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In a world of comic book heroes taking on universe-altering villains in monolithic cinematic universes, it can be easy to forget that, at one point, not all of our movies were based on preexisting work. And Netflix’s new big-budget, big-name offering, Project Power, is a stark reminder that not all superhero stories come from comic book pages.
“I think it's appealing that it's not from any existing comic book or graphic novel or anything like that,” Project Power co-director Henry Joost told SYFY WIRE ahead of the film’s Aug. 14 premiere. “It's a wholly original concept by this really exciting young writer, Mattson Tomlin, and that was definitely a big part of what attracted us to it. I think probably the first time we read it, because we're so used to asking, ‘Oh, what was this based on? Is this based on a novel or [comic], something we haven't heard about?’ And they said, ‘No, it just comes out of Mattson's head.’ And it started as a screenplay... It's pretty unusual these days.”
**This story contains spoilers for Project Power.**
Project Power exists in a world wherein an evil corporate entity has developed a pill that grants the taker superpowers for a limited period of time (think: minutes). And as heartbroken father Art, played by Jamie Foxx, goes to rescue his daughter from the Big Bad, he finds himself locked in a superpowered struggle with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Frank and Dominique Fishback’s Robin along for the ride. Joost’s longtime creative partner and co-director Ariel Schulman tells SYFY WIRE that Tomlin, who also co-wrote Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman, clearly “has a kind of respect for all of the other superhero stories that have come before this… he wasn't doing this as a rebuke to the genre, but really as a sort of sign of respect and an attempt to try and carve out a new niche within it.”
The creative team was especially inspired by Logan (2017), as well as 8 Mile (2002) and Collateral (2004), character-driven narratives with grit and noir tones. The journeys the three main characters take — all of which ultimately weave together — really came into focus when Gordon-Levitt was cast. “I think in figuring out who his character was, the role [of] Frank got bigger and bigger because Joe is so good and he had such good ideas how he could embed this guy's motivation into New Orleans and make it really site-specific,” Schulman says.
New Orleans, for what it’s worth, wasn’t an initial part of the story. The creators had considered New York City, Los Angeles, and, for the longest time, Portland, but a specific element of New Orleans’ history felt like the right plot device.
“One of our producers, Eric Newman, who’s one of the head writers of Narcos and has a deep infatuation with drug scenes around the world, he was telling us about some conspiracy theories of the U.S. Government dropping certain drugs in certain cities and neighborhoods in the United States in an experimental fashion and we thought that was extremely messed up,” Schulman explains. “That sort of inspired a reason why a big bad company like Teleios in our movie might do something like that in New Orleans… we needed some sort of grounded, historical psychology behind it, just so that we could attempt to make a more grounded version of that kind of story.”
And a large part of grounding that story came from focusing on Fishback’s character Robin, a teenager and aspiring musician who quickly learns she’s much braver than she believes herself to be. Throughout the course of the film, Robin goes from a clammed-up schoolgirl to freestyling with Foxx’s Art.
“The character of Robin feels really specific to New Orleans,” Joost says. “And New Orleans has this great musical background and this history of so many great musicians coming out of there. It just felt right. And Dominique really dug into her research — nailing the dialect and just trying to make it feel very specific to a New Orleans teenager.”
Joost calls Fishback “a revelation” who took researching for her character to a new level of creativity. “The first thing she did [in New Orleans] was make a few local friends, a couple of high school girls, and [she] started spending time with them and working on her accent, working on sort of lingo that she could have in her back pocket in case she decided to improvise because she knew that's what we liked.
“And it's very much what Jamie Fox likes to do,” Joost continues. “And so if she was going to do that, she had to have a couple of words that were part of her natural speech, just in case she's riffing, going off the cuff, she had to make sure the words that come out of her mouth are locally approved. And that kind of dedication was awesome. It was never just like, ‘Oh sh**, I got to shoot again today.’ She took it. It became a mission to get it right, to make it deep.”
“I think if you're really lucky as a director, the actor tells you what their character would do, not the other way around,” Schulman adds.