Sleight: Independent Filmmaking At Its Best

“We love pairing different worlds; the joy of magic and illusion clashing with the harsh realities of street life gave us a foundation which we could build an engaging story around.”

For filmmaker J.D. Dillard, Sleight came out of a desire to look at the seemingly-different worlds of magic and crime and develop an original premise which would weave the two together in a unique genre-bending film. Dillard made Sleight for $250 000, and he shot it in 16 days, and during the first 5 weeks of its release, the film spun its own magic at the box office and raked in $3,930,990.

“Magic’s always been a part of my life. It’s something I’ve loved since I was a kid. Sleight started as a short script – something Alex (Theurer, co-writer) and I wrote for fun. We realized that there was this natural relationship between magic and crime: they both require a certain degree of deception and that was became the premise for Sleight.”


J.D Dillard is a writer and director working in Los Angeles, California. His breakout script The Death of John Archer Newman was featured on the Hit List, an annual collection of the industry’s highest voted screenplays, and put him on the year’s Young and Hungry list. Dillard and his writing partner, Alex Theurer, went on to set up a science fiction coming-of-age film with Paramount Pictures and JJ Abram’s production company, Bad Robot. In 2016, Dillard’s directorial debut, Sleight, a science fiction crime thriller, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and sold to Blumhouse & WWE Studios. The film, which Dillard co-wrote,was released worldwide on April 28th, 2017 (on 1 Sept , 2017 in South Africa). Currently, Dillard is in prep on Sweetheart, a science-fiction horror film with Jason Blum/Blumhouse that he co-wrote and will be directing in Q1 of 2017

The Concept: A young street magician is left to care for his little sister after their parents passing and turns to questionable activities to keep a roof over their heads. When he gets in too deep, his sister is kidnapped and he is forced to use his magic and brilliant mind to save her.

For director and co-writer Dillard, creating the character of Bo – and landing that character somewhere between the familiar and the fantastic – was a priority. “In so many stories, we’ve seen the young black kid who needs to resort to drug dealing. While it may seem overused, we wanted to hit this trope with a sense of empathy. Bo has everything going for him. He’s a brilliant student, a talented magician, and a role model to his little sister. When he loses his parents, a harsh reality sets in – maintaining a decent life for his sister is going to require personal sacrifice. I think Jacob struggles with something we all have – how do we best take care of the people around us while still not losing track of who we are and what we’re passionate about?”

‘’I grew up doing a lot of magic, and when Alex [Theurer] and I were playing around with worlds we’d like to dive into, magic had always been on the table. We explored this in a shorter format by writing a script for what would be a short film, a number of years ago, but could never really get the short off the ground. And then, when we put our heads together to think about something that we could self produce due to this growing frustration of being writers who have never seen their work on screen, it led us to think about a story that seemed just small enough that someone would be crazy enough to make it, and Sleight popped back into our head as the perfect vessel for that. The crime aspect of it wasn’t there in the very, very, very beginning. Immediately looking at what skill set you have as a magician, quite naturally we landed on the fact that there are more than a few points of intersection. There’s deceit, the ability to be a chameleon, and the salesmanship, and that intersection seemed like a fun place to tell a story.’’

Outside of film, screenwriter Alex Theurer is known for writing and producing six seasons of the Emmy award-winning documentary series Intervention. Currently, Theurer is in pre-production on Sweetheart, a survival horror film with Jason Blum/Blumhouse, that he co-wrote with J.D. Dillard and will be producing in the spring of 2017.

For co-writer Alex Theurer, other themes became apparent in the relationship between the two: illusionists/magicians and street criminals: finesse; charisma; risk and a need to be in control.

“We love pairing different worlds; the joy of magic and illusion clashing with the harsh realities of street life gave us a foundation which we could build an engaging story around.”

As the script developed, “balancing real-world drama and sci-fi elements was crucial and a primary goal of the film. We love playing with genre but it only works when you first identify the ‘beating heart’ of the story, which became our characters” states Theurer.

When Dillard and Theurer first began working on Sleight, it was very different from the movie you see on screen; it isn’t that Dillard and Theurer tacked a family story onto a genre-switching story, but, rather, just the reverse.

As Theurer notes, “We had kicked around the idea for Sleight for a couple of years. From the original concept, we modernized the criminal underbelly a little, but its core of a family drama has been there from the beginning.”

One of  their biggest challenges was balancing real-world drama and sci-fi elements into a story that could be believable in our world.

‘’The thing Alex and I have always talked about with this movie was that it was never going to be a crazy magic experience like The Prestige, and it was never going to be the most complicated and cool crime story like The Departed. That was never the goal with it. And honestly, in the writing process, very early on, we realized that, if we over-complicated any of those elements too much, it actually muddied the whole story because we were trying to spin one too many plates, throughout the entire thing. So, for us, the real joy of the movie is blending these pieces that we haven’t blended before, but in that process, there is a simplicity to each of the standalone arcs. For us, it was really just an experiment in plate spinning.’’

Dillard’s taste for genre-changing films might in part be a legacy of one of his first jobs – at JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot production company, learning from one of Hollywood’s best-known big-canvas storytellers.

‘’Bad Robot began in 2010 when I was hired as the company’s receptionist. While there’s plenty to learn from a director as talented as he is, his temperament and admiration for what he does have always been the most inspiring. I think that’s part of the reason there’s a palpable energy on his sets.

People are happy and excited to all be bringing the vision to life. I’d love to bring that energy to my own sets.”

”Writing has always been where my focus and where my head is at. Going to a company like Bad Robot, there was no ulterior motive. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna put in X amount of time, and then ask for this.” It was really just being in an environment with people who are really inspiring, truly awesome, kind, generous and thoughtful. Simultaneously and more selfishly, it was about having a job that wouldn’t completely dominate my life, so that there was time to write and to grow a craft. My years as a receptionist there were truly that. I had the time and flexibility to keep my creative life afloat and healthy, but then also walking the halls of that company certainly leaves an impact on you. So many interesting people come in and out of that building. It’s hard not to be inspired when that’s the backdrop.’’


Bringing the character of Bo to life required finding the right actor – one who could convey not only the fast handiwork of a practicing sleight-of-hand magician but also the moral center and drive to survive that Bo has in the face of all odds. Fortunately, Dillard and the production found the perfect actor for the part in Jacob Latimore (The Maze Hunter, Collateral Beauty).

Dillard made Sleight for less than half a million dollars, and he shot it in 16 days, doing six or eight pages a day, which seems crazy under any circumstances, but then you also have action and magic in the mix.

‘’We did have the benefit of knowing how much money we were shooting the movie for, at the writing stage. The movie was tailor made for what we knew we could spend. My memories of, “God, I wish we could have done this!,” aren’t too specific because it would have been put on the chopping block, even in its broadest conceit, if we knew we couldn’t do it. Where I see the tight grip of a small budget on the film really boils down to, “It would have been nice to have two days to shoot this scene, instead of one. It would have been great to have another take where the camera moved like this instead.” That’s where I see our budget and schedule. It’s not like there’s a giant missing scene from Sleight because we didn’t have the money to shoot it. We protected ourselves creatively by writing for our resources.’’

Even with trained magicians and talented filmmakers on set in seemingly every direction, making Sleight involved solving problems with ingenuity, not endless amounts of either money or computer power. As Dillard explains,“Regardless of what appeared on screen, Sleight was incredibly DIY because of our budget. Our visual effects are really minimal because we knew we wouldn’t be able to handle complex gags in post. Aside from the Alexa camera itself, there wasn’t much high tech on set.”

That reality of low-budget expediency and need actually wound up helping on the film’s fast-paced shooting days, as Dillard explains it: No actor ever had a problem finding or looking to precisely the spot where post-production magic would be added later. “It was pretty easy to have the actors react on set because there was almost always a practical component to our effects – so there was always something to look at, something to interact with. (In the script,) Bo always tells his audience that he’s not using strings and the funny thing is that on set, we used strings for nearly every levitation effect.”

Sleight also evolved into a comic book prequel.

Says Dillard: ‘’Honestly, that was a really incredible idea that came from Blumhouse. They, perhaps even quicker than Alex and I, picked up on the superhero aspect of this movie, and it just seemed like a really great avenue to expand the story a little bit. It was quite kismet that they mentioned Rob Guillory to do the illustration because I’ve been a fan of his for quite awhile. On the flipside, a very dear friend of ours, Ryan Parrot, is a very talented screenwriter and deeply as talented a comic book writer, so when this idea bubbled up, we reached out to Ryan to help bring this to life. It’s so cool to see Sleight existing in this different format.’’