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'M3GAN' composer Anthony Willis breaks down his 'hypnotic tech-wonder' score for new horror classic
Meet the mecmaestro behind M3GAN's music.
If composer Anthony Willis had to describe his M3GAN score in as few words as possible, he'd go with equal parts "hypnotic tech-wonder" and "industrial tech-horror." Notice how those weren't just everyday adjectives you can find in any common thesaurus. Willis's description of his music for the project is very much indicative of all the tender love and care that went into a new horror classic.
In a conversation with SYFY WIRE, Willis credits director Gerard Johnstone for having "big musical plans" that would "draw on lots of different styles" throughout the movie. "I think he really liked the femme fatale, Hitchcockian aspect to my score for Promising Young Woman. I also had experience on lots of different family movies, so he brought me on. I instantly could tell that he had a really awesome instinct for music and went from there."
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In particular, Johnstone wanted "music that was very hypnotic, that would keep you immersed and intrigue you," Willis adds. "As M3GAN becomes intrigued about the world around her, the score takes you on that journey." And despite the fact that M3GAN does plays into proud cinematic tradition of rogue robots and dolls, Johnstone wasn't pushing his composer toward any specific influence. "In terms of the Annabelles or the Chuckys, I think he was very much wanting us to find our own path."
Moreover, the director did not want the music to overly acknowledge the darkly comedic aspects of the film, of which there are many. "Gerard was anxious to not score comedy, but rather allow it to breathe in the ebb and flow of the score. I think that works really well because the score is then reinforcing the sincerity of the moments that allow the comedy to punctuate through that."
Reading through the screenplay by Akela Cooper (writer of James Wan's Malignant) greatly excited the composer, who felt like he could craft a "broad" spectrum of cues spanning horror, fantasy, and action. "You could tell that there was a classic vibe to M3GAN, but also a contemporary AI take," he explains. "So that really attracted me to the project. I was like, ‘There’s a chance to do something a little bit traditional in places, but also a little different.’"
Allison Williams (Get Out) fronts the story as Gemma, a talented toy company roboticist who finds herself hesitantly assuming responsibility for her 8-year-old niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), when the girl's parents are tragically killed in a car accident. Unsure of how to care for a young child, Gemma turns to technology for help, building a state-of-the-art doll capable of true companionship.
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"Right from the get-go, Gerard wanted to stay in the organic place as much as possible," Willis continues. "The idea being that M3GAN, for much of the movie, is inhabiting the innocence of the child and the warmth of a guardian. And she’s so unbelievably vivid and real-looking, that it did make sense that she would be primarily organic [from a musical standpoint]."
The composer then added a vibraphone to the mix for a subtle hint of futurism. "I think it's a really cool instrument for AI because it’s right on the cusp of sounding like a synth. It's very metallic, but it also sits very beautifully in an organic, acoustics place," he says. "There was a lot of oscillating like that. And, obviously, [I used] strings for warmth ... and creepy female pop vocals, which my friend Holly Sedillos did a wonderful job with."
The more time Cady spends with M3GAN, the more she begins to move past her grief, albeit with the downside of the titular toy (physically performed by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) gaining sentience and rebelling against her human creators. To reflect M3GAN's epiphany of self-awareness, Willis needed to find just the right "cocktail of classic anvils, percussion, and brass" that could seamlessly blend with "some featured moments for very aggressive synths."
But that sinister evolution would only work if he could successfully establish a "sincere" and "emotional" foundation for Gemma and Cady from the very start. "By the end of the movie, you're either rooting for M3GAN — which is a little masochistic, but understandable, because she's so cool — or you're rooting for a resolution in Gemma and Cady’s relationship," the composer adds. "So it was really important in that first act to establish some sincerity, sweetness, and sadness. The music in that first act also then becomes the thing that M3GAN herself picks up on and then ultimately embodies and develops."
The machine's uncanny ability to learn at a rapid pace is hauntingly underscored in the scene where Gemma and her toy company colleagues show M3GAN off to a group of potential investors. Seen through a two-way mirror, Cady becomes emotional over the death of her parents, prompting M3GAN to comfort the girl with a sweet little song called "Tell Me Your Dreams."
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It's an original composition, with music from Willis — "I wrote the tune for that literally right after joining the project because it was needed to be shot in New Zealand like two days later," he reveals — and lyrics by Johnstone, who wanted it to sound like something out of a classic animated movie from Don Bluth or the Mouse House.
"Gerard said, ‘Well, what about making it like a Disney song? Like a like a straight-up ‘Somewhere Out There’ [that] James Horner [wrote for] An American Tale. What if she's just written this Disney song?’ That suddenly began to unlock a lot of the fantastical elements of M3GAN’s journey. Getting harps involved. I also used a lot of harp harmonics, which I find [to be] a really interesting instrument because they're sort of slightly affected. So it really was the key, in a way, to what M3GAN could could accomplish musically."
Rocking a near-perfect score of 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, M3GAN has done exceptionally well at the box office, turning its humble $12 million budget into $158 million worldwide. Naturally, Universal Pictures, Blumhouse, and Atomic Monster have already handed down the green-light for a sequel, currently entitled M3GAN 2.0. While it's still too early to tell where the second movie will go, Willis says he'd "obviously be delighted" to be brought back as composer.
"I'd love to use any of the themes and ideas that are relevant to this first one, but then really find new ideas," he concludes. "I'm sure there's going to be some new fun concepts. I'm just [guessing], but maybe there's going to be a new toy company that comes out with a different M3GAN. There’s all sorts of things that could happen."
M3GAN is currently playing in theaters and available to rent/purchase on VOD platforms like Vudu. The official soundtrack is now available to stream or purchase from Back Lot Music.
Looking for even more killer doll fun? Check out SYFY's Chucky series — the first season of which is now streaming on Peacock. The hit series (based on the long-running Child's Play film franchise) was recently picked up for a third season.