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'M3GAN' director Gerard Johnstone on what the film says about screen time & letting kids be bored

What was on the idea board putting M3GAN together? Director Gerard Johnstone has the intel.

By Tara Bennett
Director Gerard Johnstone on the set of M3GAN.

The first horror hit of 2023, M3GAN is creepy-dancing her way into our homes with the Digital release and the Blu-ray™ and DVD available now. With executive producer James Wan and producer Jason Blum already blue skying ideas for sequels, SYFY WIRE got on a Zoom with director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) to ask about his sequel involvement, what he added to Wan and writer Akela Cooper's original script and to unpack the cinematic homages he wove into the final film. 

Gerard, you are part of this wave of New Zealand filmmakers who have the perfect sensibility of how to blend comedy and horror. What about your home country seems to give you an advantage in that area?

Yeah, I've never discussed it with Taika [Waititi] or Jemaine [Clement], but for me, it's kind of a thing of when you're a New Zealander, you can't believe you're getting to make a movie. So you're putting so many things into it, because you'll never get to make another one. [Laughs.] I think that could be a part of it. And we're very self deprecating. We find the whole notion of success, and that we actually get to do what we want to do for a living absurd. So that bleeds into the work.

Prior to M3GAN, you wrote your own scripts that you directed. With this, you were working from Wan and Cooper's script. Was it odd asking to make changes or were they open to you adding your voice to it too?

James was a fan of Housebound as well, and that was what he wanted. He wanted it to be fun. The script that I got was a lot straighter and really, really dark. It was little bit more of a hard horror. So I just brought my sensibilities to it. I took the script and did a pass. I wanted to make M3GAN more fun and make it funny. And so that's what I did. So it wasn't like me trying to understand someone else's work. I just kind of took the script and rewrote things that match my sensibility. 

But I thought the story was really great and I didn't want to change anything about that. There were some good setups and payoffs, like with the Bruce character which I thought was a really great goalpost to get to. Within the scenes, I thought we can have some fun here. And I think this technology is really exciting, so there's all these different things she could do. And they were very supportive. Blumhouse, the same thing, in that they were really supportive. They just wanted me to do whatever it is that I might do. And I'm thinking the same thing at the time, which is like, "I guess maybe this is what I do?" Hoping it all works out and hoping it's not really terrible, and they're all really bad ideas. It turned out it went really well. [Laughs.]

There's a pointed theme about the perils of children and technology that runs throughout the story. Was there something specific about your worldview on tech that you wanted to say in the movie?

Well, just this notion of screen time, and iPads and how people take it for granted is the biggest thing that affects me as a parent. When I go to my friend's houses, the kids are all on iPads. It used to be that the kids were all playing Sega or watching a Bruce Lee movie. Now they're all just in their own little cocoon, and I hate it. It's just hellish. I try to protect my kids from that but it's really hard because all their other friends are on Minecraft or Roblox. And they make you think why is this popular? The graphics are so sh*t. [Laughs.] But I get it. But it's just so important that they have a more holistic [attitude].

I just remember boredom being so good for me. I spent my whole childhood being so bored but out of that, I think, came an appreciation for when things weren't boring. And time to think and process. When I was approaching this film — and I talked with Allison [Williams] a lot about this — that you're distracted by devices all the time, so you don't even get a chance to grieve. I wanted to figure out a way to represent that in the script as well. But also just like being focused on your career. Gemma is really focused on what she's doing and it's really hard for her to be two things. She never wanted — just because she's a woman — to be defined by motherhood. And it's really hard for me as a dad as well. I write from home and my kids are around. And I'm not spending time with them because I'm writing a goddamn movie about a woman not spending enough time with her child. [Laughs.] It's really hard and figuring out how to do it because you do get addicted to the screen, and you just get focused on your work. It's really hard to separate yourself from it. I struggle with it as much as anyone else.

Talk about what films influenced you most when making M3GAN?

I think there is a little bit of RoboCop. There's the movie Gone Girl was very influential on the tone and style that I was trying to do. It was a domestic noir and also had quite a really interesting tone; very funny and dark with an unhinged female protagonist. It's funny, you watch that movie the second time and you realize, "Oh, she's the hero!" It's not apparent when you first watch it. And Under the Skin was another one. The camera really lingers on Scarlett Johansson, and it gives you a window into the mind of this alien creature. I wanted to treat M3GAN the same way, as a point of difference from Chucky, where that is just so overtly fun and goofy. But to just imagine what's really going on inside this doll's mind.

Anything you have loved lately you would recommend others watch?

Oh, there is a TV show I was asked to watch to check out, Raised by Wolves. It was weird. And I can't outright recommend it as an, "Oh, you'll love it!" But there's crossover with M3GAN as well because she's an artificially intelligent Mother. But I loved how just weird and strange it was.

M3GAN UNRAT3D VERSION is available now on Digital and Blu-ray™ and DVD on March 21. Peacock subscribers can watch it hereLooking for more killer doll fun? Check out SYFY's Chucky series — the first season of which is now streaming on Peacock.