Interview: Writer/director J.D. Dillard on harnessing the action and the emotion of ‘Devotion’
Devotion recounts the true story of Jesse Brown, 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. Jonathan Majors stars as Jesse, while Glen Powell plays his fellow naval officer Tom Hudner. In between the daring aerial missions, it explores the bond between the two men and the racism that Jesse faces.
J.D. Dillard brings a personal touch to the direction of Devotion, as his father was also a naval pilot. He has previously directed Sleight and Sweetheart, but Devotion represents something a bit different from the director as both a period drama and a true story. The film was a festival hit, winning audience awards from the Middleburg Film Festival in October.
I spoke with J.D. about finally getting off of the festival circuit, the incredible true story of Jesse Brown, and working with Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell.
J.D. Dillard: Hello, friend.
Nicole Ackman: Hey, how are you?
JD: I’m well, I’m well. Have freshly come to the end of the two-month tour on the road. So last night was my first night in my bed in a long time. But things are good. How are you?
NA: I’m good. I was actually lucky enough to see the movie at Film Fest 919 here in North Carolina, which I know you were at, and it was such a great experience.
JD: I love 919. Having now done the little bit of a tour, I have, like, “Okay. What places felt super cozy?” And that was in the top group. I really liked being there, and it played nicely there, which you keep track of too.
NA: Definitely. Well, to start, how did you end up involved with Devotion?
JD: So I was sort of abstractly looking for something that took place in and around aviation, and the spectrum of that was very wide. That could have been space fighters in the deep future or a period war drama. Obviously, it ended up being the latter. But I grew up the son of a naval flight officer, and my earliest memories are sort of in and around naval aviation. My dad was a Blue Angel for a number of years. So I’ve always held a reverence for that world.
When my agent sent me this script after I had sent the bat signal up for that, I just found myself so moved by the story. Not just because what happened between Jesse [Brown], Tom [Hudner], and Daisy [Brown] was incredible all on its own, but I saw so much of my dad in there too. And even though he was 30 years behind Jesse Brown, they shared a lot of common experiences. So Devotion suddenly became this kind of cosmic opportunity to honor the story of these real people, but then in a weird way, get to make a movie about my dad.
NA: That’s amazing. To make a period piece like this, I know you did a lot of research, but could you tell me your process for that?
JD: Where I was really lucky on this film is that the script is technically adapted from the book by Adam Makos of the same name. And Adam, in writing the book, had created all of the initial research necessary – most importantly, forming a relationship with the families, the Browns and the Hudners. When I came on board and read Jake [Crane] and Jonathan [Stewart]’s script, a lot of that work had already been done.
So once I wanted to start revising the script and starting to lens it through my point of view, step one really was getting to meet the families. Because I obviously did not have the opportunity to meet Jesse or Tom, but you see the imprint that they’ve left on their families, and you start to get a sense of who they are through that relationship. So that was the big first thing. The book was sort of like our encyclopedia, and then talking to the family put the emotion between the lines, so to speak.
NA: I know anytime you’re telling something based on truth in a film, you end up fictionalizing it. But is there anything in the film you feel people might be surprised to find out is actually factual?
JD: They are a couple and they’re kind of my favorites, if not the most important things. The Jesse in the mirror scene, I think, seems so heightened, but to find out that he really did keep this book of horrible things that have been said to him was such a lighthouse to his character in a way. You just see actually how hard it was for him because to do that just so signifies a state of being and a process.
Jesse speaking French to get him into the club, yeah, actually true. While the sailors ran into Liz Taylor, it wasn’t specifically Jesse and Liz, but it was fun to put that picture of Liz and the sailors in the end just to be like, that part happened. And then I think one of the fundamental actions of the film: Tom crashing his own plane. It’s been funny to talk to some people and hear things like, “But that part’s kind of crazy.” You’re like, “Well, that’s actually the realest part of it all!” Because that’s sort of the crescendoing action of their relationship. But we didn’t have to make up that much in Devotion, and that was what attracted me to it. It was a wonderful story on its own.
NA: As someone who’s a historian and a film critic, I love those things that feel like they have to be fiction because they’re so crazy, and then to find out that they’re actually the true parts is always so fun.
JD: Totally, totally.
NA: This film is very different from the movies you’ve worked on before, partially because it is a period piece. What were some of the challenges of doing this, and maybe some of the blessings of working on a period film?
JD: Challenges for me, it was really only in the writing phase. I’ve never missed the concept of a MacGuffin so bad. Sometimes you just want to be like, we need the thing because it unlocks the tomb, and we need the crystal. You just want that clarity. But with real life and real events, you’re bound to very specific constraints and reality to motivate your characters. So that part, I won’t say it was tricky, but given that nine times out of ten, my creative brain defaults to the genre of science fiction, it was just odd not to be able to make things up.
But I think my favorite parts of my first two films do find their way into Devotion. I love the technicality of things and getting to really play with that in the aerials and that type of planning and that type of language. Obviously, not to that scope, but there are seeds of that obsession in the other movies. Even shooting the Marine battle at night, I wanted to shoot it like a horror movie. And funny enough, there is also a pretty dramatic flare shot in Devotion, like there is in Sweethearts. There were moments where I was like, “Okay, that feels related.”
But I think the big thing is that all three of my movies are really centered in Black wish fulfillment. A black protagonist who is told by the outside world what they are capable of and where they’re supposed to exist, and then our black protagonist not caring about those constraints and doing, living, enacting what they think is best for them. It was kind of interesting to read the script and be like, even though there’s no science fiction, there are no creatures, I am, in a way, still getting to tell the same story and a story that means a lot to me.
NA: Absolutely. You mentioned some of the aerial work, and I was lucky to get to interview Kevin LaRosa yesterday.
Interview: Kevin LaRosa II, aerial coordinator and lead camera pilot for ‘Devotion,’ on those high-flying sequences
JD: Oh, amazing.
NA: We were talking about your dedication to doing as much with practical effects as possible. Can you talk a bit about how you think that makes a difference in the film?
JD: I think we’re getting to the point in our medium where the audience knows enough to be dangerous. And even when people don’t have the language for it, they are able to articulate what bothered them about a sequence, or a moment, or a set piece. Then I think there’s also a really specific level of… What word am I looking for? There’s a sensitivity to visual effects within real-life stories. No one bats an eye when the spaceship in the space opera does a barrel roll. No one’s like, “That didn’t look real.” Your brain just operates in a different way, I think, as an audience member. But when you’re watching something that takes place in 1950 in a war that actually happened with people who actually existed, I think when you see that kind of overproduced look, it breaks something in your audience’s brain.
Interview: Jonathan Majors on bringing aviation icon Jesse Brown’s life to the big screen in ‘Devotion’ [VIDEO]
I had two requests in coming aboard the project, and it was Jonathan Majors as Jesse, and it was, “We have to shoot as much as we can in-camera.” So as I’m sure you heard from Kevin, that process is quite complicated. But what I really fought to do was, and you can’t do it all the time for many reasons outside of our control, but try to put real planes closest to the camera. So the hero action, the big thing that’s happening closest to us, is real photography. And there aren’t even enough Corsairs or planes to fill the skies in the way that we need to. They just don’t exist anymore. But if you have two planes and the one near us is making the rollout to go attack the bridge, can that plane be real? And I think in those kind of sneaky ways, the audience respects that, even if they don’t know what the process was in getting that.
NA: I was very impressed by how real all of the aerial action in this felt. I think there is a sense that you’re seeing actual planes.
JD: Yeah. It’s the feedback loop of if the drama’s good, you’ll be more worried about them in the planes. And if the action in the planes is good, you’ll be more worried about the drama in the quieter moments. You just want those things to talk to each other and not be a quiet drama and then video game action or over-the-top drama with insanely stoic action. You want to find that medium, and that was certainly what we were trying to do on Devotion.
NA: So much of the movie hinges on Glen Powell and Jonathan Major’s performances as these characters. What was it like working with them and getting their chemistry down right?
JD: Look, it’s the heart of the movie. The two of them, and then obviously Christina [Jackson] as Daisy is sort of the third point on the triangle. I think for all of us, it was, and I don’t mean this in terms of fact but more in terms of its emotionality, we just wanted to be honest and not present them as these macho, immovable war heroes but real men who were struggling with real things at a very odd time in history. And what is true to the story is the thing about Jesse that got him to that place in the first place, that discernment and that deep internalization and that sort of being slow to trust because you have to rely on yourself more than anyone else, against Tom’s like actual earnest wanting to be there but not having the language to do so.
And that is the relationship. It’s kind of oddly non-linear, and it’s a little messy. I put this in air quotes, it’s not very “Hollywood” how they find each other, but a step back, two steps backward, three steps forward, half a step back. And it was important for the three of us to find this. It’s a story about mutual understanding, and that’s different from a story about best friends. We never wanted the version of the movie where it’s like, high-five, freeze-frame, credits start rolling on the black and white hands. It’s 2022, that’s not the version of this.
NA: No, absolutely not.
JD: But look, I owe so much of that to Jonathan and Glen and their individual processes and just really grounding this in a human way, regardless of how big the backdrop is. But it’s also just like, it is not lost on me to just have two guys on meteoric rises. I don’t think people understood how badly we need a Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell film.
NA: Yeah, I was like, “Where has this been my whole life?”
JD: Totally. The feedback that I’ve loved seeing after the film has come out is, “Wait, we need more of these. We need more of this duo.”
NA: Yes, absolutely.
JD: But that’s just been super exciting. I have been a fan of both of theirs well before Devotion, but to sort of watch this insane career explosion in the midst of releasing the movie has been so fun.
NA: And like you’ve said, it is 2022. What do you think is the importance of telling Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner’s story now?
JD: I think what has revealed itself to be so timeless to me in the drama of their relationship is truly what it means to be there for one another and how that requires attention. And that requires a very specific type of discernment, and what works for one person doesn’t work for another. How can you be there for people without it coming at the cost of their own agency? And how do you meet people on their terms when you want to be there for them?
All of those things together have only proven to be even more urgent today or as urgent today. That’s sort of what was exciting about getting to tell their story, is that even though it takes place in 1950, it really speaks to the moment that we’re living in and continue to live in. I hope that what folks can take away is how it is truly exploring the shape of allyship. You realize that with allyship comes a degree of sacrifice, and that’s been such an exciting piece to bring to the forefront of Devotion.
NA: Just to wrap up, because it is nearing the end of 2022, I’ve been asking everyone that I interview – and I know you’ve been on the festival circuit, so if you’re like, “I haven’t seen anything,” that’s fair – but what, other than Devotion, are some of your favorite movies of the year?
JD: Ooh. So yes, I will admit, I have a lot of catching up to do. The list of movies that I’m dying to see is actually longer than the list of movies I have seen. I’ll say this, not just because she’s a friend, but one of my favorite films of the year is God’s Creatures by Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis. That just so touched me. What else have I seen? I know I’ve seen things that I’ve loved. Well, while I’m thinking, I’m dying to see Nanny, I’m dying to see The Inspection still. I promise I’ve seen movies, Nicole. I promise.
NA: No, I don’t doubt it. I feel like I’m putting people on the spot.
JD: No. I know I’ve seen a movie this year. Yeah, if I think of it, I’ll email you. I’ve seen more than God’s Creatures this year, I promise.
NA: That’s a great one to be getting out there though because that’s one I want more people to pay attention to.
JD: Yeah. You know what? Forget the movies I need to see. Let’s just say God’s Creatures is the movie of the year, I’ll-
NA: Other than Devotion, obviously.
JD: Other than Devotion. Just Devotion and God’s Creatures 2022. That’s it.
NA: There you go. Well, thank you so much. I do really appreciate you chatting with me. I’m honestly very much looking forward to seeing the movie again, and I really want to show it to my parents too.
JD: Oh, please do. That’s very sweet, friend. Well, thanks for taking the time.
NA: Have a great rest of the year. I hope you have some time to catch up on sleep and everything you’ve probably not been getting to do on the festival circuit.
JD: I started today, so it’s all good. Well, let us know if you need anything else, Nicole, but such a pleasure to chat.
Devotion is currently in theaters from Sony Pictures.