Exclusive: director J.D. Dillard reveals how Star Wars and Bad Robot inspired Sleight

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Jan 8, 2019, 11:00 AM EST (Updated)

Not everyone can get J.J. Abrams to tweet to the world about their directorial debut...

But that's the good fortune of J.D. Dillard, who finds his first theatrical endeavor receiving Abrams' personal endorsement, along with a positive score on Rotten Tomatoes. As it turns out, Dillard worked for Abrams and Bad Robot when that team went to Europe to lens Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it's not hyperbole to say that it changed Dillard's life.

Up to that point, Dillard and his writing partner, Alex Theurer, had been toiling over their scripts to get a foot in the door as screenwriters or TV writers. But after The Force Awakens, Dillard returned to the U.S. with the drive to make something on their own, as a concrete calling card to show Hollywood what they can do. That something became Sleight, which was shot over 16 days in Los Angeles in the summer of 2015 featuring Jacob Latimore, Dulé Hill, and Seychelle Gabriel. The result is an engaging mash-up that's part crime drama, street magic exploration, intimate character study, with a dash of nerdy superhero origin story.

Dillard got on the phone with us for an exclusive talk about the inspiration for Sleight, how he pulled off such a tight production schedule, and if he'd like to launch Sleight into its own franchise.

Where did the kernel of the idea for Sleight come from?

Sleight's conception grew from two seeds. On one side, there was the frustration that we had been "writers" for awhile and we were swinging after jobs that were out of our experience, and maybe had no business at the time chasing. And then my end, from a more directorial point of view, I moved back to the U.S. post Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and to be able to be a fly on the wall for as long as I was with one of my favorite directors, directing for my favorite film franchise, that left an impression. It lit the pilot light of we have to make something. I really wanted to distill whatever that transformative experience, of watching a movie like that get made, into something that's ours and plays to the things we want to.

Was Sleight a script you had already written?

Sleight was something we had written as a short film first. As technology continues to get cheaper, it made so much less sense to try to get $50k for a short, when for two to four times more than that, you can shoot a feature which is a much better calling card. And Sleight was in our backyard and it's grounded. A lot of writing we were doing was giant, world-building. This was something we could do ourselves and not be impossible to shoot on our own.

You said at the screening I attended that the film includes everything you love: superhero stories, street magic, character drama, etc...were those layers added to expand the short story?

Yes. We peppered in all the other things like the love of magic, and telling a story with diverse leads where the heart of the story isn't about being diverse. It was about putting people who normally aren't in those roles, in those roles, and that shades the point of view.

There's a lot to balance in the story, but it works. Was that difficult to figure out in the writing?

We wanted to make something mixed genre with magic, crime, and a romantic and familial story. Very early on we realized if one of these pieces is too complicated, it muddies the whole movie. There came a point where we really cleaned up each major point of the story. That worked for us. It's not the most original crime, or coming-of-age story, but the most fun for us was blending these stories.

Bo is such a great character, someone the audience roots for from the start. Was he always drawn that way or did some of that come out of casting Jacob?

We met halfway with Jacob on that. The great thing about Jacob, and the most important part in casting Bo, was he needed to be a chameleon. He needed able to have the charm to talk to Holly (Gabriel), and the charisma when he was performing, and the street savvy when talking to the drug guys, and the tender soul when talking to his sister (Storm Reid). He also needed to come off as a really smart guy because he's an engineer. Some people can hit only one of those strands, so it was a peculiar problem to have someone hit all of those character categories. And the black kid selling dope is a trope we are very aware of, but the goal in building Bo -- and this is why the movie starts with him bailing on the scholarship for something circumstantial -- is to show that there are people who are doing bad things, but this is how you get there.

There's a great scene where Bo is explaining the origins of one of his more incredible tricks to Holly. What was the inspiration for that moment?

The inspiration was seeing David Blaine's stake-through-the-hand trick. We wanted to illustrate the sacrifice for art, and if you're not in love with that thing, sometimes it can be hard to illustrate to people because what Bo is doing is definitely not safe. It's what separates Bo from others, but not in a scary, ego way.

Framing magic on film is tricky because so much can be manipulated for the audience. How did you treat shooting the magic sequences?

In a number of those magic scenes, the shot ends on Bo and not the reaction. We're trying to sell that he loves this, because then we understand why he's doing this. Magic is more about who he is, rather than creating a movie with magic that hasn't been seen before.

Shooting a first film on location in Los Angeles over 16 days would be daunting for anyone. How did you approach it?

You save a lot of time when you are collaborative because you aren't f-ing up by not listening to anybody. (Laughs) Like when Bo steals a phone in the bathroom, that was going to be a fight that Bo started. But our stunt coordinator, and the guy playing the dealer, said wouldn't he be a little slimy in getting it, because he wouldn't be able to fight this dude? And I said yeah, and then it was twice as quick to shoot. We also didn't have the resources to professionally storyboard the movie. When I re-watch Sleight now, if we had more than 16 days, I know there could have been more time for atmosphere. But the piece that helped keep the vision clean the entire time is that we had editorial on set, and they were always within 50 yards of where were shooting. I was seeing assemblies of scenes before I even saw dailies so we could build reshoots into the day.

In the last act, when you reveal what Bo's been doing via his magic and engineering skills, you kept it very grounded rather than CGI heavy. Was that a choice, or mandated by budget?

That was one of the first things we had to talk about when we were working out the budget. We did as much as we could practically. There is only one entirely CG element in the entire film, and beyond that it's wire removal. It came down to most of the magic being performed is magic that can be performed. As we reached the last part of the movie, we relied on a wider breadth of tools. The last conflict is our most sound designed section of the film because we could imply the scale of what Bo was doing with the house rattling. But in the dailies, all you see are us flicking the lights. (Laughs)

You leave the audience with an enigmatic moment to ponder when the credits role. What was your mindset with that choice?

In terms of the decision to end it the way we ended it, there was a little inspiration coming from Whiplash giving something emotionally conclusive but still being abrupt. We weren't trying to be too winky-winky about it. But when making a movie for not that much money, implying something like this increases the scale of your film as it ends, which I think is a fun thing for a story like this. Knowing there is a bigger story that looks very grounded, this is our opportunity to take our own swing at the Marvels and DCs. We can say that not only giant stories can go on to have a bigger part two.

So if Sleight succeeds in theaters, could we see more stories about Bo?

We think there is plenty to mine in what Bo gets into after this, but at the same time, we're clear it's not important to know what the next chapter is.

Sleight opened in theaters last weekend.