Director J.D. Dillard’s New Movie ‘Sleight’ Was Built Off of J. Cole’s Song “No Role Modelz”
Music should move a listener in some form, whether it's to inspire, to think, to act or to believe. For Director J.D. Dillard, music, specifically J. Cole's "No Role Modelz, helped the young filmmaker in writing his new movie, Sleight.
The film, in theaters now, is centered on Bo, a young street magician—played by singer and actor Jacob Latimore—who's left to care for his little sister after their parents’ pass away. When things get rough for the two siblings, the young magician turns to illegal activities to keep a roof over their heads. He later gets in trouble and his sister is kidnapped. Bo is then forced to use his magic to save her.
Sleight is a brilliant take on a coming-of-age superhero in the hood. As superhero films dominate the box office because of amazing special effects and huge cast, Sleight focuses on the duality of the main character, who's also lacking guidance. This is where Cole's "No Role Modelz," off the rapper's 2014 Forest Hills Drive album, comes into play. When Dillard was writing Sleight, it was J. Cole's "No Role Modelz," along with Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, among others, that became the soundtrack to his creative process.
This film serves as J.D. Dillard's directorial debut. He premiered the movie at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and has been receiving rave reviews ever since. Dillard also credits the year he worked for J.J. Abrams on the set of The Force Awakens as the reason he decided to write Sleight.
While on the phone with XXL, J.D. Dillard opens up about Sleight, why J. Cole's "No Role Modelz" made such an impact on him, what he learned from Chance The Rapper and his goal to add hip-hop music video director to his resume.
XXL: What's the premise of the movie?
J.D. Dillard: It’s a story about a kid who’s a young magician and as he's sort of hit with some unfortunate circumstances, he kind of has to turn a little bit to a life of crime to keep a roof over his and his sister’s head. The movie is sort of about the struggle to maintain his innocence as he needs more and the crime world gets a little bit of a firmer grip around his own life while trying to maintain the passion that he has in performing.
Were you into magic when you were younger?
Absolutely. I was a huge nerd when I was younger. I was taking apart computers and trying to build robots and magic was one of the many things my parents were so confused why I was spending all my money on. After the David Blaine special on ABC way back I just kind of became obsessed with it.
Watching a David Blaine special was such an insane experience. Was that the feeling you were going for when writing Sleight?
Yeah, I think magic and filmmaking do have a lot in common. They’re both careers that is set up as professional lying. I think when you watch the piece, what’s more important is magic is a love of mine and it is the love of Bo, our lead character. It really is just a placeholder of what someone’s passion is. And Sleight was never going to compete with The Prestige or Now You See Me but it really is there for a vessel for having something creative that you love and when you see the film so much of what you see before magic, the scene doesn’t end on the wild look on people's faces, it ends on Bo because it’s important to see that this is what he loves.
What music did you grow up listening to?
I was all over the place in putting Sleight together. I don’t even think I mentioned this to people, Sleight was built off J. Cole’s “No Role Modelz.” Alex Theurer and I wrote the script with that song blasting in the background. I played the song on set so many times. I remember the day we got into Sundance, I went to my car and just turned the car on and the first song that played on Power 106 was “No Role Modelz” and for the first time in my life I cried to a J. Cole song.
I grew up listening to a lot of stuff but getting ready for Sleight there were a lot of Kendrick Lamar, there was a Cole, there was some Kanye West here and there, Chance the Rapper, just trying to take some uplifting guys and make it the life force on set.
What made “No Role Modelz” so significant to you?
Even just picking the title, we had a character who is really lacking role models and everything that he’s doing he kind of had to do himself. While the Cole song talked about a lot more than that, I think there was this wish fulfillment that I got hearing that song and applying to Bo’s life. If we could have afforded that song for our movie I know it would have been in there. A lot of the stuff I was listening to at that time, that was one that seemed right for our story.
Now that you mention J. Cole, he could definitely play Bo’s character. If you could choose a rapper to play the main character, who would it be and why?
I give it Jacob Latimore first because he did it and crushed it. But if I Jacob passed on the role, I think there’s something really interesting with Chance in a role like that. I think Chance also has that personality where he radiates joy and you can see how important family is to him.
Coloring Book is a perfect example of that. He’s such an outlier because there are not really rappers that young be this successful yet appear so involved in his day-to-day community.
This may sound so stupid but it was earlier this year he was posting Instagram videos of his daughter. That joy that that guy radiates is so infectious, for real. It made me make a conscious decision to try and radiate that kind of energy. I listen to his music a lot. Even as I’m writing a lot of stuff now, he’s certainly one of the artists on the top of that playlist.
People will always say, “That’s social media and that’s not really their lives,” even putting that aside, I think as a professional and a creative even making people feel the way that Chance feels, they feel valued and they feel important and you have things in your heart and mind that are outside just on your own work but the world and your community. I think that’s a really important component about being an artist. I’m older than him but I’m learning a lot from him and Chance has certainly been an important part of my 2017.
If you were making a playlist, what would you put on it?
I’ll give you artists who I’ll put on. I would probably have a bunch of Michael Kiwanuka, I definitely have some Chance, Kendrick. I’ll throw a little Arcade Fire in there to break it up. I’ve been loving Cousin Stizz from Boston. I’ve been listening to everything that I can get my hands on from Stizz. I listen to a lot of Bas from Dreamville and of course Cole.
Stizz is so good.
“500 Horses” is my song right now.
Did you see Kendrick Lamar’s video for “Humble?” What did you think about it?
I thought it was really impactful. That kind of breaks my heart when I watch some of these music videos, there is kind of this irony where there is a lot of music directors who are trying to get into movies. And I don’t want to give up making movies because I really love making films but I’m also trying to get in that world too [laughs]. I’m about to leave to shoot another movie for Blumhouse but I would love to shoot videos for Stizz, or Chance, or Cole or A$AP or Bas.
That’s a piece of my creative life that I’m really trying to start. One thing that’s exciting when you look at visual albums like Beyoncé, even Vince Staples had a really cool one from last year, I would love to get into this short to mid-form length visuals for some of these guys. As a writer, first and foremost, be there from the ground up. I would love to build something out with them. When I move back that’s certainly one of the goals for the rest of the year.
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