‘Sleight’ director calls Sundance a dream come true
January 23, 2016
Ask first-time feature film director JD Dillard to describe his Sundance NEXT film "Sleight," and it takes him a moment to put it into words.
"The fun thing about ‘Sleight’ is that it’s definitely mixed-genre," he said. "It fits in this sort of in-between. A little bit crime-thriller and a little bit science fiction, but definitely drama forward. I hope the benefit of that is that we’re doing something new."
"Sleight," written by Dillard and his writing partner Alex Theurer and directed by Dillard, tells the story of a gifted high school student named Bo, who foregoes college after circumstances leave him as the sole provider for his younger sister, Tina. He turns to street magic to make ends meet, then makes the mistake of getting involved with a local drug dealer. From there, things take a dangerous turn.
Dillard said the story came in part from his own love of magic.
"I’d been a card magician on and off since I was 11," he said.
The motivation to make the film, though, came from a desire to do something big.
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"Alex and I wanted to write something we could actually make," Dillard said. "Because as a writer you spend a lot of time in the theoretical. You write but you’re not sure where things are going to go, or if they will even go anywhere.
"And we were kind of just thirsty to see actors speak our words, and see scenes we’d written come to life."
Dillard and Theurer took a short script they’d written and expanded it into a full feature. Dillard had directed smaller projects before, including music videos, but never something the scale of a feature-length film. He said his experience working at J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot helped him to envision the kind of film he wanted to make.
"I started there as the receptionist," Dillard said. "And I grew up loving movies of that scale, the classic cinematic language of Steven Spielberg and J.J. and people of that ilk. For us as independent filmmakers, we wanted to take advantage of that, which isn’t very prevalent in the independent world."
Dillard said he took a very "camera forward" approach to try and give "Sleight" the feel of a much bigger movie.
"There is a way that someone like Spielberg moves the camera that is just, you can identify it so quickly and so easily," he said.
Bringing that feel to a smaller-budget film wasn’t always easy.
"Even though we couldn’t afford a dolly every day, or couldn’t afford a steadycam every day, there is definitely a way to present the movie," he said. "We wanted to use cinematic language that borrows from movies much bigger than ours. And we thought that would be a fun way to make an independent film and have it kind of stand out.
"It definitely borrows from the bigger movies we’re inspired by. We’re definitely swinging for that cinematic quality."
Dillard said the biggest difference between shooting a music video and a feature film is exactly what you’d expect. Planning a shoot that last several weeks takes much more effort and attention than one that takes two or three days. But Dillard and Theurer elected to have their editing team on set for the duration, and a unique tradition sprung up as a result.
"This kind of cool culture grew on our set where people were able to go over to the editor and see what we’d shot that day," Dillard said. "We got into a rhythm eventually where I was seeing cuts of scenes before I was seeing dailies.
"There would be plenty of times coming over to the editors during our lunch break and there would be a crowd of people around them watching something from yesterday and having a great time. That was a weird thing about the feature process that we’d never encountered before, and we just thought, obviously this is how we have to work from now on because it became such a valuable tool for us."
Comedy fans will notice two familiar faces in "Sleight," stand-up comic Cameron Esposito and Saturday Night Live’s Sasheer Zamata. Dillard said they were cast not necessarily for their comedic talents but for their unique energy.
"In wanting to kind of create an accurate representation of Los Angeles, we wanted to be weird, to be diverse, to be different," Dillard said. "Sasheer and Cameron both have a lively, youthful quality and you can see why Bo would hang out with them.
"And plus, we wanted to just fill the world with characters that tend to not be represented as much in the types of movies we like to watch. We didn’t want it to be homogenous."
Dillard said when Sundance first called him in early December he didn’t answer because he didn’t recognize the number.
"I definitely thought it was student loan collectors," he said.
But when he heard the voicemail and called back to receive the news, he said the emotions overtook him.
"I basically sobbed for two straight days," he said. "It was not an easy movie to make. It was fun but it wasn’t easy. It was the weirdest year spent getting this tiny film off the ground, and then just feeling validated in the purest sense. Someone else liked the movie. It’s an enormous weight off your back just to get that news."
Dillard said he and Theurer are looking forward to Sundance but going into it with no expectations.
"We just want to make more movies," he said. "’Sleight’ is already a dream, and if nothing happened beyond it screening, it’s already done so much for us. It’s gotten something we made in front of the eyes of our peers. That’s plenty. We’re already so grateful for that experience."
Dillard then pauses for a moment and laughs.
"Now, if we’re being a tiny bit greedy," he said. "The hope would be to get the help of a distributor and get ‘Sleight’ in a place where more people can see it."
Sundance will screen "Sleight" as part of the NEXT category at the Library Center Theatre at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23; at the Redstone Cinema 7 at noon Monday, Jan. 25; at the Broadway Centre Cinema 3 at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26; and at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre at 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28. For more information and tickets visit http://www.Sundance.org.