Practical Magic: JD Dillard tells a coming-of-age superhero tale with 'Sleight'

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Out this weekend from BH Tilt and WWE Studios, JD Dillard’s Sleight is a superhero movie of a different sort than the blockbusters that have been winging their way into theatres with ever more regularity over the last few years. It’s small-scale, character-driven and lacking in supernatural shenanigans or sky portals. But to call Sleight a “superhero movie” is somewhat reductive; Dillard and co-writer Alex Theurer have crafted an audacious blend of genres that’s a little Chronicle, a little Iron Man, with some Now You See Me and Dope tossed in for good measure.

Up-and-comer Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a one-time teen engineering genius who had to give up on his college dreams so he could support his sister (Storm Reid, star of Ava DuVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time) after their mother passed away. As a street magician, he’s able to pick up some cash—not to mention meet a girl, Holly (Seychelle Gabriel)—but it’s not enough. So he deals drugs, too, selling small quantities in cars and on street corners, staying out of the way of the cops thanks to his sleight (boom) of hand skills. But then local kingpin Angelo (Dulé Hill) decides he wants Bo to pick up more responsibility, and… well… you’ll have to see the movie to see how that shakes out. Dillard took the time to answer some of FJI’s questions in advance of his debut feature’s Friday release.

Film Journal International (FJI): You mentioned in one interview that you and Alex wanted to “[keep] an eye on the female perspective” and “make sure things are not obnoxiously heteronormative.” Can you expand a bit on how that came into play with Sleight? Personally, I enjoyed how all the supporting female characters feel fleshed out, and Bo isn’t some macho dude.

JD Dillard (JD): I think in the normalization of the male-centric hero story, we’ve grown very accustomed to the “boy saves girl” narrative. In wanting to put someone in Bo’s life romantically, Alex and I talked a lot about who this young woman could and should be. Even though we had a protagonist with somewhat of a super power (certainly enough at his fingertips to “save the day”), we wanted to make sure we never painted his love interest as a damsel in distress. Holly comes from circumstances as problematic and complicated as Bo's, but it was important to us that she find her own way through. Bo and Holly needed to meet each other halfway. They needed to show each other that they both deserve more. Ultimately, all they do is help each other because it’s not Bo’s place to save her. Holly’s certainly strong enough to do it, but like Bo, she just needed someone to remind her of that.

Ultimately, I have two younger sisters and it’s really important to me that when they can see my work, they can see themselves in it.

FJI: Can you talk a bit about how you came to cast Dulé Hill? Angelo is against type for him—I’m used to thinking of him as Gus from “Psych,” so seeing him as a drug kingpin was a bit of a change of pace!

JD: Everything about Dulé made sense. I think if Angelo was cast as the stereotypical gangbanger with the Glock in his waistband, we’d immediately question Bo’s intelligence. We’d set Bo up as this very bright young man and honestly, he should know better than to get into business with a really scary guy. With Dulé and his portrayal of Angelo, the slippery slope is much more believable. In real life Dulé is the absolute nicest guy—I mean, to such a degree, if he asked me to sell drugs for him I probably would. When the two of us sat down, he brought up a really good point—so much so that Alex I went back into script to really substantiate: With Angelo’s ‘code,’ he doesn’t really do anything wrong in the film. He asks people for respect and everyone, including Bo, betrays the request. There’s something to be said about a bad guy who’s just asking for people to be considerate.

FJI: Can you talk a bit about using visual effects in how you staged the street magic scenes? For example, how much did you use visual effects vs. having Jacob actually learn how to do these tricks? For a film with a limited budget and schedule, was it tempting to go the “do it all in post” route?

JD: The magic element, like science fiction, the crime thriller, the love story, and the family story, was just one arena in which Bo operates. I’d hesitate to call it a “magic movie” because his performing is really there to show that he has a passion. Even in the way we shot these scenes, most tricks end on Bo—focusing more on his thrill of performing than the reactions of the crowd. I’ve grown up doing magic and knew our focus in getting Jacob ready should really be in building his comfort level with a deck of cards. We could shoot around the tricks, but he needed to seem like a natural when the deck is just sitting in his hands. As far as the VFX, we knew as we started the writing process how much we would be shooting it for. It really came down to spreading out what we knew we’d be able to afford, making sure VFX landed where they’d be most effective for the story. I think we only wound up with one CG shot in the movie—everything else became string removals, rotoscoping, etc. The great thing about magic is that it’s meant to be performed in front of the naked eye, so when we knew certain tricks might work in real life, we’d try to do them on camera. It was a hell of a lot cheaper.

FJI: One of the things I really enjoyed about Sleigh tis the way it brings different genres and tropes together in unexpected ways. Are there any other genre mashups you’d like to play with? Space opera/war drama/rom-com? Coming of age comedy/heist thriller/noir?

JD: Honestly, mixed genre is just my favorite thing. In searching for new ideas, Alex and I will often play around by talking about weird blends. What does Silence of the Lambs look like inside of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine? Can we tell a wonderfully nuanced familial drama/love story like Beginners with the backdrop of Guardians of the Galaxy? I was joking the other day that I’d kill to a see a movie that blended I, Daniel Blake with Star Wars. A small story about someone just trying to file an insurance claim on some droids that broke.

FJI: You’ve done a lot of writing, and you’ve worked in a behind-the-scenes capacity with Bad Robot, so you clearly have a really solid foundation when it comes to film. Given that, were there any elements that were particularly challenging or unexpected when you stepped on-set to direct your first feature?

While I knew our schedule was going to be tough, I think the pace of Sleight ended up being the most surprising thing. Nothing really could have prepared me for the sheer number of pages we’d have to shoot each [day]. Very quickly I learned how time was really the most valuable resource.

FJI: Can you talk a bit about developing the visual look of the film? It’s set in Los Angeles and involves crime, but it doesn’t have the “gritty” sort of look that other films might go to as a default.

JD: Ed [Wu] (our DP) and I spoke a lot about the visual texture of the movie. Since Sleight does play with a lot of familiar narrative tropes, we really looked for ways to optically make Sleight look and feel different. There are a couple aesthetics that Los Angeles is often painted with in film, everything from a heavily saturated commercial slickness to a gritty bleach bypass. We wanted to find a look that was clean, but not so razor-sharp that it felt artificial. Genre always feels better to me through a naturalistic lens. The horror/sci-fi elements pop in a very different way when the rest of the world feels real.

Then there’s my obsession with British crime dramas. When just looking at “Broadchurch,” “Luther” and “Happy Valley,” it’s clear that there’s some shared visual language. Compositionally, these shows embrace negative space, short sighting/near sighting, and crushing characters to corners of the frame. Bo lives in a very specific kind of isolation, so when necessary, we wanted the frame to reflect that.

FJI: I don’t know if you can/want to answer this, but: What’s the trick at the end?

JD: I’m sorry for this being the coyest answer of all time, but without spoiling anything: As the glow intensifies on Holly’s face, it’s us saying that we can illuminate a new story with these characters.