James Wan’s name has practically become synonymous with modern horror over the last two decades, between his work as a director and as a producer as well. For this latest producing project, he’s introducing the world to M3GAN, an extremely lifelike doll that is programmed to be every kid’s best friend and protector—a creation that just so happens to take her responsibilities a little too far in this hilariously twisted story penned by screenwriter Akela Cooper and directed by Gerard Johnstone.
During the recent press day for M3GAN, Daily Dead had the privilege of chatting with Wan about his latest genre offering, and he shared how Cooper’s approach to this script really helped ground the project’s sometimes outlandish concepts in a world that felt accessible and relatable. Wan also discussed how he had been wanting to work with Johnstone for years now, ever since seeing Housebound, and why M3GAN was the perfect fit for the director, and he also provided some insights into how his career has evolved over the years and how helping new filmmakers is something that he finds highly motivating as well.
Look for M3GAN in theaters this weekend, courtesy of Universal Pictures.
So great to speak with you today, James. I'm a huge fan of what you guys were able to create with M3GAN, so I wanted to start off by talking about working with Akela. Between what she's been able to do with the scripts for Malignant and with this, the way that she's able to take these things that would otherwise seem so outlandish and make them so human and relatable, it's a real gift. Can you talk about bringing her into the fold with Atomic Monster?
James Wan: Yeah. I mean, that's the thing I love about Akela. She is such a big horror fan that it's so easy to talk to her and make references to films around her. She knows everything. She is a true genre fan. And the thing that I truly, truly admire about her is she is so not afraid to lean into the ridiculous. She's not afraid to lean into things that most people would consider outrageous and over the top because she's able to balance that with the human stuff, as you pointed out. And I think that is the way to do it. That's the way I've done it, too, on all my films, where if I do something that is really outlandish or outrageous, I wanna make sure there's a touchstone of something in there that is easy to relate to, that there's a human element that you can hang onto.
And that's what Akela does. Her first script for M3GAN was really darkly humorous. It was not afraid to be violent, to be dark and twisted, but at the same time, there are these really funny moments, too. That's the really best compliment I can give to Akela—that she's so brave and she's not afraid to push the boundaries, but she still understands that it's still a commercial movie. Also, she understands that this is a horror film, and she's not afraid to lean into tropes, but she uses those tropes to back up her story and her concept.
As somebody who's spent a big chunk of her career dedicated to celebrating the art of special effects and things like that, there's ambitious and then there's M3GAN. What you guys were able to achieve in this movie is blowing my mind. I hope there's some behind-the-scenes on all of this. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about bringing M3GAN to life and the intricacies of that. I'm still floored by the magic that you guys are able to create here because it was this huge thing to take on, but you guys pulled it off wonderfully for this film.
James Wan: Also, at the end of the day, this was a pretty low-budget film in that respect, so it's not a film with lots of money behind it to be able to pull M3GAN off. What we had to do was be smart about everything and be creative with how we approached the character, and without spoiling it, we employed all kinds of methods and all kinds of techniques. One of the things very early on was Gerard and I were very adamant in wanting to keep it as practical as possible. I'm a big fan of practical effects and Gerard is really into that as well, so that made it easier. We used whatever tools we needed so that we could bring her to life. And that's something that I wanna give credit to Gerard for - he really figured out how to infuse so much life into M3GAN. She is this inanimate object. She's a doll, she's a lifeless prop. But he was able to bring so much personality to her that M3GAN became such a strong character in the movie. She's so sassy. She's so funny. And she's likable at the same time. We are very thankful for the technicians that were able to help us pull M3GAN off for the movie.
You mentioned Gerard, and I am someone who is a huge Housebound fan. Could you discuss how it was working with him and what he brought to the table in terms of his sensibilities as a filmmaker? This really felt like it reflected his sense of humor, and he did a phenomenal job here with balancing everything out.
James Wan: Oh yes, like you, I'm a huge fan of Housebound and horror films like Housebound that really tow that fine line of being creepy and scary in one moment, but the next moment something funny and goofy happens. It's such a specific tone that Gerard has that he just does it so well and pairing him with Akela's script just made the perfect sense. I've been a big fan of Gerard’s for a long time, and we've been wanting to find the right project to work with him on. We were very fortunate that the movie he had been working on for a while fell through, so we were like, “Come and do M3GAN with us.” Luckily, he said yes, and he totally got what it was that we were trying to do, and he put his stamp on it. And again, the reason the movie works the way it does is all because of him.
I know we have to wrap up soon, but I just wanted to ask one last question before we go. You are someone who is so prolific in this genre, and you've been a part of this world for nearly 20 years now. I'm just really curious—at this point in your career, what excites you? Is it the challenge of trying to find new and different ways of shocking audiences? When you wake up in the morning, what is it that makes you wanna go out there and keep pushing things?
James Wan: I would say it's probably a handful of things. Obviously, as you pointed out, I've definitely been doing this for a while. It's weird for me to say that because I don't feel that old, but I guess I am [laughs] a lot older. But I have tackled a lot of the movies that I enjoy or that I would wanna make, so there's a part of me now that likes the idea of helping shepherd new filmmakers so that way I still get to be involved in horror movies because I love them, but I don't necessarily need to be hands-on as a director as much anymore.
That could be the next step in my career that I'm potentially moving towards, where I’m doing that thing that Spielberg did in the ’80s when he was just overseeing a lot of other filmmakers. But I'm doing it at a smaller level than what Steven was doing. So there's that. And still, it is getting harder for me to find projects that excite me, so whatever I do in terms of a director it has to be something that really speaks to me. I wouldn't just jump into directing just for the sake of directing because it takes so much out of me, and I am in the midst of a very big movie right now and the big films just beat the crap out of me. They take three years of my life, which is why I see the producing that I do within the horror genre as something that is really refreshing for me because they don't take as long and they're fun to do without the big pressure that those bigger films have.