- Hit movie “M3GAN” has busted the $100 million worldwide ticket sales barrier on a $12 million production budget.
- Director Gerard Johnstone was inspired by horror-comedies like Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s rom-zom-com “Shaun of the Dead.”
- New Zealand actress Amie Donald played the demented AI and ended up doing her own stunts.
Perhaps it’s our underlying fear of what AI will lead to, or a horror jolt that we needed to kickstart our year, but the hit movie M3GAN is busting the $100 million worldwide ticket sales barrier on a $12 million production budget. Also, a generous PG-13 rating has lured in the teenage market with even younger kids finding a way into theaters to catch horror-comedy at its best.
Vanity Fair’s Julie Miller looked into the toy slayers and analyzed the genre. “The killer doll trope is nothing new — 60 years ago, a pigtailed doll in ribbons and ruffles named ‘Talky Tina’ took out an evil stepfather in a Twilight Zone episode,” she writes.
“In the decades since, there have been knife-wielding dolls, deranged puppets, demonic fetish figures, and diabolical porcelain dolls fronting horror films.” But maybe the effect is easily explained by Frank McAndrew, a psychologist who has researched the concept of creepiness.
“They have eyes and ears and heads and all of the things that normal human beings have,” explains Frank “But there’s something off — the deadness in their eyes, their blank stares. They’re cute and they’re supposed to be for children,” he says, but the human realism causes “our brain to give off conflicting signals. For some people that can be very discomforting.”
McAndrew further defines that dolls are especially effective horror-movie antagonists because murderous streaks seem so unlikely in a child’s toy.
READ MORE: M3GAN and the History of the Creepy Killer Doll Phenomenon (Vanity Fair)
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of M3GAN is how a seemingly CGI-laced movie was made for only $12 million. The mid-sized budget was perhaps a consequence of shooting in New Zealand during COVID — since at the time the country hadn’t yet been exposed to the pandemic. But it was also due to the skills of a young local actress, Amie Donald, who played the demented AI and ended up doing her own stunts.
Jen Yamato at the Los Angeles Times tracked down the actress’s movement coaches. “Casting local performer and international competitive dancer Donald, now 12, to physically embody M3GAN turned out to be fortuitous. Although it was her first film role, the actor, who has also since appeared on Sweet Tooth, was off book within a week and loved doing her own stunts. ‘She was just extraordinary,’ says director Gerard Johnstone,” Yamato reports.
“Working with movement coaches Jed Brophy (The Lord of the Rings) and Luke Hawker (Thor: Love and Thunder) and stunt coordinator Isaac ‘Ike’ Hamon (Black Adam), she developed M3GAN’s physicality, which becomes more humanlike the longer she’s around humans. She adopted barely perceptible movements — a slight cock of the head, a step a bit too close for comfort — to maximize the unsettling effect M3GAN has on people.”
Donald proved to the director how well she could do her own stunts and even on the first day of shooting, nailed the all-fours forest move you can see on the trailer after perfecting it at home. “All of a sudden we get this video from her mother, where Amie had just figured out how to do this on the carpet at home,” said Johnstone. “And she could run on all fours!”
READ MORE: Puppets, fake tears, a young dance phenomenon: How ‘M3GAN’s’ killer doll came to life (Los Angeles Times)
CGI was definitely minimized in the movie, but WETA Workshop contributed additional designs to the film, and Oscar-nominated Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse of Montreal-based Morot FX Studios were entrusted to smooth out the joins of animatronics, puppets, posable and stunt M3GANs, as well as Donald herself.
Director Gerard Johnstone was also keen to bring a level of humor to the movie and find ways to echo his own experience of parenthood, as he told Gregory Ellwood at The Playlist. “But what I brought to it was definitely my own sense of humor and my own experiences as a parent. I wanted to put as many of my own struggles and anxieties and frustrations that I was having as a parent into this movie. Parenting in the age of AI and iPads isn’t easy.”
READ MORE: ‘M3GAN’ Director Gerard Johnstone Loves That You Think It’s A Comedy, Talks Sequels & More [Interview] (The Playlist)
Speaking to Valerie Ettenhofer in an interview for Slash Film, Johnstone cited Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead as teaching him a significant lesson in style. “My big lesson from them when I first watched Shaun of the Dead… was just how seriously they took both genres,” the director shares. “If I was going to do this, I had to treat the horror as seriously as I did the comedy.”
Johnstone struck a balance between horror and comedy with his first film, Housebound, which he continued with M3GAN, Ettenhofer notes, “a movie that offsets its most violent and unsettling scenes with moments in which the titular android does a hair-twirling dance or breaks into spontaneous song.”
Johnstone also namedrops a few other greats that he considers fun horror touchstones. “I’m a big fan of Sam Raimi, Drag Me to Hell and The Evil Dead trilogy.” He also commends Wes Craven, plus the “very deadpan” films of Joel and Ethan Coen, which he says employ “just a very dry tone, but you can tell they’re secretly making comedies.”
READ MORE: M3GAN Director Gerard Johnstone Learned A Key Lesson From Shaun Of The Dead [Exclusive] (Slash Film)
All the film references in the world mean for nothing, however, when your movie becomes a litany of Internet memes, which M3GAN quickly generated. Karla Rodriguez at Complex put it to the director that once a part of your movie or a part of the trailer becomes a meme, you know you’ve struck gold.
“And they were amazing,” picked up Johnstone, “and I just couldn’t believe how many of them there were. But I thought they were giving too much away in the trailer of the dance scene. I was like, ‘I just want a hint of it, something weird happening to tease people.’ And Universal said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And I didn’t know what I was talking about clearly because people just took it, recut it, put it to different music and it was just the gift that kept on giving.”
READ MORE: Director Gerard Johnstone Shares the Behind-the-Scenes Magic That Went Into Creating ‘M3GAN’ (Complex)
So where does that leave the psychotic M3GAN doll? A scary range of merch maybe, but definitely at least one sequel because, like artificial intelligence, we just can’t get enough of her. Producer Jason Blum has already said as much. “Blum did something he’d never done in his nearly 30-year career: He publicly admitted his desire to make a sequel before the movie even opened in theaters, Rebecca Rubin reports at Variety. “He just felt certain that audiences would instantly fall in love with M3GAN, short for Model 3 Generative Android, whose chaotic dance moves, pithy one-liners and killer tendencies turned her into an internet icon as soon as Universal debuted the first trailer.”
“We broke our cardinal rule,” he says. “I felt so bullish that we started entertaining a sequel earlier than we usually do.”
READ MORE: Why ‘M3GAN’ Convinced Horror Maven Jason Blum to Break His Cardinal Rule on Sequels (Variety)
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