The new historical war epic dedication based on the bestseller of the same name by Adam Makos. The true story revolves around the first black aviator in Navy history, Jesse Brown (played by Jonathan Majors), and his fellow fighter pilot Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, who also serves as the film’s producer) and their heroic actions during the Korean War .
director JD Dillardwho is directing this suspenseful and emotional film was better known as a horror-focused genre filmmaker prior to joining dedication. He was raised the son of a naval aviator, and his father, Bruce Dillard, became only the second African American to fly with the Navy’s Blue Angels, so Dillard jumped at the opportunity to share a story from his own family history that touched him. He hired a number of talented black creatives from the bottom line, including famed production designer Wynn Thomas, the first African-American production designer in American film history.
The Acknowledgments spoke to Dillard about working with Thomas, working with his father as a consultant on the film, and those dramatic dogfight scenes in vintage airplanes.
Can you talk about the technical aspects of filming both the aerial shots of the planes on missions and filming in the cockpit with the pilots?
All of the aerial work was captured on camera and it was a tedious but very fun process, getting all these warbirds from all over the US, painting them to be in the same squadron, putting them in the same place and then to start pre-vis and build out how some of those scenes would look and feel, one shot at a time. It took them to the skies with Kevin LaRosa and his team, reviewing the shots on our shortlist. It sounds easier if I just say it like that, but it takes a huge team and a lot of planning to pull this off.
And in the cockpit?
Then there were two approaches in the cockpit. The first aviation scene in the film is in the Bearcat, and I wanted to make sure we used that as an opportunity to introduce aviation to the audience, so we shot the cockpit parts of that scene a little differently, where we have Jonathan and Glen on the back seat of a two-seater, filled the cockpit with cameras, and then actually played that scene from the sky. That gave us a really healthy reference point for how we were going to build, once we got into War Department and all the guys were in the Corsairs, what it was all going to look like and feel like. What we did there was we built a set design cockpit and played the scene in front of the LED volume, which is super hot these days, but we actually shot all those backing records and put our guys in the cockpit, and played it in front of the background plates. Weirdly, while you still need visual effects to bring more planes and exploding flak to the background, you still have an aesthetic that fully fits the camera when you’re sitting there at a monitor because your foreground element is real . Her background element is real and the cameras are with the guys in the cockpit. Those were the two big approaches to all of our aerial work.
The first black pilot to fly with the Blue Angels was Donnie Cochran in 1985. And then your father, Bruce Dillard, was the second, in 1989. Your father spent time with you on production. What were the most useful and impactful lessons he offered that impacted the finished film?
You know, it’s funny, I feel like when I tell people that my dad was a consultant on the film, they assume all of my questions are about protocol and greeting, cockpit language and speaking relate with you wingman. While all of this is true where he has been most helpful, and I think where his influence on the film is greatest, is really the question of the quieter moments. I really asked him how it felt and how the conversation went when he told my mom he was going on his first cruise. If he was in a bad mood or upset about something, where would he go on the ship for just some quiet time? In those moments, the emotional reality of being a black aviator, his feedback and insights were really tailored for this film.
How was working with cinematographer Wynn Thomas? He broke through barriers around the same time as Donnie and your father. How did you work together to combine his aesthetic with what you wanted as a director?
Wynn is such a magician that he will struggle to keep the heartbeat of the film at every level of production detail. His very specific attention to detail, his emotional specificity that he has in his work is really one of the things that makes him stand out to me dedication feel rich. I think his process fits dedication very good, because it draws many real references. He finds books that have been out of print for ages and give such a specific insight into the world we explore. It was actually intensely immersive. You walk into Wynn’s office, and it’s just filled with things you didn’t even know existed from that era, just to get you into that headspace. The other thing about Wynn is that he’s just a legend. I always have this paradox as a director that everyone on the set has done more films than you, but it’s because of collaborators like Wynn. That’s exactly what gets the wind in your sails for having such a work.
Can you give an example of a scene or setting that expresses him as a production designer?
I will use two and they are very different. One is the reading room on the ship. It’s the room where the guys get all their orders and hang out between missions. You’d think he was just going to look at a few pictures and put them together, but when I first walked into this space I was really impressed, not only by how immersive it was, but also by how worn, how lived it was. The only thing about a military film is that you have a lot of references, but with Wynn it was the difference between “it looks like the picture” and “I feel like I stepped into the picture”. That’s everything from the details on the CO’s desk to the chairs. Wynn was actually able to get them from one of the ships, which is still period accurate and currently serves as a museum. We borrowed all these chairs. They actually went into the picture because these chairs are in the picture. This is just an example which is very small and specific.
And the other?
On a larger scale, it transformed River Street in Savannah into the French Riviera, and the vision it took to pull that off and the flexibility I was given to look in all directions while filming. We were totally in France and certainly couldn’t be further from anywhere, so it’s both big and small. It was incredible to see Wynn conjure up a reality.
This is obviously a very special film for you. How has film changed you as a filmmaker?
I think I can split this answer in half. On the one hand, I’m not used to having that much responsibility as a guest in other people’s real-life legacy, and it’s certainly something no one in production has taken lightly. If you write a creature feature and want to change it, you don’t have to ask anyone. You don’t need to worry. Since I’m mostly a genre filmmaker, the circumstances are completely different. I was so incredibly grateful to share this story for a moment, but with that comes a tremendous sense of clarity and pride. You could feel it on our set, from the handles to the gazers, all the way up and down the cast and crew; Everyone had read the book because of the journey we were on. When you feel that level of synergy, you start to feel like it’s bigger than a movie. The other thing I grew and learned and felt in this film is that it’s moving forward, everything has to feel like that. This film even re-set the bar for my own emotional connection to the material. It has to feel that way, and that should be independent of genre or true story. It takes years to make a film, and I don’t think I could survive working on something for that long if it didn’t feel the way I felt doing it dedication.
dedication plays in theaters across the country on November 23rd.
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The Walking Dead Showrunner Angela Kang is Directing Marvel’s Silk: Spider Society for Amazon & MGM
Daniel Kaluuya joins Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse as Spider-Punk
Jonás Cuarón will direct Bad Bunny in Sony’s Marvel film El Muerto
Featured Image: Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in Columbia Pictures’ DEVOTION.