Netflix’s Project Power begins as a mysterious new pill starts to circulate the streets of New Orleans. The pill unlocks superpowers unique to each user… however, you don’t know what will happen until you take it. While some develop bulletproof skin, invisibility, and super strength, others exhibit a deadlier reaction. But when the pill escalates crime within the city to dangerous levels, local cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) teams with Robin, a teenage dealer (Dominique Fishback) and Art, a former soldier fueled by a secret vendetta (Jamie Foxx) to fight power with power and risk-taking the pill in order to track down and stop the group responsible for creating it.
We spoke to Project Power’s directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman about music, bendy actors and setting Machine Gun Kelly on fire…
How did you get involved with Project Power?
Ariel Schulman: We were sent the project by the producers, it was almost exactly three years ago. The script was by Mattson Tomlin, who is now writing the new Batman movie, but at the time he had never had a movie [produced] before. We read the script and we thought it was amazing; such a good idea, such a great concept.
We loved the characters, we thought it had unusually great and deep character development for a sci-fi movie and touched upon some societal issues in a really smart way. We immediately felt ourselves picturing the way we thought the film should look and getting upset at the idea of somebody else directing it. So we worked really hard to try and get the job.
What attracts you to a script?
Henry Joost: It could be anything to start with… but it better be everything because it’s going to take the next two years or more of your life! So there has to be a lot to chew on. And what was great about this is that it started with just a concept and an image. The idea that a man could catch on fire and that perhaps in a more grounded world of superpowers, that the fire would have real consequences for him. Instead of being able to turn it on and off, we thought that ‘wouldn’t it be cool if superpowers had super symptoms?’.
Then if you take that further, when [characters like] The Hulk get really big… we’ve always been upset that their clothes seem to grow with them. In the real world, if you had that power, you’d be naked most of the time. And that’s what we pitched to Netflix… They weren’t as excited about that idea…
AS: We pitched a lot of nudity and they pushed back on that hahaha.
HJ: We got away with it with the camouflage man though – he’s pretty naked…
What was your pitch for Project Power?
AS: The pitch was really we’re going to try to make a ‘realistic’ (and I’m going to put realistic in quotes) superhero movie. Or a superpower movie. Another one of our mantras was it’s superpowers, not superheroes. We felt like Mattson’s characters were so well defined and complex, it felt like real people living in the real world. We wanted to keep the whole thing grounded in reality in as much as we can, with such a crazy, fun concept and at the same time still make it a really entertaining summer blockbuster kind of movie that we love to watch.
Project Power has three central characters of Art, Frank and Robin – how did you keep the balance right with the trio?
HJ: We’d never really done that before, not had a main central protagonist. But I think as we cast the film and the actors were all so fantastic it made sense that everyone had an equal role in the film. So I think that trio grew to be more and more balanced.
With the casting, who did you have in mind?
AS: We went into Netflix and said this the perfect movie for Jamie Foxx. He’s our dream star for the role of Art. We love him, he’s so talented, he can do anything but somehow we haven’t had this kind of super, the right superhero role [for him].
After that, it was finding the right chemistry, and he and Joe (Gordon-Levitt) are both so experienced and have such comedy chops that they worked off each other really well.
The most exciting part was trying to discover the right actress to play Robin, because we didn’t it to be a major star, like the two of those guys, we wanted it to be someone who felt brand new who felt really young, and fresh but just as talented as them.
How did Dominique Fishback come on board as Robin?
HJ: We had seen her in The Deuce, the HBO show, but we did a big open casting call. We had a lot of musicians audition for the role which was interesting because this role is tough; it requires someone to be a really good dramatic actress and at the same time have musical ability and be able to believably be an aspiring rapper, and also be good at it. So there was a dramatic part of the audition and a musical part of the audition, which was really fun.
Then we narrowed it down and did a chemistry test with Jamie Foxx. We all went to LA and after Dom auditioned we all just turned to each other and said ‘that’s her’. She nailed both aspects of it. She has a spoken word poetry background, so that lyricism came naturally and she was unintimidated by Jamie Foxx which I thought was a really big part of the character and part of the role. She’s got to go head-to-head with this Oscar-nominated actor. Jamie is a really generous partner but he also really pushes people and you have to be able to push back. And that’s so much of the dynamic between their characters. And she just had no problem right away. She’s so great.
I think she was so excited to be in a movie with him and so inspired but didn’t let that her hold her back.
The role of Robin certainly requires a number of skills…!
HJ: It was like, ‘do these handfuls of scenes… and also rap your favourite song for us, acapella’.
AS: She was fearless!
Project Power’s soundtrack is brilliant, how important was its music to you?
AS: Two inspirations for the film, starting with Mattson, were 8 Mile and Collateral. So we thought if you could combine the feeling of those two movies with superpowers, we might be able to do something really unique. For the music to work, it can’t just be cheesy rap songs, it has to feel like it’s the character’s voice. It’s dialogue straight from [Robin’s] diary and it pushes the character forward. So the music has to be to better than almost anything else in the film for this to be worthy of having music in it. Not just having it tacked on.
We also didn’t want it to feel like a studio movie trying to be hip. So I think a big decision was working with Chika (who’s one of our favourite rappers and musicians) [and having her] work with Dominique to write the lyrics from the character’s perspective.
They worked together, they discussed the character – who she is, where she comes from – they found really good chemistry. And character came to life through her music.
HJ: Chika’s an amazing young musician and lyricist – Jamie Foxx actually introduced us to her in our first meeting. She was, at that time, blowing up on Instagram and didn’t have a record deal or anything but she released this Kanye West diss track that was making the rounds and blowing everybody’s minds. [Jamie] was like: ‘This girl’s 21 years old, she’s from Alabama, you should get in touch with her and see if she’d be interested in collaborating on the film.’ So we just DM’d her on Instagram and we said: “I know this sounds like we’re making this up but we’re making a movie with Jamie Foxx, he just suggested we get in touch with you and would you like to read this script?”
She got back to us, she read it, loved it and then became a really big collaborator on the film; kind of coaching Dom with the rapping aspect of her performance and collaborating on the lyrics, rewriting all the lyrics of the film. She actually wrote the original song that we have the credits on. There was just amazing serendipity and I think she added so much to the character and the mood of the film. She also has a cameo in the film with Robin in the classroom scene (below).
There are also some great comedy elements to the film…
HJ: I think that we’re not really capable of making something that’s too bleak! That’s part of the reason why Jamie Foxx was such a good fit, and Joe and Dom. They’re amazing dramatic actors but they’re also capable of finding the levity in serious situations. That was really important for us to try and maintain the balance of the film.
Project Power has plenty of special effects. How much was CGI and how much was practical?
AS: I couldn’t tell you exactly what the split is. I think it’s a lot of both but it’s more practical than you might expect. Or at least that was our attempt. It feels more real when somebody builds something that the actors can hold and I think the audience can feel that. It’s especially true for the fire sequence. It’s harder and it takes longer but it was worth it in the end, even if you have to add a lot of visual effects on top of it, the foundation of something tangible.
There’s a scene with a man who can stretch and dislocate his limbs… was that CGI?
HJ: That’s a cool story. Part of being practical was finding people who might already have extraordinary abilities. The guy who played the character of Stretch – [who] has like a python’s ability to wrap itself around its prey and strangle the life out of them – is a young dancer from New York City, who we knew from making a dance film years ago. We knew that he could basically dislocate his shoulders and his elbows and do incredible things already – so with a few special effects we could make it seem even more impossible.
But he was a skinny young dancer and he said yes immediately, came down to New Orleans and worked with the stunt team for two-three weeks. It was his first time ever being on a movie; he gained 20lbs of muscle and learned how to fight in a choreographed action sequence with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
AS: He’d never done anything like that – he did music videos – but never an action fight!
Machine Gun Kelly plays the character of Newt who can set himself on fire – how did he get involved in the movie?
AS: I think he’s our muse haha!
HJ: It’s actually our third movie with him, we called him and we said: “Hey do you want to be in this one incredible action scene in our new movie?” and before we finished explaining he was like “yeah, just tell me where to be and I’ll be there” and then later on, when we onset, after going through five hours of makeup and wearing these incredibly uncomfortable latex appliances, he was like: “I wish I’d asked you guys a few more questions before I agreed to do this!”
You’ve written, produced and directed films – which of the three roles do you prefer?
AS: Definitely directing!
HJ: I guess I’m a little bossy [so] it’s nice to be the director!
How does co-directing work with the two of you?
AS: It’s a pretty fairly split, we’ve been best friends for a long time and I think we see the same final vision in our shared heads. We send each other a lot of imagery and we play each other a lot of music. Our job is to basically share our vision as closely as possible with 100 other people so the first thing we’ve got to do is share it with each other! It works well. So we’re right there, together, the whole way.
Project Power premiers on 14 August on Netflix.