Sleight: J.D. Dillard And Jacob Latimore On Creating On-Screen Magic

– by Edward Douglas

Every year, the Sundance Film Festival introduces audiences to bright new filmmaking talent on both sides of the camera. That was certainly the case in 2016 when J.D. Dillard’s crime-thriller Sleight was picked up at Sundance by Jason Blum’s BH Tilt and WWE Studios for co-distribution.

The movie stars Jacob Latimore (The Maze Runner) as Bo, a young teen living in Los Angeles with his younger sister Tina (Storm Reid), who uses his abilities as a street magician to support them after the death of their parents.  On the side, Bo deals designer drugs for Angelo (Dulé Hill), but Bo’s need to make more money to get himself and Tina out of town leads him to use his magic skills to make extra money without Angelo finding out.

One day while doing magic, Bo meets the pretty Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) and the two start seeing each other, but Bo’s increased involvement with Angelo’s business threatens to ruin that relationship and potentially hurt his home life as well.

While Sleight is a fairly low budget indie film, what filmmaker J.D. Dillard does with mixing genres between the family drama, romance, crime thriller and the science fiction/fantasy elements of how Bo uses his magic powers has made him a filmmaker worth watching. In fact, he’s already been in talks to remake the classic ‘50s horror film The Fly, which was already remade once into a popular 1986 version by David Cronenberg.

Latimore is also an actor on the rise—having just appeared opposite no less than Kate Winslet in last year’s Collateral Beauty--so having him starring in Sleight is another coup for Dillard.

LRM sat down with Dillard and Latimore a couple weeks back for the following interview:

LRM: I really don’t know much about how this movie came together. I know you’ve done some shorts before, but this one seemed to come out of nowhere.  People were talking about it at Sundance, and I didn’t know whether you had magic in your background...

J.D. Dillard:
Yup. Well, I’ve done magic since maybe I was 11 or 12, and it’s just something that I’ve always loved, and my writing partner (Alex Theurer) and I had been writing together maybe five or six years at the time, and I think we were growing frustrated with having nothing produced and wanting to find some way to get something made. We typically write big, bombastic sci-fi things, (so we said) “Let’s curb it back. Let’s bring it down to earth. Let’s find something we can produce for a low budget,” and maybe then someone will let us be at the helm of it—me as the director, him as the producer. Sleight was one of those things on our idea list that just seemed to make sense and fit this need--that we could self-produce, that we could do it in L.A. and not build a giant spaceship, not need to sell a fake terraformed planet. It’s just a story that takes place in L.A. Very naturally, we felt that there was a very cool connection and relationship between street magic and crime. It requires a degree of being savvy and a certain personality and deceit, and these things are wrapped up in the Venn Diagram that there’s a lot of crossover. That’s sort of where we started.

LRM: How did you first hear about this, Jacob? I assume you’d already done “The Maze Runner” and some of your other movies? 

Jacob Latimore: Yeah, I think it was right around pilot season time, and this was a time when I was in L.A. for just a couple of months trying to audition for whatever I could. Sleight just really stood out to me. You read a bunch of scripts that have the same or similar concepts or stories, and with Sleight, there were certain parts that I felt I’d read before, but then with the fantasy world really intrigued me where we have that genre-bending and that balance in the script. I thought this was something I wanted to be a part of. It just felt different, and as an actor, you wan to take that risk and do things outside the box.

LRM: Did you wonder how they were going to do some of the street magic and some of the more elaborate magic tricks? 

Jacob Latimore: Yeah, I think that was stuff that I was brave about, trying to really absorb as much of it as I could. J.D. and the producers, they sent me a bunch of links to tutorial videos on just simple, basic things, on how to hold a deck of cards, certain grips and certain spreads, and small little card flips. For more of the hard, detailed stuff, we had a real magician, a card and street guy really doing the advanced things. I think I definitely wanted to make sure that I had the performance of it, the personality, the eye contact. I think that was the little things that make a magician so unique and so cool.

LRM: I was curious about working on that and figuring out what you wanted Jacob to do as far as tricks.

J.D. Dillard: Yeah, I think very early on, we knew in Sleight that we wouldn’t be able to compare with something like Now You See Me and also, even though Sleight has magic, it’s not solely about magic. We’re kind of spinning a number of plates in the movie, between the relationship between Bo and Holly, his relationship with his sister, the science fiction component and the crime component. Very quickly we realized, the movie is actually a better experience when each of those story lines is a little simplified. In an earlier draft of the script, we had a more complex crime story, and we checked in on the science fiction aspect a lot more, and that just started to feel clunky. Narrowing that, we realized very quickly how much of any given piece we needed. When looking at the magic, it was two-fold. It was less about the tricks, but more about selling that this kid loves this and that he’s good at it. It didn’t mean that we had to do these insane things where he was leaping off buildings and turning into a deck of cards scattering through the wind. Also, it had to be true to the world that we were creating around it. I wanted every trick in the film to be possible with maybe just a little bit of grey area on the side. It’s still a movie, so why not play with that?  It all has to be grounded, so like Jacob was saying, it became more important that if you’re looking at a wide shot, and he’s holding a deck of cards that it doesn’t seem like it’s the first time he’s ever held a deck of cards. It was really about building that comfort, and then most of the tricks we were doing in the movie were easier to shoot than say an insane card flourish, and again, it’s easier to shoot a card trick on camera then it is to perform it in person. We could help Jacob out where possible, because it’s a movie.

LRM: Did you get to the point where you felt comfortable, or at least could act like you felt comfortable?

J.D. Dillard: Maybe both.

Jacob Latimore: Actually, there were certain times when even Alex was like, “Yo, that’s really good.” I was like, “I know, I was feeling it. Maybe I can really do this thing for a living.”

J.D. Dillard: Nope, it’s so scary.

Jacob Latimore: It’s incredible. We had a lot of magicians from the Magic Castle come on set and even perform for us, and just seeing their energy, their aura, about them and just being around that energy all the time as well as being around Zach Mueller from Fontaine Cards, who sponsored most of the card with the “F” on the cards. Those are like his brand. I was excited to be around his group of friends, his community, his world. He would come over to the apartment sometimes and just show me how to do certain things. It’s a pretty frustrating practice. You try a trick and then all the cards just go all over the living room, and you’re just... “Ohhhh...”and then you pick up that one and that one...but it was tough. It was fun to do, and I think that’s the beauty of being an actor. You just investigate other people’s worlds and other communities. Yeah, it was a great experience.

LRM: Can you talk about some of the cast mates in the film? You have a great young actress playing your sister Tina, another great actress playing Holly, Sasheer Zamata playing the neighbor, and Dulé Hill playing your boss. It’s a great cast, so can you talk about putting the cast together and working with them? 

Jacob Latimore: Yeah, Dulé, I was the most excited to see how he was going to perform, obviously because we’ve never seen Dulé Hill in this world before. We see a little bit of Dulé in it, more in the beginning of the movie, but when we see his character Angelo make that turn to the darker side. It was incredible. The entire cast was awesome to work with.  Seychelle and I had a lot of time to build chemistry, eating a lot. We went to a couple museums together. We were bonding, and that’s also the beautify of working on different films. I feel like every time you do a film, you’re building a new family, because you have to bond with the people you’re on-screen with. That was incredible. The Sleight family.

LRM: It’s especially interesting with Holly, because you meet her for the first time and then towards the end of the movie, you’ve been together for a while. How long did it take you to shoot the movie? 

J.D. Dillard: We shot the movie in 16 days in L.A., a very truncated schedule. We joke, it just felt like a really intense summer camp, because it was hot out and it was June into July, and very, very independent, so the vibe on the set was very young and fresh and sweaty. I think walking out of it, when we all left Sleight, it felt like we were going back home from camp.

Jacob Latimore: When you see the trailer, you see the movie, it looks like we worked on it for much longer.

LRM: I’ll be curious to see how they pare the movie down for the TV commercials...

J.D. Dillard: I think the thing that’s fun about the movie, but it’s a different process in the marketing is that we are spinning multiple plates. You can cut a trailer that’s just about Bo and Holly, and you would not know that there is magic or science fiction involved. You can tell a story about a kid taking care of his little sister and not know there are some of those elements or it can just be this kid performing on the streets and also is in crime. There are so many combinations of how to show this film. That’s why--and I feel like you would say this about any movie--but why we’re so adamant about people just going to see it and not worrying as much about how it’s being marketed, because it is the experience of it being mixed genre, and Alex, my writing partner, and I, were obsessed with this sort of mixed genre conceit where maybe let’s put the drama first and then we’ll follow it up with character and thirdly, we’ll put in what we call a “plus one.” What are going to add to it that just makes it out of this world and makes it a little larger than life. It’s all under the umbrella of it being grounded, but we are servicing a few different genres in the movie.

LRM: I actually saw the movie fresh without seeing any trailers... 

J.D. Dillard: Awesome.

LRM: All I knew was that Michael (Louisi from WWE Studios) and Jason (Blum from Blumhouse) liked it, and they like you, and they compared it to “Chronicle” but that’s all I knew. I was curious about your perspective and thoughts on why Bo turns to crime. Obviously, he needs money to get out of there. 

J.D. Dillard: When Alex and I sat down to piece this together, one thing we wanted to play with was...the black kid selling drugs was a trope we’d seen in a number of things, but we really wanted to find an empathetic and understandable way into that trope. That’s why it was so important that Bo is a smart kid and Bo had a scholarship going for him, he had a whole life going for him, and then circumstance put that out. What I think is important to recognize in Bo’s journey is how this literally can happen to anyone, and if everything that you cared about, needed and relied on went away tomorrow, there are so few things that you could do to get the kind of money you need the next day that don’t slip into criminal activity. When you have no support staff and you have nothing, just to show that this isn’t necessarily just a product of the ghetto. This isn’t just necessarily a product of drugs, but this could happen to anybody. So much of crime comes from desperation.

LRM: What’s strange is that I don’t even consider the little bit of drug dealing he does at first as “committing crime.” It’s more what he gets into with Angelo as the film goes along. 

J.D. Dillard: Yeah, but I think it was important that along Bo’s journey, it was important to make sure even though he’s a good kid with a kind heart, you can’t necessarily go through this entire process without losing some of your innocence. It was also important that we experienced that with him, too.

Jacob Latimore: Yeah, he was a good kid, sort of forced to do bad things, or do things out of his character, because of his circumstances.

J.D. Dillard: While it’s never been criminal for me, I think a lot of people can empathize with having to do things you don’t want to do, put passions on hold, all of that to take care of the people around you. I think ultimately that’s what’s at the core of Bo.

LRM: You’ve been done with this movie since it was at Sundance last year, so what have you been working on since then? Have you developing other stuff with Alex to start filming? 

J.D. Dillard: Yeah, so Alex and I and some of our other creative partners were moving to Fiji in a week and a half to shoot this movie Sweetheart with Blumhouse, starring Kiersey Clemons from Dope.  That’s sort of a horror-survival thing, and a lot like Sleight, one thing we’re trying to do is put women and/or people of color in leading roles, and especially roles that aren’t even necessarily about that identity, but just being able to see the genre things that we love with different people at the helm.

LRM: Is that the strategy you’re taking with “The Fly” remake you just signed onto...? 

J.D. Dillard: The Fly is still in negotiations. It’s a franchise that I love, and I’m really excited about the early conversations we’ve been having about it, but it’s funny. There’s so much of how Sleight came together, how Sweetheart came together that we want to continue to take to bigger projects, but it is something that is in its early days, but I’m very excited about the possibility of that.

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LRM: What about you, Jacob? You recently shot a film called “Detroit” with Kathryn Bigelow? 

Jacob Latimore: Yeah, we shot that end of last year in Boston. I think we got a release date in the beginning of August, so I’m really excited about that, and I’m in Atlanta right now shooting a film called Candy Jar, and after that, I’ll go to Chicago for four or five months to film a series with Showtime called The Chi.

LRM: Are you completely done with “The Maze Runner” movies?

Jacob Latimore: Yeah, I was only in the first Maze Runner.

J.D. Dillard: Bring him back...bring him back...

LRM: I was curious about that series, and what’s going on with it. 

Jacob Latimore: Yeah, in the beginning of The Maze Runner I was like, “Why can’t I be in the full Maze Runner”?  Seeing all the things I’m doing now, I wouldn’t have had no time to do Sleight or Collateral Beauty or the Kathryn Bigelow project at all, so...

J.D. Dillard: It all happens for a reason.

Jacob Latimore: It all happened for a reason, but I still keep in touch with all the cast members and they’re all in Africa right now filming the movie.

LRM: How is it going back and forth from those big movies to smaller movies like this where you have to work fast and don’t get to see anything for some time? 

Jacob Latimore: If I could film a movie like we filmed Sleight all the time, that would be incredible. The way we shot Sleight...and they were even editing as we were going. There was an editing room there on set. I think that was so incredible, being a small team where we could talk to each other, it felt like an intimate summer camp vibe that we were talking about, which made it even better. Sometimes you can’t get that on a big movie sets.

LRM: How did you deal with all the visual FX or was a lot of that done practically on set? 

J.D. Dillard: Most of the FX that we did in the film were at least based practically. We opted--just because of our budget--much more so for wire removals than completely CG elements, just because between budget and time, that’s just what we had allotted. The goal in this movie, and we’re carrying it to Sweetheart and we’ll carry it to whatever we do after that, but we’re certainly proponents for doing as much as we can on set. I think the audience is becoming too savvy, and especially in a movie about magic, if you can tell that the magic is from the computer, I think it just does something weird. I mean, people know it’s a movie, people know that most of what they’re seeing is fake, but some quality to CG makes it feel weird, so in anything we do, we’ve been trying to first figure out how it can best work practically, and if it is impossible, then the conversation will open up to visual FX. 

LRM: Well it’s good in a movie like this where it looks practical even if it is visual FX, and this has just enough to make one wonder “How did they do that?”

J.D. Dillard: Yeah, exactly. Just enough.

Sleight opens nationwide on Friday, April 28. Look for Gig Patta’s interview with actor Dulé Hill soon.

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