J.D. Dillard is a screenwriter and director based in Los Angeles. After spending months on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens working as an assistant to J.J. Abrams and his family, Dillard wrote the screenplay for his first feature, Sleight, along ...
Filmmaker J.D. Dillard (The Verge)
J.D. Dillard is a screenwriter and director based in Los Angeles. After spending months on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens working as an assistant to J.J. Abrams and his family, Dillard wrote the screenplay for his first feature, Sleight, along with his writing partner Alex Theurer. In Sleight, Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a young street magician who becomes entangled in the L.A. drug trade after his parents die, leaving him to care for his little sister.
Slight is a genuinely fresh debut, an audacious fusion of crime thriller, family melodrama and superhero origin story. The film premiered to heavy buzz at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, before it was promptly snatched up for distribution by Blumhouse Tilt and WWE Studios. It opened to positive reviews, and is now playing nationwide.
Dillard is currently on location in Fiji shooting his next film, a survival-horror thriller called Sweetheart, also for Blumhouse. As with all Blum projects, details about the film are being kept tightly under wraps.
Parade recently spoke with Dillard about Sleight, finding his voice and telling familiar stories from new perspectives.
One thing I don’t want to do is put Sleight in any kind of a box, because one of the best things about the film is that it can be entertaining and enjoyable for just about anybody. Is it true that you were inspired to make the film while you were working on Star Wars?
In a matter of speaking. In working in such close proximity to one of my favorite filmmakers making the next installment of my favorite film franchise, it certainly started some sort of fire in me to want to get something made. My writing partner, Alex [Theurer] and I had been doing the struggling writer thing for a number of years, and after a while we just really wanted to see actors say the words we were writing, and see scenes come together on screen. I guess that’s where the tinder was lit to go out and shoot something.
Is it true that Sleight was made for just $250,000?
Yes, all things considered, we are a micro-budget feature. We’re operating in a completely different space than most films that have a foot in this genre.
Jacob Latimore in Sleight
Where does your fascination with magic come from?
I’d grown up a magician, at varying levels of intensity. I was obsessed with card tricks, and sleight of hand. I would spend all of my birthday and Christmas money on getting new tricks. My love of the art has certainly been there for a long time. In terms of this story, Alex and I had written it as a short film years ago, which was something we weren’t able to get produced. Alex and I settled on this idea that there was something cool about melding street magic with street crime—there were more than a few points of intersection with those two worlds. Weirdly, they utilize similar skill sets. It was just a fun combination to start looking for a story.
Some critics and observers have made connections between Sleight and two other popular recent films: Get Out was made on a very small budget and became a hit. Moonlight, like Sleight, was about characters who have generally been relegated to the fringes of movies in the past. Do you think mainstream tastes and what’s considered popular entertainment might be changing?
I would certainly hope so. All three of those movies are very different. One of the incredible things that Moonlight does is humanize characters who we’ve seen flashes of before to such a serious degree. To see what Moonlight and Get Out have done in the past year has been truly inspiring. In terms of my own approach to diversity in film—in Sleight having a voice, and subsequently, hopefully giving me one a little bit as well, I’m definitely thinking about what my contribution to this conversation is. I really want to use genre to contribute to that conversation. Not every story needs to be innately about the black experience, but really just making movies with different people and different faces. I think it is important for people to see flashes of things that are familiar to them, but led by people of color, or by women… flashes of stories that are familiar but through a point of view that you’re maybe a little less accustomed to. With genre specifically, that is something that I am working toward figuring out.
It’s really fresh what you’re doing with genre. Sleight operates on many levels—a melodrama, a superhero origin story, a crime saga…
We would never tout Sleight to be the most original crime thriller, or the most original origin story, or the most original love story, but the joy for us in making the movie was blending pieces that aren’t often blended, and then setting them in places they’re not often set. It ended up being sort of an exercise in genre plate-spinning.
It’s somewhat revolutionary to give characters like this depth and humanity. Historically, characters like Bo are just kind of tragic side characters.
It felt like had an opportunity to take a piece of cultural iconography that we have seen both victimized and vilified—the black kid in the hoodie—to just reappropriate that for a moment, and make that kid a hero. One thing that I’ve always found interesting about that image is, you look from behind, and there’s no difference between the kid in the hoodie, and Luke Skywalker. The hero from that point of view really can look the same, so why not take that image and do something a little more positive with it?
Jacob Latimore and Seychelle Gabriel in Sleight
One of many things I love about the film is how complex Bo is. A big reason that character is so compelling is obviously Jacob Latimore’s performance. He is so good in this movie.
Yeah, he’s incredible, man (he laughs).
How did Jacob get involved? Were you familiar with him before you were casting the film?
I actually wasn’t. He came in and read for the part. He has this incredible quality—this chameleon-like quality where he can feel at home in a number of different environments. That was important for Bo. We needed someone charismatic to be performing magic in front of people, but then tender enough to be speaking with his little sister, then to talk about science, also to jump into the crime world and not just seem like a total square. As subtle as Jacob’s performance often is, it is always navigating about one of five worlds that he lives in. There’s an effortlessness that Jacob brought to it that made Jacob feel real to me pretty quickly.
It must say something about how you work with actors that all of the performances in the film are outstanding. Dulé Hill is inspired in the role of drug kingpin Angelo. How did he become a part of the film?
Dulé Hill was a name on our list very early on. I think in taking a guy like Dulé and putting him in this role, it really helps substantiate Bo’s story. If Angelo was a grill-wearing, guacamole stand gangbanger, we’d have a hard time buying that Bo had stuck his toe into this world thinking that he could keep the rest of his foot out. A sort of friendly, charismatic, down-to-earth approach really made sense for Angelo. Bo would be smarter than this if Angelo were completely unsavory right off the bat. You definitely want a villain that makes sense, even if you hate what they’re doing, not a mustache-twirler.
Dulé Hill in Sleight
The depiction of the drug trade in Sleight makes for very absorbing drama. Why don’t you think we see more films about this world?
It’s a big part of L.A.’s social scene, and Bo is character you would see at the fringe of that, a guy who is there to provide a service. It’s not some insidious underworld. It was very important for us to not put Bo in South Central or in an overtly scary housing or neighborhood situation. Until insane and unfortunate circumstances hit him and his family, he was just part of a normal, lower middle class family. Bo’s whole motivation is less to get out of the ghetto, and more to just maintain the life his sister is accustomed to.
Will we see a Sleight sequel?
We wanted to leave the movie open for the possibility of that. It’ll be great to see what the appetite for that is. There are so many ways we would love to come back into this story, and to expand these characters.
Storm Reid and Jacob Latimore in Sleight
Is there anything you can tell us about your next film, Sweetheart?
Not much! We’re on location for that right now, with Kiersey Clemons (Dope, Justice League) and Emory Cohen (Brooklyn). Like Sleight, this movie has just been an amalgamation of a lot of things that I love. It’s a hair more in the horror direction. Like with Sleight, we’re doing our best to keep our eyes and our hearts on the drama first, and then let the genre elements trickle in. I’m really excited to slowly start sharing with people as we put this thing together.
Sleight is now playing in theaters nationwide. You can read Parade’s review of the film here.
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