Interview by Leonardo Faierman
It won’t be long before people start thinking about the next mighty little indie that could. I’m talking about the street magic/streets tragic mashup Sleight, coming soon to wide release under the Blumhouse banner following a successful showing at Sundance in 2016. Sampling from several genres (some may be considered spoilers to even mention), Sleight is a mesmerizing and unique combination of familiar elements with all the hallmarks of a sleeper hit, although aspects of its creeping success feel a little like…well, magic.
Some of that is due to first-time director JD Dillard, a rising star with a Star Wars-sized credit tucked confidently in his portfolio. Aspects of the hero’s journey inform the film, but there are some novel conflicts that dictate the way the story is told, no doubt sourced from Dillard’s own experiences, most notably as a magician himself.
Dillard and starring actor Jacob Latimore took some time during Sleight’s ramp up to speak to BGN about the film and its formative journey. There is definitely a feel of dominoes, positioned in place just in time for an intentionally dazzling tumble. Regardless of timing, the film’s strongest aspects distinguish it in a sea of indies, revealing smart choices and a razor-sharp visual design.
Look out for Sleight in theaters next week.
BlackGirlNerds: How early on was a genre mashup the idea or focus of the film? Were you setting out to make a movie involving magic, an urban story, and then were like…wait a minute, let’s add something else? Or was it included from the very start?
JD Dillard: That was from the get. So Alex (Theurer), my co-writer and I, we come from, above all else, the science fiction space. When I had just moved back from working for JJ Abrams on Star Wars, and we’d been writers for five or six years before that, we wanted to find something that sparked this fire. We had to shoot something, and figure out what we could shoot in our backyard, in LA. A little more grounded than like, a terraformed planet or spaceship, like we were typically writing. We had this idea a while ago about taking a street magician and mashing it up in the crime world. Those worlds overlap in a weird way, between being somewhat savvy in the streets, and deceit – it’s like there was a very natural chemistry between the two worlds.
Jacob Latimore: The personality too.
JD: Yeah, the personality required as well. We always wanted there to be what we joke is the “plus one” element. To take a movie and add just one thing. In Sleight, street magic is not that one thing, it’s more the biomechanical science fiction side of it that is the plus one. Already, there’s a lot of that going on, in that it’s a street magician who sells drugs, but in trying to infuse some of the genres that we wanted to, we had to add something to it.
BGN: It’s interesting because, hearing you talk about that, there are a lot of things aligning correctly here. A magician kind of sells an alternate reality, and a drug dealer kind of sells an alternate reality as well. Then the movie has other alternate reality twists, so that’s interesting.
Now, am I mistaken, but did I hear that you had some magic background yourself, a relationship to magic or street magic?
JD: I’ve done magic since I was 12. One of the seeds of Sleight came from this; there are so many pieces of [main protagonist] Bo that is me when I was growing up. Taking apart electronics and building things. For years I built my own computers and was also obsessed with magic. There is that sort of weird nerdy obsession with a bunch of things in that world. In being able to write something about magic, there was some authenticity I could apply. My writing partner Alex is not a magician, but he’s gotten pretty savvy through writing Sleight.
BGN: So that puts a lot of pressure on you, Jacob. I’m thinking that anybody who comes from that background to craft this will think to themselves: “This actor has to be right!”
Jacob Latimore: Absolutely, and I come from a totally different background! I’m talking R’n’B singer, performer. I’ve had a couple other films under my belt, but as a kid, films sort of similar to Sleight have always intrigued me. When I read it, that’s when I was like “Okay I can be this, I could try this.” As an actor, you want to be different things and go to different worlds, and I felt like [Sleight] was a really great balance between the genres. I wanted to investigate Bo’s world, make him as real as possible, to make him feel relatable. That’s what really intrigued me about it.
The magic part of it? It kinda scared me in the beginning! [laughs] The cards? I was carrying a deck of cards everywhere I went in my pocket. Around Eric and the Fontaine guy, Zack…being around that energy every time I could when we were off-set, in my apartment. I was throwing cards in the air, picking them up, putting them back on the deck. I was full-blown on trying to get into that world as quickly as possible. I wanted to be comfortable and have the charisma and the personality that a magician would.
BGN: Yeah, is it James Randi, who’s the famous card guy? He’s one of those dudes. He would say how he would literally sit at home for hours after school every single day and do nothing but play with cards.
Jacob: That’s how it was. It’s one of the most frustrating things when you’re trying to do a trick and the deck of cards falls everywhere and you have to pick each one up! It’s a mental game.
JDD: It’s funny, our buddy Zack who owns the company Fontaine Cards – all the cards that you see in the movie are Fontaine cards – Zack’s kind of gone viral with cardistry, which is a subset culture of the magic community. They don’t do tricks per se, but they can do these crazy flourishes, split the deck in half with every other card, making them do these crazy things. When you hang out with Zack or any of his friends, like a nervous tic, cards are always out. He’s talking and swivel-cutting, constantly doing these things. Linking Jacob up with them and seeing what that feels like…if Sleight had time to show you who Bo’s friends were, it would’ve been like Zack and his buddies. They’re all Fairfax kids, right in LA. It feels more like skateboard culture than it does magic. Everybody’s wearing Supreme, it’s even in the videos that they shoot: a fish-eye lens, right up in the camera. We brought those guys out to Sundance with us, and the video that they made performing at Sundance felt like a skate video. That’s the culture, which is so cool.
Jacob: And they’re a really supportive culture! They’re like “you can do it, you can do it!” It’s like a real clan, for real.
BGN: Did JD put you through your paces? Did you have to do street magic for anybody to practice, like performing in front of strangers?
Jacob: [laughs] No, no, not any strangers. Everything was like a rehearsal, I tried to do as much as I could. We also had an awesome hand double.
JD: For some of the really intense, close-up stuff, we had this guy Eric Jones to handle that. On Zack’s site, he has a long list of tutorials for all the basics. So Jacob went through those and had access to all of that. Also just hanging out with the guys, to play with very specific things. Sleight doesn’t compete nor compares with something like Now You See Me, it’s a very different type of magic. I think for us and what we wanted Jacob to be able to do was be comfortable. Hand him a deck of cards and make sure that when the character receives that deck it makes sense.
Jacob: There’s a certain way you even have to hold the deck. There are certain ways where you would be able to tell – even simply spreading the cards, you can tell if someone’s been holding cards for a long time. Proving that was the ultimate goal.
BGN: I think you really nailed that idea.
Now, I haven’t been able to find this particular information online, and it’s totally fine if you’re not comfortable discussing it. This is a movie that has a minimal budget and is doing a lot with it. Not to downplay other indie efforts, but there’s something about the camera here. It sways, it’s beautiful, it approaches from interesting locations. Something about it was so confident, so slick, and super-super-polished.
JD: So, this is my first feature as a director. The last set that I had been on was the biggest set I’ve ever been on in my entire life, which was The Force Awakens. And then I slipped onto the smallest set I’ve ever been on in my entire life, which was Sleight. We made this movie for significantly less than five hundred thousand dollars.
BGN: That is impressive.
JD: We say it was made for less than a million. There’s obviously that balance, where you don’t want it to be a hindrance to the film, knowing how inexpensive it was to make, but it’s also weirdly a badge of honor. So it is sort of a strange in-between when talking about the film.
Going into the process, Alex and I knew to think: where are the traditional independent film pratfalls? I’ve grown up around [film & tv production company] Bad Robot, I’ve grown up loving that type of film-making, and I knew, at the very least, if we planned it out right, we could borrow more from that world. I’m happy to hear that you felt things from the camera because we knew that we wanted the camera to be a character. We knew that we didn’t want it to be the type of indie where you’re pressing record, throwing the camera on the DP’s shoulder, and capturing the action hand-held. This had to have a certain rhythm, a flow, composition. Ed Wu, our DP, he and I sat down to work it out.
I’m obsessed with British crime dramas, like Luther and Broadchurch and Happy Valley and all of these shows. My earliest one is Prime Suspect. Compositionally, those shows utilize negative space a lot, they utilize short-sighting, pushing characters to the left and right third of the frame, and so on. There’s a lot cool that is happening there, and I talked ad nauseum about infusing it into Sleight. We knew that we were not going to be able to have many visual effects. We shot this film in 16 days, which is very fast for a movie that is not solely a drama. This brought us to like six- or eight-page days, which was very difficult.
BGN: *sucks teeth*
JD: It was almost probably more so difficult for Jacob than me. Like “Okay, now you’re sad! And now, you’re doing this!”
Jacob: All of that! And when I finally saw the movie, when JD invited me to his apartment to watch the movie and it ended, I said to him “Yoooo…what did we do?!” We shot it in…two weeks? We shot a little indie movie. But when we watched it, it seemed like we did a whole lot more in that short amount of time. It was incredible, like, how was it so clear? Was it that clear on the set? I don’t remember watching it on playback and it looking like that! [laughs] Even the trailer almost scared me with how good it looked.
JD: What’s been funny about even having the movie plugged into the bigger process of distribution is that, to a degree, it’s still just this small movie we made two summers ago. Sundance was a deadline, not a goal. It was like, let’s maybe have a cut done by October, right? Then we sent that in, and a month later I heard about us getting in. That was shocking. And if that was the end of the road, we all would’ve been so grateful. If it had just played, and that was it.
But then it got acquired and we were like “More people are going to see it? This is crazy!” When it got acquired for wide release, we were like “Okay…we don’t understand what is happening.” Seeing a trailer cut from people who cut trailers, off this low-six-figure budget movie from 2015 – it’s a trip. And literally, every step of the process has been met with gratitude, because we made this very specific thing that we cared about, and I think the conversion rate, barring its budget, was pretty high in what we wanted, to what we got. We wrote it knowing how much we were going to shoot it for, so we could get ahead of the curve in making sure that we weren’t setting ourselves up for disaster.
I was at the movie theater the other day, and the Sleight poster was right next to Ghost In The Shell. I kid you not: there are probably three more zeroes at the end of the Ghost In The Shell budget, definitely. That’s such a trip. That, in and of itself, is the dream come true, in that it has an opportunity to get out there.
BGN: I think for Ghost In The Shell, the word “zero” has come up in a number of different ways, even on our website [laughs] [sorry, couldn’t help myself – Ed.].
So in the end, Blumhouse got it, right?
JD: Blumhouse picked it up, and Blumouse is having a wild year, between Get Out and Split. My team leaves in two weeks to shoot our next film for Blumhouse. Good times! They are great people, and it’s been so fun both on Sleight and on our new movie Sweetheart. It’s been so fun working with them, but it’s also a really crazy time to be working in the industry.
BGN: Absolutely. I feel like from Moonlight and before, we are stacking up these cinematic events that are representing Black experiences in new ways, or in ways many people aren’t used to. For something like Sleight, I feel like this is the right time.
Now the soundtrack for Sleight is no slouch either. Everything about the way that this film is constructed does not speak “indie” to me at all. You forget it’s an indie while you watch it.
Jacob: I think that’s what is so surreal. When I watched it, I was like this doesn’t feel like we shot it in two weeks. When you watch it, it looks like we worked on it for two months.
JD: That came down, first, to having great talent work with us in front of and behind the camera. And knowing that we only had 16 days to do it just meant meticulous planning. But planning in a way that, when you get to set, and all the shit hits the fan, there’s still room for improvisation. [Still,] we’re coming into every scene knowing what we need, and if for some reason that’s not going to work, we know that the plan can adjust to that.
We knew how much money we had to shoot it going into the writing process, so it really just became about “Okay, where can we flex the muscle that points us in the direction of the movie we want to make?” It’s not like Sleight is a stepping stone, but budgetarily it certainly is a stepping stone. We had to prove it at this level to hopefully get different opportunities later. But the biggest piece that I felt, behind the camera, was to make sure that there was a distinct vision, that we were doing something where wherever we can, it doesn’t look like any another movie.
Maybe there are times when we went overboard, but when you’re making a movie in a vacuum, and aren’t coming with the support of a studio already…I remember before Sundance, Sleight’s facebook page had 400 likes, and 90% of those were people I know! When you’re making a movie in that arena, I think it just behooves you to do what you can to give it its own identity. Sundance certainly helped with that.
BGN: I love how you put it down like it’s an excuse. “You know, it looks good just because we knew ahead of time how much it was going to cost.” I am sure that there are a lot of producers, who worked with a lot of people, who all knew exactly how much a movie was supposed to cost, yet was miserable at the end of production!
Jacob, is Sleight your first feature as the lead?
Jacob: This was a film I carried. In the past, I’ve done a film called Black Nativity with Forrest Whitaker, I’ve been in Ride Along and The Maze Runner. But this is the second or third one I’ve really carried. I was also in a Will Smith movie that came out in December called Collateral Beauty, but this is a great movie for me to show my colors, to show my range.
BGN: Okay so: comic books. Sleight pretty much is a comic, but what can you tell me about the actual comic that’s coming out?
JD: We’re actually announcing a cover today online, I believe. It’s essentially a one-off prequel that explains, shapes, and put some color into both the circumstances – how Bo arrived here, the love for magic and where it stemmed from – and also importantly the genre-side of things, including the origin of Bo’s device. We have a really dope team around it. Oni Press is publishing, my good friend Ryan [Parrott] wrote it, who I met from Bad Robot, and Rob Guillory from Chew did the art for the book. It’s a really gorgeous, cool, and slick book, and a good kickoff to jump into the film.
BGN: Jacob, was this backstory stuff something that you had, that you could carry into the character for the movie?
Jacob: No, this way before. When I read the script the first time, that’s all I had. The prequel stuff is new.
BGN: So you didn’t have that character context.
JD: There are some allusions to this stuff that Bo talks about in the movie.
Jacob: Yeah, like the parents, meeting Angelo, all this stuff is detailed more in the comics.
JD: We’re able to carve new territory and work with our buddy Ryan to build out that story. It’s stuff that we’ve always had in the back of our heads, but we’ve never really had to answer. It’s fun to see it through the lens of Rob and Ryan in this one-off.
BGN: Last question, changing gears a little: Dulé Hill’s character. How much of that was him, and how much of that was you guys? Did you have that vision for the articulate, somewhat officious drug dealer persona, or was that him?
JDD: I’m going to put like 95% of that in Dulé’s hands. I think in seeing Dulé, and seeing that he was someone that we could talk to about this, it sort of snapped into our heads that this was the less obvious choice. But then, from a real character point of view, two things happened. One, I think it really helped Bo’s case to see how he slipped into this world. Bo’s a smart enough kid that, if he ran into a gang-banger with a pistol in his sweatband, he’d probably be smart enough to just be like, I’m not going to do this.
BGN: It’s like, Angelo’s presentation was seductive enough.
JDD: You get it. You see that this was a nice guy, kind of a father figure or older brother type, like “I’ll help you out, you’re just going to sell party drugs to kids going out in LA.”
The other thing, which Dulé says, and we structured the script a little bit just so that it rang true, is this: you can watch the movie through Angelo’s point of view, and he really doesn’t do anything wrong. He’s a respectful dude, he asks people to give him a heads-up, to help him out, tells them he wants them to do one thing and not the other, and everyone betrays him. He’s actually not wrong! [laughs] He has a moral code, all of this stuff happens because people deliberately do the opposite. Dule said that and I was like “Word, that’s smart. Let’s play it that way.” That’s why he laughs a lot during the movie because it’s from something like disbelief. Like “Why is everyone crazy? I’m asking yall to help me out and you roll up in here and do the opposite!”
Once Alex and I realized how right Dule was, we went back and made sure that we substantiated that.
Sleight releases on April 28th in US Theaters. The Sleight digital prequel comic can be read and downloaded for free, right here: https://www.sleightcomic.com/app/
The above interview has been edited slightly for clarity, and to avoid spoilers when possible.
What's Your Reaction?
Leonardo Faierman is the senior film editor at Black Girl Nerds. Born in Buenos Aires, raised in Queens, Bar Mitzvah'd at Young Israel, buried under student loans. He writes video game, music, film, and movie reviews, as well as poetry, comic books, bad dreams and good copy. He's 1/5th of the comics podcast #BlackComicsChat and 1/2 of horror film podcast The Scream Squad.