Screenwriter Mattson Tomlin has made quite a name for himself in Hollywood in a short time. His first film, Project Power, premiered August 14 on Netflix and introduced audiences to a world where everyone can gain superpowers — or die trying — by taking a mysterious pill.
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Project Power casts Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jamie Foxx as a New Orleans police officer and former soldier, respectively, who are trying to stop the spread of the powerful drug that gives users unpredictable superpowers. Tomlin also shares a writing credit on one of the superhero genre’s most-anticipated upcoming films, The Batman, director Matt Reeves’ reboot of the Dark Knight’s movie franchise with Robert Pattinson in the title role.
With his first film freshly released and among the most popular movies currently streaming on Netflix, Digital Trends spoke to Tomlin about his work on Project Power and The Batman, as well as the big-screen adaptations of Fear Agent and Mega Man that he’s also working on.
Digital Trends: Congratulations on Project Power making its debut. What inspired you to write this particular story? Was it a comic book? Something in the news?
Mattson Tomlin: Some of the motivation was just wanting to get a movie made and knowing that superhero movies are the thing that’s being released right now, but it also comes from loving that space, loving comic books, and growing up with a lot of those stories. I wanted to play in that zone, but not having the rights to any characters or any comic books, I knew I had to figure out an original story.
Trying to figure out how to create a new superhero felt like a nonstarter, because creating somebody who puts on a mask and cape felt like a very high bar, and one that seemed destined for rejection. The question I kept asking myself was, “What if this was real?” And the answer led me to the pill. The pill suddenly seemed like an urban legend I might hear about from somewhere on the other side of the country. And then I just went down that rabbit hole.
I know a script can change a lot over time for a variety of reasons. What were some of the ways the script for Project Power story evolved?
One of the biggest changes was the tone. The original script was a pretty dark thriller. It wasn’t without humor, but the humor came from the way the characters interacted more than anything else. Weirdly, the characters and their way of relating to each other did not change very much, but Henry [Joost] and Ariel [Schulman] have such a sense of humor, and they wanted to make something that was a big, fun, loud action movie. So the biggest change had to do with the tone and accommodating just a little bit more popcorn — a little more fun — throughout the film.
The visual effects used for the different powers were wonderful. Is there a particular power you were excited to see on screen or surprised by visually?
For me, it was Newt [played by Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly], who bursts into flame at the beginning of the movie. That was a type of effect we’ve seen a couple of times in other films. We’ve seen the Fantastic Four version, for example. Visual effects come in so late, because they have to work for a really long time to make them look as good as they do, and this one had me on the edge of my seat wondering, “Is this going to work? Is this going to look cool?” I really didn’t know.
So there came a point when the effects started to come in and I just breathed a sigh of relief, because it was like, “Oh my God, this is just awesome.” So that was definitely a highlight. I think the effects are A+ in this movie. I’m so happy with how they came out.
It feels like there was a lot more the film could have explored in that world. Project Power ties things up pretty well narratively, but is there the possibility of more stories in that world?
Yes, there’s definitely hope that people react well to the movie and viewing over the next few weeks is high enough that there’s a demand for it. I would love to do sequels. I would really love to do spinoffs, though.
What’s nice about this premise is the idea of this pill. The pill is going to give you a superpower, and you don’t know what you’re going to get. That idea is so malleable that it doesn’t have to exist only in action-movie land. You could do a horror movie with that idea at the center. You could do a romantic comedy with it. You could really spread out in a cinematic universe-y way that we haven’t quite seen before, where it’s not just building straight sequels.
There’s another big superhero project you’re involved with: The Batman. What can you tell us about the sort of Batman we can expect to see in the movie? We’ve had so many different actors play Batman and so many different spins on the character, so what will set this one apart?
That’s a tough one to answer. One thing I can say is that the character is 81 years old. He’s been around for such a long time, and yet there have been these wildly different interpretations of him over the years. You look at what Neal Adams was doing with him, and then what Frank Miller was doing, and it’s the same character, but also, it’s not. He’s so malleable and can be so many different things.
My hope is that people will look at this movie and see that it’s being made by a master filmmaker who has a tremendous amount of respect for what the character is, but it’s also going in some new directions.
We’ve seen the teaser of Robert Pattinson in costume as Batman that Matt Reeves shared. What was your reaction to seeing this Batman — one you had a part in developing — for the first time?
Honestly, this sounds like a fake answer, but it’s real: I still don’t know how to process it. I know I’m a screenwriter who has this movie and is also working on Batman, but I also still feel like the kid from Massachusetts who just loves comic books and has these big dreams. So the fact that any of those dreams are coming close to being true, and some have come true, it has me regularly looking around and thinking, “What the hell is happening? Is this is real?” It’s hard to process.
You’re also working on an adaptation of the Fear Agent comic book. How are things going with that project?
I’m under the hood with the script for that one right now. It’s very much on deck, and we’ve got a great team. I’ve got Rick Remender and Tony Moore, the guys who created it, in my corner. I have a couple of projects with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg right now, and this is one of them. Being able to work with those guys is a dream. [Fear Agent] is a big, crazy space opera in a way that you haven’t seen before. I think fans of the source material are going to be extremely happy with it, but I also think people who have no idea what it is are going to have their minds blown.
How about the Mega Man movie you’re working on? Video game adaptations can be tough, so how are you approaching that project?
Henry and Ariel, who directed Project Power, are directing Mega Man. We had so much fun working on Project Power that they asked me to come in and work on the script for Mega Man with them. We did some work last year and got it to a point where it feels really good. I approached it just like like anything else, in that I try to find a heartbeat. You try to find a character that has these primal motivations and is going to make people care. That’s how I approach every story. It doesn’t matter if it’s an original idea, or a comic book or video game. It’s really about finding a heartbeat that is going to resonate with people, and then chasing that — sometimes blindly — to find the right story.
You’ve got so many fun projects on your plate right now, but is there a character or property you’d love to work on down the road at some point? What’s your white whale?
Before all of this, the answer would have been Batman, and it’s hard to top that one. There’s a Marvel character that nobody has ever spoken about in the movie conversation, and I would love to have a talk with Marvel about it at some point. It hasn’t happened yet, though. I don’t want to say what it is, though. We’d end up talking about it for an hour. But Batman really was that white whale for me, and now I feel so honored to have been a part of it.
The Netflix Original movie Project Power is available to stream now. Matt Reeves’ The Batman is scheduled for release October 1, 2021. Fear Agent and Mega Man do not have release dates yet.
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