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Director J.D. Dillard on Crafting the Aviation Drama – The Hollywood Reporter


[This story contains “spoilers” for the historical Korean War drama Devotion.]

Devotion director JD Dillard knew what was in store when Jonathan Majors was scheduled to perform his Korean War drama’s most powerful scene, but the performance still hit harder than anyone expected.

Devotion chronicles the heroics of the first Black naval aviator, Jesse L. Brown (Majors), during the Korean War, as well as his relationships with his loving wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), and wingman Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). Prior to each flight, Brown performed a ritual in which he would look in the bathroom mirror and recite all of the horrible remarks that have been said to him over the course of his life.

For Dillard, it was most important that his actor feel safe on the unusually quiet set.

“That scene hurt, man, and it’s supposed to hurt,” Dillard tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s one of those scenes where you love your actor and you know that this is a performance, but it hurts to see hurt. So there was this odd shift where I needed to be there not just as director, but also as a friend and safety net, even if he didn’t need it.”

Dillard is the son of Bruce Dillard, the second Black naval aviator to fly with the Blue Angels, and with his dad serving as a consultant on the film, JD was able to get closer to his father through the telling of Jesse’s story, something he recognized even at the script level.

“As I cried my way through the script, it was not just being overwhelmed by how incredible the story was on its own, but then also just immediately sensing how much overlap there was between Jesse and my dad 30 years later,” Dillard says. “So I found myself with this very odd but overwhelming opportunity to not just honor Jesse and Tom, but then also get to tell my dad’s story in a way that I never expected.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Dillard also discusses how his time on J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens prepared him for the increased scale of his third feature film.

So the Korean War is known as the Forgotten War, and compared to the numerous other wars, it’s mostly been overlooked by Hollywood, too. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s for a lot of reasons. It’s smack dab in the middle of two wars that are very, very historically loud, and America’s relationship to it is much grayer. So it’s hard to celebrate in that regard. And between those two things, it’s just been hard to draw stories from that world, but in being introduced to Jesse and Tom’s story, you realize how many stories have yet to find their way to the populace. There are so many aspects of this story that were stranger than fiction, but it was a story that had to be told regardless of the war that it originates from.

Devotion BTS

J.D. Dillard and Jonathan Majors on the Set of Devotion

Columbia Pictures

You’re the son of a naval aviator, so did you have some idea of who Jesse Brown was?

I only knew him by name, but obviously, after three and a half years of working on the film, I’ve grown to know Jesse a lot more than I used to. My dad [Bruce Dillard] was the second Black aviator to join the Blue Angels, who was only a year behind the first Black aviator of the Blue Angels [Donnie L. Cochran]. And while surrounded by conversations of first and second, I had heard Jesse’s name, but that was years and years ago now.

So when I was sent the script for the first time, there was that, “Oh, Jesse Brown. Yeah, of course, Jesse Brown.” And as I cried my way through the script, flipping page to page, it was not just being overwhelmed by how incredible the story was on its own, but then also just immediately sensing how much overlap there was between Jesse and my dad 30 years later. So I found myself with this very odd but overwhelming opportunity to not just honor Jesse and Tom, but then also get to tell my dad’s story in a way that I never expected.

Since you signed on to direct, Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell’s careers have both taken off. Was it impossible to not get swept up by that and how it would likely benefit your film?

It’s funny, man. That is such a thing that has happened in hindsight. When I started shooting, I had seen, most recently, Last Black Man in San Francisco and Lovecraft Country. And then for Glen, I had seen Everybody Wants Some!! and knew he was in Top Gun: Maverick. (Laughs.) So I was just happy and grateful that I had two really good actors. And of course, I knew that Top Gun would be a thing at some point, and I heard Jonathan was working on all this other stuff. But since shooting the movie, it’s been so fun to watch these two explode at such a rapid rate. Literally, anytime I log on to Twitter or walk past a newsstand, they’re there, and that’s been kind of a trip. But yeah, I’m just lucky to have two giant stars who are still rising, standing across from each other in the same movie.

Devotion

Jonathan Majors as Jesse L. Brown in Devotion

Everett

When Jesse looks in the mirror to prepare himself for flight and he recites all of the terrible things that people have said to him throughout his life, it’s a show-stopping scene. Could you feel everyone on set being bowled over during those takes? 

That scene hurt, man, and it’s supposed to hurt. Without this following a hyper traditional structure where the first 15 minutes of the movie are witnessing all of Jesse’s hardships on his way to this goal of his, this dream of his, that, in a way, is the flashback. That is the, “This is how he got here,” all done in a moment. That scene was our second or third day of shooting, which was such a testament to how prepared Jonathan comes to set. Even on day one, Jesse was built and realized and alive, and so it meant no difference to Jonathan to do that scene on day two versus day 60. It was just ready to go. 

But it’s hard, and it hurt me to see Jesse do this to himself. So the best that I could do was just create an environment on set that felt safe, that felt trusting, that held a quiet that Jonathan needed there. It’s one of those scenes where you love your actor and you know that this is a performance, but it hurts to see hurt. So there was this odd shift where I needed to be there not just as director, but also as a friend and safety net, even if he didn’t need it. That’s just where I felt I had to stand to make sure we could do that and do that, honestly. [Writer’s Note: I encourage you to read Jonathan Majors’ detailed account of this powerful scene, too.]

We’re watching one of the all-time great actors in the making, right?

Mm-hmm. While touring the movie at festivals, I had the opportunity to honor Jonathan a number of times for his portrayal of Jesse Brown. He both commands such a presence, but at the same time, Jonathan Majors disappears and the character he’s portraying is left standing there. So that’s one of the great things about him, and it’s an incredibly rare thing to be able to thread. Sometimes, you get great character actors who do that, but there maybe isn’t that presence. And then you also have people who are all presence, but it’s that actor. (Laughs.) So Jonathan is able to do both through how he works, through his skill, through his attention to detail and also his God-given charisma. So when I watch Devotion, don’t see my homie J; I see Jesse, and that’s a hard trick to pull off.  

Between your father and Powell‘s experiences in the air, did you receive more than enough advice ahead of time?

Yeah, it was nice to have Glen come into this process and have a handle on acting in the backseat of a fighter. That proved useful not just for me, but for Jonathan, too. So we just talked about how to best pull this off. My dad also came to set for more than a month and acted as a consultant on the film, not just in the obvious ways of like, “Hey, when you’re banking left on approach to target ….” Yes, there was that stuff, but there was also like, “Hey, man, what was it like telling mom for the first time that you were going on cruise for four months?” It was actually the emotional consulting that we needed as well. So between Glen and my dad being split in half as an aviator and husband, I felt really covered in terms of being able to tell this story authentically. 

Devotion

Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell in Devotion

Columbia Pictures

This movie wasn’t supposed to come out so close to Powell’s last movie, Top Gun: Maverick, in which he also played a naval aviator, but I quickly forgot about Hangman and only saw him as Tom Hudner. But at the time of filming, could you sense that Glen was a bit self-conscious about not wanting to repeat himself?

Honestly, no. Glen found this book [Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice by Adam Makos] and started this journey of making it a reality more than six years ago. So he’s lived with this story for a very long time, and he has lived with it longer than his other appearances as a naval aviator. But there was no way that I could know until I saw his other movie and saw just how different they are. Even who he plays is just so different. Tom Hudner is such an earnest man who wants to be understood and wants to do the right thing, but he’s having trouble finding that footing with his wingman, Jesse. It’s such a subtle performance, but it’s imperative for that to be happening across from Jesse.

So I never sensed any nerves from Glen, and what’s come into focus as we’ve shared the film with the Navy and other aviators is that it’s just different when you are working with folks’ legacies. This is a legacy that the Brown and Hudner family hold. This is a legacy that the Navy holds, and the care and the responsibility of that just puts the whole experience in a very different sphere. So we’ve felt that since we all started working on this.

You’ve been in the mix for some big movies the last few years, and while this is a big step up from your previous two films, it’s not one of those $200 million behemoths. So are you glad that you landed somewhere in between the two extremes?

In a way, yes. Abstractly, yes. I’m a huge proponent of growing steadily, but at the same time, I was really grateful to have a giant piece of this business demystified for me early in working for J.J. Abrams. I went from the biggest set I’ve ever been on in my entire life, being The Force Awakens, to the smallest set I’ve ever been on in my entire life, being Sleight, my own movie. But seeing J.J.’s artistry at work, the thing that actually calmed me was that it actually doesn’t matter how many zeros are at the end of the budget. The job is still the same. The job is still to tell a convincing, moving, entertaining story in this little monitor that you’re sitting behind, wherever you’re shooting. So, to conjure a feeling, that’s the work, and J.J. is so good at that. I was so humbled and inspired in watching him work that I tried to carry as much of that as I could to Sleight, to Sweetheart, to television and now, ultimately, to Devotion.

Look, it’s super nice to have slightly more time to shoot and more toys to play with and a lot more help; that’s for sure. But I am entering a phase of being agnostic to scale. I just want enough time and resources to tell the story that I want to tell, whether it’s on a shoestring budget or not. You just want to be able to tell the story right.

Was it a rather bizarre experience to cast the character of Elizabeth Taylor?

I have to give my fiancée credit here. I worked with Serinda [Swan] on an episode of The Twilight Zone, and around that time, I had just started to read Devotion. And I remember saying, “Who does she remind me of?” There was just a quality that I couldn’t put my finger on. Months later, my fiancée was like, “Oh my God, that’s your Liz Taylor,” and then suddenly, it clicked. I was like, “Yes, great!” So, Serinda was just down to play her, and she is an incredible actor.

It’s a moment in the movie where it does seem stranger than fiction. In reality, the sailors did run into Liz Taylor, but there needs to be a balance there. You don’t want it to fully pull you out of the movie because it feels crazier than life, but you still want that double take of, “Oh my God, we’re standing in the presence of somebody very famous.” So Serinda just dialed that in so well, and in a funny way, it ended up being more about commanding a presence than it being an impersonator playing Liz Taylor. You wanted to just feel the presence of someone outside of our world, and Serinda just innately has that energy.

My dad is a Vietnam vet, and when he had some R&R at a certain point, he wanted to find some kind of silver lining to his horrible experience. So his version of that was buying a reasonably priced Rolex in Hong Kong, which is where they spent their time off. He still has it. Thus, my favorite scene in Devotion is when Jesse is gifted a Rolex by the other Black servicemen on the carrier.

That’s incredible.

Could you feel that scene’s impact on the day? 

I think I did, man. There’s this really interesting thing about Jesse’s journey. He was so isolated by way of being the only Black man in an air wing. He was also isolated by being put with the officers where there were no other Black officers. So the other Black folks on the ship are enlisted, but they are somewhere else. So at every step, he’s put away from everybody, but that scene is something that really happened. For the story of the movie, it was an opportunity to just put the worlds together and honor the fact that there were a lot of other Black men on that ship. And even though Jesse is going through this thing so personally and so internally, it was an opportunity to show tangibly and feel tangibly what he meant to others.

There’s always been something so interesting about that to me. When you are chasing a dream, you are so rarely led by the trailblazing aspect of it. You’re chasing it because you have some emotional need to go to this place. And then you start to look to your side and you realize, “Oh, this is actually meaningful for more people than just me.” Suddenly, your actions hold more weight and they hold more context. So it was just important to remind Jesse of that. That moment in real life, and certainly in the film, is something that touches Jesse deeply. He sees that other folks have his back, and regardless of what he’s facing in the squadron, people are proud of him.

Devotion

J.D. Dillard and Jonathan Majors on the set of Devotion

Columbia Pictures

What’s your favorite shot that you and DP Erik Messerschmidt achieved? 

I’ll do two if that’s allowed. It’s not that crazy, but Jonathan in the mirror. The handoff between being in his world and out of his world just so speaks to that moment and that hurt. We’re there with him, kind of complicit in what he’s experiencing, and then there’s a moment where we have to give it to him. He has to do it on his own, and I’ve always been a fan of that transition. It was just an old-school camera trick.

And then Tom’s crash as a oner was just a really fun thing to figure out, going from a practical aerial unit and pushing into motion control on an LED volume and subtly transitioning to a crash rig on a frozen tundra set. And to do our best to hide those seams, that’s one of the parts that makes movies so fun. You know what you want the magic trick to be, but now, you have to figure out how to pull it off. You always want to sneak one thing in for the homies to be like, “How did they do that?” So it’s fun to have a couple of those.

Jacob Latimore and Seychelle Gabriel in Sleight

Speaking of magic tricks, how are [Sleight’s] Bo, Tina and Holly doing?

(Laughs.) Everybody’s great! It’s been a while since anyone has asked about them, so I really appreciate that. Dude, I love those movies, and it’s fun how all these films are so different. I don’t think anyone in my circle was expecting me to go make a period war drama next, but what I’ve really felt recently is that the thread between Bo [Jacob Latimore] from Sleight, Jenn [Kiersey Clemons] from Sweetheart and Jesse from Devotion is Black wish fulfillment. It’s this, “I don’t care what I am told I can do; this is what I’m going to do,” and that theme speaks really loudly across all three films, for me. Maybe that’s what all my movies are.

Are you ever going to show us Bo’s new trick, or is that your version of the Pulp Fiction briefcase? 

(Laughs.) It is in the Pulp Fiction briefcase. Maybe one day we’ll show something else that Bo can do, but for now, that’s the gold shining back at us in the briefcase.

Decades from now, when you reminisce about the making of Devotion, what day will you likely recall first? 

I will remember our last day of shooting. I have never cried so much on a set as I have on Devotion, just because of how much Jesse, Tom and Daisy [Christina Jackson] came to mean to me and what it meant to have my family involved and the responsibility of the story and having the families with us. So there was so much that made the experience really unique in that way, but the last thing we shot across the entire production was the voiceover of Jesse’s final letter to Daisy. We had just finished a car scene in an LED volume between Jesse and Tom. We wrapped that, and then we turned the boom.

So Jonathan got out of the car and went over to this lamp so he could read the letter, and the whole crew had their heads down, just listening to Jonathan read this letter a few times. On one end, it was me saying bye to Jesse. Hearing his last letter, that was sort of his funeral for us. It was also goodbye to the movie, and having shot the film in a pandemic, there was no wrap party or official end to it. So that, in a weird, heavy way, was our goodbye. I was able to just hug Jonathan and Glen after that, and we were so thrilled by what we were able to find and do together. That, to me, fully summarizes what the experience of Devotion was. I’m trying not to cry now, but it was heavy in a way that has forever changed me.

***
Devotion is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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