Street Magic, Bad Robot and Crime: J.D. Dillard Talks His Sundance Debut, Sleight
Premiering in Sundance’s NEXT section is, Sleight, the debut feature of Los Angeles-based screenwriter and music video director J.D. Dillard. A street-wise crime caper about a bustling magician who moves from sleight-of-hand card magic to drug dealing on the boulevards of L.A., Sleight combines a raft of interests, including hip hop and sci-fi, from its young director and his writing partner Alex Theurer. The two have been kicking around the Los Angeles script development scene for several year, with Dillard working at production outfits like Bad Robot while keeping up with his passion for sleight-of-hand, which began as a teenager in Philadelphia.
I talked to Dillard before the festival about how he worked his way into the L.A. script development scene, his interest in video art, and how he got into magic and sleight of hand.
Filmmaker: So, what’s your background? Where did you grow up, and how’d you arrive at your first feature, Sleight?
Dillard: My dad was in the Navy, and before I was eight we had moved eight or nine times. We settled in Philadelphia, and I went to elementary high school there and then went to Syracuse for a bit. I hated it being so cold all the time, so I used to do English and creative writing. There was a performing arts program at Syracuse that was very avant-garde. I’d watch video art and the weirdest shit. Being a suburban kid, when I was growing up movies were Spielberg and The Shawshank Redemption. When I was high school, [the idea of working in] TV development was such an abstract and weird thing. I remember buying the Lost pilot [screenplay] on eBay when I was in high school — that was the only way I could get it. But in my video art class in college I was introduced to things like Dogma ’95. But, film school in general, I didn’t love. The classes I enjoyed the most were video art and video art history.
Filmmaker: Were there artists or teachers who made a particular impact?
Dillard: The most important ones were Duke and Battersby, this bad ass duo from Canada. They make really cool, almost folk video art. And Emily [Duke], she is the one who installed [this idea in us] of keeping an eye on the female perspective in what we write. Sleight is an example of that. We tried to make sure things were not obnoxiously heteronormative.
Filmmaker: So you moved to L.A. and went to work at a production company. How did you meet your writing partner, Alex Theurer?
Dillard: Yes. The assistant I replaced, she was promoted and became a manager. She was also dating my writing partner — they are now married and have a kid on the way. That’s how I met Alex. So, I just met up with someone who was also a nerd, and we tried to figure out how Los Angeles worked. We stumbled upon an idea that we both really liked, and that script became our foray into the industry as writers. It was a spec from 2010, and at the time it was this weird deconstruction of the superhero genre. Like, here’s how it would really happen if a dude in the midwest would wake up and has powers. Of course, he’d have to deal with the government, but they don’t have anti-superhero division. It was an Unbreakable kind of thing, but we had it peak a little bit bigger. That was the first spec we showed our friends. By then we had been working around agencies and production companies, so we had enough of a groundwork to start sending it out. We’d [say to our friends,] “If you like it, could you show your boss? It was a slow burn, word-of-mouth kind of thing. In the middle of all that, I left that job to work at Bad Robot, and that was definitely responsible for 90% of the good things that happened in my career in L.A. When it worked out that I was writing, they said, generously, “We’ll read it.” And then, “We can’t make it here, but here are people we trust.” Our team came together shortly after that. Having the Bad Robot blessing was immensely helpful.
Filmmaker: When were you working at Bad Robot, and what were you doing?
Dillard: I worked with Bad Robot when they worked with Star Wars. I was working with J.J.’s family, in the support sense. And just being on set that long, seeing one of my favorite directors ut together my actual favorite film franchise, it did something weird to me. My dad is a very military-oriented guy, and I remember him saying to me once, “What are you learning?” Well, [being on the set of Star Wars] and seeing good writing and incredible directing, something happened. When I came back from overseas, Alex and I sat down and [asked ourselves], “What are we doing?” We wanted to find something we knew we could make. We had been spec-oriented, writing things bigger than I knew we could touch. We had to shoot something! Sleight was this weird short we had written, and after we met our producers it quickly and organically came to be.
Filmmaker: How did it go from a short script to a feature?
Dillard: We shared our short script with producers at Diablo. They said, “We have a little bit of money to play with, and you guys can make a movie.” Coming from the studio side, we almost didn’t believe them. We are used to seeing things unfold for a long time. Waiting for an open writing assignment can take months. Write a script and “cool, you are going to shoot in three months” — this was horrifying!
Filmmaker: And where did magic and sleight-of-hand enter the picture?
Dillard: I’ve been a magician off and on since middle school. Alex and I always felt there was this cool intersection of street magic and crime, which both require a degree of savvy and street smarts and personality. We wanted to find a way to build this all into a feature. Like, how many things that we are obsessed with can we distill into the same thing? So, Sleight has our natural obsessions with hip hop and street magic and sci-fi. And, it’s a love letter to L.A. We have this character of Bo, a black kid selling drugs, but we found a way to subvert the stereotype a little bit. He has a brilliant mind for engineering and science, and that’s what helps him become a better magician. We took a lot of inspiration from The Wire, but we wanted to avoid things like him having a down-and-out life. His mom has passed away, and he has an opportunity for a great scholarship, but he’s like, “How am I going to support myself and my little sister?” He has a real passion for magic, but magic is not enough. So, he’s selling drugs, and he uses that chameleon aspect of being a magician. As the drug world gets a tighter grip on his life, it requires Bo to start using his peculiar skill set to keep from getting sucked in too deep.
Filmmaker: How does magic play into him doing that?
Dillard: Say your drug boss is telling you that you need to get information from a rival gang, Bo isn’t in a position to fight someone but by using sleight of hand and classic street hustling types of things he gets information that way. So, he is getting sucked in deeper while maintaining innocence.
Filmmaker: Tell me more about the magic element, which I notice includes not just tricks but this new genre of cardistry.
Dillard: We have a few magic consultants working with us, and we have had a fun collaboration with one of them, Zach Mueller of Fontaine Cards. He’s the cardistry guy, which is this weird new culture that’s growing. It’s not [card] flourishing. If you look at the videos on the Fontaine site, they are completely mental. One thing Zach and I talked about way in the beginning was that we wanted magic to look good. People roll their eyes at something that feels more like a cabaret act, or at the magic guy you hire for a party who comes with decent tricks but horrible jokes. We wanted this kid to feel cool and represent a scene that is growing. One thing we were thrilled with was when Zach saw the movie, he said, “[Bo] seems like a kid who would come to one of our meet-ups.”
Filmmaker: How did you learn magic? Did you have that kind of community around you?
Dillard: I didn’t grow up with a community of magicians. Everything I learned was from Ellusionist, books, forums, Theory 11 and Penguin Magic. I’d get my Christmas money and spend $35 on a Raven and a deck of cards. In the early stages, I was a kid, and I’d perform for people — laymen audiences who didn’t know that you could just buy tricks like that. Quickly I became obsessed with getting my card skills up and doing tricks with borrowed decks so it didn’t matter what type of cards I had, I could always perform.
Filmmaker: What other influences does Sleight have?
Dillard: We bring up Brick a lot — that’s a great movie, but it’s hard to tell people what it is. “It’s noir, and it’s got a YA thing, but it’s darker than YA.” We wanted Sleight to be cool, and to have magic as a component and an aspect of Bo’s personality, and we didn’t want it to be about being the best magician at the Magic Castle. We wanted it to be about other goals and, like Brick, to sit comfortably in a few different genres.
Filmmaker: And when it comes to filming the magic, what approach did you take?
Dillard: We wanted to have good tricks that were visual, and we had the benefit of making a movie. It was less about doing tricks that would seem totally out of control. We [went for] a gray area of tricks that would be difficult to do in real life but could be done in a movie. For example, Bo has a woman hold a card, and it changes from the Eight of Spades to the Three of Diamonds, and he never touches the card. I’m sure people have done that trick but without touching the card it’s very difficult. So, it was stuff like that — magic that wasn’t too crazy or unbelievable. We didn’t want to cut into those sequences. And for a few other [tricks], a little bit of visual effects goes a long way.
Filmmaker: Are any tricks you do in the movie?
Dillard: The trick that opens the movie is a trick that I do regularly. One of those tricks I do when people say, “Oh, you do magic.” It’s a card jump to pocket, and it looks the same way on film as in real life even as it’s easier to shoot on camera.
Filmmaker: And how did you get Jacob Latimore, the actor who plays Bo, up to the speed on the card work?
Dillard: Most magic breaks down into a few specific effects. If you can do a pass or force cards, it unlocks a pretty wide variety of tricks you can do. For Jacob, the thing that was most important was being comfortable with a deck in his hand. If you are out getting food with Zach, he’ll be swivel-cutting and shuffling while standing in line. Not being comfortable with a deck of cards is the kind of stuff [viewers] will pick up on. Jacob has to look like he has done this one million times — fanning, spreading, cutting and shuffling. There are a lot of things you can shoot around, but that basic comfort level is very apparent on screen. So, we said, “Here is Fontaine’s website,” and we sent him a bunch of decks.