“We can do whatever we want if we just believe we’re able to,” says Bo, the hero of J.D. Dillard’s Sleight (in theaters this week), a film about a street magician who has to save his sister from the criminal he works for to make ends meet. It’s not hard not to see a little truth in fiction in those words if you know the story of how the film’s co-writer and director went from being a receptionist at J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, to seeing his own first film picked up by Blumhouse and WWE at Sundance last year. Dillard made it happen with skill, passion, and ingenuity. We spoke with the director about the road to making Sleight a reality and ended up a few important lessons for other filmmakers looking to bring their first feature film to the world.
Find a day job that leaves room for your creative spirit
J.D. Dillard began his career working in television, but because he found the hours ate into the time he wanted to pursue his own creative efforts on the side, he made an unconventional decision: “I ‘demoted’ myself to receptionist,” he explains. He did that job at Bad Robot (a place he long idolized) and embraced what it gave him: “The second that you leave the office, your time is yours,” he says. He would later end up working in a support role for Abrams’ family during the shooting of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in England, but his choice to create room for his creative side was important. It was also helped by his choice of where to work. Unlike an accounting job, his filmmaking aspirations weren’t something he had to leave at home. “The incredible thing about that is that it’s one of those places where you don’t have to hide your passion,” he says. “They really value you, and they are friendly and they really help fight for you and help you grow.” Finding a job like that can be invaluable to an aspiring filmmaker looking to put together his or her first project.
Pick the right project for your first film
Sleight began as a short script that Dillard and co-writer Alex Theurer had worked on together, but couldn’t find the money to produce — so they put it aside. Meanwhile, they were still writing high-concept scripts that could be potentially filmed by others, but nothing took off. “Things were at the height of frustration, just not seeing our words on screen,” recalls Dillard. But when the director returned from England in 2015 after The Force Awakens wrapped, he drew the interest (and financing) of Diablo Entertainment and Erin Fleischman. The co-writers then dug into what Dillard called their “catalog of broken ideas” to find a project to pitch Fleischman — keeping in mind that it had to be something that could be made easily and cheaply. They turned to Sleight. “That was something that would be slightly easier to produce,” says Dillard. “It seemed like something we could put together and shoot in LA and hopefully do for a low price.” It’s a valuable tip for aspiring filmmakers: your best bet for your first film (whatever influx of cash you have) is to shoot what’s logistically most feasible.
Jacob Latimore as Bo in ‘Sleight’
Learn how to shoot on the quick
Because of the specific budget they had to work with, Dillard and his crew knew they didn’t have a lot of time to shoot. In fact, Sleight was shot in just 17 days. But knowing that in advance provided a creative restriction they could plan for: “We knew to keep the budget relatively contained and keep the cap relatively small,” the director says. It also helped guide the scope of the script as they fleshed it out from short to feature. “It really just came down to the fact that we had the benefit of starting the entire creative-writing process knowing pretty much what the parameters were going to be,” Dillard explains. It’s a good lesson: if you know your budget, tailor the script to meet it.
Make the most of shoot days
Seventeen days isn’t a lot of time, so to make the most of it on location, Dillard and his team often had to adapt to get the most out of a shoot day — even if it led to mild compromises in creative vision. “In a movie where you’re shooting four to eight pages in a day, the critical priority is that you make the day, because we just don’t have the flexibility to say, ‘Well, we didn’t get that. We can get it tomorrow.’” That’s why sometimes, if time ran long at a location, they’d just shoot nearby – instead of where they had originally planned to shoot. Dillard would say, “Okay, we’re actually going to shoot at this location because it’s across the street from the other spot, and even if it’s not my favorite creatively, we’ll definitely be able to make the day now.” When you only have so much time and money, making the most of your available days is key, and sometimes you have to adapt to make that happen.
Don’t think too much about the implications
It’s not uncommon now in Hollywood for directors just starting out to suddenly be bumped up to the big leagues based on their debut. Colin Trevorrow went from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. Gareth Edwards went from Monsters to Godzilla. Jon Watts went from Cop Car to the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. And sure enough, Dillard, riding off the buzz around Sleight, is in negotiations to direct a remake of The Fly. It begs the question: how much should a first-time director think about how their debut film will quickly define their career? “The, ‘Will this establish me as the director that I want to be?’ question is big when you’re just trying to figure out your first movie,” Dillard admits, but there are more immediate concerns. “What certainly pops up very quickly is, ‘What is my aesthetic? What is my voice?’” Those become the more important questions to ask about the film you’re making right now, as opposed to the ones you may do down the road.
‘Sleight’ is playing in theaters in the US now. Images courtesy of Blumhouse Tilt. Photo credit for all images: Alex Hyner