“It’s quite abstract,” Dillard tells Variety over Zoom, recounting his sense memories of being about four years old, toddling around the Blue Angels headquarters in Pensacola, Fla. The filmmaker’s father, Bruce Dillard, was stationed there after becoming the second African American to fly with the Navy flight demonstration squadron.
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“I remember shapes. I remember the nose of an F-18,” Dillard continues. ”I remember the little pylons that hold up the railing next to the entrance, the smell of the wax that they clean the planes with, and the noise that rumbles your chest.”
A few weeks ago, as part of the promotion for “Devotion” — which tells the story of the unbreakable bond forged between elite Navy aviators and Korean War heroes Jesse L. Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Thomas Hudner (Glen Powell) — Dillard returned to Pensacola, which is referred to as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” He’d been invited to ride in the backseat with a Blue Angels pilot, so, of course, he brought his dad.
“To go out to the tarmac, hear those planes turn on, it was like, ‘Oh my god.’” Dillard says, adding that those childhood memories came flooding back instantly. “When I was learning what sensation was, these were the sensations I was feeling.”
The view, though, was markedly different from when he was about two feet tall watching his father take flight. To some extent, Dillard knew what he was in for, having grown up watching the VHS tapes of his dad’s rear camera footage.
“I remember practicing the breathing you have to do with you pull G’s, because I saw him do it,” Dillard says. “I think my obsession with masked characters in movies came from seeing my dad [with his] helmet and visor down. That’s probably why I love Boba Fett.”
This time, though, Bruce Dillard watched from the ground as his son climbed into the backseat of the Super Hornet jet and flew off. The younger Dillard made a respectable showing, holding his own (and down his lunch) while pulling 7.2 G’s.
“Didn’t throw up, didn’t black out; my father has not disowned me,” he says with a chuckle. “Certainly, made him proud when I landed and shook two empty vomit bags.”
All jokes aside, it was an emotional experience for both father and son. “Weirdly, the most overwhelming part of it was getting the footage back,” Dillard adds. “Because suddenly I had the video of my dad. That was just completely odd.”
From growing up in a Navy family to directing the film, Director @JGDillard has personal connections to #DevotionMovie – exclusively in movie theaters November 23. 🎟️: https://t.co/s4ng3sPl4m pic.twitter.com/Esfx6P7LAm
— Devotion (@DevotionMovie) November 21, 2022
The flight effectively closed a loop that began when the elder Dillard attended an air show as a kid, just like Jesse Brown had, and said, “I want to fly.” Bruce Dillard’s “relentless pursuit of a dream” heavily influenced his son to do the same, eventually leading Dillard to direct “Devotion,” his third feature, which is, in many ways, a version of his family’s story.
“Now we’re here at Pensacola, where these dreams, 30 years apart, are colliding,” Dillard says. “It was pretty emotional for the whole Dillard text chain.”
The Dillard family’s tour of duty on “Devotion” — where the director has racked up so much flight time that he’s gone gold and platinum on three different airlines — has also included highlights like Dillard receiving the Rising Star Director honor at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, the movie winning the Audience Award at the Middleburg Film Festival and a ceremony at the Naval Aviation Museum where Brown and Hudner were inducted into the Hall of Heroes. Dillard attended the event with both his father and mother, Gerri Dillard, Powell and the Brown and Hudner families.
“To be in this place where both Tom and Jesse and my dad had to learn to fly was really special,” he says. “To be back there with a group of people who know my dad, who know Donnie Cochran – the first Black Blue Angel, who was also there and helped get my dad on the team — who know the Hudners, know the Browns, it felt like a homecoming.”
More special still was a plan hatched by “Devotion” producers Black Label Media — the film finance and production company formed by as formed in 2013 by partners Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill, who produced the film alongside Molly’s sister Rachel Smith — to route a portion of the film’s box office to establish the Brown Hudner Navy Scholarship Foundation.
“When Jesse died, Tom and the squadron put together a scholarship fund to put his wife Daisy and daughter Pam through school,” Dillard explains. Brown’s fellow sailors raised today’s equivalent of $24,000 for the family, with Daisy Brown going on to become an educator.
In honor of what began then, the Brown Hudner Navy Scholarship Foundation was formally established using funds from “Devotion” and will award its first scholarships in 2023. The fund is being managed by the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which has awarded more than $155 million in scholarships to military children over the past 60 years, with the film supporting both organizations.
“We started working on the scholarship fund from the time we greenlit the film in the spring of 2020,” Black Label Media’s Molly Smith tells Variety via email. “Black Label has had a long relationship with Tom Rothman [Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO] and Sony, who agreed to distribute the film and have been amazing supporters if this story. We are all honored to tell this story and honor the sacrifices of these men.”
Smith explained that the equity in the film has already been donated to the scholarship fund, and, after that is earned and all back-end participations have been paid, any future revenues will also go to the scholarship fund, which can be applied for by the children of an active duty, reserve, honorably discharged, or fallen sailor. Other eligibility criteria includes: a GPA of at least 2.0; to have demonstrated financial need; and plans to pursue a degree in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) or health science.
The unique plan to donate the majority of the film’s proceeds originated with Smith’s father, Frederick W. Smith, who is a Marine Corp veteran, the founder of FedEx and the foundation’s first benefactor. “There is a double benefit of seeing the film because it’s going to educate a lot of legacy Navy and Marine Corps children,” Smith said in an interview with the Marine Corps Association.
There’s been red tape to overcome, but once all the I’s were dotted and T’s were crossed, Black Label Media shared the good news with the Brown and Hudner families and the scholarship foundation. “They were thrilled and very touched,” Smith writes.
Dillard describes the box office plan as the “collision of impact and entertainment, in a way that feels organic.”
“To watch this thing calcify where we could do something really unheard of, in terms of our release actually having an impact component — and not just simply to ‘shine light on this and donate it,’ but to create an infrastructure financially and business wise, where the film could continue that legacy of Jesse and Tom — it just felt like a really beautiful way to have the film reach back into real life.”
Plus, Dillard knows the struggle. Years after Bruce Dillard was honorably discharged from the Navy, Dillard pursued his love of filmmaking, attending Syracuse University before transferring to the University of Southern California for its proximity to Hollywood. He dropped out after one semester because he couldn’t afford it.
“As someone who had to drop out for financial reasons, I know, quite tangibly, what looking down the barrel of that decision is, so it’s incredibly meaningful,” Dillard says of the scholarship. “It’s one of my favorite things about the movie because it can, in a way, be more than film.”
While Dillard was uniquely positioned to bring this Navy legend to life thanks to his own military background, his goal is to continue telling stories that “play with the breadth of Black wish-fulfillment,” giving scope and scale to the lives of Black people. It’s a thru-line he’s noticed between “Devotion” and his Sundance hits “Sleight” and “Sweetheart.”
“[The protagonists] are three characters who are very specifically told what they are capable of, in a limiting way, and, overcome that to the nth degree,” Dillard explains. “I really feel like I’m here to tell those stories.”
He adds: “As I let my eye go back to the horizon, slowly — we still have quite a bit of sailing to do on ‘Devotion’ — I know that’s what I’m after. Our stories deserve to be told big and loud.”
“Devotion” is in theaters on Nov. 23.
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