Mattson Tomlin is a rising voice in the current landscape. The devoted writer and director has many shorts under his belt, with his second feature length screenplay finally finding fruition at Netflix. Project Power is the latest big-budget release from the streamer, and if the immense success of previous hits like The Old Guard are to be considered, this film is on a straight path to glory. A huge lover of comics, Tomlin was also asked by Matt Reeves to work on his script for The Batman. With these two projects, Tomlin is breaking the superhero mold in one way or the other.
Project Power follows an ex-solider, rookie cop, and out of place teenage drug dealer as a new high hits the streets of New Orleans. The new high in question: a pill that gives you unpredictable superpowers for only 5 minutes. No one knows what could happen – you could gain super speed, become bulletproof, or just literally explode. The “Project Power” pills overthrow the hierarchy of the city, leaving these 3 unlikely heroes to control the chaos. Lead by Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and newcomer Dominique Fishback, this is only going to stack on Netflix’s pivotal year so far.
We were lucky enough to have screenwriter Mattson Tomlin for an exclusive interview! We talk what films and comics inspired Project Power, working with Matt Reeves on The Batman, and the current landscape of superhero media. If Project Power ends up being for you, get a sneak peek on where you can see Tomlin’s work next.
Can you talk about when the concept behind Project Power first popped in your head?
MT: It was in 2016 and I was at that point a working writer, but in total obscurity. I wasn’t working on any stuff that was getting made – just starting to pay the bills, getting my feet on the ground. When the idea came, it was a combination of first, this idea of, “You take a pill and that gives you superpowers.” Like that’s a cool idea, but there are so many bad versions of that idea. There’s so many versions where it feels like, “I’ve seen this before.” So I knew that it really needed to have a very specific point of view.
So very quickly I found the character of Robin. That to me, became my way in. I knew it was going to have the superpower stuff, the big action scenes, and that there would be the Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt characters of course. But for me, it was kind of like, “Wait a minute, what if 8 Mile had superpowers?” That’s kind of cool, that’s something I have not seen before. It just instantly puts a spin on something that could feel pretty normal and kind of done to death and just give it a little bit more something. And so it was really through Robin that the idea really came to fruition and I met all the other characters and went on that journey with her.
All the main characters are crucial obviously, but Robin is very much the heart of the story. You’re so invested in her that whatever she does affects you emotionally more so than probably the others.
MT: Yeah, I totally agree. I think she’s so good.
Dominique Fishback is great in the film! Now with the plot being heavily rooted in superpowers, can you talk about any films, comic books, or other media that inspired you while writing Project Power?
MT: I’m a huge comic book person. I learned how to read off comic books and I’m a big fan of Marvel, big fan of DC. If I weren’t in this extremely lucky position to now be somebody who gets to create some of this stuff, I would just be a massive, massive fan of it. So that was all ingrained from the beginning. The other main influences, I already mentioned 8 Mile, but also Collateral. And this idea of how you can Rubik’s cube genres. We’ve seen it in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and in Logan. “Okay, let’s do X-Men like a Western or lets do Captain America like a 70’s spy-thriller.”
Those ideas are so exciting to me and to be able to do it with original characters where you don’t know what’s going to happen and it doesn’t owe the audience the same stuff, because you go into a Marvel and DC movie with a certain expectation because you know these characters so well. Here with these new characters, it was kind of like, “Wait, anything can happen” and you don’t have to play by the same rules. So that and the 8 Mile–Collateral aspect was another huge, huge one.
Yeah, that makes perfect sense. As a fellow comic reader, I got a lot of X-Men vibes from the film. Everyone has their own unique ability when they take the pill and its something they can almost choose to master under certain circumstances. Now we’ve seen a lot of these things before, but rarely do they break the mold.
MT: I’ll share with you that I have this habit of watching maybe the first 17 minutes of the first X-Men movie over and over, like all the way up through when Cyclops and Storm basically show up. They have to fight with Sabretooth in the snow, everything with Anna Paquin and Hugh Jackman. In those 17 minutes, it feels like it’s happening here and now. It feels so real and so, “Oh, we have our feet on the ground.” I’m so hooked on that idea of what if this was real? That became such a big approach for this movie.
Going back, you said this concept came to you in 2016. That year specifically was a peak year for superhero media. Films like Captain America: Civil War and Batman V Superman dominated the zeitgeist, and we still haven’t necessarily gone down from this high. So if you’re writing Project Power in 2016, I can imagine that this superhero saturation was always in the back of your head, constantly pushing or motivating your process?
MT: I mean, the truth of the matter is that I love this stuff. And in 2016, nobody was going to let me do a Marvel movie. Nobody was going to let me write a DC movie. I was completely untested. So the answer was that I’ve got to create this stuff myself. It was clear that these are the kinds of movies that Hollywood is making. So I knew that I wanted to go towards it somehow. It was a big bet that I was making, but at the same time, it ended up paying off because Netflix came in and made the movie.
For me, it comes down to when it’s original characters and it’s not based on a comic book or somebody else’s IP. It doesn’t have the same kind of fan expectation. When you watch a Spider-Man movie, you expect certain things from it. You can move things around, you can do it differently – we’ve seen the different iterations, but it still has to be a certain kind of thing for it to still be called “Spider-Man.” And the freedom of doing an original film is that you get to set the expectations and anything can happen.
So you could say that some of the pressure that you might have gotten with another project was relieved?
MT: Of course there are going to be similarities because it’s all superhero stuff and it’s been done in one way or another over the last hundred years, just like any story. But the opportunity to really put a fresh spin on it – we’re operating in this territory that’s a little bit more Collateral, a little bit more 8 Mile. Léon: The Professional was another one that we all watched together. That’s not quite the touchstone that the other big comic book movies are using as their references. So it always felt like, “We’re doing something that is in the genre, but really forges its own path.”
Project Power is not your first venture with the comic book genre as of recent. You’ve been talking about your writing process, how you work, and what guides you. I would imagine that this creative process was similar to co-writing The Batman with Matt Reeves?
MT: Very, very different. I mean, one of the big differences with Project Power, that’s my original idea. I was very in control of the story, developing the script all the way up through when it sold and then very involved even after it sold. With working with Matt, he’s directing, he’s writing it. I am really there as support. I’m really there to help him discover his vision. So it’s a totally different process where I’m there to support and stress test. I was very, very lucky to be on that ride.
It’s kind of funny how Project Power and The Batman are essentially the two opposite ends of the same scale – in terms of making a superhero movie in today’s industry. Not everyone gets to say that they’ve been on both sides like yourself.
MT: I think almost nobody. I now have such an appreciation for both ends of the spectrum as you say. With The Batman, there is this immense pressure because people love the character. I love that character and he means a tremendous, tremendous deal to me. And you want people to like what you’re doing. You want people to come back and see this new version and with something like Project Power, you want people to engage for the very first time, because they don’t know what it is. So the pressure of the expectation is off, but there’s a new pressure in trying to invite people to come to the new party.
Without taking what’s going on in the world lightly, we can say that Project Power is releasing at a very unique time for Netflix. The streamer has already been highly successful this year with films like The Old Gaurd and Extraction. So many of these big-budget projects are thriving in people’s homes in a time when they can’t go out. How does it feel knowing that your own creation is going to receive this similar, timely treatment?
MT: It honestly has not sunked in whatsoever. It’s very, very surreal. I know that it’s happening, but I am at home like everybody else. I’m exposed to the hundred or so people that I’m zooming with and getting on the phone with, but I’m not out in the world. So it’s something that I hear about, but I’m not quite feeling. Maybe in a week or two, I’ll be feeling it. But I also hope that people really connect with it because there is this part of me, I was just thinking about it, like wow, we did not have a summer blockbuster season. Like it fully didn’t happen. And this movie is such a fun, popcorn blockbuster. Like it is what you think as the movie that comes out in the summer. It’s one of the only ones and I don’t know what that’s going to do for the film. I don’t know what that’s going to do for anybody involved, but it is very wild. To say that sentence out loud and go, “Okay, this is happening.”
The film itself is shot very well with a distinct and crisp look. You have to wonder what it must look and feel like in a theater?
MT: Had we not been in this plague that we’re in, there would have been premieres and there would have been screenings and in New York, LA, and certainly New Orleans. I definitely think we all mourn being able to come together as a team and being able to celebrate it in these communities. It is a hole that we’re all feeling and I think that we’ll try to make up for it right. The way everybody’s trying to make up for all the sacrifices we’re all having to make right now.
On social media, you’re adamant about giving insight into the writing process. With a lot of aspiring creatives in quarantine, what advice can you give from your own recent experiences?
MT: I mean, it’s a tough one because everybody has a different process. The most helpful thing anybody ever told me – I’m comfortable using it as kind of like blanket advice – is finish what you start. I know so many people who say they start a project, then it gets a little bit tough, and then they leave it in a drawer. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, doesn’t matter if it’s bad – if you’re starting out, give yourself permission to be bad. I do it all the time. I write 10 scripts a year and some of them don’t work. That’s just part of the name of the game. So I urge all writers, if they start something, see it all the way through. If you can do that consistently, well that’s what makes you a professional,
Besides Project Power and The Batman, do you have any other upcoming projects that you would like to make our audience aware of?
MT: Totally, I have another movie that’s coming out later this year. It’s called Little Fish. It stars Jack O’Connell and Olivia Cook. It’s completely different from Project Power. It’s a love story set during a pandemic and we shot this movie a year ago. It’s all about a pandemic where people are spontaneously losing their memories and it just completely devastates the world in a way that felt really sci-fi 8 months ago. Now I think it will hit very close to home. So I’m really looking forward to the movie coming out in the fall and making a lot of people cry.
The timing is uncanny. When did you write this?
MT: This is the funny thing, I wrote it exactly at the same time I was writing Project Power. When I would get stuck on a scene in Project Power, rather than stop and go away, I switched to something else. I believe always to be writing. So the two projects that I had open, I would do a couple of hours on Project Power and then I would switch over to working on Little Fish. Then I would get stuck on Little Fish and go back to Project Power. And that was late 2016, early 2017 with both of those scripts.