HEAT VISION

How 'The Batman' and 'Project Power' Scribe Mattson Tomlin Became One of Hollywood’s Busiest Screenwriters

Mattson Tomlin -Publicity -H 2020
JOHN DEMENIL/Courtesy of Subject
At age 30, the spectacularly in-demand writer's first big movie is debuting on Netflix while the town is hungry for any details on his DC Comics project: "It's still a crazy secret."

Oct. 16, 2019, was a day that changed everything for screenwriter Mattson Tomlin. Tucked in an announcement that Zoë Kravitz had been cast as Catwoman in The Batman was news that Tomlin had been secretly co-writing the superhero film with director Matt Reeves. The reveal elevated Tomlin to social media celebrity status, at least among the legions of geeks scouring for clues about the film, which stars Robert Pattinson as the Dark Knight.

"People started to look through my likes and going, 'Does that mean this villain is going to be in the movie?' " recalls Tomlin.

The Batman news happened exactly two years to the day ­— Oct. 16, 2017 — after Tomlin scored his first big script sale: Netflix won a bidding war for his screenplay Power, about a pill that gives users superpowers for five minutes.

"For my family, it was kind of like a, 'Wait. He has a real job?' moment," says Tomlin, 30, who spent a good chunk of his 20s grinding away on his self-imposed goal of writing 10 movie scripts a year. Some were good enough to get him on The Black List and land him a manager, but none were getting made. So he kept writing. When the Netflix deal was finalized, Tomlin celebrated by taking a rare break, spending a week in Maine, no cell reception, no laptop by his side.

Now titled Project Power, the Netflix project debuts Aug. 14, with Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and breakout Dominique Fishback starring in the action-packed tale that tackles themes such as government control and the exploitation of marginalized communities.

Now one of Hollywood's busiest screenwriters, Tomlin is reteaming with Project Power directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost for the 20th Century Studios movie adaptation of the Mega Man video game. He's working with Lionsgate and Seth Rogen's Point Grey on adapting the graphic novel Memetic. He sold the big-budget sci-fi script 2084 to Paramount. Another sci-fi film he wrote, Little Fish, is awaiting a delayed COVID-19 release. He also has a Quibi series in development.

Tomlin was born in Romania but grew up in Massachusetts, where he was adopted by an American couple, an experience that has influenced his storytelling sensibilities. "It creates some very interesting dynamics around community and around family, about feeling isolated," he notes.

He grew up a film fanatic. At age 17, he interned for producer John Hart on Revolutionary Road, and went to AFI film school, graduating in 2014.

"I write all day. I am definitely a workaholic," says Tomlin, who acknowledges that the Hollywood system is designed to open doors for people like him — straight, white men. On Project Power, he prioritized making a young Black woman a lead character: "I realized that there were very few — alarmingly few — big, fun action movies that had young Black women at the center."

While it's no surprise that Tomlin can't talk specifics about The Batman, curiously, he cannot even reveal how he teamed up with Reeves in the first place. "It's still a crazy secret," he says. "There are spoilers in that story."

Warner Bros. has pushed The Batman from June 2021 to October 2021 amid the pandemic. Tomlin was about to visit the London set when production shut down in March, and since then he's been holed up at home in L.A., chipping away at those 10 scripts a year.

Notes Tomlin: "My life has not changed — this is what I've been training for all decade."

Take me back to what life was like when you were writing Project Power. I imagine it's one of like ten feature scripts you had written, but this was the first one to really go.

I write a lot. I write about 10 scripts a year. I had gotten some attention on The Black List, I had been getting some gigs here and there, but it really came out of this place where I was writing scripts, and the scripts I was writing were not necessarily movies. Then at some point something kind of clicked for me and I was like, "I need to really start thinking about writing real movies, and not just interesting scripts to read." Back-to-back I wrote Project Power and this other film, Little Fish, that will hopefully be coming out later this year. They basically shot at the same time, so it's weird that they were written so close together.

For me, it was thinking, "OK, how can I be big and loud and popcorn" and kind of do all of those things that you want a big blockbuster movie to do, but at the same time, be about something real and connect to me. I started writing it in late 2016, finished in early 2017, a first pass. It was quick. We sold it to Netflix in October 2017, and we were in production in October 2018. That's a very, very fast turnaround. It was this incredible whirlwind of going from sitting in a coffee shop doing this by myself to suddenly it's day one of production and I'm surrounded by 400 people who are making this movie. 

In terms of the premise, do you just write down on a card, "super powers for five minutes?" Where does this start for you?

I knew there was this thing with the pill. That was kind of the first bit for me. You don't get to choose your power. There was something that felt really electric, really palpable about that.  The time thing came a little bit later. For awhile it was, "you take this pill and that's it? But OK, how long does that last?" If it lasts an hour, OK that's a certain kind of movie — but when I started thinking about the real obstacles that characters would have to go through, it became this thing of, "The shorter this lasts,  the more fun."

I [also] realized that there were very few — alarmingly few — big, fun action movies that had young black women at the center. Part of the way that I choose what to write is I spend a couple of weeks, once I have an idea, searching for that movie. If the Netflix people went and looked at my search history, they would see hours of me clicking on things. What I'm really doing is looking for the movie to see if it already exists. Because if it already exists, it's all good. I don't have to write it, I get to watch it.

This movie didn't exist. And not only that, the number of movies that had a young black woman at the center of them, it was so low that that to me was like "OK, I think there is an opportunity here." It already starts to feel different than if it's just your typical barrel chested white guy hero.

How much did the script evolve much? What kind of input did Dominique have on her character?

The original spec had been set in Portland. We went to Portland, scoped it out. Went to a couple of other cities. When we landed on New Orleans, it was like "OK, we really have to open up the script to the vibes of New Orleans." It's such a cool city. It's such a distinct city. It has, in terms of the thematics of the story, real history that helped reinforce the story we were telling about people in control and the government and all of that stuff. Dominique was really great. I love her to death. A lot of how Robin talked changed because she went and visited kids in New Orleans and she realized, "Oh, they wouldn't say bro," or they wouldn't say this, they wouldn't say that. Even just small things like the actual dialect, she started to weave into that, in a way that was kind of great.

The sale to Netflix must have been a life-changing moment. What was that like?

It changed everything for me. It was my first really big sale, and there's a cool headline and everything. For my family, it was kind of like a, "Wait. He has a real job?" moment.

The first thing I did, my celebratory thing, was to get on a plane and go to Northern Maine to where my family has a lake house and there's no cellphone service. I spent a week just sitting in the middle of the lake in a kayak listening to the sound of my ears. That was the thing I needed.

As a screenwriter you have to cede control. Not every screenwriter's film turns out well. This one, fortunately, did. Is it a relief once you meet the directors to know your film is in good hands?

I was a huge part in choosing those guys and so instantly it was like, "OK, we are seeing the same movie, we click, we like to hang out." I was very lucky because I really got to be on the ride all the way. At some point for me it's like "OK, they are the ones who have to make the movie." It's their names that come first. So I really have to do everything in service of what they want and what they see. Part of the reason that I love those guys is they were very open to all kinds of discussions. 

You largely have been attracted to original stories, but you also wrote Mega-Man for your Project Power directors and The Batman with Matt Reeves. How do you approach established IP versus an original property?

In the case of Batman, I love that character and lots of people love that character and it comes with a tremendous amount of weight and responsibility and expectation. You want to do right by people. You want to do something new, but you also want to do something that feels like it is the thing, regardless of what it is. For Mega-Man, I hope the people who on Twitter hit me up all the time and their avatar is Mega-Man, I hope that they love the movie. With original films, with Project Power, there's a different kind of pressure, because you want people to embrace it and you want people to see it. But it doesn't have those expectations. Nobody knows what Project Power really is yet, and therefore it can kind of be anything. That to me, they are two halves of the same whole, but if it's IP it's your job to look at what the responsibility is based on expectations. Figure out the right way to subvert those expectations and then also to deliver. And when it's original, you just got to show them a good time.

You've directed your own small movies in the past in film school. It's likely just a matter of time before you get to direct in Hollywood. Do you have filmmakers you point to, such as Matt Reeves, who may be models for the type of director you'd want to be?

When you go through film school, you have these heroes. And you are kind of like, "Oh I want to make films like David Fincher. I want to make films like Paul Thomas Anderson. I want to make films like Ava DuVernay." You have those people. And then there comes this point where you realize that following in their path, all you are going to be doing is copying them in this way that isn't going to make for great art, because it's not true. Those people are so good because they know how to use their own voices. I think that for me, one of the wonderful things about detouring from directing and having this crazy writing career that I've had so far, is it's really allowed me to find my voice on the page and get to the point where people can read scripts that are wildly different genres and still go, "There's something about this that feels Mattson Tomlin." That's the highest compliment that someone can give me right now. 

Matt Reeves is brilliant. The guy is just incredible and I think that one of the things that caused me to identify with him and bond with him as an artist is the fact that he is able to tell these extremely personal stories in the canvas of large blockbusters. 

People didn't realize you were working with Matt Reeves until October. What is your origin story with Matt Reeves?

I wish I could say but it's still a crazy secret. There are spoilers in that story.

Really?

Yeah. But it'll come out soon. We'll have a follow-up, and then I'll tell you the story.

How many people at Warner Bros. had to sign off before you tweeted that you were co-writing The Batman?

I had been working on it with him for a long time. And then I think they dropped the news that my name was on it when they also announced Zoë. So my name is just kind of in there, and I didn't know that was going to happen. Nobody called me that day and said, "By the way, your relationship to the Internet is going to change forever now." There was no heads up. There was a wondering of, "Is my name going to go in there at some point?" but I was just kind of chill and happy to be part of the process, and when it came out, it was kind of like, "I guess I can tweet about this." But now I feel like have to be really careful about everything I tweet. It's funny. On Twitter, people can go and look at what your likes are. And I had all of these likes that were about the original announcement of Pattinson. About people posting different art and stuff like that. And then people started to look through my likes and go, "Does that mean this villain is going to be in the movie?" I can just like this art and not have it be a thing, guys. It's OK. It's going to be fine (Laughs).

The school rap scene in Project Power is definitely a standout. Where did that come from?

When I first started writing, you always think what are the comps on this movie? What's going to influence me? 8 Mile was a big one. I [told] the producers and directors the whole time, "There's got to be an end credits song. It's got to blow people's minds and there has to be this kind of musical component to it." On the one hand, thematically it resonates. What is Robin's power? Well, power doesn't come in a pill, power comes from within you and that's so much of what's interesting to me. But also, rap is awesome. It's just another way to connect with this character and go on this journey with her as she's literally finding her voice.

You mentioned writing 10 scripts a year. What is your schedule. When do you wake up? How are you doing this?

The deal I made with myself is that I would write as much as I could. But not all of those scripts had to be good. When I first started out, five six years ago, seven out of those 10 were pretty bad scripts. And that was OK, because I was learning. Hollywood, it is a casino. Every project is a gamble because you don't know what is going to happen. There are great scripts, great projects. You look at The Black List every year, and how many of those scripts get made? And then scripts that never get discovered. For me, it was a numbers game. You don't go to Vegas and place one bet. You have to place many, many bets. And so that became my mantra. I just stuck with it. I still give myself permission to be bad. I still give myself permission to get to the end of the script and go, you know what? This doesn’t work. What inevitably ends up happening is a year or two will go by and there will be some kernel of something from that story that gets put into something else. Or some character that is still with me, that's haunting me. It's all good stuff. I wake up around 7 and I write all day. I am definitely a workaholic. And what's nice is that because I have so many things is I'm not bound to any one of them. So I work on something until I hit a road block. Then I switch to something else. And then I work on that until I hit a road block. It's kind of a matter of balancing the spinning plates.

What has life been for the past few months? In some ways, being stuck at home is a writer's dream.

My life has not changed. When everything locked down, it was kind of like, "Oh, I don't have to go to meetings. I don't have to see people. This is like the writer Olympics. This is what I've been training for all decade." 

Where were you when things shut down? You weren't stranded on the London set of The Batman, right?

I came very close. I was in the process of getting over there to go visit and i was getting calls that were like "Hey, if you want to go, maybe don't go in two weeks. Maybe go right now." And it was like "If I go right now, that means I'm going to be there when whatever is happening right now keeps happening." So I pressed pause for a second.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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