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'Sleight' director/co-writer J.D. Dillard's journey from J.J. Abrams' receptionist to filmmaker

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Dillard was once a receptionist for J.J. Abrams' production company, but he's since landed his first film at Sundance, which is about to open in theaters.

In director J.D. Dillard’s film, “Sleight,” a talented young street magician named Bo struggles to provide for his little sister after their mother dies.

Without a support system, he turns to selling drugs to make ends meet. But being wrapped up with criminals ends up causing him a whole other world of grief. Soon we learn that Bo’s not only good at sleight-of-hand trickery, but also has some "Iron Man"-esque super powers.

It’s not often that you find a sci-fi superhero movie filmed on a low budget — at least not one that makes it into the Sundance Film Festival. When it premiered at the festival in 2016, it was quickly snatched up by Blumhouse Productions, the company behind Jordan Peele’s hit, “Get Out.”

Dillard also co-wrote "Sleight" and is already working on his next feature for Blumhouse. But before he left for his next project, he took some time to chat with The Frame host John Horn about his feature debut. 

Interview Highlights:

On the similarities between magic and a criminal's life:

There is this really weird relationship between those two worlds. They both require deceit, they both require some sort of savviness and charisma. I think we were just surprised in the writing process how many points of intersection there were between crime and magic. 

On making a low budget film in a sci-fi genre with visual effects:

I don't think there was any version where we weren't going to make something that had some science fiction in it, just because from a writing standpoint that's what Alex [Theurer] and I had been doing for a while. We were kind of used to writing these giant stories on terraform planets and invasions. You really want to see actors say your words. As a writer that's what you're working towards all the time. So "Sleight" was kind of born from that frustration. We sat down and were like OK, how can we shoot a story here in our backyard? We're not going to shoot a straight drama, because we still want to show where we want to go in the genre world, so we just scaled it all the way down. Obviously, everybody was like, Be careful with your visual effects and stunts, etc. But when you know how much you're shooting your movie for when you start writing it, you can be very strategic with where you parse those things out.

On deciding to write an original story instead of getting hired on someone else's project:

Something clicks in your head when you lose the 10th job to the same few writers in town ... But we weren't simultaneously generating original material, we were only swinging for gigs. At the height of that frustration, I moved to Europe to work for J.J. Abrams on "Force Awakens." I have a ''Star Wars" tattoo on my body, I like "Star Wars" a little bit. Watching one of my favorite directors direct my favorite film franchise at the height of that frustration, to come back home and be like, Holy hell, we need to shoot something! "Sleight" was just a distillation of both the incredible learning experience being on "Force Awakens," but also we [had] to make something original because we can't get in any other way. 

On working for J.J. Abrams' company, Bad Robot:

In 2011 I became the receptionist at Bad Robot. Then, as I sold my first piece of writing and did the extremely glamorous step out into life as a working writer, I kind of popped in and out of Bad Robot doing small creative things. Come "Force Awakens" time, I was basically going out for support. I'm close with the family and was going to help tutor their kids and just be an extra element out there to help during the production. 

On why he took a receptionist job in order to focus on his writing:

I was [once] an assistant previously on the executive track at a television company. The leap to receptionist was a step-and-a-half backwards. While my income was drastically cut, the psychological income skyrocketed. In being at the time an aspiring writer, the most important thing was your own time. Even though I had just moved into an apartment and I was like, I'll obviously never make less money than this. And I very quickly proved myself wrong, Bad Robot, I think, brought a lot of really incredible things into my life. 

On the cultural inspirations for the character of Bo:

When you look at the posters, it's a black kid in a hoodie. Even just first starting with some cultural iconography, here we have an image that is often vilified and victimized. Let's sort of spin it and reappropriate it into something heroic. What's so funny, even in the final sequences in the film when Bo is going to face his foe, all we were doing was stealing from Luke Skywalker approaching Jabba's palace in 'Return of the Jedi.' We just realized  you swap a black kid out and it's Luke Skywalker. He's just walking up in a black hoodie and he's finally stepped into his power and purpose.

On why representation, not diversity, should be a goal for Hollywood:

Obviously diversity and representation, these are all important conversations right now. The term diversity sometimes feels a little weird and dirty to me because it calls to what is normal, whereas representation is kind of what we need to be focused on. But it was really important for me and for us to plug a genre story into a world that is often overlooked by genre. While not necessarily making it so completely about Bo's identity as a young black man. Even though you can boil it down to he's a black kid selling drugs, if our lives fell apart tomorrow and we needed a lot of money the day after and have no support network, there are not that many things you can do that are completely legal. So I think we wanted to humanize that plight, it's not just a symptom of the inner city, this could happen to anybody.

On one of the more personal attributes of the story:

The December I was overseas working with Star Wars, my dad called me to tell me my mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She's great and had a full pathological response to chemotherapy, which is the best. But that is something that I wanted to explore in 'Sleight,' I was asking myself questions I've never asked before, because the mortality of my parents hadn't really flashed into my head. It was something that was plugged into 'Sleight,' after that had happened. 


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