How the director’s Blue Angel father inspired the film ‘Devotion’ – Los Angeles Times | Episode Movies

JD Dillard doesn’t run on adrenaline; he runs on jet fuel. For the director of Sleight and Sweetheart, new film Devotion – the gripping, haunting story of black Korean War aviator Jesse Brown – is the culmination of a lifelong obsession he shares with his father.

“All of my earliest memories are related to aviation. The most literal is burning my hand on the nose of an F-18 in my father’s arms,” ​​Dillard told the Times. “My dad was part of the air show, and my mom and I watched him, and I had little earplugs in them because those shows are goddamn loud.”

His father, Bruce Dillard, served not only as a naval aviator. He also toured with the Blue Angels and became only the second African American to join the ranks of the famous Navy aerobatic team. The younger Dillard would spend hours at their home in Pensacola, Fla., watching VHS tapes on his father’s rear-facing cockpit camera. “I’ve been obsessed with masked characters since that age,” the director said.

Directing an aviation film was never an option for JD Dillard. He just needed the right story.

The director didn’t know, but Glen Powell had exactly the story.

The charismatic actor is best known for his roles as an aviator, playing astronaut John Glenn in Hidden Figures and a fictional pilot in Top Gun: Maverick. In 2016, while on a fishing trip with his family in Alaska, Powell read Adam Makos’ Korean War biography, Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice. For Powell, Makos’ tale of the unlikely friendship between naval aviators Brown (played by Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Powell) in a segregated America felt instantly cinematic.

“My grandfather was in the Korean War, and there haven’t been many films about the Korean War in about 40 years,” Powell told the Times.

In 2017, the actor traveled to Concord, Massachusetts to meet the real Hudner, a Medal of Honor recipient who retired after 27 years in the Navy with the rank of captain. “What was really interesting was that his relationship with Jesse Brown wasn’t one of his best friends. They were kindred spirits,” Powell said.

Next, the actor-producer partnered with Black Label Media (the LA-based production company behind “La La Land”) to option Makos’ book. While Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart were writing the screenplay in 2018, Powell met with the Brown family and then began an extensive search for the right director to direct the complex narrative.

This search eventually led to Dillard. “His father was the second African American Blue Angel. He’s obsessed with aviation and has an incredible attitude towards film,” said Powell.

Dillard felt an unusually emotional connection to the project. “I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading a script,” he said. “It’s rare to actually be so touched by reading a script.”

Recalling his father’s criticism of inaccuracies in aviation films, Dillard’s primary request to Black Label Media was to let him film realistic aerial scenes featuring historic aircraft actually flying.

Bruce Dillard detains JD Dillard before a Blue Angels demonstration in Cape Cod, Mass., June 1989.

(JD Dillard)

Principal photography on Devotion began shortly thereafter with the filming of the booming aerial scenes intended to give the film a tactile feel that would set it apart from the typical VFX-heavy war film. To fill the skies with vintage aircraft – Vought F4U Corsairs, Grumman F8F Bearcats, Hawker Sea Furies, Douglas A-1 Skyraiders and a Sequoia helicopter – Dillard turned to collectors for their semi-retired warbirds.

Led by air coordinator Kevin LaRosa II (“Top Gun: Maverick”), Dillard and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”) experimented with different camera installations on the plane, balancing their desire for an immersive experience with the safety confines of ancient planes being better more suited to light-hearted air shows than combat. Although filming lasted more than a month at the height of the pre-vaccination pandemic, the hands-on approach proved worth the effort considering the pandemic then forced her to do more than one Year Completion of the additional effects in post-production.

Majors said filming the aerial footage gave the shoot an elusive and unusually tangible quality. “I feel like that’s something you can’t really fake. It was really amazing,” Majors said in an interview. “And when I say ‘feel’, I mean everything. I mean the exhilaration of taking off, the exhaustion of trying to keep your lunch down, when you’re drenched in sweat and your adrenals are shooting through the roof from doing the impossible.”

Fittingly, the impossible sums up Brown’s life. A native of Hattiesburg, Miss., Jesse LeRoy Brown defied all expectations by attending Ohio State University at the height of segregation. He then enlisted in the US Naval Reserve, where he encountered unrelenting racism and racist violence from white cadets. The pain deepened Brown’s desire to achieve perfection.

Personal trauma also influenced Bruce Dillard. At the age of 14, the senior Dillard lost his father. That summer his uncle took Bruce to an air show where he saw the Blue Angels for the first time. He knew he wanted to fly.

During the filming of Devotion, the younger Dillard often turned to his father for advice that went beyond technical advice. “I don’t just ask my dad for the right radio signal when you go on a dive,” the director said. “But funnily enough, the more helpful things were questions like, ‘What was the tenor in the room when you told mom you were going on a cruise for the first time? How hard was that? And what about when you were on the ship feeling madly isolated but still needed some alone time? Where did you go?”

“Devotion” bucks the trend of other African-American plays by skipping traumatic scenes so audiences only see the result of Brown’s alienation, not the cause. This comes as a revealing, fourth-wall-breaking shot that traps Brown face-puffed with anger, turning the insults hurled at him by white people back at himself for motivation. The decision frees the film from the expectation of showing black assault and allows ample time to explore other parts of Brown.

A fighter pilot during a dogfight

Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) is America’s first black naval aviator in the Korean War drama Devotion.

(Sony Pictures)

Dillard took care of putting the spotlight on Brown’s life as the father and husband of Daisy Brown (Christina Jackson). The image’s magic trick comes from how very slowly we move from Hudner and Brown’s partnership to Brown and Daisy’s relationship, a shift no doubt influenced by the proximity of the filmmaker’s mother and father. Jackson provides an obvious delight, recreating, in Majors’ words, the “sacred” Brown felt.

“To act through Christina Jackson is to be very alive and alive,” Majors said. “Your body knows how to react. Your mind knows how to react… The game is, we’re going to love each other fully. That is what incites them.”

It was easy to see how, with a different director, “Devotion” could succumb to the white savior trope or become a guide to solving racism in 138 minutes or less. In Dillard’s hands, however, the two aviators move not toward friendship, but toward mutual respect as kindred spirits.

Reserved Brown and easy-going Hudner spend much of “Devotion” navigating the choppy air that reigns between them. The intense physicality of Majors and the easy-going calm of Powell make for an intricate dance as Hudner learns that true allies come not from hollow gestures of friendship, but from understanding his Black counterpart’s personality. So steadily do the two forge a trust that carries an honest, emotional weight that can crush an audience as Hudner sees him and Brown share an unyielding devotion to success and honor (a surprisingly humanizing steadfastness that Powell gracefully threads). “It’s not about the result,” Powell explained. “It’s about bleeding for a friend and really getting your skin in there.”

That unique relationship immediately separates Devotion from, say, Top Gun: Maverick, as does the decision to dedicate a portion of the film’s box office to supporting the Brown Hudner Navy grant.

Dillard’s personal connection to the subject through his father was always apparent to Powell. “[Bruce] Dillard was our kind of naval advisor on the set, and [it was wonderful] I just watch JD bring his sisters and his mom and dad into things,” Powell said. “I believe so much in family and how it can transform the ecosystem of filmmaking from being a selfish environment to a very generous one.”

In “Devotion” you can feel a partnership between father and son, which is not only characterized by a shared love of aviation. Brown’s journey through white spaces, his search for camaraderie among his diverse peers, and his determination to pursue his dreams run through the senior Dillard and the director himself. That’s how JD Dillard got here.

“He had this fire in his gut about my dreams of filmmaking,” the younger Dillard said of his father. “He was very keen for me to stick with it. If you want to achieve something, you have to pursue it relentlessly.”

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