The Djinn: Interview with directors David Charbonier & Justin Powell

Ezra Dewey as “Dylan” in David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s THE DJINN. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
Ezra Dewey as “Dylan” in David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s THE DJINN. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release. /

The Djinn is an excellent, dark and suspenseful new indie horror film from IFC Films directed by up-and-coming horror directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell.

David and Justin are life-long friends and, alongside The Djinn, also recently completed their feature film debut, The Boy Behind the Door, which premiered at Fantastic Fest 2020 and received a 100% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The Djinn also currently has a perfect score from the review aggregator, and it certainly deserves it!

We had the chance to chat with the directors about the unnerving horror film they made with limited resources. The story centers on a mute 12-year-old boy named Dylan Jacobs (Ezra Dewey) who finds a mysterious book inside his new apartment. Using the book, Dylan makes a wish and performs a ritual to get his heart’s desire: to have a voice. But soon, he realizes that every gift comes with a price.

Chatting with directors David Charbonier & Justin Powell about their work on The Djinn

1428 Elm: For starters, I’m very curious how the idea for this movie came about, and I’m interested in the collaborative process of directing a film with someone by your side rather than doing it alone.

David Charbonier: We had another movie that we were supposed to go into production on at the end of 2018, and that got pushed, so suddenly we were very available. We had already made a pact to make a movie by this year. We had very limited resources. We had access to an apartment for about a month and had already cast Ezra [Dewey] in the other movie that got pushed. He was such an amazing, incredible actor, so we challenged ourselves to come up with a story with those elements, and that’s how the idea came about.

In terms of working as a directing duo, it’s been useful for our process. Justin and I, we’re lifelong friends. We both grew up in Michigan together, and we’ve known each other since kindergarten. So it’s like working with my best friend. We’re very in sync all the time, and we spend a lot of time preparing. When we do get on set, we have a strong, unified vision and then it’s just about dividing and conquering to execute the vision.

1428 Elm: You said you only really had that apartment to film, is it easier to film in just one location, or more difficult? 

Justin Powell: There are pros and cons. David and I have become a little accustomed to writing and shooting in single locations between this and The Boy Behind the Door; they’re both primarily set in single locations. We really love contained horror. Those are some of our favorite kinds of horror films when they’re done well.

You can really ratchet up the tension and maintain it throughout the course of the film that feels very real-time and sucks the audience in, in a way that you can’t necessarily do when you open up the world. The difficulties sometimes come in figuring out realistic motivations for the characters to stay in said location.

And from a shooting perspective, especially with The Djinn, which is mostly in a single two-bedroom apartment. It was complicated to figure out where does the crew hide, where do we put the equipment, etc. We love these long, flowy takes that often show the entire apartment in a single shot. So, how do we hide all of these things? Those were some logistical things that were tricky to figure out, but once we did, it was exciting to see.

The Djinn
The Djinn key art – Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release. /

1428 Elm: Also, congrats on your other film, The Boy Behind the Door, I’ve heard it’s getting a fantastic response from critics, and I know Shudder just picked it up. I’m really looking forward to watching that one, too! Can you compare and contrast the process of filming that movie and this one?

David Charbonier: The biggest difference is The Djinn is supernatural, and The Boy Behind the Door we kept very grounded. They are similar in that they both center on young protagonists trying to survive a night of terror, but they touch on different themes. The Boy Behind the Door is about hope and friendship, and The Djinn is more about overcoming grief and perceived shortcomings.

The budget was also a big difference as we had a lot more to work with on The Boy Behind the Door. But at the same time, that was still a super small budget in itself. It was just sort of like a different scale, instead of shooting in a two-bedroom apartment, we were shooting in a house.

1428 Elm: Can you talk a little about the djinn and why you chose that specific mythology instead of a demon or something? 

Justin Powell: That came organically out of the limitations David was talking about. Since we were building out backward, we were like, “okay we’ve got the apartment, we’ve got the kid,” and we also realized we didn’t want to disrupt the neighbors –– so from that, we decided to make Dylan mute, and from that, we decided, well “why is he mute?” And got into the backstory. So then we wanted him to make a wish because he felt that it was hindering him, even though it’s not.

Then when we started researching the best antagonist. We knew we wanted it to be a supernatural force, and a djinn seemed most organic. Then we started looking into what type of djinn we wanted because there was a lot of different lore. We chose one that was centered on the occult and things we hadn’t seen in projects like Wishmaster or Aladdin [Laughs]. So we tried to weave all of that into the tale. The djinn just really came about organically working with our resources.

1428 Elm: If you didn’t have a solid lead actor in the main role, this whole film could have fallen apart. Ezra is fantastic. How did you guys find him?

David Charbonier: Thank you, he makes our job so easy. We can’t give him enough praise. He’s incredible. Luckily, we have a super talented all-star amazing casting director that found him for us. She brought him in for the role of Kevin for the other movie, and instantly when he came to read for that, we knew, “this is that character, he’s great, he’s a total find.” So when that movie got pushed, and we were considering doing a project ourselves independently, we knew that no matter what we did, the acting had to be stellar.

When you’re making an indie movie, you can kind of get away with not the best camerawork or not the best production, but you have to have incredible acting because the audience has to be invested and believe in that character’s journey, and they have to feel real and tangible. And instantly, we thought of Ezra. So, we wrote the role for him. He brought a lot of truth and authenticity to it. He even learned sign language for it!

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IFC Midnight is officially releasing The Djinn on May 14.