M3gan interview: Gerard Johnstone on his brilliant career and creating a horror icon

Share this Article:

Gerard Johnstone is the director of M3gan and lots of other, lesser-known gems. We’ve been talking to him about his instant-cult killer robot movie and everything that led up to it.

Somewhere around 11.15pm on Thursday 21 August, 2014, I was walking on air, floating my way out of the Frightfest screening of Gerard Johnstone’s brilliant horror comedy Housebound. The film had blown my mind and I knew I just had to find everything else he’d ever done and pour it straight into my eyes and ears.

As I impatiently scrolled through Google in the cinema foyer, I hit a surprising problem: everything else he’d ever done were some short films made on a shoestring and two series of an almost-as-affordable New Zealand sitcom which, even though it was previously issued on DVD back home, was already out of print.


Try three issues of Film Stories magazine – for just £1: right here!

I wasn’t going to let this stop me. I found somebody in New Zealand who was prepared to go around DVD shops and look in the second-hand bins and ex-rental sections. Within a few short months, a copy of Johnstone’s Jaquie Brown Diaries was in my hands. It did not disappoint.

Somewhere between Spaced, Bridget Jones and I’m Alan Partridge if only they’d cast Richard Madeley in the lead role, The Jaquie Brown Diaries stars the real life Jaquie Brown, an NZ TV ‘light news’ presenter, as a brilliantly monstrous version of herself. I recommend you find your own DVD shop scourer to go digging around New Zealand for a copy. It’s brilliant.

Suffice to say, I’ve been waiting for Johnstone’s second feature, the killer robot movie M3gan, with considerable anticipation. It also did not disappoint.

I was able to chat with Johnstone late last year. We spoke about his work on his two features, the sitcom, his early shorts, and lots more besides. Here’s the full text of our conversation, edited only slightly for clarity.

Hi, Gerard. I’d like to start zoomed out from M3gan and talk about your work in general. It seems to me that you seem particularly interested in genre and genre conventions, and playing with those.

I guess I love all movies. The very first thing I ever did was a TV series, a media satire. I was focused on comedy and when I then made a horror movie it was purely because the idea that I came up with, which I thought was very funny, was about this girl who had to live with her mother in a haunted house, and that lent itself to being a horror movie. In order to do that effectively I quickly realised – after seeing the first cut, really, I said “Oh shit, I should figure out how to do one of these horror movies properly.” So then I really had to go back to school on the genre and try to learn how to do it right.

Because I made a horror movie that put me in a certain lane where everyone saw me as a horror director. When I ended up with an agent most of the scripts I was given were horror scripts. It was definitely not intentional. There have been some things I’ve been attached to that aren’t horror movies but it’s just the way of the movie business that sometimes those things don’t come to fruition.

You didn’t name it but you talked about Jaquie Brown Diaries there. When I came out of seeing Housebound I was so in love with it I went to great lengths to get DVDs of the Jaquie Brown show.

[Gerard laughs]

There were bits in that show where you mocked up a hip-hop video or it turned into a Survivor-style reality show, so you’ve always had these genre elements that you’ve appropriated and tested out. And your first short films, Special Crimes Unit and A Fairly Good Tale played with things like cop movie cliches, or fairy tales…


I’ve done my research.

I’m impressed. Holy smokes. Great to give those things a shout out. Special Crimes Unit was for one of those 48-hour film competitions. The great thing about those are that people who don’t have the opportunity to make a movie are galvanised to get together with friends for one weekend only and just do it. You’re handed your parameters, and parameters are sometimes the best thing for creativity. You’re given a genre, a prop, one line of dialogue you have to use, a character in some cases, and you just have to be as creative within that as you can.

That was my first foray into moviemaking. If it wasn’t for that competition I don’t think I’d ever have actually made a film. People got to see that film and liked it, people who worked at the local TV network saw it and gave me opportunities.

The Jaquie Brown Diaries was a very cheap show, it was only $100,000 an episode to make. It was very much just on the bones of our ass, we were filming on weekends, and we were very much learning as we went.

I know that you’ve edited a lot of your work and must have learned to shoot for the edit. I’m always interested in how directors think about this sort of thing. How do you know you that you have your camera in the right place? What tells you where a cut should go? What clicks for you when considering these things?

It’s one of the most challenging things when you start out. For example, when I did The Jaquie Brown Diaries it was so easy, it was a comedy, you just do a master wide shot and two over shoulders. Pretty much anything you do can be achieved with those three shots, and if you want to get creative – and I was able to at certain points – you move around that.

When I did Housebound I got my ass handed to me. I learned “Oh, shit, there’s so much more that goes into this. Where should I put the camera?” and I learned the hard way that where I put the camera has a real direct impact on what the viewers are thinking and experiencing. It’s one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in moviemaking.

There’s a big gap between Housebound and M3gan. The best way you overcome it is just to watch a shit load of movies. I watch them purely for enjoyment and have always done, just to have fun and be entertained. When you’re watching a really good movie you’re not thinking about the mechanics, so what I do when I’m in prep for something is watch as many movies as I can by very good directors – Sam Raimi, Denis Villeneuve – and just turn the sound off. Then I can see how the camera’s moving and not be distracted by anything else. That’s how I’m reminded of what good filmmaking is, and try to incorporate that thinking into what I’m doing. And so that I don’t get bogged down with choice and stressed out, I just try to have fun, give myself little challenges and find new ideas to keep it interesting, for me and the audience.

Did you curate the films you watched before M3gan as your inspiration? Did you have a M3gan playlist?

On Housebound I had more time to do that. The thing about M3gan was that it was so involved, in terms of designing the doll, the costume, the sets. Just trying to get the costume right was one of the biggest things. The constant changes – we were going to do the movie, it started out in Montreal. We had a pandemic so that changed to New Zealand.

Most of my time was spent interviewing people, being on the phone, trying to crew and get my team together. But one of the films I watched the most for this was probably Gone Girl and I noticed last night “Oh, yeah, I completely ripped that shot off from Robocop.” When she comes into the house, Cady is leading her in, that’s totally Robocop. Obviously Paul Verhoeven is a big influence because he’s so subversive and satirical, he blends comedy and action together so effortlessly. And I watched a lot of old noir films, thrillers…

I read [a few years ago] that you were working on a film about Sonia Manaena. What happened to that?

It’s been cooking in the background for a long time.

Has the horror pigeonholing given you a problem with that?

It’s just been finding the time to do it. I’ve been attached to M3gan for a really long time. We first started developing this just before the Child’s Play remake. We just had to wait and see how that film went, and then start the development process again. Then the pandemic hit. I’ve been on this for a really long time. But [Sonia’s] is a story that is very personal to me and that I want to get right. It’s about a woman from my hometown who becomes a middle-aged powerlifting champion at age 52. It’s a really inspiring, fun story, something that’s really dear to my heart that I want to do when all of the timing is right. It’ll happen.

I had to get very creative and convince my computer it was in New Zealand so I could watch [Johnstone’s series] Terry Teo on TVNZ. Why can’t we see that in the rest of the world? Is there some potential we’ll get some kind of disc release or is it tied up in streaming rights?

I don’t know what the issue is. We never got a distributor for it. I don’t know why it didn’t happen. A lot of these things that I’ve been doing are really just me and my buddy Luke, who produced Housebound. We’re just a two-person team. He’s got his own business and I’m off directing things, so unless somebody comes to us and says “We’d like to distribute this…” Who knows? Maybe after the success of M3gan.

I’m very proud of that show. I loved it, and I loved the young actor that we cast in it, Kahn West. He was just phenomenal. New Zealand is such a small country and we don’t make a lot of shows, so it’s a real shame that one didn’t get more notice. I had a blast making that show.

It’s a real gem.

When the first M3gan trailer came out, with those shots of her dancing, the internet just lost its mind. There’s a lot going on there. There’s the idea that she’s going to dance at all, which the press notes say was your idea; there’s the costume; there’s the design of M3gan; there’s the casting of Amie; there’s the very Shining-esque red-walls on a very Shining-esque corridor. There’s a lot going on there. Can you unpick the sequence at all. I’d love to know what Akela [Cooper, the film’s original screenwriter] gave you on the page and how it developed.

Akela and James came up with the story and Akela gave me a screenplay in which, you know, the basic structure and the story of M3gan is there. So many of the set-pieces are exactly as they originally were in the script but as you make one of these movies and the years go on and you change from one location to another, and you get this actor or another, so there are so many different elements that change over time.

I felt like that at this point in the movie we had already done some pretty bonkers things and I was having a lot of fun with the script at that point, and there was a song that was playing on my stereo at the time I was thinking about this sequence, it happened to be the song we ended up using in the movie [which we won’t spoil here], and I immediately started to imagine M3gan dancing for no apparent reason.

I shoe-horned in a reason, which would be a distraction so she can close the gap on her victim without him realising that she’s trying to get to this guillotine. I thought it was a mad idea that someone would talk me out of but, to everyone’s credit, they didn’t. That was one of the ideas that everyone really embraced.

I’m so surprised it became what it became. I never knew, thinking up that scene, that we’d end up with someone like Amie [Donald, who plays M3gan when it’s an actor in a suit] who could give it so much personality. I was thinking of some kind of disco shuffle but her dance teacher just came up with this crazy thing, waving her arms, and I thought “I don’t know why you thought for her to do this, but it’s amazing.”

M3gan’s costume, all of the details, the bow, the stripe. What was the thinking behind those?

I wanted her to be a horror icon but not clearly something we’d seen before. I always thought of her as a perfect creation, and therefore I wanted her to be beautiful, hypnotic, and it made sense that should be reflected in her costume. She should be appealing and fun but also very elegant and classy. We looked to fashion icons of the 50s, people like Audrey Hepburn, to get her style of dress. I had a bunch of reference looks and we went through a lot of iterations but the final design was pretty much number two on my reference book plus some stripy sleeves and a ribbon. The fun thing about that costume is it turns out that it’s something people can easily concoct themselves at home.

Was that an accident?

A very happy accident. The simplicity of it makes it very easy for people to recreate.

You’ve cost Halloween costume companies billions of dollars there.

I’m not entirely sure who the director of photography was on this film. I’ve seen Peter McCaffrey in the credits and Simon Raby in the press notes

We had two DPs, this was done in two units. We came back to do some pickups and reshoots. Because of Covid and everything we didn’t quite get everything we needed to get and then New Zealand got struck by Covid. Simon Raby who did additional photography was somebody I’ve really been wanting to work with. He was a really great collaborator, and a really lovely guy, and had a lot of ideas, he really cared about the story. Simon actually came up with one of the ideas at the end of the film – regarding the tablet pen, that was actually his idea.

Were there any organising principles to the camera work or the colours that you used to make your visual decisions?

I really wanted to make it organic. I didn’t want it to feel clinical or sterile, even though it’s a movie about artificial intelligence, I didn’t want the film to feel artificial. Make it warm and not shy away from colour, also make it all feel natural. I would have loved to have shot it on film but we couldn’t do that, so we tried to make it feel as organic as possible.

I’m almost out of time but I wanted to tell you that I loved it. Everything of yours I’ve been able to track down makes up a tremendous body of work. But what’s still outstanding for you? What do you really want to make?

Anything fun. A good story, something the world needs, or hasn’t been done before. Something that interests me and that I would want to see as a fan.

And what’s your answer to the obligatory “Do you know what’s next?” question?

I don’t know. There’s a few things floating around and if M3gan does really well maybe we’ll get to go again, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Thank you so very much for your time, and congratulations on such a great film.

You too man. This was a really nice chat. Thank you.

Let’s talk next time!

M3gan is in UK cinemas from 13 January. It’s already storming up the box office charts in the US and across lots of the rest of the world. If you’re still not convinced to give it a go, check out my review of the film.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

More like this