By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Writers/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell are not afraid to put kids through the ringer. Their film THE DJINN shows one terrifying night in the life of a young boy named Dylan (played by Ezra Dewey), who is mute. Though the djinn is a mythological creation that spans many cultures and beliefs, the trauma this boy goes through before and presumably after this night is firmly grounded in reality. We spoke to the two filmmakers about the single location shoot, getting what you wish for, and being afraid of the dark.
Where did the idea for THE DJINN come from?
JP: We had another movie in 2018 that got pushed, The Boy Behind The Door,and we were really determined to make our first film that year. We had, fortunately, already cast Ezra, and we knew that he is an excellent actor and he was available. We also had access to an apartment. We knew that those were the two main elements that we were working with. We formed a story around those elements. That’s where the main impetus came from. Within that, developing Dylan’s character being mute, was a way to be respectful and quiet to the neighbors around us. How to not have him scream? Have him be mute. Everything organically developed out of that. Even the djinn, the creature itself. We knew we wanted this to be about a boy who makes a wish, and the logical creature for that is a djinn. In all of the research we did we saw it crossed a lot of cultures and beliefs. We wanted to go the route closer to the occult side of that. There are so many forms of djinn. It all just flowed out of that.
The element of Dylan’s trauma is so central to the film. How did that come about?
DC: That’s interesting. I feel like a lot of our stories are interested in the theme of grief. For horror stories we just find them way more interesting. You do have a story and characters that are grounded with an emotional core, universal themes that people can relate to. What he went through is a lot darker than what he encounters throughout, but we did want to explore that backstory and what it would do to a character. Feeling incomplete or a strong desire or wish for something. It is a theme that everyone can relate to, unfortunately.
Without spoiling the film, there are certain parts that just feel mean.
DC: [Laughs] We debated how much to show with that. We didn’t want it to feel exploitative, but with so much about his character we thought we should show it. We didn’t want to downplay it too much, because it actually does inform who he is and all the grief he has gone through.
Were there any lines you toed, but backed away from?
JP: Any time it ventured into the realm of being exploitative, we would just make sure it didn’t go there. We didn’t really feel we ran into that too much beyond his backstory. In terms of what he is going through that night, he definitely goes through it. There was never a point where we had to be careful about how far we went. We knew what would be more or less acceptable. We love stories that center on children and terror. But we are the kind of horror fans who get frustrated when the little kid is never in that much peril. No! Put them in there. Put them in that dark and serious situation. They have to go through it too, just like the adults.
How did you develop the visual language of the film? The camera is almost always at Dylan’s height, and it moves fluidly through the apartment. Most films don’t take that perspective.
DC: I never thought about how the camera was low the whole time, because he is so short. [Laughs] That’s really funny. Luckily, we are good friends, and we have a good DP friend [Julián Estrada]. Because it was a lower budget project it was important for us to have really strong visuals. We wanted it to feel as cinematic as possible. We really did take a lot of time crafting interesting shots and different compositions. We tried to push ourselves with the resources we had. We are in an apartment the whole time and it needs to have some visual intrigue, or otherwise you will get bored looking at four white walls the whole time. It was important to have the camera always moving and evolving. It is a visual medium and aesthetic is just as important as the story.
Did any surprise issues pop up during the shoot?
JP: There is a fun story. Ezra, at the time, had just turned twelve. He was a little kid, but he is so professional and on top of everything that you sometimes forget he is a kid. There is a sequence where all the lights are out, and he was afraid of the dark! He had a lot of trouble shooting that sequence because he was so legitimately scared. His mom was supporting him, and we were trying to give him as much time as he needed, but we had to reconfigure that scene to reduce how much he was in it. There are some POVs that are in that sequence now that were not originally planned. We came up with that alternative. This was that really interesting moment of remembering that he is a real kid, and sometimes kids are afraid of the dark.
Have you gotten to see THE DJINN or The Boy Behind The Door with an audience?
JP: No, and that’s really weird. The Boy Behind The Door we at least got to see in a theater. We have not seen THE DJINN on the big screen, but it is going to be playing in theaters. That is wild to think of, but COVID times are just so weird. It has changed how everyone interacts with movies.
Has COVID changed how you are approaching new projects?
DC: I don’t think specifically for us, because we always like contained stories that are a little more simple. Easy to follow premises, without 100 characters. A lot of movies now are trying to be more contained and COVID-friendly. We wrote THE DJINN and shot it before COVID, but a lot of people have said it looks like a COVID-friendly production.
Do you have any big projects coming up?
DC: We are writing all the time. There are a couple scripts we are really excited about, one specifically. It has been a long road, but you are always trying to get the next one up off the ground. We are cautiously optimistic.
What do you want audiences to take away from THE DJINN
JP: When you start thinking of all the things that you are missing, you forget about the things that you have. Cherish the things you do have in your life. If you focus too much on what you perceive as lacking, you might not necessarily end up in the same trouble as Dylan, [but] you will likely lead a less happy existence. Try to hold on to what hope and positivity that you can. We’d also love it if people just thought this was an exciting thrill ride.
THE DJINN is available now on streaming platforms from IFC Midnight.