Netflix’s Project Power, and the Creatures That Inspired Each Ability

Project Power directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman man talk us through the real life inspirations from the natural world for the special powers on display in the movie.

Rodrigo Santoro in Project Power
Photo: Netflix

Spoilers for Project Power to follow

Not for nothing are we called Den Of Geek. So when we were given the chance to chat with Project Power directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost and discovered that for the film they basically became massive science and nature nerds in creating some of the effects, this was very much ‘our bag’. 

Project Power imagines a world where a street drug, just known as ‘Power’ imbues the user with almost super-heroic abilities but for just five minutes. The trouble is, exactly what powers you are going to get can’t be predicted. Some get strength and speed, others get instant death. 

Each person in Project Power is effected differently and Joost and Schulman explain that they used examples from the natural world to add to the realism of the piece.

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“That was something that we developed with the writer Mattson Tomlin and with our VFX supervisor Ivan Moran,” says Joost. “It was really just a product of us wanting to understand how power works and what it did to the human body and where these powers came from. We really didn’t want it to be magic or an alien, something from outer space. We wanted it to be something that was at least kind of relatively grounded in reality. The more we researched these animal powers, we were like, “Oh my God, these things all exist in nature already. Why not just let ourselves be inspired by that?”

There are examples explained in the movie which sound incredibly cool – a man who runs as fast as a big cat, another who shoots sharp bones from under his skin like the real life so called ‘Wolverine Frog’. But it’s not all sunshine and roses.

“It all started from a desire to take superpowers and ask ourselves what would actually happen to your body if you had that ability? What would be the side effects?” Schulman explains. “In the world of Project Power, superpowers come with super side effects. If there are side effects, then that had us thinking of them as science-based superpowers. Then we asked ourselves, where could you actually get a superpower? Well, maybe it’s lying dormant in your DNA. If it’s in the animal kingdom, it could potentially be in a human strain, and maybe the pill just reawakens those abilities.”

It’s a smart starting point for a film that really leans into the idea, allowing for some amazingly fun set pieces. Joost and Schulman break down some of our favorite Power moments, characters and creature-based set pieces from the film.

Project Power
(L-R) Henry Joost, Jamie Foxx and Ariel Schulman on set of Project Power

The invisible man

Early on in the movie we see a man carry out a bank robbery who appears almost invisible – he’s blending in with his backgrounds perfectly as he moves through the streets – chameleon-like, you might say, though the inspiration for his power was actually a fish. 

“If you take, for example, the invisible guy who’s actually camouflage guy, we all know that in real life invisibility is not really a thing. But there are animals that have such sophisticated camouflage that they appear to be invisible, like the cuttle fish and different cephalopods and lizards,” Joost explains. “We really dove into, how does that animal produce that effect, and that’s what we were trying to replicate with the visual effects.”

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“I don’t know if you can notice, but the patterns on his skin are meant to mimic the surface of ink pods that are on a squid’s exterior and those pods, which can produce any mixture of color, are reflections of its surroundings,” Schulman adds. “Whether the audience picks up on that or not, for us, it was the only way we could dig into a scene and figure out what was happening, if we could understand how it was working.”

The big bang

“Well, it’s a bit of a spoiler, but the inspiration for the final power of the film, I won’t even say whose it is, is the chemical reaction that occurs when you put two grapes in a microwave…” says Schulman. Yes that’s right, two grapes. We also won’t spoil exactly what happens, to whom and why, but it’s an explosive finale inspired not just by grapes but also an unusual creature.

“It’s an effect that occurs in the animal kingdom with this animal called the pistol shrimp, which basically moves so fast that it creates a bubble of air that becomes plasma,” he explains. “This is a tiny, little animal, but we were like, ‘What would it look like if you created that on a macroscale of a person?’”

The python

In one memorable action sequence Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cop, Frank fights with a guy whose limbs seem to defy nature, bending in ways the human body usually doesn’t. The crazy thing about this scene is that much of it was done for real.

“That guy’s name is Xavier and he’s a dancer from New York City that we made a dance film with a few years ago,” says Schulman. “When it came time to figure out what power Joseph should fight and who was going to do it, we thought of Xavier because he naturally has this extraordinary ability to dislocate several joints in his arms.”

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“We thought, Oh, that’s cool. Maybe we could turn that into a rubbery python power, where you can use that ability to strangle your foe like a snake does. Since he already did it, that checked another one of our boxes, which was trying to do as many of the action scenes practically as possible and then adding flourishes of CGI to that,” he explains.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Project Power
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT as FRANK in PROJECT POWER Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

The bulletproof cop

Gordon-Levitt’s power is one that’s particularly handy for a law man. When he takes the pill his skin thickens until it so strong it becomes impenetrable to bullets.

“It was inspired by two animals. It was inspired by the armadillo, which has the famously armored skin. Then it was also inspired by this microscopic creature called the tardigrade,” says Joost. 

“It’s the most hardy organism on Earth. They find them underwater, deep sea, and in volcanoes. I think maybe they can even survive in space for certain amount of time. They’re also called water bears. They’re really cute. You can look them up. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but we gave Joe some homework on the tardigrade and armadillo to check out before.”

These tiny creatures even became part of the director’s aesthetic choices for Gordon-Levitts tranformation scenes.

“The patterns you see forming on his skin are very similar to the pattern of the tardigrade’s exterior,” Shulman explains.

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Nature’s own hulk

“If you’re going to explore science-based versions of superpowers, you’ve got to figure out how to do a scientific version of the Hulk,” laughs Schulman. He’s referring to the painful-looking power bestowed on ‘Project Power’ boss ‘Biggie’ played by Rodrigo Santoro.  

“That one was actually really tough. I don’t know that we have a specific animal version, although it’s a hyper-speed version of the growth any animal goes through and the growing pains that any animal endures,” says Schulman.

“It was inspired by conditions like gigantism and Marfan syndrome and stuff like that where the body is growing uncontrollably,” Joost explains.  

“Mike Marino who did the special effects makeup, really had fun with that. I think he’s got six nipples, three eyeballs and nostrils…” [The Hulk, not Mike Marino, we assume]

“The Hulk is awesome, but the Hulk grows so uniformly that he looks like Mr. Universe. We thought it would be interesting if a huge man grew uncontrollably and at random, and that it hurt a lot,” adds Schulman. “That was something Rodrigo, the actor, thought he could really work with, which is the pain of growing that big and what it does to your clothes. That hurts the most when you’re a dandy.”

“That’s right. Sharen Davis, who is the costume designer, put him in a suit,” Joost explains. “If you look really closely, it’s got this cross-hatched material that expands. It’s designed to get bigger, but he gets so much bigger than his clothes, he still rips through them. If you look closely, you can see that he was anticipating that maybe he would grow big that night.”

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Machine Gun Kelly in Project Power

Running hot and cold

Two major set pieces in Project Power involve extremes of the same power – that of thermoregulation and what happens if it goes wrong. It’s showcased with the character of Newt (Machine Gun Kelly) and later with a character known as ‘frozen girl’. He explodes, she freezes to death in spectacular style.

“They’re actually opposite sides of the same spectrum, the power of thermoregulation, which almost every animal in the animal kingdom has. It’s the ability to maintain your body temperature in extreme scenarios,” Schulman explains. “Some animals can do it better than others. A polar bear can keep itself regulated in freezing cold. But if you’ve taken too much power or you have a bad reaction, it’ll go bonkers.”

“The idea was what would happen if your thermoregulations went completely out of control,” says Joost. “This is stuff I don’t expect anybody to pick up on, but, with Newt, if you look really closely at some of those shots of him right before he catches on fire, you’ll see that there’s superheated steam shooting out of his pores.”

The Newt sequence occurs at the start of the movie and it was a key introduction to the world of Project Power.

“In our initial pitch to Netflix, we said, ‘With the first power in the movie, the fire guy, we’re going to set the bar for realism right away. The idea is that we’d like to come as close to setting the actor on fire as possible. CGI fire isn’t what we’re looking for here.’” Schulman explains.

“The ultimate solution was a full-burn bodysuit, integrated with LED lights to cast interactive light. After every performance by Machine Gun Kelly, a stuntman would step in, having watched the monitor, and would imitate his exact movements in bursts of 10 seconds, completely on fire.

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“It was extraordinarily time consuming and lasted about a week for that two- or three-minute sequence. Ultimately, we had real fire in a real location. A lot of the people we’d worked with said they hadn’t seen that or done that in 20, 30 years.”

Schulman says this death, and that of the girl freezing to death – which he describes as a really intricate process – were the ones he was most proud of.

“Those were huge learning experiences for us,” he says. “I think, Henry, we, more or less, achieved what we’d initially imagined in our heads, which doesn’t always happen.”

Joost concurs: “Yeah, I’m happy where it ended up.”

Project Power is available to stream now on Netflix.