Interview: Kevin LaRosa II, aerial coordinator and lead camera pilot for ‘Devotion,’ on those high-flying sequences
While Top Gun: Maverick might be the highest-profile plane movie of the year, it’s certainly not the only one. Devotion is based on the true story of Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner II, who were naval pilots during the Korean War. Brown was the first African-American pilot to complete the US Navy’s flight training program and the first African-American naval officer to be killed in the Korean War.
The film is based on the 2015 book by Adam Makos called Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice. It is directed by J.D. Dillard and stars Jonathan Majors as Brown and Glen Powell as Hudner. The film highlights the working relationship between the two men and the struggles that Brown faced serving in the navy in the 1950s.
Kevin LaRosa II, who also worked on Top Gun: Maverick, served as the aerial coordinator and lead camera pilot for Devotion. His resume includes over a hundred films, including The Avengers, Iron Man, and Transformers: The Last Knight. He is a legacy of the film industry, as his father has also worked as an aerial coordinator and stunt pilot.
I spoke with Kevin about his experiences working on Devotion. A film about pilots is only as good as its aerial work, and Kevin and his team absolutely delivered with this film, doing an impressive amount with practical effects rather than CGI. We chatted about what an aerial coordinator does, the planes used in Devotion, and the importance of ensuring that actors know their way around a plane.
Nicole Ackman: I really love this film, so it’s very exciting to get to talk about this aspect of it. But to start, for anyone who doesn’t know, what exactly does someone in your position do on a film?
KL: I was the aerial coordinator and the lead camera pilot. So not only did I have the responsibility for the overall safety of everything that flew in the movie, I had the honor of helping design and choreograph the aerial sequences with the aerial director of photography, which is Mike FitzMaurice, on behalf of J.D. Dillard and Erik Messerschmidt. So, in essence, we’ve become an extension of their dreams and wishes when we’re up in the air trying to film this epic movie the way that they see it. And aside from that, on the creative side, I get to actually go fly. I’m a pilot, I’m an aviator, and I flew the camera jet that I kind of dreamt up and built for Top Gun: Maverick. We used it on this incredible movie, and it did flawlessly, and I also flew a camera helicopter.
NA: Amazing. So how did you sort of get into this business? It’s obviously a very niche part of filmmaking.
KL: It is. It’s a family business; I was lucky enough to be born into it. And based off the advice I got from my father, who’s an idol of mine, I did a lot of other aviation jobs and careers to build experience. But when I was about 26 years old, I made the leap of faith full-time back into the motion picture aviation industry. So I’m an independent contractor for all of the studios to do their stunt flying and camera flying and aerial coordinator.
NA: How does working on a film like Devotion that’s a period piece differ from working on something like Top Gun: Maverick or a Marvel film?
KL: Well, it’s a true story. So this actually happened, right? And that weighs a little heavier on us when we’re making the movie, especially when we’re getting visits from Tom Hudner III, Tom’s son, and grandchildren from the Brown family. When we’re looking at the actual medals that were awarded to Tom Hudner on set, we’re looking at logbook entries from Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner. And all of a sudden, this amazing story, which we’re so excited and pumped to be making, becomes much more realistic because this happened.
This affected real lives. People lost their lives. So led by J.D. Dillard, I think we felt the gravity of what we were doing every single day, and I think it helped us. It motivated us because we really wanted to do this story right. We wanted to make sure the story of Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner was told and told properly so that we could show the world what incredible people they were.
NA: That’s wonderful. And speaking of the fact that it was a real story that you’re telling, did you do any research into what these flying sequences should look like to make them realistic for the time period?
KL: Absolutely. I mean, my first step when I’m hired by a production company – in this case, Black Label Media – is putting together the right team. It really comes down to the team. I know I’m just one person. So I had the flexibility and the leeway to pull in some of the best people in the industry. Michael FitzMaurice, the aerial DP of Top Gun: Maverick, who’s a pilot himself and an aviator and super creative and always pushing the limits of what he can film in the air when I’m flying. And then I was able to pull in some of the best warbird pilots in the world, people who fly these things for a living: the Steve Hintons and the Mike Olivers and the Jim Martinellis. And with this team, we were able to do a lot together.
We did a ton of research so that we could do our very best, whatever was in our financial means to make the movies as authentic as humanly possible. We had to paint these aircraft. We made the bureau numbers correct, and the side numbers correct. We had to make sure that they had the right weapons on board and the fuel tanks. And we had to make sure that we trained the actors how to fly and feel correct and look correct in a warbird, a high-performance airplane from that era. So there was extensive detail. You have to do it that way. If you want it to look good on camera, there’s no other way.
NA: Well, as someone who’s a historian as well as a film critic, I love to hear that. But can you tell me a bit more about the planes specifically that you used for this film?
KL: Yeah, this is the Korean War, so we’re still talking piston airplanes. This was just on the cusp of the jet age for the United States. In VF-32, the squadron that Jesse and Tom Hudner flew in, they were operating Bearcats for training, and then they transitioned into the F4U Corsair. The Corsair was widely used in World War II. However, these versions, the later versions were more high-performance. And there were some different characteristics, both physically and how they flew. So that was important to us, and it was important to J.D. So in the beginning of the movie, we see the squadron training in their Bearcats, and I think this is the first feature film Bearcats have really properly been shown in an air-to-air format, and they look fantastic on camera. And, of course, they’re painted correctly and loaded out correctly.
Then we see the squadron change into the Corsair. And we had to bring in, we brought in four flyable real Corsairs, and we painted them as well. We made them VF-32 airplanes. We basically made our own squadron. It was really important to show these airplanes in the correct environments. So obviously, we don’t have an Essex-class aircraft carrier. They’re all hard-docked or mothballed, they’re destroyed. So we used an actual airport runway. We built the superstructure, the top structure of an aircraft carrier, at this airport. And we operated our Corsairs as if they were landing and taking off right next to the superstructure. And that added a sense of realism. When you watch the movie, the folks that are standing on this superstructure and running around and the carrier crew, they were really on this runway acting as if this thing’s floating.
There were days when we were out there in the fog and nighttime, and it felt like we were on a carrier. It was very cool. We also went to great lengths to make sure we operated these aircraft in the correct weather and conditions they would’ve operated in for Korea. We’re talking 1950 wintertime in Korea, and we took these aircraft to the Pacific Northwest during the wintertime, the Cascade Mountain range. In the wintertime, that’s extreme winter. That’s ice, sleet, snow, rain. We took these 70-year-old aircraft, again thanks to the incredible crew that I had with me, and we operated them in the conditions in which they operated during the wartime of that era. And that was no easy task. It gave us an appreciation for the young men and women who were supporting the efforts of that war and operating those aircraft. Here’s modern-day technology, and we were struggling to make sure that those aircraft were mission ready twice a day, every day while we were filming.
NA: What is something that you learned about these aircraft and what it was like to be piloting with them?
KL: Well, I can only wish that I’m checked out on a Corsair one day. I had amazing picture ship pilots flying them for me. I was flying the L-39 CineJet in formation with them. But I can tell you, just being around them for four months, there’s something about them, the presence that they have. I mean, first of all, they’re a lot bigger in person than you think when you watch the movie. For those of you that have been next to one at an air show or were lucky enough to see one up close, they’re very impressive. They’re ominous – massive engines, huge props. The Corsair has this amazing look to it. It’s one of a kind. People can recognize it anywhere with this gold wing. So to get this airplane on set and operate it in a way in which it was operating was pretty crazy.
And another thing I’d say is we did a really good job in the movie with sound, but that R 2800, those motors are just incredible. You can feel it in your chest. So it’s quite a presence. It’s interesting to know that the Corsair has served our country in different wars in different conflicts all the way from World War II. So it’s an incredible airplane, and it served us well on the movie.
NA: You mentioned that you worked on Top Gun: Maverick as well. So you’ve obviously done a lot of working with Glen Powell in recent years. What is it like sort of working to make sure that these actors look like they actually know how to operate really impressive machinery like this?
KL: I love that question. It is so, so important. And really we have to thank the production company, Black Label Media, and Sony. Those are the people that are funding that because when guys like me come in and say, hey, we need to train them. They need to fly in real aircraft; we need to get them in the sky. That’s the way the movie’s going to look good and incredible. That costs a lot of money. So they paid for it, and they trust us, and it pays off in dividends. So Glen Powell was already a seasoned pilot, already had his pilot’s license, and he’s a dear friend of mine. He’s a great pilot. So he needed, I guess he would say, minimal currency to be ready to fly in high-performance warbirds.
But it was really fun getting Jonathan Majors in a T-6 Texan and then eventually up in a C theory, whose backseat doubled as a front seat in the Corsair and the Bearcat. And it’s a very high-performance warbird. So that was pretty fun. And you know what? It goes to show the guys get their G tolerance training, they get their G fatigue, they get their situational awareness. They just look so much better on camera because they’re, I would say, hyper-focused on what they’re doing, the story points, and they’re less worried about this 3000-horsepower motor strapped to the front of the airplane.
NA: What was one of the most exciting things you got to do on set making this film?
KL: The most exciting thing for me on Devotion was when I got to lead what we call an aerial unit, because we needed to capture winter. Production had to make a decision to say, you know what? We can’t miss the wintertime. We need the right conditions. So Kevin, assemble your team, assemble the aircraft, and head to the Pacific Northwest in conditions that we typically don’t ever want to go to, and go film the aerial sequences, the fight sequences of the movie. That was exciting and challenging for me, and we spent a month and a half up in the Pacific Northwest in the Cascade Mountain range. I’d say that the flying that we did, the closeness of proximity, we were in the CineJet and helicopter to these aircraft while we were airborne.
The low level runs through the canyons, and the river runs down the river, all of that flying was intense. I think we pushed our folks and our aircraft to the limits without compromising safety. That’s where we lived every single day. Every single mission was: how will we get the most epic shots? How are we going to make this dynamic and look good on camera? And that’s what we did. Those were harsh conditions, but it sure looked good on camera.
NA: It definitely paid off. You said that was one of the most exciting things, but also very challenging. Were there other challenges that you faced making this film that maybe you hadn’t encountered before on other projects? I know you have a really extensive background in this kind of work.
KL: J.D. really wanted the aerial shots to be close. We start recognizing the Corsairs in the movie. We see the side numbers; 211 was Jesse’s, and 205 was Tom Hudner’s. So you start recognizing these airplanes as almost characters in the movie and that’s pretty cool. We’re giving life to these particular aircraft that the audience could then look at in the air and go, oh, that’s 211, that’s Jesse, or that’s 205. But in order to do that, J.D. wanted us to get closer than we’d ever been. We were much closer in proximity than we were with aircraft on Top Gun: Maverick. And he wanted us to really get in the action. One of the most challenging scenes was the crash scene. J.D. said, “Hey, I want the camera lens to literally be a foot or two right behind Jesse’s Corsair, as trees are just missing him.”
So when we watch the movie and we see these shots of just this massive tail end of Jesse’s airplane, and we’re showing you where he’s going, or at least where he is attempting to go, that’s all done for real. That’s an L39 that I’m flying with Mike FitzMaurice behind me. And we are 18 inches at times away from that other aircraft in front of us. It creates just an amazing visual that doesn’t look real, and a lot of people tell us that. It’s actually a great compliment when people go, is that CG? Is that real? I can’t really tell. It’s real. We were there. It’s a great shot.
NA: That’s wild. Well, as the year is sort of coming to a close, I like to ask people that I’m interviewing – other than the films that you were involved with – if you have any favorite movies from 2022.
KL: Other than the ones I was involved in?
NA: I’d like to assume those are some of your favorites.
KL: They are my favorites. That’s a great question. I got to admit, I think this year I haven’t done too many theater runs other than the movies I’ve worked on. I have a lot of screeners and stuff here in the mail that I just got to sit down and get through. There’s a few I want to go see, but unfortunately, you’re going to hate me for this answer. But really, this has kind of been a Devotion year.
NA: You’ve been so busy this year that I think it’s understandable.
KL: I haven’t done a lot of theater runs unless they’re first screeners or going to see our movies in the theater or for early screenings. So with that said, I’m going to be a little biased and go with the two aerial movies that I got to work on this year because I think they’re epic, and I think they’re amazing on the big screen.
NA: How many times did you end up seeing Devotion in the theater? Do you know what your count is right now?
KL: Yeah, I got a count. I’m up to six. So a few of those were early screenings. And then, of course, I wanted to take my dad and sit next to him. He’s a big-time Hollywood stunt pilot. He worked on Pearl Harbor and lots of really cool movies, so I wanted to sit with him. I took my little kids, and it’s fun to go with people that know your work or recognize what you’re doing on camera. So there might be one more time here in the future.
NA: That’s super exciting. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today. You can really tell in the film how much it means to everyone involved.
KL: Oh, well, thank you for saying that. Appreciate it.
Devotion is currently in theaters from Sony Pictures.