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Justin Powell & David Charbonier of ‘The Djinn’ talk about not waking the neighbors & scaring people with what they have

An insightful talk.

The Djinn can be considered a throwback horror movie. The indie horror movie stars Ezra Dewey as a child who wishes for his greatest desire. As expected, the results are far more than he bargained for. AIPT spoke with filmmakers Justin Powell and David Charbonier about their intimate movies and  working within your means.

AIPT: We’ll start with, how would you two describe The Djinn?

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Justin Powell: I guess as a horror thriller with some fantasy elements, is the broad description I think that we would use for it.

AIPT: What was your inspiration for the story?

Powell: In 2018, our other film ended up getting pushed and we had resolved between us, “All right, we are going to make a movie, our first feature in 2018, we’re going to direct something this year.” And at that time we had a couple resources at our disposal.

We had already gone through a pretty robust audition process for The Boy Behind the Door. And we had identified already, at that point, Ezra. And we’re like, “Oh my God, he’s this amazing actor that no one knows about and we can actually probably get him for another product that we’d want to do.”

And also we had an apartment at our disposal at the time that was going to basically expire in a little bit over a month. So we were like, “Okay, let’s craft a story around these two elements.”

So, we literally made a story knowing our limitations and that’s something we had never done before in terms of just like, “Okay, we have basically an actor and a location, what is a story we can create from that?” And that’s where it was born. As crazy as that may sound. And so we just crafted everything else from there.

AIPT: That leads to one of my questions, actually. I was going to ask what went behind the decision have it all take place in one setting.

David Charbonier: Like Justin said, just cause we didn’t really have the resources or the funds to expand it beyond that. We just really tried to crafts an interesting story and narrative within the restraints of the tiny apartment. In an ideal world, maybe it could have been a little bit bigger, but this one, unfortunately.

AIPT: Ezra was also in The Boy Behind the Door. So what does he bring to the production?

Powell: It’s really hard, I think, to find really talented child actors. They’re obviously out there. They exist. When we first saw the audition with Ezra, we immediately knew that we wanted to work with him because he has this really natural authenticity that he carries with him in real life and he’s able to just carry it with him when you put the camera on him also.

I think that’s something that you always really want to look for in child actors is just that level of authenticity and if they can feel comfortable in front of the camera being themselves and that’s really what Ezra brought to it.

We crafted a story basically for him, knowing who he was as an actor and really wanting to play to his strengths. Even with wanting to play to his strengths, he elevates things in ways that you never expect just because he’s just so naturally gifted.

It’s really crazy that someone that young can make your life that easy. He’ll get everything on literally the first take, but we’re like, “Well, let’s do others because we also want to see what else you’ll do so that we have something else fun to work with.” He’s just a lot of fun to work with and he’s also really chill.

Charbonier: He’s very dedicated. He had to learn sign language for the role and his parents are also so supportive. They’ve been the best champions for us and for him, it’s just been an amazing collaboration, I feel.

AIPT: Why did you choose to use child protagonists for your movies?

Charbonier: Well, The Djinn was really because we were using the resources we had and we fell in love with Ezra and we thought we could come up with an interesting story for him. For The Boy Behind the Door, I mean, you don’t really get to see children lead movies that often, I feel, especially nowadays.

I think it was more common, back in the 1980s and maybe the 1990s a bit, but I feel they make really interesting protagonists because there’s a simplicity to their motivations and the way they think, and everyone can relate to that childlike wonder of the prism you see the world through.

Powell: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think that a lot of the films that David and I grew up with were centered on horror with children. Two that really come to mind are Child’s Play and Jurassic Park. Those two really drew us in with the children’s sense of wonder and not realizing the terrible situation they’re about to get into because of said wonder. We really wanted to lean into that with The Djinn.

Once we committed, “Okay, this is the direction we want to go. Let’s really lean into that childlike wonder and build this fun, almost fairy tale-esque feeling around it.” Really leaning into this kid, getting over his head because that’s just something that feels very universal and relatable.

As a kid growing up, you don’t necessarily think about the consequences of your actions in that way. Like David said, you have really simple motivations and it’s just like, “Oh, I want to make a wish, so let me see how this works out.” And it’s like, “Oh shoot, maybe shouldn’t have done that.”

AIPT: Both of you mentioned movies from the 1980s. The Djinn takes in 1989, but unlike other movies where it’s very in your face like, “Oh, you’re in the eighties,” it’s very laid back and tone down here. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

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Charbonier: Well, we grew up in the nineties. We were both born in the late eighties, but we consider ourselves children of the nineties. So we just love stories that centered in that time period. Especially, I guess in this situation, dealing with a kid, cause we were like that kid in that era. It’s just this nostalgia factor I feel for us. We love the thrillers and the scary movies from that time. And again, there’s a simplicity to it. There’s a familiarity to it. Everyone feels comfortable. We definitely didn’t want to hit it over the head though. We want it to feel believable with the approach to it. It, I think, comes through in like the music and some of the production design, but it’s more of a backdrop. It’s the story could be told at any time period. Really just more of a preference.

Powell: I think that in general, that’s a through-line for David and I is anything that we do, we don’t like to hammer things too hard over the head. We really like simplicity. We really like things to serve as subtle backdrops in a lot of ways. So that, as an audience, that’s there for you in terms of the fun, nostalgia factor, but you can really get to focus on the tension and the terror and also the emotional core at the center of it all. So we don’t ever want things to take away from those core elements. We just want them to enhance that if that makes any sense.

AIPT: One of the things that makes it so tense is as though there’s so little dialogue in it, why did you decide to make the main character mute?

Powell: So that was two things. So one is David and I really feel this film is a visual medium, we really live by that mantra. Sound, obviously, for horror is incredibly important. Arguably the most important part of horror movies is the sound.

But because we really like to approach things as it being from a visual medium, we don’t like there to be a lot of dialogue in any of our stories. So we also think that in real life, especially when characters aren’t interacting with too many other characters, you don’t speak. It’s like it’s natural for them to be silent.

We wanted things to feel natural in that way, but also obviously in terms of him being actually mute, that once again was born out of our limitations because we were in this apartment, did not want to disrupt these neighbors and draw attention to the fact that we’re shooting this feature right above them. And around them with a kid that’s screaming, bloody murder.

We were like, “How can we avoid that?” And so that ended up leading to him being mute. And that’s where the idea of him wanting to make this wish actually came from and everything grew out of that. It was just another further extension of this entire film being built out of our limitations.

AIPT: The Boy Behind the Door is coming to Shudder in July. How exciting is that for you?

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Charbonier: We’re so excited for it to come out. That’s a story that’s so special and personal to us, everyone on the cast and crew did such an amazing job, Lonnie, Ezra are just so phenomenal. We’re so excited for both the movies to come out, but The Boy Behind the Door has been a long time in the making. So it’s going to feel really good when it does come out.

AIPT: The Djinn is a very intimate movie, but like other horror movies that have those loud in your face of obnoxious moments, why did you decide to mix those two elements?

Powell: I think that, especially since we wanted to have this feel like a little bit of a nod to old school horror in that way, a lot of those 1980s classics do things like that, where they do have those big moments. And we really wanted to lean into it having that tone, but that was one of the things where it’s like, “Okay, if it has those moments, that’s going to lend itself to feeling like it’s more of that era without it hitting over the head.”

So that was one element with it. And also it felt natural in the story to have these moments of really tense silence and then all of a sudden, it to explode into these exciting thriller sequence. I think that’s where that came from.

Charbonier: Yeah, I think that’s right. I definitely think we allowed ourselves to push those elements a little bit more than what we normally might. I think, normally, we tend to try to be a little bit more subtle or naturalistic, but with this one, especially in developing the score, Matthew James, who did the score, just did such an amazing job that we really wanted to embrace louder, more operatic, sound moments in the movie. We just had fun with it.

The Djinn comes to theaters, digital, and on demand May 14

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