Interview with 'Devotion' director JD Dillard and his father, Bruce Dillard

Interview with JD Dillard, director of Devotion, and his father, Bruce Dillard, Naval Aviator

J.D. Dillard, director of Devotion, and his father Bruce Dillard, a Naval Aviator, sat down and shared their experiences and insights about the film which tells the story of Jesse L. Brown, the first black Naval Aviator who served in the Korean War. The film stars Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell. In this interview, you will learn about J.D.’s inspiration and influences with the project and from his father Bruce about how Naval Aviation played an integral part in his son’s upbringing, which found its way into the movie.

Enjoy the interview with ‘Devotion’ director JD Dillard and his father, Bruce Dillard

J.D. can you share with us how you got involved with Devotion?

It was a mix of a few things. I long idolized aviation and there came a point a couple of years ago I wanted to find a story to tell about aviation. That could have been starship fighters in a genre project or a true story set in the Korean War. After I told my agents and managers to keep an eye out I was sent the script for Devotion. The thing that was overwhelming was on one end while reading it I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know Jesse’s story to this detail and what went down between him and Tom Hudner.

Also in the story, I saw a lot of my dad’s story. It’s rare that art and your personal history collide so specifically. I found myself with an opportunity here to yes, of course, honor the story of Jesse and Tom, and get in a way get to articulate parts of my dad’s story.

father and son JD Dillard interview for devotion
J.D. and Bruce at a screening for Devotion.

What most resonated with you about Jesse’s story and ignited your passion?

Even that is multi-faceted. I think on the one end seeing what Jesse did when he did it speaks to such a type of character and one that I looked up to not just in my own dad, but even applying it to my own aspirations in film and television when there are fewer people than you’d hope doing the thing that you want to do…Looking at Jesse’s story and seeing him against all odds, with no comparison, he was able to not just pursue but reach that goal.

I recognize and related to that fire in your gut. And also, there is peculiar isolation that comes in that type of pursuit of a dream. There are moments in Devotion that I really relate to and the struggle is not just external, but it is internal. You fight to continue to give yourself the strength and pull it from those that love you around you to reach this place you’ve been aspiring to is something…that goes from Jesse to my dad to me.

jesse l. brown with his aircraft
Jesse L. Brown with his aircraft.

What was your favorite part of the film and in what ways did you integrate your family Naval history into the scene or scenes?

It’s tricky with a movie I really love to pick a favorite kid among the scenes…I’ll use two examples, one is a little clearer just by way of loving planes, loving aviation, and having a relationship to service. Getting to shoot aerial scenes was so fun and was a dream come true. I think Jesse and Tom splitting away from the rest of the squadron in the middle of the Yalu River scene…It conjured this camaraderie, this brotherhood, a sort of a blend of ascetics I was interested in while also kind of getting a little bit of that “Star Wars in the trench run hot shotness.”

So that really such a fun thing to put together. My nods to Star Wars are not subtle. I think on the other side and a much quieter scene, Jesse telling Daisy that they are shipping off. I think [it] really was one of those moments where fact, fiction, reality, my story, their story, all sort of blended together because it, both in the script phase and production, was the type of scene where you just don’t look at what Jesse did, but I went to my own parents and asked. What is that conversation like? What’s scary about it? How does that practically feel? I think a scene like that holds the most where my own story, our own story, was inside Jesse’s story.

bruce dillard JD Dillard interview
LT Bruce Dillard, during his service with the Blue Angels.

Bruce, would you be able to share your story with the audience?

Like many Naval Aviators, I went to an air show when I was 13. The Blue Angels were flying in the F-4 Phantom and I saw a blue jet go over my head with two balls of fire coming out the back…I said I want to do that when I grow up. My mom would rent a piece of farmland not too far from the Willow Grove Naval Air Station which is where I saw the first air show. There was constantly a lot of aviation going on. All the way through my teenage years whether there was an air show or just airplanes coming in and out I quickly fantasized about doing that one day myself.

So I joined the Navy and was a Naval Flight Officer in for 12 years. I flew the right seat in the A-6 Intruder. Came back to be a flight instructor in the A-6 Intruder which gave me an opportunity to rush the Blue Angels, which I did and I was very lucky, very fortunate to be selected my first time. For most folks, it is their second time around. I served on the team for two years as the advanced coordinator so I got a lot of backseat time in the F/A-18 Hornet. In the Navy, if you are not flying you do a disassociated seat tour so in the middle of Desert Storm in February 1991 I shipped off to be the assistant navigator on the John F. Kennedy, CV- 67.

uss john f kennedy for JD Dillard interview
A bow view of the aircraft carrier USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV-67) underway with F-14 Tomcats at the front of the deck.

From there when Saddam Hussein did not want to let inspectors go back and look for nuclear weapons a couple of years later, I was in St. Thomas. We had just dropped anchor, 22 hours later we had pulled the anchor up and we were sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. I had nothing but T-shirts and shorts. Pretty devastating. [laughs] So I stood next to the skipper and said, “Hey skipper, I’m supposed to be leaving, I don’t what’s going to happen now with the cruise?” He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I would like to work for a four-star admiral or the Secretary of the Navy.”

He was very kind and generous. He sent a few letters back to Navy Personnel and I had the privilege of working for Admiral Miller, a four-star who reported to [General] Colin Powell. Then I made the transition to the F-14 Tomcat to fly in the backseat. This guy here (points to J.D.) was about four to four and half years old and I just decided I had eight years left, six years were going to be at sea and I wanted to be around for the family. That’s when I made the decision to step away.

bruce and JD
Bruce with J.D.

What people don’t realize…when you go on a cruise, you just don’t go on a cruise. There are nine months of workups that you’re gone before you actually do the real cruise. You’re just not home a lot. I had a wonderful career, very successful, very exciting, but it also included not being home. I felt like it was time to come home.

J.D: It was definitely a foundational moment for the family when he was home for good.

Bruce, what does Jesse L. Brown’s story mean to you and did you know about it?

That’s a great question. I was actually embarrassed by how much I did not know. I knew that Jesse was the first black Naval Aviator and I saw something at the Smithsonian. It was just a piece in a corner of a wall, but I had no idea about what he went through and certainly did not understand what happened with Tom Hudner…It was funny as he (J.D.) was sort of interviewing for the job there’s a documentary on Amazon called Angle of Attack.

It is an interesting juxtaposition between the history of Naval Aviation, which I needed to learn more about myself, along with young officers who were learning how to carrier qualify today. They had a very long piece on Jesse Brown. I took some video and sent it to him (J.D.) and said, “Oh my goodness, this is unbelievable.” Then of course, read the book, and I can’t believe that I didn’t know this.

brown and hudner real people for JD Dillard interview
Jesse L. Brown and Tom Hudner. (US Navy photo)

Bruce, for the film, what has touched you the most about it?

….A couple of things, when your son…has an appointment to West Point to play lacrosse, and is on the waiting list for the Naval Academy prep school, and then comes to you and says, “Hey, I want to make movies.” After your heart drops to your wallet, you’re like, “Come on man, being a Blue Angel is really doggone hard, but this is like impossible.” We’ve been on this journey for a really, really long time. There’s been pain. There’s been heartache. There’s been excitement. I just wanted someone to give him an opportunity. Which Mr. Smith and Black Label Media certainly did. Just the opportunity. And I felt like, and again I’m being very partial here, but I just felt like he had the maturity, the insight, and the work ethic to do something special…That’s probably been the most rewarding thing for me.

I can tell when we looked at the dailies we were crying. There was no music. There was no background noise, it was just raw video. It was just so powerful because there were so many scenes that really told the inside story of what our own family went through. Jesse sitting on the couch in his Ohio State University sweatshirt, his head in the books, with his wife’s feet. He took that from, (to J.D.) like how old were you when I was doing that, he took that from home I feel like.

pilots on USS leyte
Jesse with his fellow pilots walking aboard the USS Leyte during the Korean War. (US Navy photo)

Of course, the scene at the kitchen table talking about going on cruise. Even the mirror scene, while I never did that, at least not that in that particular manner, oh my gosh, there are so many times when you are talking to yourself because it is a lonely business. Now certainly, it was a lot better in the 80s and 90s than in the 50s, but it is still a little bit of a lonely business. When something goes wrong, you question…did I really do something wrong, or does this guy just not like the way I look. One last little scene, when they are doing the fam hop in the very beginning. I don’t know if you notice this or not, but as Jesse is flying around, there is this little smirk on his face. There is a little smirk because he loves to fly. Certainly, I’ve had that feeling a thousand times. Anyway so there were just so many bits and pieces that were so very accurate, which is what I had hoped for and again he did a great job with it.

jonathan majors and christina jackson in devotion
Jonathan Majors as Jesse L. Brown and Christina Jackson as Daisy Brown in Devotion. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Closing comments from J.D.

February is really fun for us because…the story of Jesse and Tom boiling back up to…the conversation by way of Black History month. We’re calling you from San Francisco as we are sharing it with the Marine Corps Memorial getting to talk about the process, who Jesse and Tom were and…at the same time, the film is becoming readily available for anyone who wants to watch it. We are on Paramount+ right now, where you can rent it and buy it digitally. We are now a couple of weeks away from it being out on Blu-Ray and 4k. For me, that is the final chapter in the process when you get the disc and put it on the shelf. Ok, I’ve shot the movie, I can’t change anything, the special features are here, and it is hung up. All of that is coinciding here in February it is a really apt way to bring the process of Devotion to a close.

devotion film poster
Devotion film poster.

I would say one other thing, as I was saying bring the story to a close, there is innately a part of this story that is not close, Jesse’s remains are still in North Korea…There is no happy ending to the story and there still is a hope for closure. We hope that now that the film is becoming more and more accessible and more people can be introduced to Jesse and Tom’s story. We can also point attention to the fact that Jesse should be in Arlington like many other soldiers who we are also trying to still bring home.

It has certainly been a big effort, Jessica Knight Henry, Jesse’s granddaughter, and Fred [Frederick W. Smith] and a wide network of extremely dedicated and talented people. And picking up the charge that Tom Hudner himself was really pushing for. The chapter of the movie is coming to a close, but it’s just the beginning of the story of finally bringing Jesse home.

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