'Sleight' Director on How 'Star Wars' Led to His Own Superhero Origin Story

J.D. Dillard went from working for J.J. Abrams to helming a buzzy genre film that's hitting theaters Friday.
Jacob Latimore in 'Sleight' (Inset: JD Dillard)   |   Courtesy of Diablo Entertainment; Lucianna Faraone Coccia/Getty Images
J.D. Dillard went from working for J.J. Abrams to helming a buzzy genre film that's hitting theaters Friday.

With Sleight, first-time director J.D. Dillard has pulled off a magic trick years in the making.

Dillard's longtime filmmaking dreams have come true with Friday's release of the genre film, which is headlined by rising star Jacob Latimore as Bo, a young man who earns money to care for his sister by performing mind-bending street magic and selling drugs on the side. 

Dillard's path to his first feature saw him work as a receptionist at J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, spend time on the London set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens while helping out Abrams' family, and return home to the United States more determined than ever to direct. Sleight, which is being praised for its fresh take on the superhero genre, was well-received at Sundance and its strong buzz has led to more opportunities for Dillard and co-writer Alex Theurer, who are currently working on the survival horror film Sweetheart for Sleight studio Blumhouse. The pair also has been linked to a The Fly remake.

In a conversation with Heat Vision, Dillard opens up about the pain and gain of a low-budget film, how he's weighing his expanded career options and what he learned from The Force Awakens.

You worked for J.J. Abrams while he was shooting Force Awakens. How did that experience being on set inspire your work on Sleight?

I'm solely in the business because of my love of Star Wars, so there isn't a movie that could be more demystifying for me to see up close. We are all trying to do the same thing, and it doesn’t really matter how many zeroes are at the end of the budget. In any individual moment, you just want the audience to care about this character. You want this shot to move smoothly and that steady cam move to bend around the corner at exactly the right moment. Just to realize that even a movie at that scale and a movie that is so important and big, we're all still figuring it out, and it is an organic and sort of evolving process. That really gave me agency when I came back to just — "You know what, I need to stop being so worried about how it's going to happen, but just go do it."

The first thing I heard about this movie is that it was Chronicle meets Iron Man. That phrase came from a journalist, not from you, but was that idea of genre mashing on your mind at all?

It's a really cool designation to have right now, but the sort of superhero origin story was not necessarily part of the DNA when we started. It's certainly been something we've picked up along the way. For Alex, my co-writer, and I, the real interest was, let's see how many plates we can spin — and just generally being a fan of mixed genres, it's like, let's have some science fiction, let's have some crime thriller, let's have a family drama, let's have a little bit of a love story, and then also, let's put magic in it. We'll never tout Sleight to be the most original crime story that you've ever seen. We'll never tout it as being the most nuanced family drama you've ever seen, but for us, it was really an exercise in mixed genre. Can we do all of these things at the same time?

The ending leaves us with a  sequel possibility. Did you intend to hint at more Sleight movies?

When you are making a movie at a price, you just start to look at ways you can expand the world without it costing that much. One thing Alex and I have become very comfortable with over the first half of our writing careers is the notion of implied scale and wanting to leave this movie where you feel there could be a bigger world, there could be a bigger story, even though you didn't see all of it in this.

A big part of screenwriting is budgeting as you write. How did knowing you had limited means affect your story?

The joke we made going into the writing process was basically, let's write this to the budget that we know we have and then push it by 15, 20 percent, just so there is some level of ambition to the project and we're not just shooting something easy.

For some Hollywood's big-budget filmmakers, their first features are special because they had budget limitations the first time around. Have you given thought to the fact that you'll likely never make another film with such a tight budget, and in a way that makes Sleight special? 

There are so many filmmakers I really look up to, their paths are all so different and you certainly have the massive jumps from certain directors and you have the incremental jumps from others. The kind of nice thing for Alex and I is it really always comes down to what the needs of a particular story are. If I read a script and was in love with it and really thought we could shoot it for $2 million, I would shoot it for $2 million. I certainly come from the camp of believing there's a little bit of a bubble that needs to pop in the cost of filmmaking, which is why it's been very, very fun to work with Jason Blum on our next movie [Sweetheart] as well, because there is an energy to a set where you are not cutting corners, but you are having to be very resourceful. That is something I'll always be attracted to. Granted, there are certain stories that will take place on terraformed planets and space shuttles that I'll want to do, and I know I can't shoot that for $750,000. But I think there is a balance to find in this creative vision vs. pragmatism that I certainly want to keep alive. If a movie comes in and it needs to $150 million, then the movie will cost $150 million. I certainly want to make sure we're being smart about what the needs of the film are, regardless of what the story is.

You've also been linked to a remake of The Fly. How are you deciding your next steps now that Sleight has opened up bigger opportunities?

The biggest thing we learned post-Sundance is that we're only chasing jobs that we're in love with. And I think the biggest learning lesson on the A-side of our work was we would swing for everything, because it was a job and we wanted to work. That sort of came at the cost of being passionate for what you're working on. Post-Sundance, we just really stuck our foot down and said we're only going to chase things we're in love with, which in a great way reduced the work load, because there are only a few things at any given moment that we really, really are in love with. And then we also made a promise to ourselves that any writing gig we would swing after, we'd also be specing something on the side, that way, four or five months later if you lose that job to another writer at the studio, you have something in your back pocket to gear up. That's kind of what happened with Sweetheart, the movie we're about to shoot now. That was written in the background of two bigger studio assignments that we were swinging after. On the same call, our agent told us we lost the job, and we were like, "Cool, so we're sending you a script we'd like to get out."

How will you spend opening weekend for Sleight?

This is the great paradox. I leave on Friday [April 7] for Sweetheart, and I had all of these dreams over the course of the year of flying back to Philadelphia, where I grew up. There's a random theater way out past the Willow Grove Naval Air Station. Regal Warrington Crossing 22. That was the newest movie theater built when I was in middle school, a Mecca to drive to this beautiful new theater to see all of these movies. My dream was to go home and see it there, and then when the Sleight release date shifted from the 7th to the 28th ... now I will be missing the entire theatrical run of Sleight. But we're shooting in Fiji, so when I tell people this, no one feels bad for me.   

Sleight is in theaters now.