Horror sensation M3GAN has the memes and moves to make her genre rivals blush. The hit killer doll movie has taken the world by storm with its carefully judged blend of satire, campy humour, heart and bloodcurdling horror.
The movie also sports a full-blooded score from rising British composer Anthony B. Willis. He scored a BAFTA nomination for his soundtrack for the critically acclaimed Promising Young Woman and he now uncorks a host of memorable musical textures designed to imbue the menacing M3GAN with a fascinating life.
We caught up with Anthony to discuss his thematic approach for the M3GAN score, his close collaboration with director Gerard Johnstone and what was needed to elicit that sensational M3GAN-performed song, 'Tell Me Your Dreams'.
M3GAN has done astonishingly well with audiences. Are you taken aback by how well it's performed?
I mean, absolutely, especially in these times. It's so unpredictable as to how a movie will do. I've been a part of many movies where it was expected that the movie would do well, at least, one hopes they will do well. And for whatever reason, it just doesn't happen.
So, this is a moment to celebrate, a cool moment for cinemas. It shows that lower-budget movies can make an impact at the box office. You don't necessarily need a $200 million movie to then have a huge hit. That's exciting. With M3GAN, people have realised there's a lot to enjoy together. There's a lot of comedy in it, so it's fun to watch it in a big cinema with lots of people.
Yes, horror has a strong communal aspect in terms of bringing people together and music is such a strong part of that immersion. Would you say there's something freeing about writing music for the horror genre?
Absolutely. There's an environment to explore and play with the musical language. M3GAN brought that in spades. Even for a horror movie, what we were able to do with the music is quite unusual.
At times, it's like a fantasy noir. At other times, it's deeply industrial. It really runs the gamut. There's a lot of scope. It pushed me and challenged me. And of course, it's always that thing of, how does one tie it all together? It was a brilliant opportunity, for sure.
You're dealing with a central character who is inorganic and yet who is also learning to assimilate the environment around her. What was the central principle that unlocked that conundrum?
There are a couple of aspects to that. The first act of the movie is very much about Cady losing her parents. We didn't want that to feel like it was merely a standalone intro. The resulting score had to be developed out of that trauma.
When Gemma, Allison Williams' character, goes and picks up Cady from the hospital, there's a piece I wrote called 'Message from Oregon'. It basically establishes this descending motif. It has three notes that keep repeating. That essentially is what Gerard Johnstone and I described as the 'death motif'. That's what M3GAN picks up on later when she realises that Cady's parents have died, and she herself starts processing death. That was the central idea.
When M3GAN takes over that musical idea, it becomes more noirish and slightly darker, more fantastical, Alice in Wonderland-esque. There's the amazing sequence where she's looking out of the window at the butterfly and the helicopter. She's processing her environment and as she processes it more layers of the tapestry come together. That motif was, therefore, very important.
M3GAN's musical colours tend to be more fantastical: a lot of harp harmonics, a lot of vibraphone, some synths and some noir strings. Lastly, as she gains more sentience, I used a creepy female voice. That was where we threaded in a lot of her palette. M3GAN for so much of the movie is effectively impersonating the innocence of a child and the warmth of a guardian. Gerard was pushing for warmth in the strings.
Once M3GAN becomes violent, the cat's out of the bag. She's an incredibly dangerous, powerful robotic force without any limits. So, those two sides of the score were extreme and we made the realisation that M3GAN, as a character, could carry this enormous musical scope.
At that point, we introduce aggressive, industrial synths and things that are really jarring that aren't necessarily related to her fantasy music. That's the moment where she fails to be human and her ego is so big, she misses the mark.
It's also a nice reminder that music can be both sincere and aligned with the message of the film while also, at the same time, being deeply ironic and playful. You're poking at the edges of the character inasmuch as she's human and inhuman all at once.
Wow, that was very eloquent. But yeah. Promising Young Woman, which I scored in 2021, was very similar to that. I love dramas that are sincere throughout and construct incredible human messages. But now, audiences are clearly appreciating fun, entertaining movies that are also able to make those deeper points.
M3GAN is a comedic twist on Black Mirror, basically. We need to watch out for how we handle all this tech as it won't end well. That message still very much hangs in the air, but the comedy is very entertaining.
Comedy strikes me as something that's difficult to score. One can over-accentuate the music or under-accentuate it. Did you allow those comedic moments to speak for themselves?
Right from the get-go, Gerard didn't want to underline comedy with music. He wanted to allow it to breathe within the ebb and flow of the sincerity of the music.
For example, in the 'Tell Me Your Dreams' song that M3GAN sings, the song itself is sincere as a Disney parody. However, the context makes it both eerie and funny. She's able to supposedly compose this song in real time but it's a sincere and nostalgic arrangement. The little comedic details in the lyrics, which are credited to Gerard, are fantastic.
Jenna Davis who voiced M3GAN did such a fantastic job at striking that middle ground between being creepy and a little playful. But the score allows the comedy to breathe.
Very often, horror soundtracks work best when they start at a place of empathy and compassion. Was that important here?
Yes, we wanted the relationship stakes to be felt. For that to happen, we had to really lean into, and empathise with, Cady's loss. That loss had to have some meaning. We also had to experience the dysfunction of Gemma as a parent.
Through that, we were able to build stakes. Is Gemma going to succeed as a parent? Is Cady going to ultimately side with her new friend? It did matter to establish all of that as a sincere thing.
Is Gerard a director who plays on the front foot with music? It sounds like he brings a lot of interesting ideas to the table.
Absolutely he is, and he has a very broad and rich taste in music. He has a great knowledge of music and the ability to create specific associations with his song choices. We got to work together on the 'Tell Me Your Dreams' song for which I wrote the tune, and he wrote the lyrics. Gerard was very front-footed with the music, which was awesome.
With 'Tell Me Your Dreams', M3GAN performs that diegetically in the context of the scene. I, therefore, imagine that the song was devised early on, and you had to compose it prior to the filming?
I did, in fact. It was the very first thing I did. Literally, moments after I joined the project, I emailed Gerard asking about this song that we had to do. They were filming it literally two or three days later. So, I wrote this tune, and he liked it. He sent back some great lyrics and we put them together on a chart.
They had to program the robot so her mouth could effectively sing the words. It was very difficult. I was safely stuck in Los Angeles but over in New Zealand, they were working with this extraordinary thing. For a while, it was just a piano sketch. Then we recorded the vocals with Jenna at an ADR session.
Once we really started to get into the scoring process properly, Gerard then suggested it sound more like a Disney song. Initially, I'd composed it to sound a little robotic. It was akin to something an A.I. could write. I wasn't sure if it was going to be an electronic or robotic kind of arrangement. But Gerard said that we should make it like a Disney song.
I love James Horner's 'Somewhere Out There' for An American Tail. Gerard asked if I could make it sound a little like that. And it lent itself to that. So, this little tune that I'd written about eight months beforehand became imbued with this Disney spirit. Fortunately, it worked, and the audio recording we'd done with Jenna also worked perfectly.
We recorded the orchestra in Budapest, and they did a lovely job. 'Titanium' has also been a popular track but 'Tell Me Your Dreams' has been popular on iTunes.
Did 'Titanium' come out of a similarly collaborative spirit?
Yes, that was a brilliant choice by Gerard. Lyrically, it's an absolute banger of a song. By then, in the movie, we've already had the shock of M3GAN singing. So, then there's the expectation that she'll sing again. But audiences love it.
The song comes in very softly and Gerard then encouraged me to have it swell and build in this warm manner. It allows M3GAN to get into a bit. She's really pleased with herself and that's such a fun part of her character. She has that ego: 'Actually, I'm pretty good.' [laughs] That was hilarious to do, and people seem to love it.
As with all great horror scores, you get the build-up and then the orchestra really lets rip at a key moment. In this case, it happens when M3GAN dispatches the bully in the woods, and I'm probably going to hell for saying this, but I found that moment really satisfying.
[laughs] That's kind of the point. For the most part, M3GAN is something of a hero. You're safe from purgatory! There is a victory to some of her killings. She does start taking it a bit far.
When she attacks the boy, the orchestra really does erupt in the manner of someone like [Hellraiser composer] Christopher Young. Is it a lot of fun to unleash the musicians during moments such as that?
Thank you for that comparison, I did the USC Film Scoring program and Chris was one of the teachers. It gave a practical base to the course because he's had such an extraordinary career. He was able to showcase examples of his week and we'd go to his studio on Tuesday evenings. Just an amazing voice in horror.
It's very much what Gerard was looking for. He loves those older scores. It was one thing composing for the orchestra, but Gerard also loved the aggressive synth work I'd done. He then suggested that we marry the two elements and as a composer, one starts to worry about it becoming a mess. However, we found the time for the synths to have their moment and then the orchestra takes over. It really worked. It adds a slightly unexpected element to the more traditional palette.
And that orchestral/synth clash really takes off during the robot-on-robot finale.
Oh yeah, exactly. As M3GAN starts to really embrace her robotic self, we really leaned into the viscerality of the industrial synths.
Another thing that's great about those [Scream composer] Marco Beltrami and Christopher Young horror scores is that they use a lot of chanting in their rhythm. So, I did a rhythm that was relentless and almost chanting 'M3GAN, M3GAN'. It's almost like M3GAN yelling her name, but subconsciously. Then you get the occasional moment where you switch up the rhythm and it leaves one feeling a little unsettled.
'M3GAN' is a very visceral word. It was a way of bringing out her violent undertone. It's fun to bring in little things like that. The thing that was so evident about M3GAN when I first got the script was the fact her name is spelled with a '3'. There's a classic yet contemporary edge to her so three was important, hence the three-note theme that pervades the whole score. You've got to take those little narrative cues when you can.
You also have two powerhouse horror filmmakers in the background of the movie, James Wan and Jason Blum. Did they have ideas? Were they supportive?
They really set the whole film in motion. It was very much James' push to rebirth the doll movie but with a twist. Choosing Gerard to helm and shepherd was a great choice because as the tonal gatekeeper to this whole experience, he had terrific instincts about it. They obviously made everything happen.
I really loved your score for Promising Young Woman that you cited earlier. How did that have an impact on your career?
It changed my life. It was hard for the movie to have a huge cinematic impact given the constraints around its release, but it really took off. It ignited conversations. You spend so much time working on your own or in small groups, and then to go out to dinner and have people talking excitedly about the project – it's just so wonderful.
The work can go unrequited. It can happen that you pour your heart into things that people don't see. It's very unpredictable in these times what will manage to make it through. It was the first time I was able to be an artist and explore a different approach to a lot of the other work I'd been doing.
Right now, I’m just starting work on [Promising Young Woman director] Emerald's next project. At the time I was just hoping that people would like it and that I'd be able to pull something interesting into the music. But for people to watch it and enjoy the score means the world to me. I was very lucky that it got good critical nominations.
On that note, M3GAN has absolutely gained that exposure through memes, viral marketing, reviews and box office. The movie leaves us on a cliffhanger, so would you be excited to pick up M3GAN's journey again in the sequel?
I would love to be involved. It'll obviously be dependent on the choice of the studio and the director. I'm just really excited to see where M3GAN will go. The potential for her character in the sequel is amazing.
I'm envisaging M3GAN clones, or maybe a M3GAN impostor thrown in there that she must fight with. This is all completely unsourced, of course. I'm just speaking as a fan.
I love how in the recent Jumanji films there's the plot thread of them swapping bodies and becoming avatars. I can see there being some M3GAN code getting into the wrong toy and her getting annoyed about it. There's just so much scope.