As superhero films get bigger, louder, and more dominant on international screens, there’s been an increasing wave of excitement over smaller hero films — movies that tap into similar themes of valor, sacrifice, and power, without prioritizing explosions and the same old world-ending threats. That explains some of the early response to J.D. Dillard’s Sleight, a shoestring-budgeted indie film about Bo Wolfe, a black street magician (rapper and Collateral Beauty actor Jacob Latimore) navigating the L.A. drug-dealing scene and drawing on his magic and engineering skills to take care of his little sister after their mother’s death. Sleight has been widely billed as a small-scale superhero origin story, but it’s also a family story about someone who’s so determined to survive that he makes choices other people wouldn’t — physical choices at first, then moral ones.
Director J.D. Dillard was a receptionist at J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company when he started planning Sleight with co-writer Alex Theurer. His position there led him to a tech credit on Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which inspired him find the funding to shoot his own film through friends at Diablo Entertainment, then get Sleight picked up by Blumhouse Productions, the company backing Get Out, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, and other recent small-scale horror hits. As Sleight’s release approaches, I talked to Dillard, who’s currently shooting his next movie, Sweetheart, in New Zealand. “If you were to tell me a year and a half ago that I’d miss the entire theatrical run of my first film because I was shooting another one, I would not believe you at all,” he says. “That’s certainly not a problem any of my friends are empathetic to.” Dillard had a lot to say about whether Sleight should be approached as a hero movie, what Force Awakens taught him, and where crime and street magic meet.
The advance PR calls Sleight a superhero origin story, but is that how you think of it? Does that description give viewers the right expectations?
It’s funny, it’s certainly a genre-stamp that hit the movie after we made it. When Alex and I sat down to put this thing together, it was very much born of wanting to hint at elements within these genres that we are really obsessed with. But more than identifying as an origin story, for us it was a fun exercise in plate-spinning, to have a little space to tell a crime story, a street-magic story stemming from my own obsession and practice of that art form. And there’s family, and a little bit of a love story, and a natural affinity toward science fiction. As Sleight is being called a superhero origin story, we completely see and understand that. But its intent was a little less specific.
An origin story implies an ongoing story. Do you see this as a potentially ongoing series?
For sure. Especially looking at how the movie ends, there is certainly some trajectory to transition to a larger story. But our intent in ending the movie the way it is was more for implied scale. We knew going into this film how little money we had, so we hint at things off-camera, hint at things in the future. It seemed like a really good way to remind our audience that the world that we’re in has some capacity for scale.
If someone said, “This character should be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let’s do a $300 million sequel,” would you? Or can Bo’s story only can be told at this small scale?
It would be an interesting and strange conversation to add that kind of financial scale to Sleight. We want the budgets of the things we work on to match the needs of the movie. I don’t think the next step would have to be that gigantic. Sleight is bringing some of these superhero pieces down to the most elemental, face-value, practical level. We wouldn’t want it to be so big that we betray what the DNA of Sleight is to begin with.
What were the most important elements for you in building Bo?
There’s so much of myself in Bo, in that he’s obsessed with technology, and can take apart computers and rebuild electronics, coupled with this specific obsession with card magic. I dove into my own interests as Alex and I put this story together. And then on the other side, very early on, Alex and I found this cool, natural relationship between the skill sets of street magic and crime. There’s quite a bit of crossover in that Venn diagram of what would potentially make you good at either.
What kinds of skills are you thinking of?
Both require a certain level of deception, and the constant maintenance of various personality traits. The thing that is so weird about magic is, it’s really not a reach to call it professional lying. That’s also true for crime, and I find a lot of that in filmmaking as well. [Laughs] It’s deception, the ability to be a chameleon, to be different things to different people when you need to. It is creating allure for something. There’s a salesmanship to Bo. And then there is the up-close-and-personal faux-empathetic aspect. I think it all is under the umbrella of deceit. In looking for a story we could tell about a magician, we quickly realized that there could be a few places where these stories intersect, if we also were planning a story about a crime.
What was your role on Star Wars: The Force Awakens? What did you learn that you put into play here?
“Production and technical services” is a great catch-all term for a lot of us who work on movies in ways that are hard to categorize. I ended up working for J.J. Abrams and his family on that movie. One incredible side effect was, I got to be a fly on the wall, watching my favorite film franchise come to life at the hands of one of my favorite filmmakers. It wasn’t really about specific things I was learning day-to-day. On the one side, I don’t think there is anything bigger that could be demystified for me. Coming from someone with a Star Wars tattoo, and given that Star Wars is the sole reason I’m in the business to begin with, I think to be up close to a film like that, both in its actual scale, and then the scale that it occupies in my own headspace and my own influence, it was really incredible to see that all movies are kind of the same.
No matter how many zeroes are at the end of the budget, you’re still asking the same questions, you’re still worried about the same things. You still want people to care about this moment. You still want this shot to come through cleanly. And it doesn’t matter if there are eight people on set, or 800. Ultimately, you’re still trying to fit a specific thing into a specifically crafted widescreen box, and you want people to feel something. So I think just realizing that even a movie like that isn’t born of some immaculate conception. It is compromise and evolution. It really is enough to give you agency to go make something, because you just realize that even in your dream version of making a film like that, you’re still going to just be figuring it out.
It was never writing a Buzzfeed article, “10 great things J.J. does that I would like to do!” It was a much more abstract experience. He really showed me the leadership component of filmmaking. For a year, you’re running a business, where you have employees with lives and personalities and passions that you’re navigating. Just to see how he valued other people creatively and personally, that is something I could practically learn from. It’s a healthy mindset to be in. It’s the best ideology.
Making Bo a role model and a drug-dealer seems potentially controversial, but it also speaks to his lack of options as a teenager trying to support his sister, and living without a safety net. But you don’t foreground the social issues of his choices. You don’t make it political. Was it important to you to not spell anything out too much?
Obviously, it’s a trope that’s unfortunately very recognizable for black characters in movies, in having something to do with street-level drugs and committing crimes. Part of the goal in centering ourselves in that world was to find a different, empathetic way into a trope that’s maybe a little too familiar. By centering it on this kid who is brilliant and artistic and has a scholarship going for him, we’re showing that a fall into this world really could happen to anyone. If everything you hold dear slowly started unraveling and you had massive responsibility, and part of that responsibility is shielding someone you care about from even knowing that this is going on… There are certain sacrifices we make to take care of the people around us. We don’t just want to paint that familiar iconography. We wanted to find a different way into it, then [go] past it.
And if you read between the lines in Sleight, there’s enough evidence that we’re not fully falling into the trope, I would hope. Bo’s neighborhood is actually not bad. He’s not in a crime-infested, impoverished area. He’s trying to keep his sister in the environment she’s comfortable in. But also, what he does is a very different brand of drug-dealing, one less associated with the urban crime story. When you look at a show like High Maintenance — if we had another act to talk about Bo’s clientele, these are the kinds of stories we would see. Which hints why Bo would consider selling drugs in the first place. He’s savvy enough to not end up on the corner selling dope. And his boss, Angelo, at first glance, isn’t a gun-toting gang-banger. Bo is making an educated compromise, something he thinks he can keep at arm’s distance.
Your portrayal of the L.A. drug-dealing scene falls far outside the usual film and TV clichés. It’s unusually specific, especially in the way you portray Angelo. What are you drawing from here?
Being a young person in L.A. who has certainly tried to maintain some semblance of a social life the past few years… When somebody wants molly, this is the personality you see. It’s certainly a criminal thing, but the culture surrounding it is very not criminal. It’s kind of personable and relatable, like, “Oh yeah, blah-blah is coming around if you want anything.” That is just the nature of this specific brand of so-called “service.” This is the party-drug culture in Los Angeles. While still illegal, the culture surrounding it seems tame and relatable and down-to-earth. It seems easy. Placing Bo within that, and also wanting to remind the audience that he is smart and he is only trying to put one toe into this, this seemed like the easiest venue and the easiest route for him to participate.
You’ve cited Unbreakable and Chronicle as proof that you can do this kind of low-key superhero movie, but did any comic books figure in your inspirations?
My comic-book obsession is specifically not in the superhero universe, which is kind of peculiar. I’m a huge fan of Brian Wood. The comic book DMZ is my favorite, favorite, favorite comic series. And all the other things I read are sort of adjacent to the superhero world. So Chew is something I love, and 100 Bullets, and Y: The Last Man. I think if you look at Sleight and these comics I’m obsessed with, there is a kind of cool relationship in the not-superheroes side of it, in that these are sort of genre-adjacent stories, while not overtly superhero. While Sleight could just as easily be a superhero story, I think it could, on the complete opposite side of things, be “genre-adjacent.” Instead of being boldly a superhero story, it’s in that in-between place.
Because the goal was not to overtly create a superhero movie, but more so a coming-of-age story about balancing your passion with the pragmatic needs of life. The inspirations weren’t necessarily starting with superhero material.
Superhero comics are going through such a diversity struggle right now. Did you feel a push to bring more stories about black lives into the canon?
A thousand percent. It was definitely by design that we were telling a genre story that centered on characters of color. Science fiction rarely centers on black characters, so this is me carving out my hopeful contribution to that conversation. We really do want to tell stories with different faces. It doesn’t always need to be about “the black experience.” Part of the route for creating empathy is to not necessarily alienate the audience by putting the story solely in someone’s very specific experience.
My approach for a lot of the things Alex and I are writing is finding the truth in what people do. The case could be made that Bo could be swapped out with someone of any race, and the story would completely still make sense. That’s why the specific drug dealing he’s doing, and the specific neighborhood he’s living in [are important]. This isn’t the story of the black experience, it’s a story about making sacrifices to take care of the people you care about. For me, there are plenty of stories surrounding the black experience. The movie I’m making now, Sweetheart, is meant as a really cool survival-horror thriller that has a different face, a different lead. It doesn’t need to be completely about the experience of being black. It’s about what it means to be a young woman who’s discovering who she is. And for me, that does so much work in so many different directions. It’s not better or worse than a story about civil rights, or slavery, or Chi-Raq. It’s just a different route toward building empathy.
When you talk about sacrifices — Bo’s making a huge physical sacrifice for his magic. That kept bringing me back to The Prestige, and its philosophy about what you have to give up to be a convincing magician. Was that a touchstone?
Not exactly. It’s so weird to admit how little reference we pulled from other movies about magic. Part of that was just because we wanted to carve new territory. Most of the conversation, and the magic tricks we used, came from my own experience and love of performing. The sacrifice Bo makes — we wanted it to manifest physically. We wanted something an outsider could look at and say, “I don’t get it.” It’s one thing to spend all your time performing, and have other people say, “Well, maybe you should also spend time on X, Y, and Z.” It’s another thing for there to be a degree of self-harm involved. That was just the alienation we needed for Bo, for other people around him to not understand his love and passion specifically. We gave him the tools to freak people out a little.
What was it like tackling the special effects you wanted on such a shoestring budget?
It’d be one thing if we wrote the script and then were told, “Okay, now you have to shoot this for $10.” “Okay, how do we do that? How do we take this trick we planned and make it work?” Instead, we knew we had $10 at the outset, so we could plan how we were showing things. There’s only one true CG shot, because that’s all we could afford. Everything else is a combination of plates and digital removal. If you saw the behind-the-scenes images of Sleight, it’d really remind you of making movies in high school. It’s a small group of us huddled around with props floating from green sticks, hanging from nearly invisible strings. It looks incredibly lo-fi, but we knew that was what we had to do.
So it just took a lot of testing to see how these things would play on camera. We used shoestrings and bubblegum to hold most of these things together, and it was just a question of how to make that fit best on camera. The budget concessions are like, “It might have been cooler to shoot in this club, not that club. To get this location, not that location.” But those are all minor. Even up to where the movie ends, we told ourselves, “We can hint toward how big this story can get, but that’ll be plenty for us. That’ll be satisfying and satiating, just to let you know ‘This story could get big.’”