“I just want to go deeper.”
'Mother/Android' director Mattson Tomlin is making sci-fi personal
Mattson Tomlin knows he nailed that scene.
Confidence is key when making your first film, of course, but Tomlin has earned it in the case of Mother/Android (now on Hulu), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller and his feature directorial debut.
One of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters, Tomlin is best known for uncredited work on The Batman, Matt Reeves’ detective-noir spin on Caped Crusader mythos, as well as for serving as lead writer on Batman: The Imposter, a recent DC Black Label series within the same tonal umbrella as the upcoming blockbuster. His other credits include Netflix’s superhero standalone Project Power and Little Fish, a romantic sci-fi drama about a pandemic of memory loss.
Though enthusiastic about working with Hollywood’s most valuable pre-existing IP, Tomlin says Mother/Android, including the devastating ending everyone’s been talking about since it premiered, represents the most complete — and entirely vulnerable — expression of his voice as an artist to date.
“I decided to just write the movie that nobody else could make, the one so shockingly personal that I’d feel like I was naked when it comes out,” he tells Inverse. “Which I do, by the way.” (Spoilers ahead for Mother/Android.)
Tomlin’s love letter
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Shadow in the Cloud) and Algee Smith (HBO’s Euphoria), Mother/Android follows a pregnant woman and her partner as they make a dangerous cross-country trek in the wake of an android uprising. By turns intense, haunting, and heart-wrenching, this cross between apocalyptic sci-fi and personal family drama is rooted in what Tomlin calls his own “origin story.” It’s a turn of phrase typically reserved for comic-book heroes. But it feels surprisingly fitting the more he explains it.
Born amid the Romanian Revolution, Tomlin was given up by his parents at birth. All he has left of them are a few scraps of information written down and sent stateside with him, as context for those sheltering a baby boy in his first years of life. Tomlin knows enough, he says, to register the pain his parents must have felt in sending him away far from home as their country collapsed into violence. He holds onto that radical act of selflessness as their legacy, the greatest gift they gave him.
Tomlin says he wanted Mother/Android to serve as “a love letter to the parents I don’t know.” But rather than doing “the Roma version” of that story, staging a war epic in 1989 Bucharest — “no one’s going to let me make that movie for my first go-round” — he decided to express this achingly personal narrative through the language of genre film.
“Science-fiction and horror have always been the two genres that let you say something about reality,” he says. “I want to find out how far can I push that idea of personal storytelling across a really big canvas.”
No scene represents Mother/Android’s achievement in this department better than its emotional climax on a pier at the outskirts of war-torn Boston. Carrying her baby boy to the water’s edge, Georgia (Moretz) must make a decision that will forever change her life — and his.
Up until this point, Georgia has been under the impression she and the child can board a boat headed to a safe zone in Korea. But upon reaching the pier, a Korean official informs her that their ship only has space to take her baby. There’s no room for anyone else.
Her hopes for the future ripped away in an instant, Georgia has only a few minutes to write her son a letter and say goodbye. That her partner Sam (Smith) is by her side, despite having incurred soon-to-be fatal injuries while captured by androids, adds another layer of desperation to the heartbreaking sequence.
“When I look at that scene, my head spins at how many ways it could have gone wrong, or how many ways it could have missed the mark,” says Tomlin. “And, honestly, for me, if I had not nailed that scene, I don't know that I would be continuing to direct.”
Filmed across one rainy day, the sequence required Tomlin to shoot from a moving dock, direct a baby, and keep his actors emotionally locked into one of the most painful moments any of them had ever shot. Seeking to connect more intimately with Moretz and Smith, Tomlin found himself sharing pieces of his personal story that nobody else knows.
“Everything was leading to this climax.”
“My adoptive parents know, my partner knows, and now Chloë and Algee know,” says Tomlin. “I really said, ‘Okay, I’m going to bare my whole soul for you. Because I trust you, and I love you, and this is why we're doing this. Now, trust me to know that I'm going to take care of you in this scene. You're going to really go to a place, and I'm not going to let you down.’”
In Georgia’s sacrifice, “I’d written a scene that was the reason I was making the movie,” he adds. “Everything was leading to this climax.” On the day in question, Tomlin had some indication that the actors were supported by the writing and vice versa.
“As we're shooting this, I'm looking over, and everybody's crying,” he recalls. “Everybody is affected by this thing we’re doing. When your boom operator is crying, you feel like, ‘Okay. We're all tapped in, arms locked, trying to chase something real. And I think we’ve got our finger on the pulse.’”
Reviews for Mother/Android have been mixed-to-positive, as is often the case when working with an original sci-fi concept that wears its influences on its sleeve. “I’m playing with a familiar Terminator idea, brushstrokes of that palette, but I have something so much different to say than what a Terminator movie is going to say,” Tomlin promises. “That was very scary to do and also very exciting.”
Speaking of scary and exciting: Tomlin can still scarcely believe he got Mother/Android made. An original sci-fi thriller crafted with real scope and well-known actors, the film’s a unicorn in the franchise-saturated genre marketplace. “I don’t know that everybody is necessarily registering that it’s my first movie,” he says.
“Writing doesn't involve anybody’s permission. Directing involves everybody’s permission.”
Mother/Android rolled cameras in September and October of last year before vaccines were widely available but well after the impact of the pandemic had been felt worldwide. The production was one of the first to film in Massachusetts as the state began to lessen restrictions after shutting down. On a compressed 29-day timeline, Tomlin made ample use of New England greenery to shoot sequences in verdant woods and around abandoned industrial compounds.
Filming Mother/Android was an intimate experience for Tomlin, for all the reasons he’s already mentioned as well as the simple fact he grew up near its shooting locations. Adopted by an American couple, Tomlin was raised in Massachusetts, in a tiny town in the state’s North Quabbin region that abuts its largest reservoir and is surrounded by acres of walking trails and wilderness. His years spent there informed the decision to set Mother/Android so predominantly in nature.
A film obsessive from an early age, Tomlin interned for producer John Hart on Revolutionary Road when he was just 17, later heading to AFI film school with the ambition to make his own movies. After graduating in 2014, he found himself changing tacks.
“I broke in as a screenwriter,” says Tomlin. “That was after having some painful years of trying to get a movie made and then realizing nobody wants you to do this.” Instead, Tomlin fell back on writing, churning out around 10 scripts a year throughout his 20s and eventually carving out a successful career that’s involved everything from selling original specs (be on the lookout for his Orwellian 2084 from Paramount) to working on major Hollywood blockbusters like The Batman.
“Writing doesn't involve anybody's permission,” he says. “Directing involves everybody's permission.” And yet, as his career took off, Tomlin kept asking studio executives which project they’d be interested in making with him in the director’s chair. “I wrote a lot of different scripts that could have been my first, and Hollywood made it a Goldilocks situation,” he recalls — that one’s too big, this one’s too small, and so on.
Mother/Android was the right fit, and Tomlin thinks it’s because the script cut so close to the bone. The Batman director Matt Reeves, who produced Mother/Android, was most influential in encouraging Tomlin to travel to such an emotional place.
Reimagining The Batman
Tomlin is full of praise for Reeves’ previous efforts, from Cloverfield to the Planet of the Apes movies, all of which he says were enriched by the filmmaker’s personal connection to the material. The two have been linked since it was first revealed that they secretly collaborated on The Batman a little over two years ago. Though he was initially credited as a co-writer, Tomlin has not retained that title as the film heads toward release, with novelist Peter Craig now credited as a co-writer alongside Reeves.
Though Tomlin clearly contributed to The Batman, he doesn’t harbor any bad blood over the matter. “Ultimately, I ended up not getting credit on The Batman,” confirms Tomlin. “I want to put it over there to the side and say, ‘I had a great time working with Matt and got to learn a lot from him. But that movie is his movie.’”
What about Batman: The Imposter, the recent DC comic on which Tomlin served as lead writer? “That’s all mine,” he says, flashing a quick smile. In the three-issue series, published through DC’s edgier Black Label imprint, Bruce Wayne is only a year or two into his crime-fighting exploits when another vigilante begins to move within the shadows, posing as Batman and killing criminals live and on tape.
Tomlin locked down the gig after writing on The Batman and pitching DC executives a comic tonally aligned with the film. He says he’s learned a lot throughout the multi-year process of ushering in the Dark Knight’s next chapter.
“The thing that is very apparent when you work with a character like Batman is there are expectations for it to feel and look like a certain thing,” he says. “You look at it, and you have to say, ‘What’s holy? What things are completely untouchable?’ It’s a long list. But you find that, if you talk to enough people, there are discrepancies in what that list is.”
“I don’t want to make rides”
Going through this process is essential when working with any pre-existing IP, he says, also bringing up the Terminator anime series he’s working on for Netflix and Skydance.
“The same calculus has come in,” he explains. “I know what people want, and I know what people expect. But people will get angry with you if you just give them what they want. Because what they want is what they’ve already seen. They don’t know what they want on some level because what they want is to be surprised — but they still want the surprise to feel good.”
Tricky, right? Tomlin avoids psyching himself out by remembering he’s an audience member, too: “What do I want? If I want it, and it feels true, chances are that other people are going to want it too. You just have to trust that.”
Okay, then: what do you want, Mattson Tomlin? “Emotion,” he says, stressing the word, feeling it. “When it’s just scenes of action — and we’re in this technological place where you can do anything, and there are no more limits in what can be achieved visually — scope and scale do not impress anybody.”
Instead, the answer is to invest in more personal stories. “I want depth of emotion, rock-solid characters, and a real story that is going to move people, challenge them, and make them think,” he explains. After Mother/Android, that’s where Tomlin sees himself headed.
“I just want to go deeper,” he says. “I stand by all my choices in Mother/Android. It was the first film, and I’m tremendously proud of what I managed to do with it. Now, my thinking is around whether I can do this on a bigger scale.”
Tomlin is hard at work on more writing projects, including a Terminator series and Mega-Man movie for Netflix that Project Power’s Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman co-wrote and planned to direct. But he already knows what his next directorial project will be. Without revealing details, Tomlin says audiences can expect another big genre film, “not androids or robots, but in a genre space of something we all know and recognize.”
He’s currently focusing his efforts on exploring the history of this chosen space, figuring out how he can tweak it and push it into “a new zone so that it puts people back on their heels,” he says.
“I know I can utilize science-fiction in this way, to keep telling personal stories,” Tomlin adds. “I don’t want to make rides. That’s really it for me. A lot of that just comes from the same thing I've been rambling on about, of characters and really giving it a soul and having something to say. Can I keep doing that in a bigger, more successful, more piercing way? That’s going to be the warpath I’m on for a while.”
Mother/Android is now streaming on Hulu.