The screenwriter who brought everyone’s favorite murder doll to life chats with Gawk3r about elevated horror, cult hits, and Sia
Although 2023 is just getting started, I can safely say that M3GAN has been the best thing to happen to me yet — and might be the best thing to happen to me all year. One of the most fun movie-watching experiences I’ve had in recent memory (and yes, you must see it in a theater), the film about a dancing murder doll surpassed January box office expectations, proving that the world can’t get enough of the campy killer android.
Gawker spoke with Akela Cooper, the screenwriter of M3GAN — whose other work includes TV shows like Luke Cage, American Horror Story, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, as well as the screenplay for Malignant and the upcoming film The Nun 2 — to discuss the unexpected mainstream success of the film and what it’s like to make horror fun.
Gawker: M3GAN has been out in theaters for a week now. How has the response been?
Akela Cooper: It’s been great. January has been kind of known as the dumping ground — like, maybe it’ll work, maybe it won't work. A lot of movies get put in January, just to make sure they are released. But [distributor] Universal Pictures had faith. And kudos to Universal, because it hit big. The response from everyone thus far has been incredible. I’m really happy that audiences are not only enjoying the movie, but loving it and connecting to it. It’s bringing people joy in the dead of winter, so I am happy that I can contribute to people’s serotonin levels.
You’ve already worked on a lot of TV and film — what’s it like having your first truly mainstream hit?
It is a lovely feeling. I am enjoying it as much as possible, because I know what the other end feels like: when you put something out there and no one responds and it gets shit on by critics. I keep calling M3GAN a cult hit, and everyone is like, “It’s not a cult hit at this point.” And I’m like, it kind of is; there are communities who have latched onto this. I’m really happy the gay community has found it.
So I still consider M3GAN kind of a cult hit. That’s where the horror I love lives, and it’s the the world where I thrive. Working with [production companies] Atomic Monster and Blumhouse, we’re making horror movies that we wanted to see as kids and we are putting them out to the world. One of my best friends texted me saying there are parents who are going to be taking their kids to M3GAN.
You mentioned in another interview that there has been this demand for “elevated horror” and that you wanted to do something that was truly just fun — which you also did with 2021’s Malignant. What made you want to do that, and what has it been like to bring that forward?
When Get Out came out, I loved that movie and was so incredibly happy that it was a success. I was like, “OK, Black horror and Black-led horror! Jordan Peele really opened the door for that, and that’s what I’m writing!”
And then Hereditary and The Witch came out, and I’m not shitting on those movies, but it became a very specific brand of horror. The door that I thought had been opened was not necessarily open for me. I was hearing, “Well, there’s a lot of gore in this, and you got this monster, but how does this speak to social issues?” And these are white people telling me this. A lot of Black horror spoke to societal issues of its era, and then it became like, “This was socially relevant then, so let’s remake it and make it socially relevant now.” It was the push to have specifically Black horror speak to social ills today. And I think Black leads in horror is enough, but it wasn’t, at that point.
So I got my foot in the door with Atomic Monster writing M3GAN, which I wrote for them first, and then Malignant. While I was waiting for those to be made, I was still out there trying to sell TV shows and spec scripts, and it was a lot of: “This isn’t the market right now, the market is elevated horror that has to speak on social issues, you need to adapt it to that.” And I was like, “It can just be a horror movie!”
My interest is in seeing Black people in a horror movie doing horror movie shit.
I’m happy if I had a small part in opening that door for people — and hopefully for people of color — to make horror movies. If they speak to social issues, great. And if you just want to have a horror movie where characters who look like you are going through some shit, great! I want there to be room for all of it. My interest is in seeing Black people in a horror movie doing horror movie shit. I hope that I can make horror that is focused on people of color that is just fun, like Malignant and M3GAN.
What I loved about M3GAN is that it felt very current but never veered into being too topical for an online audience. How was it making something that struck that balance between contemporary and timeless?
That was literally just me focusing on character and story first. From script to production, M3GAN’s voice changed. Especially once they found Jenna Davis to voice her; she brought a natural way of speaking, whereas other actors were trying to do Siri. And, of course, she can sing.
It was just all the elements coming together. I never tried to force anything, even if I was trying to get an ear for teen speak from TikTok or whatever. By the time the next generation comes around, whatever you were trying to do with Gen Z is gonna feel dated.
M3GAN is a force in her name alone: She’s not a Karen, because she’s not asking to speak to the manager — she’s handling shit herself.
Were there any non-negotiables for the character of M3GAN from the beginning?
Her name. It was on the drive home after like my initial meeting with Atomic Monster about even taking a crack at the elevator pitch that they had — I knew her name was Megan. That kind of implies a certain personality. M3GAN is a force in her name alone: She’s not a Karen, because she’s not asking to speak to the manager — she’s handling shit herself.
Also, she had to be realistic to a child, so you want that natural way of speaking when dealing with a child, and making sure in the script that she’s relatable to Cady.
Both times I saw M3GAN, the part that got the wildest reaction from the audience was her singing “Titanium.” I want to know everything about that choice.
That was because Jenna was cast, because she can sing. If Jenna hadn’t been cast, that would’ve become an entirely different thing. In the script, I believe it was something like “M3GAN comforts Cady with a lullaby.” That turned into “Jenna can sing, M3GAN is an android, can we get her to sing ‘Titanium’?” Kudos to Gerard [Johnstone, the director] for going there, because it’s insane.
Was there ever a fear that people wouldn’t get the humor of the movie and just how funny it actually is? Is that something you think about when writing?
I’m writing for myself and my audience, and with this one it was myself, [Atomic Monster founder and M3GAN story co-writer] James Wan, and the guys at Atomic Monster and Blumhouse. And we all love horror, so I’m trying to impress them and make them all happy with what’s on the page.
Even seeing the first cut, I was like, “This is really good.” Did I expect it to make $30 million and become a memeable phenomenon? This reaction was beyond what I thought was gonna happen. I was like, “I’m going to have another cult hit on my hands, cool.”
It seems like everyone gets it and is having fun.
As a B movie enthusiast, I’d say it knows what it’s there to do. It knows what the audience wants, and it gives it to you. If I go to the deli and I order a tuna sandwich, I don’t want you to give me a submarine. Just give me what the fuck I ordered.
Thank you so much, I can’t wait to watch M3GAN again another six times.
That is wonderful. I was hoping M3GAN was gonna be rated R — I think there’s going to be an unrated release — but it works as a PG-13 film, and it brings in young horror fans, so that’s cool. Hearing that people are going in groups and seeing it again — this is what I was doing as a teenager in the ’90s! It’s a wonderful feeling.