Mattson Tomlin is a filmmaker to watch. The screenwriter is best known for his original screenplay of the upcoming Netflix film Project Power, starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I got the chance to talk to him about how he got into screenwriting, where the idea for Project Power came from, the message he wants people to take away from the movie, and so much more. Keep reading to see what he had to say!
Tell me first a little bit about how you got into screenwriting.
I was a film kid from the time I was seven years old. I always wanted to make movies with my friends in the backyard. I did a tour of film school at SUNY Purchase and then I went to the American Film Institute for directing and graduated in 2014. I then had this year two year period where I was trying to get a movie off the ground. It wasn’t easy; it wasn’t happening. And I had this moment where I realized, I’m out of money and out of favor, I’m under this mountain of debt from school. My options are really starting to run out.
At AFI, they had this saying that the professors would say over and over and over: write your way to the table. That really stuck with me. So I took this sharp left in about 2014, where I started to screen-write. At the time, it was just a way to kind of keep myself sane. I always loved writing, but it wasn’t the end goal. And then, it kind of just escalated. My writing started to get some attention, and I really decided to go headfirst into it because, again, that whole ‘write your way to the table’ saying became my mantra. So that’s kind of the beginning of it in terms of my professional career. I just wanted to stay in Hollywood and have a seat at the table.
I know you said you studied directing in school. Is that still something you hope to pursue one day or are you all in on screenwriting right now?
I would love to direct something eventually. My writing career has become so stable that it’s nice that I’m not overly anxious. When the right thing comes along and the right situation opens up, I will go through it and I’ll go down that path. But in the meantime, I’m super happy to get to hang out with all these cool people and write some movies.
Is there a movie that you watched growing up or even more recently that you think most influences the way you write your own scripts?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. Matrix. No question. Not even because it’s a sci-fi film or it has great action but the Wachowskis were able to make this incredible personal film that was really telling us everything about them and it was hiding in plain sight. My appreciation for that film – it came out when I was 9 years old and is a movie that I watch between three and five times a year seriously – it’s one of those films that I look at and say, “Wow, it has it all.” It has the great characters, it has the big ideas, it has the action but it also is about something so shockingly real and personal. And that’s what I look to do in everything; have it really have a heartbeat, have it really have a pulse. I think the Matrix is the best example of that in blockbuster filmmaking.
So I want to shift and talk about Project Power. I’m really curious: where did the idea for Project Power come from?
It was something where I had been doing a lot of writing – a lot of screenwriting, getting paid for things here and there – but I reached this point where I’d been in it a couple of years and nothing was getting made. I could get paid but not made and I really wanted to change that. So I looked at the industry and kind of realized superhero films are what is most popular at this point, which is great because I love them. But I knew that I wasn’t gonna get invited to write a Marvel or DC movie anytime soon, so it couldn’t be in that mold. So I set out to write something that was in that genre, to do something that was superheroes/superpowers. And ultimately, the thing that excited me most was to take those themes and those images and Rubik’s Cube them into a completely different genre. So for me, once I had this idea of ‘what would 8 Mile look like if there were superpowers?’ or ‘what would Collateral look like if there were superpowers?’, that’s when I really started to find a pulse. And then from there, it was discovering the characters. Robin was the first one and she was really the heart of the movie for me. And then discovering Art and Frank as two characters that go on this journey with her.
So the fact that we’re in an age of superhero movie saturation didn’t sway you from wanting to write a superhero movie, that actually pushed you towards writing it?
I saw it as an advantage, honestly. Marvel and DC movies, they have expectations; there’s certain stuff that they have to do. A Spiderman movie has to do x, y and z to be able to call it Spiderman. When you’re doing something that’s original, you’re completely liberated from that. So for me, it was kind of like, Marvel is not going to make 8 Mile with superpowers, DC is not going to make 8 Mile with superpowers. So it felt like, as long as I wasn’t just trying to do Marvel or DC-lite, and that’s why there are no masks in the movie. That’s why nobody gets dressed up in a costume or anything. Those corners feel so secure by the big titans that for me, it was looking at it and going, “Okay, there’s a different way to do this that’s parallel but also separate.”
I know you began writing the movie back in 2016. How long did it take you to write? Was it a movie that kind of came together pretty fast once you found the characters or was it something you kind of struggled with for a long time?
I went through the timeline a couple of days ago just to try to orient myself with the movie coming out. I got the idea in July of 2016. And then I did what I tend to do which is just doodle on the Notes app in my phone of just little ideas here and there. That went on for a couple of months. And then in early 2017, I started writing and by May, Bryan Unkeless and Eric Newman were on as producers, by July, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman were on as directors and by October, we sold it to Netflix. Then, one year, almost to the day from from selling it to Netflix, we were in production. So to, in a year and a half, go from the kernels of ideas that are in your phone to you’re on set and Jamie Foxx is saying your dialogue, I don’t know that it can actually go faster.
That’s crazy. That sounds really fast from what I know.
My head is still spinning honestly. It’s very surreal.
After you write your initial script and it gets sold and it starts actually getting made, how involved are you in the creation process of the movie?
For the writer, once the director comes on board, you’ve kind of got to separate yourself from it. It’s the director’s movie and in film, the director is going to be the one that really has to live and die by the choices. So my job stops being what do I want for my script and it becomes how can I best serve the director and how can I best give them answers to the vision that they are chasing here. Making Project Power was a lot of new experiences for me. I know when I started I was a baby writer and I had never gotten the movie made. So there was a trial by fire of me having to kind of wake up and realize, “Oh, my preconceived ideas of what this is, that has to go away. I don’t own a script anymore. I’m a guest in the house. I don’t own the house.” Once I locked in and figured that out, the process was pretty lovely of being able to continue to go down these rabbit holes with the guys and try to make the film that they were trying to make, which was one that was frankly, I think a lot more audience friendly and a lot more fun than than what the original script was, which was just kind of a much more straight down the middle Collateral thriller; there’s not a lot of laughs in that script.
Interesting. So like we were kind of talking about, I know, obviously, as the screenwriter you don’t really get a say in the casting either. But the cast is pretty stacked with that trio of Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dominique Fishback. How happy are you with their performances and their interpretations of the characters that you wrote?
I couldn’t be happier. I mean Jamie, I’m compelled to say I was writing the script for him. I almost was. He was in my mind while I was writing, and I knew that, for that character, it was gonna have to be a movie star and Jamie was always on my mind. The fact that we got him at all is still mind blowing; I feel super lucky. And same thing with Joe. I mean he brought such specificity to that character and that life. With Dominique, I had seen her in The Deuce, I’d seen her in a couple of things. She came in and the second that I saw her up against Jamie, it was just like Dominique went away and Robin was there. There’s the character. She breathed this life into it. First time I saw it, it brought tears to my eyes. So Dominique for me is really the heart and soul of the movie and I’m so lucky to have her in it. Also, she’s my friend now. I hope to work with her on many, many more movies.
Yeah, it’s hard for me to imagine, now having seen the movie, anyone else other than her playing Robin. She was so good. But kind of speaking off that, I was reading that one of the scenes that basically never changed is the scene with Art and Robin when she’s stitching him up, and she basically starts talking about being a rapper. I’m curious, why was it so important for you for that scene to basically stay unchanged and still continue to be in the movie?
You know, it’s not that it was necessarily so important for it not to change as it became kind of the emotional epicenter for their relationship. So to change it, it would’ve change the domino effect of kind of changing everything. And that scene is a tricky balance because you’ve seen Jamie’s character do some pretty terrible shit to her; he throws her in the trunk of a car and he’s threatened to kill her. Her cousin is dead. But it’s stuff that is really hard to overcome. And that scene, it stayed very much the same, but with tweaks, basically every day of us kind of going, “Man, these two characters have to lock in and we have to be rooting for both of them together.” We have to feel like she’s smart for seeing him is not a bad guy and wanting to go on this journey and we have to feel like he’s not such a bad guy. There’s so many dynamics that has to play into it and once we kind of got it, it was like, “Okay, without this scene, their relationship does not work.” So it became critical.
Did you write Robin’s raps yourself?
Oh no. This great rapper named CHIKA, who is in the movie, [did]; she’s Robin’s friend in the classroom sitting next to her. CHIKA also wrote the end credits song, which Dominique performed. I had in the script versions that were very, very bad white man doing a rap. The whole thing always was, I’m gonna set a tone and a vibe of just what the intention of the route is and whether or not she’s playful, you know, whatever arena the rap would be. And then we’re always gonna go find somebody that would just absolutely destroy.
We were talking a little bit earlier about how you really like to write movies that are real and have something else to say. That’s one of the things that I really loved about this movie is that I felt like it featured complex characters and had a lot to say about the world and the society that we live in. Is there a message or something you want people to take away after having watched Project Power?
Many. I wouldn’t want to force feed it to anybody, but I think that for me there’s a really obvious one, which is that it’s not a pill. It’s not money. It’s not what the government says you can or cannot do. Your power comes from within you, and it is the strength that you find in yourself. And I think that that is so much of what Robin discovers and the journey that she goes on. So I hope that there’s a little bit of that that people take away.
I figured I’d end with just a few more fun questions. So I’m curious if you took the pill and unlocked some kind of superpower, which one would you hope to get and why?
My boring answer is that I would like the ability to never, ever sleep so that I could write all the time. It would actually make my life so much better. My more fun answer is flying, of course. Who could ever get away from that one?
Yeah, flying is definitely on the top of my list for sure, too. So last question — our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have some kind of inner-nerd so what is something you’re currently nerding out about?
Oh, man, The Last of Us Part II. That game, I find it to be an A+ and emotional and visceral.I love mainstream media that is supposed to appeal to everybody that is also so specific and manages to make you cry. I think that that is really a great, great benchmark of excellence. So I’m just so obsessed with that game. I’m going through it for the third time at this point. I’m super into it.
Make sure you follow Mattson on Instagram. Project Power is out now on Netflix.