ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with director J.D. Dillard about his most recent film, Devotion, which is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital. The director discussed his affinity for moving stories and Jonathan Majors’ rising career.
“Jonathan Majors (Creed III) and Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick) star in the epic and inspirational true story of two elite U.S. Navy fighter pilots who helped turn the tide in the most brutal battle in the Korean War: Jesse Brown, the first Black aviator in Navy history and his fellow fighter pilot and friend, Tom Hudner,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Their heroic sacrifices and enduring friendship would ultimately make them the Navy’s most celebrated wingmen.”
Tyler Treese: I know your father was a Naval flight officer, so it seems like you were the perfect choice to direct this movie. Growing up around aviation and the Navy, just how personal was this project for you?
J. D. Dillard: Intensely. Look, you always try to put some personal part of yourself in the thing that you’re working on, you know? But Devotion gave me this really rare opportunity to, obviously, not just share the incredible story of Jesse and Tom, but in a weird way kind of also make a movie about my dad. Even though he and Jesse were 30 years apart, there are so many parts of both of their journeys that kind of overlap, you know? So, it just gave me such a specific point of view on Jesse’s experience and the world that he was in, by way of so many things that I had heard from my dad growing up.
Jonathan Majors wows me in every performance I see. The scene where he’s revving himself up in the mirror by saying racist speech to himself — I thought that was such a powerful moment in the film and it really stood out. How was it filming that scene? Because it really sets the emotional tone of the film that follows.
Yeah. I mean, Devotion was always going to be a movie where we kind of kept it in the present, you know? But because Jesse was the Navy’s first Black aviator, you also need to honor that journey he’s been on up until the film has begun. I think that mirror scene is a way to do that. It’s a way to sort of see the cost of his journey so far and how difficult it has been and what he has been up against. Jonathan is the guy to be able to perform it with that nuance and that heartbreak.
It’s a tough scene to watch and it was a tough scene to watch on set. Watching someone you care about dig into themselves, to almost rehurt themselves, is … yeah, I mean, it’s such a heartbreaking thing to experience, but you understand the dark psychology of using that as motivation, you know? But yeah, when I read that scene for the first time, it was sort of the piece that really compelled me to tell this story.
Something that’s so impressive about Jonathan is that, like you said, he brings such nuance to the performance. He brings this vulnerability, and I think it’s just so great that he’s on this streak of great projects, Creed III, Ant-Man, exposing him to an even greater audience. So when you worked with him, what stood out the most about seeing his method and the way he’s able to show that heart and bring these characters to life on screen?
Yeah, I saw him last night at the Creed premiere, and I was giving him a hard time, “I don’t think I’ve been to three of a friend’s premieres in six weeks.” Because I went to Sundance for Magazine Dreams, and I went to Ant-Man, and then I went to Creed. I was like, “Okay, you’ve used all your cards for the year.” But no, I mean, look, I think Jonathan is and will continue to be one of our greats, and I think so much of that lives in just his relentless pursuit of truth in a character, you know? And I think when you look at his work, what is always so clear is that the character that he is inhabiting is so alive and has a history and has idiosyncratic behaviors, and has a point of view.
And very quickly Jonathan Majors, the actor, disappears, and you’re just sort of left with Kang, you’re left with Damian, you’re left with Montgomery Allen. And it’s such an awesome thing to watch, because he approaches it with such humanity, that these characters … they’re just fully alive, and fully formed. And, yeah, it doesn’t matter what genre or what space he’s in. That reality, I think, is seen in all of his work.
What’s so great about Devotion is it’s not just a character, you’re dealing with real legacies of Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner. There’s a great book with a ton of research that the script is based on, but did you get to talk to the families any before filming?
Yeah. The families were quite beautifully on this journey with us the entire time, or at least since I started my involvement with the film. They came to set and Glenn [Powell] and Jonathan spent time with them. I’ve been able to say this a number of times on our journey with the movie, but I think it was important for all of us on the filmmaking side to remember that, yeah, these are real people. Their families are here. This is their legacy and we are just here to sort of spread the word and to introduce more people to these men. It also just constantly reminds you of the real-life stakes of all of this because the families are still here, fully impacted and tied together by the actions of these men back in 1951. So yeah, it’s certainly helped us all really approach it with love and care because these were real folk stories and continue to be today.
One thing I’ve really enjoyed about your career is that all of your movies have been very different from one another, and I think that speaks to a willingness to challenge yourself. As a creative, how important is it to do something unique and not settle into the same patterns and doing stuff like you’ve already done?
Yeah, man. Got to keep people guessing. I didn’t have a period war drama pegged as my third movie but you read something, you’re moved by it, you see truth in it and have a point of view on how to do it. I mean, look, my brain — nine times out of 10 — defaults to genre. I love science fiction and light fantasy, which I haven’t done fantasy yet. But yeah, I’ve become kind of genre-agnostic and just want to tell stories that are meaningful to me. To your point, it is really fun to come to a set and not exactly know how to do it but figure out how you want to do it.
There was definitely a lot of growing on Devotion. On one end, I’d never worked with such scope, but on the other side, l had never worked with such quiet, and both of those living in the same film certainly gave me a lot of spaces to grow. I don’t know exactly what’s next, but I would love to sort of fuse the scope of Devotion with the grounded genre story of Sleight and I’d like to do something with a creature again, eventually. So we’ll bring that part of Sweetheart back in [laughs].