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The writer behind ‘M3GAN’ on its bonkers horror (and why it used to be ‘way gorier’)

A creepy-looking young woman with long hair stands in an elevator, staring intently at the camera.
M3GAN herself.
(Universal Pictures)
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Years ago, after rising through the ranks on genre TV shows such as “Grimm” and “The 100,” screenwriter Akela Cooper found herself at a crossroads. A lifelong horror fan, she’d long put off writing the two horror features that had been swimming around in her head — until one day she committed to putting them on paper, working before and after each day of writing on “Luke Cage.”

The resulting spec scripts landed her a career-changing meeting at James Wan’s Atomic Monster Productions, home of the “Conjuring” franchise. Cooper was hired to write the sci-fi horror film “M3GAN,” about an AI companion doll gone haywire, then to pen the giallo-infused “Malignant” — shot first and released on HBO Max last year to cult acclaim — and the upcoming Warner Bros. sequel “The Nun 2.”

“M3GAN” — short for “Model 3 Generative Android” — is an uncannily childlike robot invented by Gemma (Allison Williams), who pairs the prototype to her recently orphaned niece Cady (Violet McGraw) while she market-tests the multitasking BFF, babysitter and guardian as an aid to help busy parents in the pesky business of parenting.

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A smiling, seated woman poses for a portrait.
Los Angeles-based screenwriter Akela Cooper made her name in television and studio horror, penning last year’s cult hit “Malignant” and the new sci-fi horror “M3GAN.” Next up: Warner Bros.’ fall sequel “The Nun 2.”
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

When M3GAN becomes self-aware, the PG-13 techno-nightmare begins — but offscreen, “M3GAN” mania is already underway. The killer doll became an instant icon when a dance number from the film went viral on TikTok the moment the trailer hit the internet. Audiences at the world premiere last month were greeted by a troupe of dancing M3GANs and even Blumhouse head Jason Blum in full M3GAN costume.

“It’s a wondrous thing,” Cooper said over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles, her collection of sci-fi, horror and comic book collectibles behind her. “When I was writing ‘M3GAN,’ did I think that there were going to be dancing M3GANs at the premiere at the Chinese Theatre? No! I was in my own little world thinking, ‘What’s her personality? How is she going to kill people?’ Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be here.”

Universal’s “M3GAN,” directed by Gerard Johnstone, marks the start of a potential new partnership between Blumhouse and Wan’s Atomic Monster and seals Cooper’s place as a major new voice in genre. Can the screenwriter swing Hollywood’s horror gates open to a new era of over-the-top thrills and gory kills?

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Jan. 1, 2023

Horror fans know you as the writer of the delightfully bonkers “Malignant,” but you actually wrote “M3GAN” first. Both are produced by James Wan, as is this year’s “The Nun 2,” which you also wrote. How did this creative partnership begin?

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James Wan and [Atomic Monster executives] Michael Clear and Judson Scott had been kicking around an idea about a new killer-doll movie. Judson was at the American Girl doll store and thought, “What if one of these was killing people?” We met and hit it off. Working in this industry and finding people who genuinely like horror, especially at that time, was hard. Because a lot of executives go through the motions but don’t actually enjoy genre. They described [“M3GAN”] as “Child’s Play” meets “Chopping Mall.” I was like, “OK, sure — I’ll take a crack at it.”

The first thing that came to me was her name. I knew she needed to be “M3GAN” and the acronym would come later. And I knew that the opening was going to revolve around a child who’d been orphaned and had to come live with her aunt because years ago, when I moved [to L.A.], my sister talked to me about her children: “If anything happens to me and my husband ... I want the kids to go to you.” And I’m like, you want me to take care of two small children? What?!

I came up with the story of this orphan girl who goes to live with her aunt, who’s in over her head. She’s a career woman who pawns the child off on this AI doll to cope with her niece’s emotional needs and also give her time to work, when in fact the lesson is you can’t pawn off human beings onto technology. Warner Bros. passed because they already had “Annabelle.” Then James said, let’s take it to Jason Blum. And Jason Blum loved it, and here we are.

So what helped you find your way into the story was placing yourself in the shoes of your characters. Is that how you usually write?

Sometimes it helps make the characters feel real to bring in aspects of myself, my friends or my family. There’s a character in “The Nun 2” based off someone I love dearly. As writers, we’re looking out for quirky aspects or unique people, like, “I’m going to use that someday.” I’ll get on my phone and make a note of it. Especially with horror, you need the audience to connect with the characters. Because if they don’t care about the characters and their well-being, what’s the point?

A young girl sits on a round pouf looking over her shoulder at her robot companion, which looks like a young girl
M3GAN, played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, with her human owner Cady (Violet McGraw) in “M3GAN.”
(Universal Pictures)

With “Malignant” and “M3GAN” heralded as horror that leans into camp, it tracks that keeping characters grounded helps the audience go along with the wildest, most outrageous scenarios.

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It is! I love the response to “Malignant” and I’m loving the response to “M3GAN,” but I have to be honest. It’s not like I sit down and say, “I’m going to write the craziest s— and it’s going to be so campy!” I start with character and story and making them real.

You broke in through television, but horror movies are clearly dear to your heart. What made you decide to write the horror scripts that led to your feature career?

I was constantly writing specs of television series while working as an assistant. I didn’t have time to write features. By the time I had worked my way up it was like, “OK, I’m a midlevel writer now. I don’t necessarily need to write specs anymore. I have a body of work. I have ‘The 100’ and ‘Grimm’ behind me.”

While on “Luke Cage,” if the room started at 10 a.m., I would show up at 9 and go into my office and work for an hour at a time. In doing that, and also working on weekends and after work, I finished two features.

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Oct. 29, 2021

How does your knowledge and love of horror help you craft a story that is effective but also feels fresh?

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I see it like an obstacle course. You know what you want to avoid, but you also know what you want to hit — because it’s fun to slam into it. We knew that we wanted to differentiate “M3GAN” from “Child’s Play.” Chucky is a doll; this is an AI companion. To avoid that obstacle, she needs to be the size of whatever child she is befriending. Initially Cady was 6 or 7 and now she’s 8 in the movie. [So M3GAN] is taller and she’s capable of walking around, capable of movement, which makes her different immediately from Annabelle and Chucky. You want that uncanniness, because that is disturbing to people.

Even the roboticist characters designing M3GAN in the movie know that.

In a post-”Scream” world, characters have to be smart. The audience is smart. You have to acknowledge what you’re doing. That’s why the characters in the movie are like, “This is creepy” or “We shouldn’t do this!” They know. It’s fun to have all of that knowledge because it gives you a road map. You know what worked in the past, you know what hasn’t worked. It’s like “Mario Kart,” trying to get as many coins and avoid as many bananas as possible.

It’s like Mario Kart, trying to get as many coins and avoid as many bananas as possible.

— Akela Cooper on writing for a savvy horror audience

pop culture collectibles in a home office
Sci-fi, horror and comic book collectibles fill “M3GAN” screenwriter Akela Cooper’s home office. Her TV credits include “American Horror Story,” “Luke Cage” and “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.”
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“M3GAN” taps into a healthy sense of technophobia that has only grown exponentially in recent years. Did writing it affect your trust in tech?

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We wrote this five years ago now. At the time I was like, “AI that can have a conversation with you, that can babysit your kids, is weird and creepy. What is going to happen when that evolves?” I’ve seen the ones that can write stories and it’s like, “Do I need to go into another line of employment?” I was always wary about Alexa and Echo. Early on it came out that these devices are listening to you at all times. I don’t need the [National Security Agency] listening in to me talking to myself as I’m writing violent horror scenes.

Speaking of violent horror scenes, the theatrical cut of “M3GAN” is PG-13. How gory was your script originally?

No shade to Universal, love them, and I understand that once the trailer went viral, teenagers got involved and you want them to be able to see it. There should be an unrated version at some point. ... I heard it is on the books. But yes, it was way gorier. Her body count in the script was higher than in the movie. It wasn’t a Gabriel [in ‘Malignant’]-scale massacre, but she did kill a bunch more people, including a couple of characters whom James was like, “I like what you did with those people, but I want them to live.” I was merciless, but again, that is me. My humor is extremely dark.

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Oct. 30, 2022

What’s the secret to writing a great horror movie kill?

Start with the environment. It’s kind of twisted because you have to put yourself in this situation — “If I’m in this location and I’m 4 feet tall, what can I do? I’m this size and I’ve got these tools to use to kill people.” But it’s also therapeutic. If you’re having a bad day, just write a horror script and kill a bunch of characters on paper.

As the writer behind two of the wildest studio horror films in years, does it feel like there’s now more freedom to take big swings at this level?

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It is exciting because for so long everyone was doing “elevated horror.” Even going out and pitching, I would have people say, “We like it, but it’s too gory. It’s not elevated.” An exec who read one of my specs and really liked it said, “It’s gory and no one’s doing gore right now. We have to wait for a horror movie that has gore to come out and be a hit, and then the market will shift.” I was sitting there, like, “OK ... we could lead that charge.” Now I’m [hearing], “There’s gore, and it’s not a problem.” I’m happy that I could have a hand in bringing back fun horror that doesn’t take itself so seriously. I’m reading about more horror movies that are wild, out-there ideas coming out or being bought. And some of them are original, which is good! I’m happy that I could steer that ship so that studio execs can be like, “Oh! There might actually be money in them thar hills.”

VIDEO | 06:19
LA Times Today: How ‘M3GAN’s’ killer doll came to life

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

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