'Devotion' Director J.D. Dillard Couldn't Have Made War Biopic 'The Same Way' Without Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell (Exclusive Interview)

Devotion is a powerful war-biopic that tells the real-life story of naval officers Jesse Brown — the first African-American aviator to complete the United States Navy's basic flight training program — and Tom Hudner, who built a strong friendship fighting alongside one another during the Korean War. The film stars Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell as Brown and Hudner, respectively. PopCulture.com recently had a chance to speak with J.D. Dillard, director of Devotion — which is now available to own on Blu-ray and DVD — and he told us he couldn't have made the movie "the same way" without Majors and Powell.

"It was always sort of my dream to make something that sort of felt like those big '90s dramas that really got me into movies," Dillard told us via a Zoom interview. "And we would joke all the time that we wanted it to be more Shawshank Redemption than war film. And obviously that sort of lives by centering the film on Jesse and Tom. But yeah, it just reminds me of those types of movies where the scope is big, but the feelings are big too. And that was such a fun thing to try to figure out."

Dillard's father Bruce Dillard was a Naval flight officer and the second African-American selected to fly for the Blue Angels, which is notable not only for his understanding of Devotion's subject matter but also because he and Majors share similar backgrounds. Majors lived on a military base for some time when he was a child, as his father was in the Air Force. Powell was an early champion of the book Devotion is based on — Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice by Adam Makos — and even visited with Captain Thomas J. Hudner Jr. before his death in 2017.

"Definitely couldn't have done it the same way," Dillard said of working with his two A-list lead stars, "but no matter what you work on, you try to find a piece of yourself in it. I think with Devotion, specifically, I've never had access to this much self to put in it just by way of the familial component. But it's like that's what you use and what you mine for some sense of authenticity and not just the sort of technical stuff."

Offering some further insight, Dillard added, "Where it was most helpful for me to have my parents around in this process was not necessarily asking my dad about the radio call on bombing runs or anything like that. I mean, it was asking him how hard it was to tell mom about your first deployment coming up and what were those conversations like and what did it feel like and ask her the same thing. And that's the stuff that sort of fills the space between the lines a little bit. So look, many a filmmaker who has no relationship to service members make movies, but I think there's just a lacquer that I got to apply by way of just having these folks in my world."

Devotion was released into theatres on Nov. 23, so we wondered how Dillard's father has been enjoying his newfound fame, after being a consultant on the film and getting to enjoy some of the Hollywood life. "He was already cooler than me by way of being a Blue Angel," Dillard quipped, "and I am but a filmmaker. But I was giving him a hard time because we had our entire Devotion press tour, and then I had the press tour for my dad where I went to Plano, Texas where they now live. And I would have to do, I did screenings every night for a week for him. And he is like, 'Oh, this is this group,' and 'These are my friends from blah, blah, blah.' So no, he put me to work, man. He is now the unofficial mayor of a few of his communities."

For those who've seen Devotion, there are two scenes in particular that have a profound impact: the first is when Jesse is staring himself down in the mirror and crying as he says all the terrible things he's told, being a black man in a predominantly white military. "Jesse in the mirror when he's pulling up the experience he's been on so far and delivers it to himself," Dillard shared of working on the scene. "And by way of that to the audience that to me, and to Jonathan, was always going to be this sort of tipping point where the audience understands the cost of his journey so far. 

He continued, "Modulating that and throttling that exactly in the way that would be most meaningful was... It wasn't even that I was worried about it because in Jonathan's hands, it's going to be good. But still, you don't know really what it's going to feel like until you're watching it performed. So I think when we wrapped that day up there was that, to your point, that kind of relief."

The second sequence that really takes your breath away is the climax of the story when Hudner is attempting to land his plane near where Jess has crashed so that he can try to save his friend. "Technically one of the more difficult things in the movie was Tom's crash," Dillard admitted, "and figuring that out as a oner, stitching between a real aerial element that seamlessly transitions into a motion-controlled rig on an LED volume, which seamlessly stitches to a practical crash rig on a snow set. And finding the ways to hopefully smoothly transition from all three of those parts of production and was really one of the last shots delivered in the film." 

He added, "So it's spending every moment until basically the premiere being like, is that one going to work? A little nerve-wracking. But yeah, so that sort of emotional thing with Jesse in the mirror. And then I think the sort of technical thing with Tom and his crash." Devotion is now available to buy from retailers and online stores. Click here to pick up your own copy from Amazon.