Interview with Anthony Willis

In the annals of murderous dolls and mannequins that span “Dead of Night” to “Magic,” “Dollie Dearest” and “Dead Silence” (and of course a little red-haired boy toy psychopath), there’s never been a friend to the end rivaling the technical sophistication, or smart social satire of “M3gan.” The latest acclaimed techno thriller to herald from the James Wan after “Upgrade” and “The Invisible Man,” and crafted for the screen by writer Akela Cooper and fellow Aussie director Gerard Johnstone (of the respectively brilliant bonkers “Malignant” and “Housebound”) “M3gan” shows the ultimate result of latchkey parenting as the orphaned Cady (Violent McGrway) ends up in the reluctant charge of her late mom’s sister Gemma (Allison Williams), who just happens to be the cutest millennial robot whiz / toy collector on earth. Crafting the ultimate cyborg playmate in friendly fake skin and American Girl duds. Gemma quickly discovers her parental responsibilities when M3gan murderously decides to usurp the role as the best of intentions of course suffers a “Westworld”-worthy bug in the program. 

One vital function that brings M3gan to life is its impressive music by Anthony Willis, who lest dealt with a toxic avenger in “Promising Young Woman.” Showing he can uniquely play the next big toy thing, Willis fashions a sleek, lush shell of strings, electronics and cooing female voice, all the better to bring a young girl into a robot’s embrace – a power enhanced by the ability to break out into autotuned song. But underneath that beguiling melodic shell is a killer waiting to break out with moves that would win any monster star dance-off. Skillfully hinting at what’s under the fake face while poignantly playing a dysfunction new mom feeling unwanted daughter relationship, Willis finally lets havoc slip loose with manic industrial grunge and lethally exhilarating action music. It’s in auspicious score whose power comes from it emo heart as much as the spider walk Exorcist motion and M3gan’s way with blunt instruments, creating a thriller score that works best because of its way of capturing with both black humor and real feel a humanity that can be real as it is warped.

Tell us about what interested you in music, and what led you to film composing in particular?

I think that all composers get drawn to this exciting world for a very similar reason- a deep love of both music and film, and how together, they can inexplicably become something that is more than the sum of their parts.

Composer John Powell

You’ve had an auspicious time working your way up the ranks with John Powell. How did you come under his wing, and what was that pilgrim’s progress like? And what would you say you learned the most from that experience? 

I had to look up auspicious! It’s a very apt word my development under John’s wing, for which I am so fortunate. I cannot even begin to list how much I have learned from him and his beautiful scores, but number one is that he is one of the greatest living melodists. I don’t think I really understood what a great tune actually was until I worked with John, and most of all, how it can clarify the emotional structure of a film. John has supported me immensely, making my life as a composer all the better.

Your first major score was for 2014’s genre film “The Hive” about a man struggling with memory loss. What was that experience like?

I loved scoring “The Hive.” The writer and director was Dave Yarovesky who became a great friend during the process and is a really cool and cinematic film maker. He started as a music video director so has a highly distinctive visual style, which inspired a lot of the music. It was early in my career but all these years later I still sometimes send out a few of those cues on my reels, and they’ve often been among the most popular. It’s never too soon to invest in your portfolio, no matter the scale of the project.

Another major assignment was taking on the video game world of “Fortnite.” Were you a gamer beforehand, and how did that challenge differ from composing for tv and film?

I grew up as an N64 kid: “Goldeneye,” “The Legend of Zelda” and “Mario Kart” being the holy trinity.. all with phenomenal scores. “Fortnite” has of course completely revolutionized the playing field for games, and writing on it has been some of the most fun I’ve had as a composer. I’d previously scored “Knack 2” for PlayStation, where I first learnt to write in a more modular style, very useful for games, and “Fortnite” allowed me to build on this skillset. I wrote for quite a few different seasons, some highlights being a holiday themed “Frostnite” and “Starry Suburbs,” where I had the opportunity to work with the great Tina Guo who recorded some beautiful cello solos. The wonderful thing about games of course is that players absorb the music for hours on end, and so it really becomes a nostalgic part of their experience.

You’d take over the reigns of “How to Train Your Dragon” for two of its video incarnations with “Homecoming” and “Snoggletog Log.” What was it like finding your voice in that musical world that John had established?

This was one of the most deeply personal and joyful projects I’ve done.  I saw “Dragon” right before moving from London to LA, now almost 13 years ago. Supporting John as an additional composer on 2 & 3 was where I first began to find myself as a composer, and so his recommendation to score “Homecoming” was a real bucket list moment. John had, of course, so wonderfully established the tone and style of the franchise, and so I saw it as my task to pay homage to that legacy, but with a smaller and more intimate emotion, appropriate for the scale of the special.  It also had a holiday feel, so it was fun to explore how Vikings celebrate “Snoggletog.” As a huge fan of the film series, it has been really lovely to hear from fellow fans of how much they’ve enjoyed my soundtrack album over the years, which includes new themes for “Memory,” “The Nightlights,” “Snoggletog” and “Faith in Dragons,” which work in combination with John’s fantastic themes from the series.

2020’s “Promising Young Woman” got you a lot of critical notice, especially given its controversial approach. What was it like being a man writing for a character like that – and how do you think it set you up for the female-centric “M3gan?”

I’d never done anything like “Promising Young Woman” before, and I don’t think anyone had seen anything quite like it either! So there wasn’t a road map, but a question of trying to feel my way into something unexpected. I was greatly guided and inspired by Carey Mulligan’s incredibly evocative performance and director Emerald  Fennell’s genius instinct for tone.

How did you come aboard “M3gan?” And given the wealth of “killer doll” movies and scores before it, how did you want this one to stand out?

A big reason Gerard hired me on “M3gan” was because he really liked my score for “Promising Young Woman.” He saw M3gan as a femme fatale and liked some of the detail in the PYW string textures. We absolutely wanted to avoid the obvious killer doll tropes, and I think both M3gan’s AI and her penchant for magic (not to mention comedy and singing!) sets her apart. I’ve always thought vibraphone is wonderfully ambiguous color for AI and machines, where it’s round organic tone evokes sci-fi and purity of thought, but it’s spinning motor introduces an otherworldly mechanical element, so this was a good substitute for the music box stereo type. Harp of course was a color that Gerard also really gravitated towards, indicative of Megan’s fantasy of being the perfect friend and parent. Overall, I think that the juxtaposition of an AI doll emulating the innocence of a child, and a machine with no limits at all, is a very striking one, so it really invited a big polarity in style for M3gan’s score, from the intimacy of a vibraphone to full roaring synths.

M3gan director Gerard Johnstone

“M3gan’s” director Gerard Johnstone had made a terrific comedy-thriller called “Housebound” before this. Did you find any particularly eccentric Australian approach between him and producer James Wan, and how did you all settle on the musical tone for what’s often a black comedy?

Gerard has a very sharp and unique sense of tone. And a very rich knowledge of different types of music, and how to mobilize the cultural baggage that comes with it. As soon as Gerard told me he wanted us to do a cover of M3gan singing “Titanium,” I really began to understand the tongue in cheek tone he was looking for, and it’s been awesome to hear how audiences have laughed out loud and even sung along in the theatre! James Wan is obviously a master of horror, but also subverted comedy, and I feel like the Atomic Monster brand will now forever  give the audience permission to have a degree of dark fun from the get go!

(from left) Cady (Violet McGraw), M3GAN and Gemma (Allison Williams) in M3GAN, directed by Gerard Johnstone.

There’s a quite melancholy emotional build up before M3gan enters the picture in the relationship between workaholic Gemma and her sister’s orphaned daughter Cady, whom she takes on more for obligation than anything else. How did you want to play that dysfunctional “parent-daughter” relationship that creates the vacuum for M3gan to fill?

Gerard and I discussed from the beginning we could help define this opening act and ‘vacuum’ as the basis for what is to follow.  The loss of Cady’s parents is what ultimately defines M3gan’s code and the basis on which she develops her protective instincts, setting everything else in motion. One of the central themes I developed for M3gan is a three note descending motif, (yes “3” was deliberate) representative of death and loss, and so I first established this in the “Message from Oregon” journey cue. It’s very mellow and stark in this bleak moment to underline the dysfunction, but it was important that it had narrative intent right from the get go. There’s also a noir undertone  to Gemma’s role as a 
reluctant guardian,” which ties into the stakes of this new role jeopardizing her job at the Funki corporation.

If you had a special toy as a child that you treated as a human, or that you thought “spoke” to you as such, how did you want to capture that innocent magic here?

When I watched the first cut of the film, I was absolutely blown away by Violet McGraw’s performance in the role of Cady- and she absolutely nails this sense of wonder, so she really did this on my behalf! When Cady meets the robot Bruce it was a chance to develop the guardian theme, previously cold and dysfunctional, into something much warmer.

You use a cooing, female voice to embody M3gan, alongside lush strings and seductive vibes. Do you think that gives her a hypnotic quality?

We were absolutely trying to capture a hypnotic quality for Megan, and also tried to emphasize how controlled and superior her AI is. So we favored a dominantly organic palette, but also playing parts that humans typically wouldn’t do, representative of Megan’s ability to emulate a young girl, but not quite! And at the same time I also explored infusing a maturer, sort of omnipotent wisdom/self assuredness of a super parent! Holly Sedillos is a fantastic vocalist, and it was fun to play with the line between childish wonder, seduction and eeriness as the narrative unfolded, all within a more contemporary breathy aesthetic. It took me by surprise at first, but Gerard also really loved the lushness and warmth that strings can bring, and also they’re fantastic for noir. As M3gan’s personality become more strident, these take center stage.

Given that many shots of M3gan involve her staring at situations, how did you want to get inside of her head?

It’s a total gift to have shots like that- and her eye movements are so expressive that they are doing so much narratively in these moments. Sometimes M3gan is holding her cards very close to her chest, and so the score can be ambient and tense, holding her control of the room. And when M3gan is being outwardly inquisitive or playful, the score is richer and constantly evolving with the introduction of new elements as she processes the world around her. 

M3GAN, (aka MEGAN), from left: Amie Donald as M3gan (voice: Jenna Davis), Violet McGraw, 2023. © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

One wonderful surprise is when M3gan sings to an upset Cady in a sequence that’s unexpectedly quite moving. Tell us about creating these tunes.

My very first assignment, as soon as I joined the project, was to write the tune for the song, so that it could be filmed on set. Gerard added the lyrics, and it was filmed with the animatronic M3gan to capture her vocal moments, pretty much the next day! I made the melody quite simple and a little robotic, something an AI could hypothetically write. Once Gerard was in the edit, we recorded the vocal with Jenna Davis who did it brilliantly, but it was some months later before Gerard said- “what if we make it a Disney parody”, and that’s when I arranged it for orchestra and backing vocals. We both loved the nostalgic lullaby feel of James Horner’s “Somewhere Out There” from “An American Tale,” so I definitely paid homage to that feel in the arrangement.

How did you want to capture the robotic side of M3gan, especially when it comes to a murderous industrial grunge sound?

For a lot of the movie, M3gan keeps her robotic side rather private, and so the score focuses more on her sentience and emulation of human qualities. But the synths and electronics come out when she is being violent or frightening her victims , especially when using her very inhuman strength. By the end of the film she has obviously completely  unleashed her full industrial side! It was definitely a challenge to balance those colors, allowing them to have their moment in the sun without inhibiting one another’s impact.

How did M3gan’s herky-jerky motion when she’s in killer mode inspire you?

I think this moment in the woods is so iconic and was definitely an inspiration, and a great example of where M3gan breaks from her strict and precise emulation of human behavior to the unbridled power of a machine.

Tell us about how you wanted the score to develop in terms of going into horror movie orchestration for a full orchestra to kick in with M3gan’s “action” music?

Gerard really wanted to make sure that the action music really had ‘teeth’, so we worked with instruments such as anvils, brass, low percussion and synths, that could deliver that kind of ruthless impact. The action music also called for a degree of propulsion, and so I used atonal ostinati built from the three-note motif, to ensure this had a disorientating and unconventional feel for action, and was custom to M3gan. The brass and percussion stabs are relentlessly “chanting” her name, especially in the final act, and the orchestral gestures become more and more complex.

In the end, do you musically see M3gan as a hero or a villain?

I think she deserves a Grammy for her “Titanium” performance if that counts as heroic?! M3gan’s motivation to harm does come from a reasoned place of protecting Cady, but she is so ruthless and deliciously manipulative that the score generally embraces her in a villainous light, but with a heroic aplomb? Or is the real hero trophy available to those who can see past the superficial comfort that M3GAN and technology can bring them, and learn to face their human problems head on?

What’s up ahead for you?

I’m currently working on a very exciting film that’s very English, but can’t say much more than that for now. I also recently scored a Lord-Miller pilot called “Western” with showrunner Michelle Morgan, which was a blast.

Given how deservedly well “M3gan” has done at the box office, and that her blueprints are out there, where would you like to see her likely sequels, and scoring go? And should the mind end up in a boy robot, how would you play that?

I think everyone involved would be delighted to see M3gan return, and I hope that audiences will as well! I think there’s multiple places the writers could take it from here- I mean NYC was overrun with multiple M3gan  clones this weekend, so there could be something in that!? While I could see there being some fun with M3gan’s code inhabiting a boy doll, I’d prefer that to be anecdotal (like the “Jumanji” avatar switching!) as I think M3gan’s persona is so well suited to being a femme fatale! I can definitely see a M3gan clone show happening.

See “M3gan” in theaters, with Anthony Willis’ score available on Back Lot Music HERE