In Devotion, director J.D. Dillard didn’t want to sugarcoat the reality of groundbreaking airman Jesse Brown, the first African American to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program.
The biographical war drama tells the story of elite fighter pilots Brown and Tom Hudner. The pair were the most celebrated wingmen during the Korean War. On screen, they are embodied by Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell.
I caught up with Dillard to talk about his connection with the movie’s subject matter and the conversations he had to do justice to the legacy of a fallen American hero.
Simon Thompson: Before you came across the book, were you aware of this story? I know about your father’s military history, so I wondered if you were aware of it in relation to that.
J.D. Dillard: I had heard Jesse’s name, but I didn’t know the depth and stranger than fiction myths around his story. It was like taking a name off a plaque and starting to really find out who this man was and how extraordinary his and Tom’s story was. I had just heard his name before Devotion.
Thompson: Your father was only the second African American member of the Blue Angels. In the context of monumental military moments, were Jesse and those who had come before discussed by you?
Dillard: It’s a funny thing because, as I said, I never got an intimate understanding of it. My dad was the second black Blue Angel, but the first was only the year before him, so when you’re talking about first and second, that’s where Jesse’s name came into my head like, ‘Oh, well, the first aviator was Jesse Brown.’ It was not his circumstance, what he did, how he got there, or how his story ended. There were so many pieces that I was completely unaware of, but by proxy of my father and then Donnie Cochran, who was the first black aviator in the Blue Angels, I had heard Jesse’s name contextually. To find the story in earnest was kind of overwhelming. The thread between Jessie and Donnie and then my dad, there’s so much commonality, their experiences in the Navy, and the kind of isolation that came with doing what they did, it felt like I was telling three or four stories at the same time.
Thompson: Telling a story like this, and on the scale that this movie has, is a different first for you creatively. How different was this as an experience of scale for you?
Dillard: The weird thing about the jump to Devotion is it felt natural. Sweetheart was $4.5 million on an island in Fiji; it was a very different film than this. I’m grateful for my time in television, at least by the amount of money you’re spending daily. It is a lot more similar to Devotion. Also, it was interesting to see what it feels like to have a crew of a couple of hundred folks and to have some more tools to execute the job. All of that stuff was helpful. The funny thing is, and I get to share this a bit more now, I had the scope of major filmmaking demystified for me very early in working for J. J. Abrams on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I went from the biggest set I’ve ever been on my entire life to the smallest one I’ve ever been on in my whole life, and that was my own movie. Even though there are thousands of people on his film and about 20 on mine, the job was oddly the same. It was sitting behind a monitor, trying to make it work and connect, trying to feel something. Sure, it’s nice to have more zeros at the end of the budget and a little bit more help, but it ends up being the same gig in a funny way.
Thompson: You wanted to tell this story a particular way. What did you definitely not want Devotion to be? It’s often very easy with stories like this to get a little saccharin and take the edges off it for various reasons. Was that what you wanted to try and avoid with this? Did you have to have any battles around that?
Dillard: That’s such a good question because in every department, even with the actors, I would often joke like, ‘Okay, there’s a fork in the road here, and we can be 2022, or we can be 1993.’ I think that saccharin quality that you’re talking about, God bless all the movies from the era, but there is a pour on too heavy the period piece-ness of it, the golden hue of it, to such a degree that you start to detach from it. Our goal always was twofold. Firstly, it was to tell the truth and tell it with muscularity and tangible reality. Secondly, it was finding a way to tell a modern story in 1950, and that’s not just a conversation based on palette and light and shadow, there is that side of it, but then there’s also thematically how we talk about race, how we move through these conversations. We have to tell this story in a way that considers where we’re at in the conversation now and not just do, ‘Jesse made it, and racism ended in 1950.’ We have seen that version of the story before, but there’s a better conversation to have now.
Thompson: Jonathan does such a great job with Jesse. How much did Jonathan and his physicality and take on this story influence the Jessie we see on screen?
Dillard: Jonathan is such a rare actor in the amount of prep that he does. I force everything into a metaphor, so I’m going to try to do that to explain. It is kind of like Jonathan is the chef de cuisine, and I’m the owner and GM of the restaurant. We talk about the meal, we might even buy all the ingredients for it, and we put it all together through conversation and taking long walks, but there’s a certain point where he has to cook. There’s a thing that Jonathan does that I don’t do, and when he comes to set having prepared this meal, we taste it, and it ends up being, in a funny way, a technical adjustment once we’re starting to serve it up. Stepping out of the metaphor, we talked about what’s important to us and what’s important to Jesse. Still, the great thing about where that winds up in his process is the character is as realized on day one of production as he is on day 60 because that work was done in prep. He wasn’t finding Jesse on set when we started to shoot. We talked about physicality, the clarity, and the tenor of his voice, we discussed all that stuff in prep, and there’s Jesse Brown. The scene where Jonathan is looking at himself in the mirror, and we sort of reveal the depth of what Jesse is going through, was our second day of shooting. Many folks may want to put that scene deep into the schedule, feel it out a little bit, and figure out who we are. For Jonathan, it didn’t matter if that was the first or last day of shooting because it was still going to be Jesse.
Thompson: I wanted to ask you about that. It’s genuinely affecting and shocking, and his delivery of that dialogue is so powerful. What was it like on set when he was doing that?
Dillard: It’s one of those scenes where you need to create an environment where your actor can work comfortably and safely. For Jonathan, the best I can do in moments like that for Jonathan is to make it safe and to let him do what he has to do. There has to be calm and quiet, and there has to be room to micro-adjust without everyone’s eyes on him in that way. It was about creating intimacy there so that he could go there. It still almost brings me to tears when I think about when we were wrapping that scene up because of just how deep he went into himself. I’m sure the lines of what he experiences and what Jesse experiences are overlaying. My question to him was not, ‘Do you want another take?’ It was like, ‘Does Jesse have anything else to say from a spiritual level?’ That was just the energy he tapped into, and I wanted to make sure that we had the safest space possible to find and express that.
Thompson: I spoke to Glen and Jonathan about Jesse not being home. For you, is it one of the hopes of this movie to bring this story more to light, bring closure and bring his body home?
Dillard: It is one of the biggest goals of telling the story. There are a lot of soldiers whose families are still waiting for them to be brought home. Not that Jesse is more important than anyone else, but I think to shine a light on his contribution and that he’s still not in Arlington. The best ending to this movie, and we hope every day is that we can do this, that by the time Devotion is coming out on Blu-ray, we can make an addendum to the end credits, and it’s like, We got them home.’ That is the actual conclusion to the story that is still up in the air. Tom went back in 2014 to try it, and they found some difficulty by way of weather, red tape, and politics, but it is one of our biggest dreams and goals. An entire Team Jesse effort is happening in tandem with the film to bring him home finally.
Devotion is in theaters now.