J.D. Dillard dug into his own family history to chronicle the unlikely bond between pioneering Navy airman Brown (played by Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) during the Korean War.
BY REBECCA FORD
MAY 23, 2022
J.D. Dillard’s earliest childhood memory is of burning his hand on the nose of an airplane after an air show when he was about three years old.
His father was a Naval aviator, and so Dillard’s early years are peppered with memories of hanging out in airplane hangars and watching his father soar through the sky as a Blue Angel. “It’s always kind of stayed with me, and it’s been such a part of his identity,” he tells Vanity Fair.
There was even a moment growing up when he thought maybe he’d follow in his father’s footsteps, but he took a different route—into filmmaking. He released his first film, the well-received sci-fi drama Sleight, in 2016 and his follow-up, Sweetheart, starring Kiersey Clemons, in 2019. He was well on his way to building a path as a genre director when a script landed on his desk that took him in a very different direction—into his past.
“It was the first time in forever I had cried while reading a script,” he says of the Devotion screenplay by Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart. “It’s rare when the thing that you’re working on so deeply reaches into your own life, your own history, your own family.”
Devotion is the story of Jesse L. Brown (played by Jonathan Majors), a pioneering Black Naval aviator who flew during the Korean War, and built an unexpected bond with fellow Naval aviator Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). As can be seen in these exclusive images debuting here, the ambitious war film, which Sony will release in October, features incredible flight sequences with awe-inspiring aerial acrobatics—but it’s primarily a story about Brown’s determination, and the partnership that was forged along the way. “The goal was always to make this more kind of classic story,” says Dillard, “A dramatic friendship with a massive backdrop was always our North Star.”
Dillard wasn’t the only one with family history looming over him on Devotion. Majors says when he was playing Brown he thought often of his two grandfathers, who both served in the Korean War. “The Korean War kind of follows me,” says the 32-year-old actor, whose star has been steadily rising in recent years with roles in Da 5 Bloods, The Harder They Fall, Lovecraft Country, and an appearance in Loki that will lead to more appearances as Marvel supervillain Kang.
For Devotion, Majors saw in Brown a man carrying a great deal of weight on his shoulders as the first and only Black man at that level in his field. “It’s interesting, the juxtaposition between imposter syndrome and legacy, him understanding that he’s built for greater things,” he tells Vanity Fair. A moment in which Brown says, “I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me to give up” was especially moving for Majors: “That’s a conversation that sometimes it’s said to you, sometimes society is presenting you with that.”
Dillard says Majors brought to the role an emotional weight and authenticity needed for that character. “The role of Jesse is so difficult because there’s a power, there’s a restraint, there’s a vulnerability,” says Dillard. “What I love about him is that he’s kind of like a canary in the mines of honesty. What he looks to bring to his scene is so based in emotional reality that it breathes a different kind of life into the scenes that he participates in.”
Devotion follows Brown as he and a team of aviators—among them Joe Jonas and Daren Kagasoff—train to fly the F4U-4 Corsair fighters in the Korean War. Together they faced incredible risks with each mission, while Brown alone battled systemic racism at the same time. Majors peels back Brown’s stoic exterior and exposes the inner struggle that swirls within him. He remembers in particular shooting a scene early on that reveals how Brown uses the terrible things that have been said to him to motivate him to carry on. “I remember after that, I just sat in the locker room and just boo-hooed my eyes out,” he says. “You can’t shake it—you can’t just walk off from that. It costs you something.”
Glen Powell was on a fishing trip with his family several years ago when they realized they were all reading the same book, Adam Makos’s 2014 book, Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice. The book is about Brown’s pioneering history but also the deep friendship he built with Tom Hudner, the Massachusetts-born airman whose life story became forever entwined with Brown’s during a mission in December 1950. “We all got to talk on that fishing trip about why this book could be a movie and what an incredible story [it could be],” Powell says.
Powell teamed with Black Label Media to acquire the rights to the book, even meeting with Brown’s and Hudner’s families to explain why he wanted to tell this story. “This event has really defined their lives in so many ways, both of them, and so they hold it with such reverence, and the legacy of their fathers with such reverence that, I told them, ‘I promise you, I will do this right if you guys give me the opportunity to make it.’”
Powell was especially interested in exploring the unlikely bond between Brown and Hudner, who arrived from vastly different backgrounds to serve together. “I feel like this movie just resonates as so much more honest than most movies about being an ally and a friend and a wingman, and how far you’re willing to go for a friend—and it’s not going to be in a cheesy way. It’s always grounded in reality,” he says.
Dillard says the connection between the two pilots is “much more honest and a much more modern story about two men really fighting for mutual understanding.” He and the two actors worked together to make sure the friendship never fell into the many dangerous tropes that surround so many cinematic depictions of friendship between white and Black characters. “There’s no white savior, we were adamant about that,” adds Majors. “These men didn’t like each other; they were forced together by fate. The thing that these two men had inside of them that connected them was that idea of devotion.”
Once they were all on the same page with the emotional core of the film, there was still the flying to contend with. Majors and Powell needed to look confident enough in the planes to play some of the best pilots in the world in that era. Powell had gotten his pilot’s license for his work in Top Gun: Maverick, and Majors jumped into lessons as well, completing all but 10 hours needed for his own license (he says he’s definitely going to finish those up to get his license even though the film is complete). They learned from aviators who were passionate about planes from that era, including private collectors of planes from the ’50s that were brought in for the shoot. And they got into planes with real pilots who could show them the physical and emotional intensity that comes with being in those planes. “Everybody does throw up,” says Majors, but it was worth it to get the real experience. “When you pull Gs, you pull Gs…. And I wanted to feel that. I wanted to push it, because you’re playing Jesse Brown, and Jesse Brown’s a bad motherfucker. He’s a maverick. He’s a trailblazer. That’s who he is and we have to take it there.”
Dillard felt extra responsibility to make sure the aerial work read authentically. “My dad has been nudging me in the ribs for 30-some-odd years while we watch movies saying, ‘Oh, that’s not how planes move. That’s not how it works. That’s not what they say,’” he says. He consulted his father every step of the way, even having him on set for several weeks, but says it wasn’t the technical wizardry needed to create the big, bold aerial fight scenes that intimidated him. His focus was always on telling the story of Brown and Hudner, which is held in such high-esteem by airmen, in the right way. “When you visit our set on all of my monitors, I keep a little piece of gaff tape that just says, ‘what do you want them to feel?’” he says.
And though audiences won’t get to see the film until it comes out in the fall (it opens in limited release on October 14 and wide on October 28), Dillard has already heard from his most important critic: his father. “He loves it,” says Dillard with a smile, before adding, “I’m also bracing myself for the probability that I’ll never make anything that he will like as much as this.”
Source: VANITY FAIR