Sleight

Sleight hits theaters this week, and I loved this film when I saw it at Sundance last year. A few weeks back I sat down with director J.D. Dillard for an interview. We talk about how he started as a receptionist at J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot, worked on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, plus how the idea of Sleight came about, the fun and horrors of shooting a film on a super small budget, and his filmmaker aspirations. We also geek out over Matt Reeves’ Planet of the Apes reboots and briefly discuss his future projects: a mysterious project set up at Bad Robot, The Fly remake and his upcoming Blumhouse horror/thriller Sweetheart. We also talk about the possibility of a Sleight sequel.

jd Dillard in costume for Force Awakens

JD Dillard in costume for Force Awakens

J.D. Dillard: Hey, how are you? Good to see you.

Peter Sciretta: I’m good, how are you? I just came from CinemaCon, next week I’m headed to Star Wars Celebration. 

Star Wars Celebration is already here?

It’s in Orlando this year.

Dope. I love how the people inside that world just call it “Celebration,” it sounds so culty. It definitely sounds borderline religious.

And you’re a big Star Wars fan; you have a tattoo and everything…

[JD shows me his Boba Fett tattoo on his arm]

A little Boba Fett. I got that in London while we were there [shooting Force Awakens]. And I never put together how weird it would be to come back to set with a Star Wars tattoo. I was like, yeah, I should have waited until we were done shooting. [laughs] I look like a super dork right now with the Saran Wrap on my arm. What’d you do?  You know, had to get a Star Wars tattoo right now?  All right, all right, yeah.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Bad Robot logo

Let’s start at the beginning. So you went to film school. You move out here to L.A. You got hired by Bad Robot. What were you doing there?

So I didn’t graduate film school. Went to Syracuse for two years. Then transferred to USC out of film school ’cause I just didn’t wanna be in film school anymore. And then after a semester at USC studying English, I ran out of money but had been interning at Reveille this TV production company that back in the day had The Office and Biggest Loser. So I was working in their scripted department reading a lot, learning what good writing looked like and realized that I was a bad writer. And then after I was there for a couple of years and was getting a little bit more responsibility and blah, blah, blah, realized I didn’t have time to write anymore because of this job and its responsibilities, so through a friend of a friend had heard about the receptionist position at Bad Robot. And even though that was one to two career steps backwards, psychological income would skyrocket if I could get a job like that. And also–

But you were also a fan of them.

Oh, a huge fucking fan of Bad Robot. So there’s that. But to just be in those halls, I was like I’ll do it. So I interviewed, ended up getting that job. And the beautiful thing about receptionists is that your responsibilities end when you leave that desk. So it’s not like anyone’s asking you while you’re at home, hey, can you still like…? No, you can’t be, my job was to say Bad Robot 50 thousand times a day. And greet people and be nice and all that.

And you also get to see and talk to everybody that comes in that door.

Exactly. And I remember what was so crazy is that I started working there I think two weeks before they left for Super 8. So everybody’s online freaking out, what is this, what is this? I’m like, oh cool, this is what it feels to be on the inside.  This is really neat. So I was there for a few years. And then Alex my writing partner, the first pitch we ever sold was to Bad Robot.  And that’s when we, I took off–

Has that been made or is that being made?

That has not been made. That’s just a piece of development still right now. But that was where we both sort of left our day jobs into the incredibly luxurious life of being a baby working writer.

Can you say what that is or is it in the mystery box to be locked up?

That is also in the mystery box.

Okay.

So you know how it works.

Yeah.

But so at that point, yeah, we both sort of left our day jobs to try to figure out what it meant to be a working writer. Which we realized is not easy.  It’s not easy.

sleight

So you weren’t doing this while you’re working there on your time off.  You quit the job and went full bore.

No, we set that thing up while I was still the receptionist. And within a few months, I left the desk. So…

How did the idea of Sleight come about?

So I’ve been obsessed with magic forever and started playing around with it when I was 12. And we wrote it as a short film three years ago. Just because we found this kind of cool, natural intersection between crime and magic. They utilize some similar skill sets. But in everything that we write, we like to infuse sci-fi where possible, so we’re kind of looking for the best route into that. And the sort of telekinesis, the electromagnetic thing that we wound up with just seemed like if we’re gonna shoot a movie for a price, what is a power that is not gonna be insanely expensive? He can’t float, he can’t fly, he can’t do these other things, he’s not gonna be able to glow, so telekinesis, cool, yeah, we can hang things from strings and remove the strings in post.  So that’s sort of where we wound up. But then also to it’s always part of what I’m trying to do and tell representative stories and specifically, tell genre in different worlds and different environments. That became an important piece of the process also.

Sleight Trailer - Jacob Latimore

And you made this film for very little money.  

Tiny, six dollars, yeah.

I think people are gonna see the trailer and they see Blumhouse, and even though it’s Blumhouse, Blumhouse films are sometimes made for millions of dollars.  You were working with less than even a million, can you talk about that?

Yeah, we are…  So we shot this movie for well…. First, I guess the disclaimer is that it is this very interesting thing that we’re struggling with now in getting released because the movie does have some scale. And any time we tell people we shot this for significantly under a million dollars they are surprised. But you also don’t wanna sort of curb people’s expectations and diminish the scale of the movie by being like we shot it for 10 dollars. So it is this kind of interesting balance to find. But…

You know Slash Film, those film geeks love hearing—

We shot this for very, very low six figures. Barely six figures. So what that requires obviously is a lot of planning. You don’t have a lot of time to shoot. We shot the movie in 16 days. And we knew what the budget was going into the process, so we were able to sort of write for what we knew our resources would be. Obviously, we wanted to push it another 15, 20 percent so there was some level of ambition to the project. But shooting that fast is not always fun.

That amount of time is what some TV shows do for one episode, right?

Yeah. I mean some and it’s great that we had even someone like Dule who is used to that speed. But I think the biggest bummer in shooting a movie that quick is as a director you really wanna give your actors time.  And not that they can’t do it in the amount of time, but just as a professional courtesy, if they wanna do one more take because they feel like they got it 93 percent and they can give you the 100 next time, you’re like well we gotta move, because we’re only allowed to be here for six more minutes.  Because that’s all, we can afford to be here for. That always is a bummer. But I have no ego about making movies, but I would like to not be shooting eight pages a day.

Yeah, well after this I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that again.

That’d be so nice.

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