Inside Netflix’s ‘Project Power,’ a ‘refreshing’ take on the popular superhero movie genre

August 13, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

If you’re missing the usual lineup of Marvel and DC movies at theaters this summer, Netflix has another movie about superpowers—albeit with something of a twist—for you.

Project Power, which can be streamed starting Friday, is centered on a pill that enables takers to develop super abilities—though they don’t know what their power is until they’ve ingested it. As the pill causes escalating mayhem, a police officer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pairs up with teenage dealer Robin (Dominique Fishback) and a former soldier (Jamie Foxx) to stop the group behind it.

As one would expect, the film is full of special effects—but there’s also an element of reality that made the script appealing to directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3 and 4, Nerve), as well as Fishback.

“The superpowers are presented in a…relatively realistic way,” Joost tells Fortune. “There are these superpowers in this world, but they don’t happen by magic, and they don’t come from alien worlds—they come from a drug that was created by people. And like all drugs, it has really serious side effects. So if your power is to burst into flame, then you’re going to get really badly burnt, and you’re going to be very susceptible to cold after that.”

Jamie Foxx as Art in “Project Power,” which was shot in New Orleans. Locations like the one pictured were incorporated into the script, the filmmakers say.
Courtesy of Netflix

Joost and Schulman also appreciated that the story was character-driven and “human,” pointing to Robin in particular as someone who’s “unusual to have in this type of movie.”

Fishback agrees, saying that her character—who’s caught up in a messy situation but also has a loving relationship with her mother, happens to be a talented rapper, and isn’t exactly a “damsel in distress”—jumped out on the pages of the script itself.

“It wasn’t like I was going to have to fight for us to know her background, to know what her dreams are,” Fishback says.

New Orleans, the city where Project Power was shot and takes place, also serves as another character on-screen. The filmmakers scouted various locations before settling on New Orleans and eventually bringing screenwriter Mattson Tomlin there to incorporate the setting into the script.

“We don’t like shooting cities and pretending they’re different cities,” Joost says, adding that they allowed the location to “rewrite” some scenes, including one they shot in an abandoned apartment complex that was repurposed by a local artist as an installation. “You couldn’t write it for that place, because how could you imagine that place? But once we scouted that, we said, ‘How can we tailor this scene for this incredible location?’

“You don’t get that kind of freedom if you’re not shooting in the place where the story takes place,” Joost notes.

Fishback, for her part, also spent some time talking with teenage girls at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts to make her character feel more authentic. “I went through the whole script and I’m like, ‘How would you say that? Would you use this word? No? Okay, which word would you use?’”

From left: Jamie Foxx as Art and Dominique Fishback as Robin in “Project Power.” Robin jumped out as a fully realized character in the script itself, Fishback says.
Skip Bolen—Netflix

There were other small attentions to detail as well. Fishback, who raps on film (and auditioned with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’s verses from TLC’s “No Scrubs”), points out that the woman who backs her up with some beatboxing in one scene is Chika, a real-life rapper who wrote Robin’s rhymes.

“It was really clever of [Schulman and Joost] to have that sweet little gem in there, for people who know Chika,” she says. “And then to find out that she’s the one who wrote all of Robin’s raps, it’s a nice way to pay homage to her and her talent.”

Realness aside, it wouldn’t be a movie about superpowers without some powers and action segments. One notable sequence puts a woman who essentially becomes a victim of the powerful pill at the forefront, while a massive fight breaks out around her. It wound up being the “most complex shot” in the movie, Joost says, involving a “detailed choreographed camera move” and taking about a year to complete the visual effects involved.

Even amid some of those arduous shoots, the atmosphere managed to remain light.

“I give Jamie Foxx a lot of credit for creating an energy on set that was really upbeat and really fun, because shooting a movie is long tedious hours into the cold, wet night, and it can really be a slog,” says Schulman. “At one point we were shooting 17 nights in a row, and his energy was always upbeat, he always had a boombox, he would DJ.”

“He never let the set die down,” Fishback says, describing Foxx’s ability to make people laugh as his superpower.

Project Power Behind the Scenes
From left: Courtney B. Vance as Captain Crane, director Ariel Schulman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Frank, and director Henry Joost on the set of “Project Power.”
Skip Bolen—Netflix

The film was finished remotely, with Netflix sending out computers and equipment to technicians—largely visual effects artists—as coronavirus-related lockdowns began.

“We were lucky that we had shot everything and that we had about 20% of the way to go,” says Schulman. “We finished the visual effects, the sound design, the editing, and the score all remotely using a handful of computer programs.”

The filmmakers, who are particularly proud of how some fire- and ice-related effects turned out, ultimately hope that audiences will find their new movie “refreshing.”

“It’s just an affirmation that within the genre you can still have grounded character drama and some social commentary,” Joost says.

Project Power can be streamed on Netflix starting Aug. 14.

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