EXCLUSIVE: Five years ago this week, filmmaker J.D. Dillard had just launched his debut movie, the low-budget sci-fi-thriller Sleight, at the Sundance Film Festival. Five years before that, he had been working on the reception desk at Bad Robot.
Dillard’s star has been on the rise ever-since and today the 32-year old filmmaker is starting production in Savannah, Georgia, on one of the biggest-budget non-franchise movies of recent years.
War epic Devotion, the in-demand filmmaker’s third feature following 2019 horror Sweetheart, follows a pair of U.S. Navy pilots – including pioneering African American aviator Jesse Brown – who risked their lives during the Korean War and became some of the Navy’s most celebrated wingmen. Da 5 Bloods and Lovecraft Country actor Jonathan Majors stars alongside Hidden Figures and Top Gun: Maverick actor Glen Powell with supporting cast including pop star Joe Jonas. La La Land and Sicario outfit Black Label Media is producing and financing.
“This weekend will be about calming and re-setting before we embark on the next step of the process,” an excited but busy Dillard told me on Friday evening. “Prep is very loud.”
How does a young director wind down on the weekend before cameras roll on a big-budget war movie?
A slug of Tequila, a link to Sundance  movie Minari and the poetry of Mary Oliver are all on the list, he tells me.
There will also be a chat with his dad.
“I’m sure we’ll be speaking Sunday night and I’m sure one of us will get all emotional once we kick this whole thing off. I’m gonna need some warm words from him before we get started.”
That emotion derives from the film’s personal resonance for Dillard and his family, something relatively unusual for a director on a big-canvas project such as this. It starts from the fact that his father was also an African American naval aviator.
“My dad had certainly heard of Jesse,” he explains. “There hadn’t been an enormous lineage of black aviators. Of course there had been a number by the time my father was flying, but you’ve certainly heard of the first if you are one of them.”
Jesse LeRoy Brown’s story is a remarkable one. He overcame poverty and entrenched racial segregation in the pre-War south to attend university, earn his pilot wings and become a skilled aviator all by the time he was 23. He was the first Black man to be trained by the U.S. Navy as a naval aviator and became the first Black aviator to see combat.
Brown had flown 20 combat missions before his F4U Corsair aircraft came under fire and crashed on a remote mountaintop on 4 December 1950 while supporting ground troops at the Battle Of Chosin Reservoir. He died of his wounds despite the efforts of wingman Thomas J. Hudner Jr., who intentionally crashed his own aircraft in a rescue attempt.
Like the Korean War – which is sometimes called ‘The Forgotten War’ – Brown and Hudner’s narrative is little known outside of military circles.
This was a story that hit home for Dillard, however.
“Growing up, military service was certainly something I was interested in,” says the filmmaker. “I went through the application process for both the Naval Academy and West Point. It was certainly a path I was interested in, and obviously by way of my dad, I have always been fascinated by aviation.”
Years later, after two successful Sundance movies, Dillard asked his reps to be on the lookout for anything with a connection to fighter pilots or naval aviation.
As luck would have it, the script for Devotion would come his way via Black Label, who had been developing the project since 2016 after actor Glen Powell had flagged it to them. Jonathan Stewart and Jake Crane’s screenplay is based on the book by Adam Makos.
“I thought ‘what an incredibly opportunity to honor the story of these men and the many more people who were involved in this conflict that really hasn’t found its way to screen very often’. On top of that, as I’m reading through the script, on a personal level, I saw an opportunity to also kind of tell my dad’s story: even though he and Jesse were separated by 40 years, the parallels were uncanny. I have a lifetime of my dad elbowing me in the ribs while we’re watching aviation movies and telling me, ‘that’s not what it looks like, that’s not what they say, that’s not what they do’. I’ve never had a consultant I could so easily call in the middle of reading the script and ask, ‘by the way, can you give me more background on this detail or that’.
Jesse Brown’s journey, and his friendship with wingman Tom Hudner, speaks volumes at a time when America is going through yet another reckoning with race.
But it is the internal conflict within Brown that fascinates Dillard even more.
“Psychologically, it takes incredible grit and perseverance to do what Jesse did,” muses Dillard about his protagonist. “But it also takes…”
He pauses, searching for the word.
“It takes…discernment to do what Jesse did. I was taken by his ability to trust others and be able to discern who to bring into his world, who to trust and who not to trust. That discernment is so much of why he got to where he got to. Jesse got to being a naval aviator against all the odds. It was 1950 and he was still dealing with racism in a wide number of ways, but at the same time he was working within a team. The discernment that got him to where he was, is also partly at odds with what it means to be a wingman to others. I thought that was a very interesting dynamic.”
The director is keen to highlight the life-affirming element of Brown’s story as well as his struggle.
“It’s true that the sky was one of very few places where Jesse could fully be free,” he explains. “At 15,000 feet, his decisions are his own and he controls the vessel in which he moves through the world. But I think it’s really important for a movie like this to also fully represent the joy and wish fulfillment of Blackness. You never want to negate or diminish the incredible grit and resilience required to get to that point, but at the same time, on screen, I also want to watch the joy of Jesse having made his dreams come true. That’s also a really important thing to honor in a movie like this.”
Brown’s journey is an easy one to sympathise with. But what about the Korean war itself? Did America’s complex motivation for entering the conflict ever give Dillard pause when taking on the project?
“The experiences of the guys in Jesse’s squadron to some extent reflect what the country was experiencing, I think. There was a very specific type of growing pain coming off the back of WWII, which was so big, so loud, and so consuming. It was about trying to figure out who you are. Many of these men had signed up during the Second World War when the enemy was very clear. But things changed to an extent. Not every direction is the right direction, not every decision is the right one. The enemies were greyer, the morality was greyer. But like the men in the squadron, America was trying to figure out its place in the world.”
Black Label has assembled a strong team of established and emerging talent for the movie, including DoP Erik Messerschmidt (there’s no connection to the German WWII plane, the Messerschmitt), who has worked his way up through the camera department over two decades. After working with him on Gone Girl and Mindhunter, Messerschmidt most recently served as DoP on David Fincher’s acclaimed period drama Mank.
“I was really excited by the story and by the approach that J.D. was taking with the film by trying to do as much in-camera work as we can,” he says.
The DoP references The Right Stuff as a movie that he and Dillard looked at in their prep.
“Our principal camera in the movie is the Panavision DXL, which is a large format camera with large format lenses that have been heavily modified. J.D. and I went to Panavision months ago looking for a very specific type of lens that had a vintage feel but had elements of modernism to them, so they built these lenses specifically for us. It’s very exciting. We’ll also have a new camera called the Red Komodo, which is a tiny 6K camera, which has just landed on the market. We were fortunate to get a couple of the early prototypes, and we’ll be mounting that camera all over the airplanes in places you could never put a motion picture camera before.”
The team is discussing Imax potential for the movie. “We’re certainly looking for some spectacle,” Messerschmidt adds.
Key to that spectacle will be the film’s pilots and a fleet of vintage aircraft. In-demand aerial co-ordinator and helicopter pilot Kevin LaRosa Jr, known for his daring work on a string of blockbusters including Captain Marvel and Spider Man: Homecoming, was coming off Top Gun: Maverick when he got the call.
“Black Label came to me and said, Kev, we want what you did on Top Gun, but you know, 10 times more. Can you do that for us?”
LaRosa and his team have sourced 11 planes for the film, including Bearcats, Corsairs, Skyraiders and MiGs. They’ve been prepping and shooting some of the aerial scenes in Washington State, whose wintery terrain more closely approximates Korea at the time.
Today, we can reveal the first images of the movie taken from the ground and air last week during prep, including shots of the fighter planes taken by aerial DoP Michael FitzMaurice who also worked on the Top Gun sequel, and leads Majors and Powell in the cockpits of their Corsairs.
“We’ve sourced original planes from the period from across America and we’ve painted them to match the squadrons in the script,” explains LaRosa. “We’re being very ambitious. Every project we do, we look to set the bar and raise the limits for what’s possible.”
The team will use drones, camera mounts, helicopters and jetcams as well as ground cameras to capture the dog fights.
LaRosa Jr is another member of the team who has taken inspiration from his father. LaRosa Sr is a veteran movie pilot known for films including Independence Day and Godzilla and whose career stretches back to John Carpenter’s 1984 sci-fi Starman.
“My whole life has been growing up in the warbird community,” explains LaRosa Jr. “My father used to own a P-51 Mustang, a T-6 and a T-28, which were all World War II era aircraft. I grew up with these aircraft, with the smell and the sound of them, flying them with my dad. They feel kind of like home.”
Devotion co-star Powell worked closely with LaRosa and FitzMaurice on Top Gun: Maverick, on which the actor developed a head for heights.
“Glen used Top Gun to get his pilot’s license,” says LaRosa. “He’s an aviator now. We’ve been building back up his G tolerance again in the warbird so that when he gets in these aircraft he’s ready to go, physically and psychologically.”
Devotion marks the latest production for Sicario and La La Land producer-financier Black Label Media, founded in 2013 by Molly Smith, the daughter of billionaire Fedex founder Fred Smith, and former Young And The Restless actor Thad Luckinbill and his twin brother Trent.
Little expense is being spared on the film, which we understand is costing in the region of $90M.
Black Label is contributing a fair slug of that, but the film has also sold well internationally via STX who boarded last fall and Sony who came on for domestic and will be putting up P&A. There will also be tax rebates from Georgia and Canada, where DNEG will be handling the VFX.
Smith tells us: “From the minute Glen brought us the book we’ve been really passionate about getting this story right. These are the kind of movies that we all grew up on. You used to see a lot of these kind of big, epic dramas even in the late-’80s and ’90s and then they’ve had a harder run as the franchise films and the Marvel movies have taken over. Meeting J.D. excited us because he’s a young, super-talented filmmaker who was really more of a genre guy [Dillard’s sophomore film Sweetheart was produced by Blumhouse and he was attached to a remake of The Fly) and is bringing some of that approach to the visual style of this movie. That was one of the steps that went into us betting on this film.”
The plan had been to shoot early last year but the onset of the pandemic nixed that. The producers will now spend millions on protocols to ensure the 12-week shoot can go ahead even in the eye of the Covid storm. They’re expecting to carry out more than 10,000 Covid tests and will act as insurers if the movie encounters Covid-related delays. The movie is truly a devotion for Black Label.
An interesting contemporary wrinkle in the financing of the feature comes in the fact that Netflix and Amazon are among key distribution partners. The former will handle the film in Germany, Australia and Asia excluding China while Amazon will release the film in France under its overall deal with STX, which also sold the film to output partners and third party indies.
We’ve seen a number of big-ticket movies flip entirely to streamers since the pandemic took hold. Is that a possibility on this movie?
“I think anybody making movies today has to consider what the landscape will look like by the time the movie comes out,” says Trent Luckinbill. “There is a really limited theatrical play for most movies being made right now, so the possibility is always there.”
“The intention is obviously for the film to be made for the big screen. Tom Rothman at Sony was one of the first people who really fell in love with this with us and supports that vision. Any true cinema and film lover is going to be wowed by this film, I can assure you. We have to hope that people will see movies however they see movies going forward and that’s a great thing. Eyeballs are eyeballs and you want as many people as possible to enjoy it, but we’re certainly making this movie for as-big-a-screen as possible.”
The addition of pop star Joe Jonas in his first dramatic role should help generate eyeballs. The casting has echoes of Harry Styles making his big screen debut in WWII epic Dunkirk.
Smith reveals how the casting came about: “His agents called early on about the screenplay. We’ve had a lot of fans of this script. There were some great supporting characters so we had a ton of people audition for the roles. But we were very excited to see his tape and were blown away by it.”
“The short answer is he was a great read,” adds Trent. “Joe auditioned like everybody else and we looked at his audition in the same way that we would have anybody else and he really was great in the role and great for the part.”
Supporting cast also includes Thomas Sadoski, Daren Kagasoff, Nick Hargrove, Christina Jackson and Spencer Neville.
Next up for Black Label will be Benicio Del Toro thriller Reptile in the summer or second half of 2021. “Then, hopefully shortly after that we’ll roll right into Sicario 3 also with Benicio,” says Smith. The sought-after producer-financiers are also readying a typically-impressive TV slate.
Next up for Dillard could be a movie set at an even greater height than Devotion: a Star Wars project he has been developing with Matt Owens, a writer on the Marvel shows Luke Cage and Agents of SHIELD. The filmmaker has been mentored for the best part of a decade by J.J. Abrams and worked for Bad Robot on The Force Awakens and played a stormtrooper in The Rise Of Skywalker.
Dillard laughs knowingly when asked about Devotion being good prep for a date with a galaxy far far away. “You know, I hope so. I hope so. I’m super excited to be able to play in that world. Devotion is at the top of the to-do list right now, but you know, fingers crossed for something to do in outer space at some point soon after.”