"Make It Work Mode": Justin Powell And David Charbonier On THE DJINN

The first-time feature filmmakers on resourcefulness, proactivity and not being afraid to pivot.

By Andrew Crump · @agracru · May 13, 2021, 12:23 PM PDT
the djinn 2.png
Ezra Dewey in THE DJINN.

Justin Powell and David Charbonier would like a bigger budget for their next movie, but they’ll take the budget they have and make the best movie they can with it. That’s the moral of their first feature, The Djinn, preceding their second, The Boy Behind the Door, slated for release this July; money being a factor in production, the duo repeatedly ran into financial problems that demanded creative solutions, like how to keep the folks in the apartment next door to the one you’re using as a set from calling the cops on your cast and crew. (Really.) Luckily, Powell and Charbonier are full of creative solutions. Even better, those solutions wound up dovetailing nicely with The Djinn’s driving motifs about self-acceptance.

The film centers on Dylan (Ezra Dewey), a young boy stricken with grief and guilt over a terrible personal loss suffered months prior to the story’s events and incapable of speech. He believes that loss is all the fault of his lack of voice; he views his condition as the flaw that defines him as a person. So, naturally, when he finds an old tome with instructions on how to summon a djinn, an ancient evil entity capable of granting wishes, Dylan finds the nearest candle, mirror, and needle to get the ritual going. Sounds like a great plan until the djinn starts stalking him through his apartment. Think of The Djinn as an accompaniment to films like Jacob Chase’s Come Play, another movie about a child with a disability fighting monsters in the dark, but with less funding and by necessity more ingenuity.

FANGORIA sat down with Powell and Charbonier over Zoom to hash out The Djinn’s production and themes, from the potential problems over Dylan's wish, the reasons why kids make great horror movie protagonists, and the value of resourcefulness on a horror set.

What makes a child a great protagonist for a horror movie in general, and especially this one, where it's the child and the monster and no one's coming to save the child? There's no one there to help him. It’s just the kid versus this creature.

Justin Powell: Everybody can relate to that experience of growing up and having that naive sense of wonder. There's just something intrinsically relatable where you feel connected immediately with that character, and you don't have to necessarily dive into a whole bunch of exposition or backstory. You just feel like you're in it with that protagonist right away. I feel like in a lot of horror movies you have that moment of, 'Oh, why did you do that?' We have those moments, but then you think, 'Well, yeah, it's a kid, they make those kinds of mistakes.' [laughs]

It's a fun experience that feels like everybody can connect with in some way. It lends itself to, especially if you have a really strong actor like Ezra, this sense of authenticity, and the connection just feels really strong. So I think that that's something we love. We love kids in horror: Child’s Play, Jurassic Park, those movies really stuck with us, the kids in those movies. There are many others, too.

David Charbonier: Kids just are so relatable. Everyone’s been a kid, plenty of people have kids.

I always relate to that sense of helplessness. Helplessness is something people feel in all horror movies, whether they’re adults or kids. It’s heightened for kids, because they rely on adults as a protective force between themselves and the darkness. The added component of Dylan's lack of voice drives that home further. I don't want to insinuate that people with speech impairments are helpless, but that does add extra emphasis to the fact that he's vulnerable in ways other people wouldn't be. Why make that choice? I’m curious because it feels very intentional.

DC: Yeah, it was very intentional and we definitely did think about the vulnerability factor with him being a kid. But that also makes it more, I think, exciting when, you know they are able to come head to head with these challenges and obstacles and still overcome them. In terms of the decision for making Dylan mute, it really just came out of practical reasoning. We shot this movie with a very limited budget and resources. So it was really just a way to get around not having permits. We wanted to do a contained story with the kid, and so the problem becomes, 'Well, he's going to be making a lot of noise when he's trying to escape.' It came out of us trying to mitigate that. We really shaped the story around, 'Well, if we told a story with a kid who can't make noise, he'd have to most likely be mute.' So we really built the movie around the limitations we were working with in terms of budget and our location.

JP: It was weird. It was a different project for us. We worked backwards from everything. Instead of coming up with the script first, we were thinking about the resources that we had to make this and then backtracking from that. So yeah, we ended up shaping everything from the character's perspective of him being mute, because we said to ourselves, 'Okay, we can't have the kid screaming. Are we going to freak out the neighbors? Are they going to get us shut down?' [laughs] So we ended up coming up with the story that exists now, and that's even where the idea of the djinn itself came from, the creature. If he wants to make a wish, what's the best antagonist for that? Like David said, it was an organic process.

I feel like we're in a moment where horror is opening up for more people. I feel like everybody likes horror movies, but horror hasn't always liked everybody. So this is an interesting movie to fit into that evolving inclusion, because even a mute person like Dylan needs a horror movie that speaks to them, that communicates with them. Was that part of your calculus as well? Thinking to yourselves, “We're doing this for practical reasons, but we can take this experience and express it through our film”?

JP: Yeah, that was something that eventually became important to us for this particular story. In general, I'll say that for us as filmmakers we’re very keen on inclusivity and diversity. It’s actually a really core aspect of all the stories we want to tell going forward and the two that we've told thus far. We really do want everyone to feel represented within horror. Especially for us, when we were growing up, we really connected over horror. That's a foundation of [David's and my] friendship in general. So we want all the other audiences growing up now to be able to have that same feeling that we did. We didn't necessarily have the type of representation in those films that made us feel completely included, but that was, I think, always an inspiration. Going forward, we'd love to do that for people. So that definitely became an important aspect as we developed the story and once we figured out what we wanted to do.

DC: Yeah, I totally agree. The great thing about horror is that it does touch on very universal themes that everyone can relate to in some way. So it is really great to be able to tell those same stories, but with characters that maybe we don't get to see as often.

The aspect of the djinn, for me, raised a lot of interesting questions about the community a character like Dylan would belong to. The wish Dylan makes makes sense. But I wonder if at any point during your research, you thought about having conversations with people from that experience and getting their sense of things. I don't think this was the intention at all to be controversial, but it could be seen as controversial. Do you anticipate people seeing that and having conflict over the idea of this kid wanting to wish away this part of his identity?

JP: You know, we actually did think about that while we were coming up with the story and we don't want to spoil it too much, but we wanted to root the wish in terms of why he makes that wish in something that's very personal to him. He, as a character, blames his lack of voice for this horrible trauma that he's incurred, so that's really the reason that he wants a voice. He himself perceives himself as less than, right? That's why we have that really important line by his father. When we keep thinking about the things that you're missing, we forget about the things we have. That's really the core concept that we wanted to relay in this, that theme of being happy with who you are and feeling like you're enough.

That really is the moral of the story. We did want to have analogies to Pinocchio, which you can see, but we wanted to make sure that we didn't say, 'I want to be a real boy!' so much as the theme of thinking about what you have and realizing that you're enough. That’s actually the moral of this story. I hope people don't take it the other way, because that was really important to us in terms of developing the story. That’s the main moral of the story when you get to the end.

DC: Yeah. I also have to say, everyone has things about them that sometimes they perceive as weaknesses. At least in this story, Dylan is never inhibited by his muteness. It's never a weakness. He's still very resourceful, very intelligent. That's never the thing that gets him down. We still wanted him to be a very strong, believable character in that sense.

Dylan goes ham on [the monster]. He smashes toilet lids over its head, he blasts it in the eyes with Raid. It's exciting to see the different ways he responds to his situation, which I read as a credit to communities of people with disabilities: they’re not helpless. Were I in that situation, I'd be dead. I wouldn’t make it more than 15 minutes in the apartment with that creature. So between that and between the fact that he's a kid, it feels like you guys put a lot of faith and a lot of credit into this character.

DC: I think in storytelling and our writing, we just really like characters that are very proactive and resourceful and try to use whatever resources they have. There's nothing more boring than watching a character not really doing anything. So we have this apartment, and we really wanted to think about all of the everyday things that he could weaponize or use to protect himself. We just really tried to be creative in that way, but always wanted to keep like him very proactive.

It's interesting, going back to what you were saying about the theme of the movie: not appreciating what you have and wishing you were something other than what you are. The monster reflects that theme, too. We never really see the monster as it is. It's always disguised as somebody else until the end when we fully see it. I'm curious if that's a happy accident or if you wanted this creature to reflect Dylan's own kind of existential dilemma?

JP: So it’s funny that you mention that. Originally our plan for the djinn, the creature, was very different. We were actually going to see it in its full glory throughout the story, and due to budgetary limitations, our amazing makeup artist, we weren't able to actually buy him the material he needed to actually realize this great design he had come up with throughout the entire course of the movie. [laughs]

So we had to figure out a way to still be able to have this threat, but not use the makeup. So we did some quick additional research, and part of the djinn’s – and a lot of different versions of the djinn – is its ability to take different forms, and we said, 'Okay, we can use that.' So that's where that came from. Then when we actually put everything together, we did start realizing that this fits in so well with parallel journeys and the themes that we're hitting on. We said to each other, 'Why wasn't this like the original plan?'

It's one of those things you discover while you're actually making a movie. We're super happy that it worked out that way. If we had had more money, we certainly wouldn’t have let it be a bad movie, but I do feel like in some ways it wouldn't have been quite as unique as it is. I wouldn't have that additional element that you're even talking about there. So that was a fortunate circumstance.

Do you think resourcefulness is a key to making good horror movies? Horror movies are not necessarily thought of as big budget movies anyway. You notice that the reason people make them and the reason they're successful is because you can make good horror movies on, and this is going to sound ridiculous, maybe a million dollar budget, which isn't a small amount of money for me, but for a movie that's not much. You can make horror on shoestring budgets and it can still be great. So is resourcefulness, just for the both of you, one of the most important skills you can have?

DC: Definitely. I mean, we can only really speak to horror, but I would imagine it's useful for every genre. Horror luckily is one of the few genres where you can have a small budget, like a million, and it can still feel like a blockbuster movie. Ours was way, way, way, way, way, way, way less than a million. That would have been a lot, even though it's a little for a movie. But resourcefulness, it really just is everything. You have to make what you have work, and a lot of times you have to wear multiple hats. Justin and I were doing two to three different positions. Everyone on our crew was doing two, three different positions. It’s really just 'make it work mode.'

JP: Yeah, we can only speak to horror movies, but it seems like movies in general, there's always a fire to put out and said fire will oftentimes lead to you having to pivot and do something that you weren't intending to do. We had a much bigger budget on our other film, The Boy Behind the Door, and there were still some fires there that caused us to make some last minute story changes and we had to get really resourceful as a result. One of those in particular is one of the best moments in the movie. So it's really interesting how that works out. You have to just be ready to stay on your toes. We're anticipating that it doesn't matter if we're given a million, ten million, a hundred million, I'm sure there's always going to be some kind of pivot that we have to make. But it's gonna hopefully each time lead to something great. So yeah, resourcefulness? Definitely important in horror, and in everything.

DC: In life!