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Answering the Call: J.D. Dillard on Devotion

Fate beckoned filmmaker J.D. Dillard when it came to delivering the true-life story of war hero Jesse Brown to the big screen. Long before his filmmaking career took flight, Dillard grew up a Navy brat. His father Bruce Dillard served as a Naval flight officer for the Blue Angels and was the second African American in history to do so. Watching videos of his father's aviation skills and also "Star Wars" at a young age sparked Dillard’s love for filmmaking and aviation. At last, he’s now got the opportunity to bridge the two with his latest feature, "Devotion.”

"Devotion” marks Dillard’s first studio feature after helming genre-bending indie darlings "Sleight" and "Sweetheart." The film tells the story of Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first Black Naval aviator in the US Navy, and his budding friendship with wingman (Glen Powell) during their tour at the height of the Korean War. The film diverges from the typical war movie archetype as it focuses on the interpersonal relationships shared between Brown and his fellow officers. As per usual, Jonathan Majors delivers a powerhouse performance in the leading role, exhibiting a resounding notion of warmth, and honesty, along with the reservation. His chemistry with the charismatic Glen Powell takes the emotions to uplifting heights.

Ahead of the film's release, Dillard spoke to RogerEbert.com about working with old-school war aircraft along with rigging cameras on the models, the boost of confidence he got from Jonathan Majors’ performance, and bringing his dad Bruce onto the set as a consultant on the film.

After doing “Sweetheart," what made you want to do “Devotion”?

My dad is a naval aviator. I've grown up watching the backseat footage of him in the cockpit and being obsessed with that image as a kid. I think that's also lowkey why I'm sort of obsessed with “Star Wars” and interstellar battles. The scene of Luke in the X-wing, I have that same footage of my dad for real. So wanting to play with that. I started looking for things around aviation. And truly, it could have been anything from science fiction to period drama. I just wanted to kind of do my movie in the cockpit. My agent sent me "Devotion." I had heard Jesse's name before because he was the first Black naval aviator. My dad is also numbered in that he's the second Black Blue Angel. I've heard Jesse's, by way of the number of Black folks. The thing that was kind of nuts was, I'm getting to read the script for the first time, which I cried the whole time because Jesse's story to me was just so extraordinary. It was lowkey my dad's story. What you always hope there's a personal tie in a real way. For it to be that severe and that specific to my dad was not a situation where I just wanted to make this movie. I'm kind of called to make the movie.

Was it difficult going from your small independent features to this massive expansive budget?

In a weird way, not really. When I was finishing “Sweetheart,” I was in a crazy motorcycle accident. It put me in a wheelchair for a few months, did a long rehab, and I took a break from everything. When I came back to work, I shot TV. I shot three shows back-to-back in 2019. That sort of got my set legs back a little bit. I think almost equally as important, it gave me a taste of what a bigger budget set feels like. I think the sort of the budget per day was way more "Devotion" and then it was slighter to “Sweetheart.” Yeah. To get to see what a crew of a couple of hundred felt like. To see not just having a first AD but a second AD and a second-second. You see how the departments expand so big because of that "Devotion" felt really organic. It wasn't just that big jump from the movie. It was actually a year of doing TV that helped me kind of find that.

What was the experience of shooting this expansive feature during the pandemic?

As you know, making movies it's already incredibly difficult. The pandemic just kind of added a kind of hurdle on top of something that was already difficult. So much of what I love about this job is the social component, I get dinner with the cast, and go to dinner with the crew. I love the familial aspect of having folks over on the weekend. We're kind of doing our best to make it a family. With the pandemic, we're also shot pre-vaccine. As close as I was to the material I was, and as personal as it was, the physical process, unfortunately, was forced to feel like more work. You had to find more ways to make it feel less so.

And then there's the stupid silly stuff, where you're trying to talk to a collaborator of yours and so much of our job is about emotional specificity. You're communicating with your partner, and you're always like, "Are you mad at me? Or can I just not see your eyes?" So that's tricky, especially when you're trying to convey really specific things. There's just a bog over it. So we totally figured it out. I think there is a surprising side effect of the pandemic, in that the experience of shooting really mirrored sort of the experience of the movie, in that we all picked up and left our family and kind of went into a hostile environment together.

And not that I'm ever going to say that going to shoot a movie is going to war, but there were some of these similarities. We're in confined spaces, trying to be safe, trying to take care of each other, and missing our people. I think that sort of bound us differently. And I think that's also sort of the heart of the camaraderie of the group because we're all in this kind of heightened situation together. You make lemonade.

What different aircraft models did you end up having to replicate or find for the aviation scenes?

One of the first things that I did when I came on board was missions. I was like first, we need Jonathan Majors. That's the guy. Then secondly, we have to do as much of this in camera as we can, which is difficult in a movie where all the technology is 70-80 years old. We brought on Kevin LaRosa, who was the aerial coordinator. We immediately started looking for all of these planes. The hero playing in the movie is a plane called the Corsair. There are, I think, 11 or 12 of them left in the world, and we managed to get six of them to the set. Then you have to paint them all to be part of the same Squadron, you've got to make them kind of look like they're the exact same model and do all of that stuff. So it ended up being kind of this weird antique treasure hunt to find all of the planes. We have these planes called the Bearcat. It's the scene where Jesse and Tom are flying in the beginning together, kind of through the boats. We have those planes, we have the MIG, the jet plane that shows up during the first mission. We have the military's very first helicopter. A helicopter so old for that plane to fly again, they had to borrow a piece from the Smithsonian. I think audiences are smart now, especially when you're telling a story in history, people are really sensitive to visual effects. You're going to need visual effects no matter what. You can't skip that. I think in camera to me is not just practice, it's kind of an aesthetic. We did our damnedest to put as much of that lens out for real as we could. It just feels better.

I read that you brought your dad as an advisor, to make sure everything is accurate. What was the decision behind doing that and also, the experience of having him on set?

It was really organic. When I came on board the movie, the first thing I did was send him the script. Then I asked him a thousand questions just about his own experience. All of these things are to try to understand Jesse better. And even though they're 30 years apart in the Navy, a lot of Jesse's and my dad's experiences are very similar. So once it came time to shoot, it was, "Well, of course, you should be down there!" I've never expected him to stay for as long as he did. Because they were there for my parents, which on one end is lucky. Having your parents come to work with you, is a whole vibe. I don't know why it's kind of overwhelming, because it's that time spent together is so rarefied and specific, and to have him there every day, good days and hard days. Sort of looking at him for the emotional continuity of what it i to do this job, what it is to have a family when this is what you do was totally overwhelming. I think that there was a moment where I kind of realized this is as big a deal for him as it is for me. And that sort of added a different lens of how I even felt about the movie and felt about his involvement in it. Do you know what the downside is? He'll never watch a movie of mine more than this one. It was really special. And I'm kind of forever grateful for that time we have.

How much rigging did you have to do to capture those cockpit sequences, especially on those old planes?

So "Devotion" is certainly kind of a sample platter of techniques. We did a lot of exterior rigging, where we put the RED KOMODO on the plane. We would remove panels of the airplane, recreate them with rigs welded onto them, and then put them back on. But you can only put one of those on at a time while you're researching. Because the pilot has to see how that camera affects the maneuverability. At a certain point, you've put too many things on the plane and the pilots go, "I don't like this."

In that first scene by the boats, Glenn and Jonathan are really in the backseat of a real warbird. With, I believe, six cameras jam with them, and they act to that entire scene, at altitude. That required quite a bit of on-the-ground rehearsal, we go over the lines, talk about the moments and where your eye line is, and what you're looking at, you do all of that. Then I'm like, "Okay great. You're gonna go up, you're going to shoot these five lines, come back down, and we'll review." Once we went into the war stuff, it was sort of a mix of things where we shot on an LED volume, and all have the backgrounds we shot at the real location. But now, we had our eyes in a gimbal lock. So I could actually communicate with a man, and we could go over those scenes. Obviously, that stuff is quite a bit more specific in terms of probable performance dances with the action. So we needed to do that stuff here on the ground. But again, going back to in-camera aesthetic, not in-camera, frankly, but thinking of our aesthetic. So even though it's artificial, it gives the feeling of it being real, because we're using all real elements.

One of my favorite things about the film is how it does discuss the Black experience where Jesse just wants to be an aviator not put into a box. Even down to his terms of friendship with Tom where even though you're trying to stand up for Jesse is still sort of a microaggression, it's very condescending. How'd you bring that extra authenticity to telling that aspect of the story?

I think that the big goal of the movie is, even though it took place in 1950, and we have modern conversations, hopefully, led by character, you never want the themes to be bigger than the people. We all know what that feels like. I think the fundamental dance of the movie is a sort of path to mutual understanding but in a way that is not so clean and cookie-cutter. Because we would joke all the time on set, we can't make a 1993 drama directed by an old white man movie.

This is not "Glory 2."

You know what that movie feels like.

Stuff I had to watch in sixth-grade social studies.

Exactly. So, the biggest key to avoiding that is Jesse having an agency and having an inner world, and similarly the conversation of "racism is bad" is so archaic. We've seen stories of how hard it is to get there, but slightly less often, how hard it is to stay there. And also how lonely it is, and I think that's something we all can tap into. There was that, and then there was also, this wasn't going to be the "freeze-frame on the high five credits start rolling, racism ended in 1950" movie. It was never going to be that and I think just embracing some of life, messy, nonlinear feeling of trying to figure somebody else out was what's the point. Jesse and Tom don't end up as best friends; they end up just getting there. Jonathan has said this a lot. I really love his sort of look at it, "you can be soulmates without being best friends." I think to be a soulmate, and that sort of larger degree of, the cosmic understanding of meeting yours, that sort of your time together on a spiritual level that kind of transcends even liking each other. So that was always going to be our goal, more than just making the plain 1993 version of this type of story.

What was one of the most difficult sequences to shoot in terms of the emotionally led components between all of the different characters, since a lot of the movie is about relationships more so than the war itself?

I think the hardest scene is actually two scenes that are kind of the same thing, but they're part of the same part. Right after their first mission, when Tom accidentally writes Jesse up, they kind of get into an argument. Basically, what it means to be there as a wingman was. What was ultimately really hard about that same thing was just thinking of finding how we do this and not hitting you over the nose and Jesse keeps his agency? How do we do it where Tom is not so naive and get it to a point where it's not Disney-clean? Trying to find all of that balance in what simply are two very not long scenes. Sorting within those scenes is the crux of their argument about the movie. You don't want it to be corny. You don't want to be melodramatic. And I think just finding that balance between what needed to be said and what didn't need to be said. That ended up I think, to me being the hardest five minutes.

What about the scene with Jesse in the mirror? How many takes was that?

Here's the beautiful thing about Jonathan Majors. It's maybe the second or third take that we use. And it's actually because of the camera and not him at all. I always think it's kind of interesting to note because it's such a testament to the type of actor Jonathan is. It was our second day of shooting. You normally want to give your actor a month to prep, and we'll figure it out when we'll get there and then we're gonna do that mirror scene. Jonathan so carefully and meticulously builds his characters in prep. Jesse was going to be just as realized on day one as he was on day sixteen. The sort of the culmination of the fruits of our walks in the park, and the poetry we shared, and the songs that we're sharing, and all of that stuff that you would do to sort of mind-meld and discover together, he makes sure that that's in place for production. So when we stepped into that it was a quiet day. You don't give Jonathan Majors direction, that's, "Let's go with a little more energy." He knows the assignment. My direction is quite a bit more technical where it's, "hold the glance a little longer before you drop your head."It ends up being, really specific to the relationship between the drama that he has embodied and the camera. As a director, I always believed in that man, but it does put a little wind in your sails and gives you a little boost of confidence when you see that performance on your second day of shooting. Like "Oh, okay. That's great. I love this movie. Everybody's gotta check this out." So that was really a beautiful and awesome thing to see from him.

"Devotion" opens only in theaters on November 23rd.

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