performer who has represented New Zealand at the Dance World Cup.

“It’s so scary that I wouldn’t normally be allowed to watch it”
– Violet McGraw

“It just felt like the perfect opportunity to see how far we could push this,” Johnstone says. “I thought it would be really exciting if M3GAN was so realistic that you almost have to do a double take to realise that you’re looking at a doll and not an actual girl.” Of course, M3GAN’s lifelike quality only makes her scarier: when you can’t quite tell what something is, it’s harder to get a grip on it.

The most shocking thing about M3GAN is the fact she might just be an antihero. Williams says she “definitely” expects some people to view Gemma as the true villain of the story because that’s exactly what happened at the film’s LA premiere. “People were cheering for M3GAN for 90 per cent of the movie,” she says. “Not only were they in a rush for her to show up at the beginning – ‘Come on, bring us our girl’ – But once she shows up, I don’t want to spoil things, but she does some really horrible things that they were cheering for. That’s an uncanny experience to have.”

It’s an experience that Williams believes is best enjoyed communally. “I’ve watched this film more times than I can count on my television and my iPad, but it’s very different to watch it in a theatre full of people who bring very different sensibilities,” she says. It’s a fair point: hardcore horror fans will probably laugh at different parts to people who’ve bought a ticket because M3GAN is already their “queen of 2023”. “And come on,” Williams adds, “it’s so fun to start your new year off with a great movie that is going to make you laugh and think and clap for evil, evil things to happen”.

‘M3GAN’ is in cinemas from January 13

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