Sundance 2016: ‘Sleight’ Director JD Dillard and Producers Talk Magic and Mayhem


One of my favorite selections from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival was Sleight, director JD Dillard’s crowd-pleasing tale about a young street magician (Jacob Latimore) that runs afoul of a local drug lord (Dulé Hill) while trying to build a better life for himself, his new sweetheart (Seychelle Gabriel) and his little sister.

A few days before the world premiere of Sleight, I had the good fortune to sit down with Dillard and his co-writer Alex Theurer, along with producer Eric Fleischman, to talk about the inspiration behind the story, the crazy production schedule, and their feelings about getting into Sundance.

Let’s just start at the beginning. We’ve seen a million stories about kids in these kind of circumstances, trying to make ends meet by selling drugs. But to have the protagonist also be a street performer and have such a passion for something artistic is a really interesting choice. So where does the idea for something like this come from?

JD Dillard: Alex and I wrote it as a short a couple of years ago, and I’ve performed magic since I was 11, so there was that seed of interest in street magic. And when we were putting this short together, we realized there was some relation between the savviness of hustling on the street, and the type of savviness it takes to perform street magic. They intersect in more than one place, we felt, and this idea of crime and street magic crossing over just seemed like a fun idea to explore.

I think our first iteration of it was definitely a little more in line with…

Alex Theurer: The Wire.

JD Dillard: Yeah, a world that we’ve seen a lot, where it’s just a black kid selling drugs. As we tried to find the right tone for this, we distanced ourselves a little bit from that and wanted to hone in on the fact that this kid is educated, and this kid is an artist, and it really is just circumstance. The world around him isn’t bleak, he’s not in the projects – we’ve seen that story.

Alex and I come from the science fiction world, and that’s mostly what we like playing with, so within the street magic and the drug-dealing, we wanted to find that “plus one” element to add, that pulls it out of that world just a tiny bit.

And I really like that there is a science fiction element here, but it’s not the crux of the film. It reminds me a lot of Primer, where the sci-fi stuff slowly bleeds in over the course of the film, but so much of it is implied, stuff that you don’t really get to see. 

JD Dillard: And for us, that’s been one of the hardest things when trying to talk about the movie. It isn’t a drama, it isn’t a thriller, it isn’t science fiction, it isn’t a coming-of-age story – but at the same time, it’s all of those things. Look at Brick, as an example.

That’s one of my favorite films of all time. 

Alex Theurer: The great thing about Brick is that it proves there’s still new territory to explore there.

JD Dillard: Yeah, to sort of find and play around with. Because Brick is a coming-of-age story, but it’s also noir, and it’s also a crime thriller, and it’s also a drama. And I think Sleight, in that sort of Venn diagram of stories, sits in 6 of the 7 circles that Brick does. We’re not noir, but if you replace that with science fiction, we’re trying to do something similar.

But I think the mixed genre thing is very exciting, because even though we’re playing with the tropes of a lot of different genres, I hope that at any point during the movie, you never know which genre it is because we’re not telegraphic the next move.

Eric Fleischman: And it’s interesting too, because what we’re seeing in the independent space – and starting to filter into the studio system – is people asking for genre-bending and genre-blending, because audience members are getting smarter, so they want to give audiences something they haven’t seen before. And it’s very difficult to come up with something that fits between the cracks.

sundance 2016 sleight

Let’s talk about casting for a moment. As good as an idea for a film might be, you still need the right talent to bring it to life, and the casting in Sleight is solid across the board. 

Eric Fleischman: We found Jacob through the audition process. We all sort of agreed on him when we saw his tape, and then when we saw his chemistry read with Seychelle, we were like “this is Bo and Holly.”

JD Dillard: We really wanted to make sure that this cast was an accurate depiction of the world that we live in. Having a diverse cast wasn’t something we did to make a point, but it was about accurately reflecting our culture.

Alex Theurer: It’s contemporary LA.

JD Dillard: A lot of the types of characters we have in the movie are somewhat under-represented in genre films, with The Force Awakens being an exception to that. But it’s just fun to tell pieces of these genre stories in worlds that we don’t get to visit a lot. And we were unbelievably lucky with this cast. Every one of these roles feels lived-in and sincere, and they feel accurate. They feel like our friends, or people that we work with.

Eric Fleischman: From my side of things, what JD and Alex did so well – which a lot of filmmakers don’t do – is when you’re casting, you usually have an idea of who you want for each role. And before we finalized our deal with Dulé for Angelo, we had different ideas of who Angelo was. But as we were casting, JD and Alex took notice, and took into consideration which actors made sense with each other.

If you have a different person playing Bo, then maybe it doesn’t make sense to have Dulé as Angelo. So to have filmmakers like that who can listen to the vibrations of the film is very important, because then you wind up with a cast like this that collectively shines through.

JD Dillard: I remember sitting down with Dulé for the first time, and he got the character in a way that superceded how we got the character.

He’s astounding in this.

JD Dillard: He’s so good! And you know, Alex and I want to write bigger things, and when you’re dealing with genre, a huge problem with those kind of films is how thin the villain character tends to be. So from the get-go, we knew we couldn’t have this mustache-twirling “I’m a bad guy because I’m a bad guy” villain.

He’s actually super likable at first.

JD Dillard: And that’s the thing. When we first sat down with Dulé, in reading the script he saw that there was a way to look through this whole movie and see that Angelo is never wrong.

Alex Theurer: He’s just getting fucked with the whole time.

JD Dillard: Right, and that’s a very valid point of view for that character. We had pieces of that, but Dulé really brought clarity to the idea that Angelo is technically always in the right. You don’t need to buy into it – you already get why he’s making these decisions.

And when he said that, we realized that was the most interesting version of this character. Just like with Bo, and with trying to subvert this genre a little bit. Everyone’s intelligent, everyone dresses well, no one’s a drug addict.

Eric Fleischman: No one even does drugs in the movie, which is great, too.

And even when Bo is going out to make his rounds, he’s dealing to a really diverse selection of people. And that’s something you can buy into.

Alex Theurer: Yeah, and that’s LA.

JD Dillard: And that’s one of the steps we took early on, to sort of pull it away from The Wire or a network crime show: let’s have him sell to, for all intents and purposes, our friends and the people around us in LA, and make it a more contemporary and nuanced way to deal drugs, instead of standing on the corner and peddling to tweakers.

Eric Fleischman, Alex Theurer and JD Dillard at Sundance 2016.

Eric Fleischman, Alex Theurer and JD Dillard at Sundance 2016.

I want to make sure we talk about the production. What was the shooting schedule like?

JD Dillard: Awful.

Eric Fleischman: [laughs]

Alex Theurer: It was a strong schedule.

JD Dillard: 17 days.

Eric Fleischman: It started as 15, and expanded to 17.

Alex Theurer: We had an amazing crew, and we had a lot of people who were on their first feature.

JD Dillard: Everyone had worked in their department on other features, but no one had run the department on a feature.

Alex Theurer: There were a lot of people who really bought in, and then we broke them, basically. We made them pay. [laughs] It was really brutal, but we also had our post-production on set, so we were editing on the fly. Everything was really smooth.

JD Dillard: We got into a rhythm where I was watching assemblies of scenes before watching dailies – that’s how fast our editor and assistant editor were turning things over. And it really drastically shifted the culture of our set, for everyone to be able to see what we did yesterday, and be like “wow, this is what we’re doing.” And people get invested, they really feel like we’re doing it all together.

So when that notice comes in that Sleight has been accepted to Sundance, what’s the initial reaction?

Alex Theurer: Tears.

Eric Fleischman: I still have the voicemails.

JD Dillard: I didn’t actually pick up the phone, because I thought it was someone calling about my student loans.

Eric Fleischman: They called me, and I missed the call.

JD Dillard: And then Eric texted me and told me to pick up my phone. And then I was like “okay, definitely not student loans.

Eric Fleischman: Yeah, student loans taken care of.

JD Dillard: No, student loans not taken care of. But it’s just a tremendous sense of satisfaction that people are going to see it. And if someone likes the movie, that means something to us.

Eric Fleischman: That’s a win.

JD Dillard: So for anyone who sees the film and likes it and wants to spread the word, it’s so humbling, and Sundance is just a bigger version of that. It sort of breaks your brain.

Alex Theurer: Those reactions are still happening and evolving, hour by hour. This is the best case scenario of what could have happened when we made this movie. It’s not something that you really entertain, just for your own sanity.

JD Dillard: There’s something entirely different and more satisfying about making a movie in the dark, where you don’t have a following or a huge cast, and then you just send it somewhere, and someone says “we like this.” It’s a very different type of exciting.

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