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Sleight director J.D. Dillard talks about his proto-superhero Sundance debut

'We have a cast of characters that we don't see as often in this genre.'

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

"It's just so trippy. It's so trippy." J.D. Dillard is still processing the fact that he's at Sundance — and that he's finished his debut feature film, Sleight, and that it premiered to ecstatic cheers this weekend. "It's so validating to have this thing that you've been working on — it's just weird when people respond to it," he says. "There's just something so weird about having someone be like, 'hey, I saw it, and I dug it.'"

Dillard's an easy guy to root for. It wasn't too long ago that he was working as a receptionist at Bad Robot, while chasing development deals on big-budget science fiction projects. But about this time last year, he and his writing partner Alex Theurer started to get the itch — they were tired of staring at Final Draft all day, and they just had to make something.

The result is Sleight, a clever South LA adventure that plays out like the origin story of a Tony Stark-type self-built superhero. Jacob Latimore plays Bo, a whiz kid street magician who turns to drug dealing to take care of his little sister. But his true passion is magic, and his drive to be the best leads him to make some risky-at-best body modifications that end up coming in handy when the big bad drug dealer in town kidnaps his sister.

There's a certain auspiciousness around films like Sleight at Sundance. Not long ago, low budget genre films were outliers at festivals like Sundance; now they're often seen as launching pads for directors who go on to helm films for Marvel and Lucasfilm. (Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed premiered here in 2012.) And Dillard — who has a Boba Fett tattoo on his arm, by the way — says that thought has definitely crossed his mind. But for right now, Dillard's just thrilled to have his film out in the world, and to have put his own spin and voice on a time-tested genre. I spoke with him about combining the personal with the fantastical, and the joys of working quickly.

Sleight Blumhouse Productions

Jacob Latimore in Sleight. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Emily Yoshida: I think the most surprising thing for me in your post-film Q&A was that you started learning magic when you were a kid, just like Bo. Were there any other details in the film that you drew from your own upbringing?

J.D. Dillard: It kind of varies, you know. Bo's unseen relationship with his mom was something that I kind of pulled from personal experience. At the end of 2014, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. And she's good and everything's great, and she's beat it and we put it behind us. But — not to be a fatalist, but you find yourself asking questions you'd never asked yourself before. What your role in your own family is. Not that my situation would be me suddenly having to raise my sisters, but still, there are just those questions — what if some crazy news like that hits you?

There's [also the issue of] finding that balance between what you're passionate about and the pragmatism you need to just live a functional life. That's a hard thing to figure out. At what point does real life supersede what you love? As much fun as filmmaking has been for the past two years, as a writer first and foremost and directing smaller things, it hasn't been a sustainable career. And I'm always getting caught in that self-questioning, like, "Am I doing the right thing?" Just because you know, real life can very easily cloud your passion.

"Something small enough that somebody would be crazy enough to let us do it."

A lot of people assume that once someone has their first film at Sundance, they have it all figured out. But there are usually long and windy roads to get there. How did you originally get your start in the industry?

Alex and I had been writers for a little bit, that was our point of entry. We had a few things developed, and were chasing opening writing assignments at different places. I think we were just learning how to be working writers. We quickly realized that one of the most valuable things you can do is just write yourself something. And we've [always had] better reactions to our work if it's just a thing we created from thin air.

So at the beginning of 2015, we were just starving to get out of the completely hypothetical and theoretical side of writing, where, you know, you never see actors say your words, you never see scenes come to life, and you're just piling up pages and pages of script and you don't get to see anything. We were just becoming frustrated with that. We realized that we just had to write something that was small enough that somebody would be crazy enough to let us do it. Because the stuff that we tend to write is much bigger, and is kind of giant science fiction and all of that, and there's no one in hell who would ever just let me direct that or let me produce that without having big directing credits already.

The directing thing was never an immediate goal or game plan. That was one of those things in my head, just like, the 15-year plan. Like, yeah — I'll write big studio movies for 10 years and then eventually they'll trust me to direct a smaller budget movie that I've written. That, loosely, was the plan in my head. But I was hungry to just see scenes come to life — to see an actual movie come together.

How did you get funding, and get the film off the ground? The way you spoke about it in the Q&A made it sound like it was actually a pretty quick process.

Yeah — just because of what we're used to, getting the movie off the ground was actually kind of a whirlwind. So, Eric Fleischman, who runs Diablo [Entertainment] with his partner Sean Tabibian, I knew through friends of friends. And in the beginning of the year, when I was kind of whispering to my other friends in the business, "Yeah, I think we're going to try to shoot something this year," they mentioned that I should talk to Eric, because he had built up this production company. They have private equity, and they essentially bankroll four, five, six microbudget movies a year. They tend to be pretty aggressively genre movies, which ours didn't completely fit into, but it still seemed like it would be worth having the conversation.

And so we pitched them Sleight, which they were very into. And since it is all low budget, there isn't really money for development or anything like that, so it was essentially just a handshake agreement; like, if you write the script, we'll shoot it. So Alex and I put the script together in about a week — it previously had been a short script that we had made together two years ago, so we kind of knew the world, and we knew the character a little bit. So we put the script together in about a week, and probably the next few weeks were just, sharing it with friends, and getting reads from people we trust and care about. Really trying to hone it. After that first sit down, we brought [Eric and Sean] the script, and they were like, "Cool. July 21st." And that was kinda it.

It seems like it would be a smart thing, on their end, to invest in people who are making genre films at that kind of budget — just given the track record of directors like Colin Trevorrow, Gareth Edwards, and Ryan Coogler.

"The experience we have as writers has taught us a lot about hype."

It's hard not to think about, because in genre, that track record can be so severe. It's just, the amount of times we've seen a director do something for $500k, and then the jump to $10-30 mil, and then the jump to $80 to $120 — it's happened enough times for it to kind of be a trend. Obviously, we can't think about that, nor do we. We just wanted to make sure Sleight was the best that it could be. Like I said before, the things that have always done the best for us are things that we really took time to carve out ourselves.

And while it's very, very sexy to look at those jobs, I think the experience we have on the writing side has taught us a lot about that kind of hype. Because we had a script, our first script was kind of the thing that put Alex and I on the map as writers, it made the hit list, which is this collection of the top specs of the year. And that was sort of our foray into the genre world. And then immediately after that, everything was [telling us] "you guys should take a swing" — at some big [property] that is tangentially related to the script we had written. And you know, that's — somehow that's just not as inspiring. As opposed to just creating something new, and getting people in tune with what your sensibility is and the kind of genre story you want to tell.

Now, obviously, if I could ever work in the Star Wars universe or one of these things, that would also mean a lot to me. We're not saying no to that by any means! [Laughs.] It's hard not to think about. It is the exciting thing about making genre for a price that people can take a risk on.

Sleight Blumhouse Productions

(Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Some of my favorite films at Sundance have had fantastical elements, but they're anchored by personal details. One of my favorite films here, The Lure, is a musical about mermaids, but it takes place in a nightclub in the '80s because the director's mother worked in a nightclub when she was growing up in the '80s. It seems there's something similar going on with the characters and the world of Sleight.

From a writing point of view, it's been funny to see some reviews of Sleight pop out, and obviously we have no experience at all with that. And just you know, it's a very weird thing. We're obviously not used to having things this public. Because writing tends to be more — you can't just go online and see if people liked the script you wrote.

"We just wanted to tell a story like this in our backyard."

The one interesting thing, though, in what some people are saying, is "there's nothing new here." This is something Alex and I have talked about a lot — there is validity to that for sure. Because what we were trying to do was take a bunch of things you kind of know and kind of expect, but the heart of it is that it's blended together. You know, the young black drug dealer is not a new thing. The smart kid in shitty circumstances is not a new thing. Pissing off the crime boss is not a new thing. None of those arcs are meant to be revolutionary. But it is taking a cast of characters that we don't see as often in that genre. And for us, just being genre writers, we just wanted to tell a story like this in our backyard. While it is fun to set stories on terraformed planets and isolated space stations and all this stuff — there's something to be said for taking just one baby subtle element of science fiction, and just letting the story unfold naturally from that. Just put that in the mix as well.

There's this attitude around sci-fi in which the concept is like a patent. And you have to have some completely new concept or conceit in the plot to make it valid as a science fiction story.

And there are a lot of movies that I love, that aren't doing anything special, from a narrative sense. But it is completely an exercise in execution. And that's part of the fun of filmmaking. We've seen so many stories a thousand times. But just to see it in a different light and see it through a different point of view, is kind of the fun of it.

What are you working on now? You come across as the type of filmmaker that's already onto the next project.

Yeah — we would love to be shooting again in the summer. I think in general, it would be really sweet to not shoot a movie in 17 days. [Laughs.] And not lock picture in 10 weeks, and not do music in a month and a half. But we definitely have woken up a new sense of creative urgency, now that we know it can come together that quickly, it doesn't mean that it always should, but the fact that it can kind of leaves no excuse not to keep working. And, you know, when you're this babyish in the industry, and you're still getting your name out there, I think it really behooves us to just keep working and to just get more under our belt. Already, watching Sleight in front of 400 people [had me thinking], "Cool, there are a lot of things here I like; there are a lot of things that I now feel like I could do better." And seeing how the audience responds — it's a completely different skill set to lock into.

It's not just you guys and your laptops anymore.

Exactly.