Out in theaters this weekend is J.D. Dillard’s Sleight, which premiered last year during the Sundance Film Festival and is making its way to the big screen now courtesy of BH Tilt and WWE Studios. A bit of a genre mashup that brings together the worlds of magic and science fiction, Sleight follows a street magician named Bo (Jacob Latimore), who, after getting mixed up in a dangerous world of crime, realizes that his only way out is through the utilization of his unique abilities.
Daily Dead recently chatted with Dillard about the project, and he discussed his approach to the story of Sleight with co-writer Alex Theurer and his thoughts on his incredibly talented ensemble, which includes the aforementioned Latimore, Dulé Hill, Sasheer Zamata, Storm Reid, and Seychelle Gabriel. Dillard also talked about his possible involvement on the upcoming reboot of The Fly and how he’d create a world and characters worthy of that cinematic universe.
Great job on the film, J.D. I'd love to hear about what inspired this idea, because we've had movies about magic before, but the way you present your ideas here feels so different than anything we’ve seen before.
J.D. Dillard: I've been obsessed with magic since I was 11 or 12 years old. It's been a love of mine for a very long time, and I think Alex [Theurer], my writing partner and I, for years we were writing epics on terraformed planets and space stations and traveling to the center of hell—just big-scale genre stories. This came around for us at the height of our frustration of not getting any of those things off the ground, swinging for a lot of studio-oriented jobs and not getting them. So I also left for a year to work for J.J. [Abrams] on The Force Awakens, and just watching one of your favorite filmmakers put together a story set within your favorite film franchise certainly leaves an impression. Roll that all up and mash it with mortar and pestle, and you're left with this really savage desire to shoot something.
In looking at Sleight, we realized that this is a conceit that we had had for a number of years that would really make sense for something that we could shoot here in LA. We could do it for a price. We could do it in our backyard, and it's not gonna require a spaceship or zombies, or all these other things that can be expensive. Already, there was this natural intersection between crime and street magic. They utilize some very similar skill sets. But ultimately, being genre guys, we were looking for this extra piece to add to it, which is where the science fiction component comes from.
Well, what's interesting, too, is that even though this is very science fiction-y, your story is still very much based in this sense of realism. Were you conscious of making sure that everything felt like it was rooted in reality, because that would help keep audiences engaged at that basic level of human interest?
J.D. Dillard: Yeah, definitely. First, just aesthetically, that's where I would like my work to sit in general. It’s okay to have a high concept, and it's okay to be playing with larger thematic things, but genre movies stand out in a really fun way when the world around them is grounded.
We thought the magic would be that much more, not believable, but more shocking for viewers to see what Bo was doing if the world around him was real and authentic. So that was certainly a component. And then, we're also not going to be able to compete with the Now You See Me's and The Prestige-type of movies out there. That type of magic is very hard to do at this price point, so we wanted to make sure that it fit Bo's DIY, real-life world. That's how we wound up with at least the type of magic that he does, so that's why in most magic scenes, we're not ending on the trick or we're not ending on the audience's reaction. We're ending on him being filled up by the fact that he actually did it.
I would love to talk about your cast a little bit, because I thought Jacob was fantastic, and Dulé is always great, too. But one thing I want to commend you on is using Sasheer Zamata from Saturday Night Live. Because most people, when they think of using a person from Saturday Night Live, they think comedy, and I loved seeing her in this dramatic role.
J.D. Dillard: It's always our dream of just filling out the world with representative characters, and that's beyond diversity. That's beyond so many parts of the immediate conversation, but really making sure that this world feels lived in. Sasheer's really incredible because she has such a kind, glowing spirit that ultimately was the most important thing in casting Georgi. We wanted this person where you’re watching her, and you get it immediately.
But [it was about] just putting people in this world that are interesting and are different, and ultimately, everyone that we're casting is there to support Bo to an extent. It's the reason why Angelo isn't immediately visually a gang banger, because you know Bo's smart enough to not roll up with a guy and start working with someone who was already wearing a gun in his waistband. We get why Bo would be close with Georgi, and we get why Bo would be close with Luna, too. We really can populate the world with people who give us a point of view on how Bo lives his life.
It was recently announced that you might be involved with The Fly reboot, and I think it's interesting, seeing this movie now, I can actually see parallels between the two. What do you see as your biggest challenge going into The Fly, and do you feel like the fact that you guys are so passionate for the genre and the fact that you know how to do these character-based prepares you guys to tackle a story like The Fly?
J.D. Dillard: The broad disclaimer here is that, obviously it's still the early days and it is something that we're still talking about with Fox and still in negotiation on, technically. But whether it’s The Fly or not, for Alex and I, the north star for anything is character. In a lot of ways, that's where some reboots and some big movies can go astray, is that servicing the character is a little bit of an afterthought to the scale, to the set pieces, or to the IP.
Ultimately, this has to be, no matter what we ever do, a character story. Then the gap that I'm trying to close, which is perhaps a lofty goal but certainly something that my heart is set on, is I really want to have a movie experience where I get the spectacle. I get the world, all that stuff happens and all that is so exciting. But there is a moment in [David] Cronenberg’s movie that really makes me cry still, and I want to honor that.
There is this thing in the summer blockbuster territory where you start losing the emotionality in exchange for the fun aspect of it. I mean, I love the [Planet of the] Apes reboot so much. You can go back and look at articles when that movie was getting rebooting and people were like, "Why, why, why?" But then you watch that first one and you're like, "This is a character story." This franchise is about Caesar, a scorned child. What's so crazy is that when I watch the trailer for the third one and I look in Caesar's eyes, I can see the first movie. That gives me chills when I talk about it. That does not happen often in reboots of that scale.
So, I think with anything that we're doing, and if we're lucky enough to be the ones to execute The Fly, it is that mentality in which we're building all of our work. Let's make sure that these movies are led by heart, and then everything else falls into place.
In case you missed it, check out Heather's interview with Sleight co-star Dulé Hill.