The Djinn (2021) tells the story of Dylan (Ezra Dewey), a 12-year-old mute boy grieving the death of his mother. Discovering a book of spells in his new apartment, he performs a ritual that promises to give him a voice. Learning there’s a price for the fulfilment of his heart’s desire, a Djinn arrives to collect his soul, and Dylan must survive until midnight.
Co-writer and co-directors Justin Powell and David Charbonier are also behind the recent horror, The Boy Behind the Door (2020). It follows the ordeal of two boys who are kidnapped, and when one of them escapes, he returns to rescue his friend. Charbonier also directed the shorts Off-Season (2013), about a couple faced with an impossible choice following a hunting accident, and Secret Admirer (2015), in which a woman is suspicious that there’s an intruder inside her house. Both were written by Powell, with Charbonier sharing the story credit.
In conversation with PopMatters, the filmmakers discuss the breaking point that led to them making The Djinn, and their desire to tell stories that not only scare viewers but are reflections on the human condition.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
Justin Powell: We’ve known each other our whole lives, we actually met in kindergarten. Cinema was one of the things we bonded over, particularly horror. As we were growing up, it became a more important part of our friendship, and then once we realised we both wanted to pursue something artistic, we thought, ‘Why don’t we team up?’ Eventually that has led to us being here with The Djinn.
David Charbonier: Film is a great accumulative art form. It has writing and acting, it has photography and music, everything comes together to make one piece, but there are so many pieces that go into it. We’ve always loved movies, we loved the [horror] genre, so it’s a world we’re trying to get more into.
‘What we are’ versus ‘who we feel we are’ can often be out of synch. I’ve spoken with directors who say that it took a number of films before they felt they could call themselves a filmmaker. Do you feel that you can call yourselves filmmakers?
Charbonier: I still don’t feel comfortable calling myself a filmmaker. We’re still very green in this industry and there’s a lot we want to learn. We want to push ourselves to be our best, and that takes time and experience. It takes resources and people trusting you with an actual budget, and so I feel we’re building up to that. One day when we grow up, we’ll be filmmakers.
Powell: It’s a unique industry in that you get to define yourself in that way, but it’s not about if you’re making money, or if you feel you’re successful, it’s what you identify with. In terms of getting something off the ground, it becomes not so much how you define yourself, as how other people define you.
I always think you cannot only create for others, you must do it for the sake of expressing yourself. That gives you a simple pleasure. Before others can connect to whatever it is you’re creating, you must first.
Powell: Filmmaking takes a lot out of you and not just time wise. It takes time to go through the process of coming up with an idea, developing it into a script. Then there’s normally a process of getting that funded and green-lit, that we tried to circumvent with The Djinn.
… It takes so much of time out of your life. On top of that, it’s emotionally taxing because you have to put everything you have into it constantly. It’s the weird feeling of needing to have this passion for the project, otherwise it can feel you wasted a huge chunk of your life.
It’s important to feel confident about what you’re making. People get stuck in the trap of trying to only make money in the industry, and they can end up feeling unsatisfied with their work as a result.
On your point about circumventing the process, how did you do this, and what lessons did you carry over from The Boy Behind the Door?
Charbonier: To emphasise Justin’s point that it does take a long time to get a movie made, the most taxing and exhaustive part is trying to get somebody to make the movie. We spent years writing, meeting with producers, and facing rejection after rejection. It was discouraging. With this movie we had hit a breaking point where we said, “There’s something that’s not registering. Nobody wants to give us a chance, so let’s try and do this ourselves.”
We tried to take our fate into our own hands, and we didn’t have a lot of resources, we didn’t have a lot of money, but we still had that urge to create, and to also selfishly validate the time we’d been spending trying to make a movie all these years. We know it’s not perfect because of the restraints, but we feel we were able to put a lot of heart into it, and it’s something we’re proud of as artists and creators — that we were able to pull it off without help.
The Boy Behind the Door was intended to shoot first in 2018. We found Ezra during the audition process [for The Boy Behind the Door], but it ended up getting pushed back, and we didn’t know how long it would be delayed. It felt that it might not happen. This happened to us before, so that was the breaking point where we said, “We’re making a movie this year.”
We decided to push forward with The Djinn. We brought a lot of lessons from The Djinn to The Boy Behind the Door. We had a significantly bigger budget then that made for a great first filmmaking experience, and we knew we were working with a talented kid in Ezra. He hadn’t the opportunity to be in a movie and to carry it on his shoulders before, and many of us were getting these first opportunities to do exciting things. When you’re watching the movie, you can feel the heart that everyone on the small crew and cast put into it.
Have your experiences on The Djinn and The Boy Behind the Door changed your appreciation for the filmmakers and films you admire?
Charbonier: Whenever you have to do something that you’ve seen other people do, you can glean how difficult it is, and so it has increased our appreciation for the filmmakers we admire: [Steven] Spielberg, [Alfred] Hitchcock, James Wan, and John Carpenter. We studied film at school, but our real education was watching all those genre movies we love, analysing and breaking them down.
The sequences we’ve been creating have been lessons. We want to keep learning from the filmmakers we admire, but we’re also seeing in ourselves what’s working and what we can improve upon. There’s one sequence that comes to mind in The Boy Behind the Door. It’s the type of suspenseful sequence you see in a lot of movies, but it was difficult to pull off and it was something where Justin and I had to take a step back and analyse it.
You can have it all mapped out in your head, on storyboards and in a shot list, but when you’re shooting it and putting the pieces together, sometimes you’ll find that it’s not as effective as it should be, and you have to ask why that is?
Until you’re in the edit the film is in a raw form. It requires you to have faith in your choices as you progress through the shoot. What are your impressions of the contribution the music and sound design make in horror cinema to the creation of rhythm and mood?
Powell: The soundscape is significant in horror. The good horror movies are the ones you feel you need to cover your ears, because that helps to alleviate the scares.
David and I are huge score geeks, and even going to set for both of these movies, we would listen to our own choice of soundtracks to get us pumped up for whatever scenes we had coming up that day. It helps you to visualise the rhythm of the scene, even if it’s not the final score. It almost always isn’t, but it helps to enhance the movie. On The Djinn, we felt it coming together once we heard Matthew James’ score alongside the picture.
The score and sound, especially in horror, is transformative.
A filmmaker recently told me that horror cinema can effortlessly present themes in a way that other genres and stories cannot. Would you agree, and why is horror able to accomplish this?
Charbonier: Horror is a great conduit to be able to explore universal human themes, and it still puts them in a lens that is thrilling and scary. I’m not sure why the two go together so well. I feel that there’s something special and unique about horror in that it’s a style of storytelling that elicits a strong physical reaction from the audience. It creates an adrenaline rush for the viewer if it’s done effectively.
It’s great that you’re able to explore all these themes in horror, and those are the movies we like. They aren’t only about the scares, but they try to say something about the human condition. These are themes that everyone has to deal with at some point in their life, such as grief or loss.
Do you think there’s a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person?
Powell: I felt for a while that I was lost in a hole [laughs]. There’s still a way to go, but I now feel a sense of relief and ease I hadn’t felt before.
Charbonier: It’s a journey. You’re slowly trying to get to a destination but you don’t know what that place is. I’m not there yet.