From director/writer J.D. Dillard and co-writer Alex Theurer, Sleight is a unique genre-bending film about a young street magician (Jacob Latimore) who turns to questionable activities to care for his little sister (Storm Reid), now that their parents have passed, so that he can keep a roof over their heads. But when he gets in too deep, his sister is kidnapped and he is forced to use magic and his talent for deceit to save both her and himself.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker J.D. Dillard talked about how Sleight evolved from short to feature film, his own interest in magic, balancing the genres to make this a believable story, what he learned from his time working for J.J. Abrams at Bad Robot, and how the comic prequel came about. He also talked about where things are at with the remake of The Fly that he’s working on and what interested him in that project, and working with Blumhouse again for his next movie, Sweetheart.
Collider: With Sleight, you’ve woven the worlds of magic and crime together in a very unique blend. What sparked the initial desire to do that and the idea for this story? Did you always want to tell a story that blended the two, or did it start with one, and then the other developed out of that?
J.D. DILLARD: I grew up doing a lot of magic, and when Alex [Theurer] and I were playing around with worlds we’d like to dive into, magic had always been on the table. We explored this in a shorter format by writing a script for what would be a short film, a number of years ago, but could never really get the short off the ground. And then, when we put our heads together to think about something that we could self produce due to this growing frustration of being writers who have never seen their work on screen, it led us to think about a story that seemed just small enough that someone would be crazy enough to make it, and Sleight popped back into our head as the perfect vessel for that. The crime aspect of it wasn’t there in the very, very, very beginning. Immediately looking at what skill set you have as a magician, quite naturally we landed on the fact that there are more than a few points of intersection. There’s deceit, the ability to be a chameleon, and the salesmanship, and that intersection seemed like a fun place to tell a story.
How did you first get interested in magic, and did you have a speciality or any favorite tricks?
DILLARD: I liked it as a general thing, from a very young age. I honestly don’t even remember where exactly that trickled in from, but I think it was that first David Blaine special on ABC in the late ‘90s that completely galvanized by obsession, which I’m sure it did for a lot of people. Just seeing that really visceral, up close aesthetic was just so unbelievable to me. I was like, “Okay, I need to go to the library and take out whatever books there are about magic and figure out how some of this works.”
What were the biggest challenges in balancing real-world drama and sci-fi elements into a story that could be believable in our world?
DILLARD: The thing Alex and I have always talked about with this movie was that it was never going to be a crazy magic experience like The Prestige, and it was never going to be the most complicated and cool crime story like The Departed. That was never the goal with it. And honestly, in the writing process, very early on, we realized that, if we over-complicated any of those elements too much, it actually muddied the whole story because we were trying to spin one too many plates, throughout the entire thing. So, for us, the real joy of the movie is blending these pieces that we haven’t blended before, but in that process, there is a simplicity to each of the standalone arcs. For us, it was really just an experiment in plate spinning.
How did you end up working for J.J. Abrams at Bad Robot? You started working as the company’s receptionist, but was that part of a bigger plan to learn and become a filmmaker yourself?
DILLARD: For sure. Writing has always been where my focus and where my head is at. Going to a company like Bad Robot, there was no ulterior motive. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna put in X amount of time, and then ask for this.” It was really just being in an environment with people who are really inspiring, truly awesome, kind, generous and thoughtful. Simultaneously and more selfishly, it was about having a job that wouldn’t completely dominate my life, so that there was time to write and to grow a craft. My years as a receptionist there were truly that. I had the time and flexibility to keep my creative life afloat and healthy, but then also walking the halls of that company certainly leaves an impact on you. So many interesting people come in and out of that building. It’s hard not to be inspired when that’s the backdrop.