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Filmmakers J.D. Dillard, Rachel Smith dish on 'Devotion' at Chapel Hill’s Film Fest 919

director J.D. Dillard and producer Rachel Smith
Mitchell Northam
"Devotion" director J.D. Dillard and producer Rachel Smith talk with reporters at Film Fest 919 at Silverspot in Chapel Hill on Oct. 19, 2022.

J.D. Dillard didn’t have a single film credit to his name a decade ago. Now, his third directorial effort is garnering awards.

Last Wednesday, Film Fest 919 gave Dillard its “Horizon Award” on the festival’s opening night in Chapel Hill for his work on Devotion, a biographical war drama starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell. Founders of the festival said that Dillard displayed “excellence” in his craft in making the film, and signaled “a stunning breakthrough” in his own work.

The journey between where Dillard started to where he is now included working as an assistant for filmmaker J.J. Abrams during the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directing and writing two feature films — Sleight in 2016 and Sweetheart in 2019 — and directing a few episodes of television, including HBO’s The Outsider, which was based on a Stephen King novel.

Many are expecting Dillard’s latest film, Devotion, to generate some buzz at the upcoming Academy Awards. It’s the true story of Jesse Brown — a Naval aviator during the Korean War — and is a star vehicle for the talents of Majors and Powell. It’s soft in some moments, but also emotional and visceral in others. The cinematography is sharp and Dillard makes some interesting choices with the camera while taking his audience to places that are beautiful, gritty and real.

WUNC caught up with Dillard and Rachel Smith with Black Label Media — one of the film's producers and a 2006 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate — ahead of a screening of Devotion at Film Fest 919.

How did you find this story and what was interesting to you about it?

 Posters of "Devotion" lined the hallways at Silverspot in Chapel Hill on Oct. 19, 2022 ahead of Film Fest 919.
Mitchell Northam
Posters of "Devotion" lined the hallways at Silverspot in Chapel Hill on Oct. 19, 2022 ahead of Film Fest 919.

Smith: “Glenn Powell brought it to us — my sister Molly and I, who is my partner — and our partners and I read that and we read the book. And I thought, ‘Why hasn’t this been made into a movie yet?’ We couldn’t believe it. We found the screenwriters [Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart] and they wrote a couple drafts of the script, and then we started sending it to directors. J.D. read it — I think in like, one day. We got an email from his agent saying he wanted to meet. And the rest is kind of history. When a director walks in and says, ‘My dad was a Naval aviator,’ what better way to know that he has passion for it? In a lot of ways, he made this a love letter to his father and I think it really shines through.”

Dillard: “I had grown up around Naval aviation. And I sort of put out into the ether that I was looking for some way to honor that. So, when I was introduced to the gang and the script that was being written, it honestly felt kind of out-of-body, because in really learning Jesse's story I saw so many parallels with my dad's story. My dad was maybe 30 years behind Jesse, and so much of their experience was shared. So, it's very rare when you read something and you're just like moved to tears. But then also you feel sort of like cosmically destined to tell it. When I got to the end of the script, I just knew that this is the thing I had to do next.”

When you read the script, did you just see Jonathan Majors on the page as Jesse?

Dillard: “Oh, immediately. Jonathan is just such a rare breed of actor who can just hold and command worlds so elegantly and specifically. The thing that Jonathan and I would talk a lot about were like, colors in the crayon box — what can we shade Jesse with in different scenes to really get to explore different parts of him? I think Jonathan can do that with such a specificity and with such insight that there was never going to be a Jesse more rich than what Jon could try.”

Rachel, what’s it like having a movie you helped bring to life being shown here in your college town?

Smith: “I love it. Flying in, I got such a nostalgic feeling seeing all the trees and the fall weather… It’s awesome. I was in the film program here, so it’s sort of neat, coming full circle here.”

J.D., two years ago it was reported that you were working on a Star Wars project.

Dillard: “Don’t believe everything you read, man. I would be so lucky to step into some of those bigger worlds. I discovered that I rarely have a choice with what’s next because there are so many factors happening 30,000 feet above me. What I have learned through Devotion is, this is what it’s got to feel like to tell a story. So, regardless of what's next, I want to kind of copy-and-paste that feeling and that intentionality to that.”

What’s the last great thing you saw?

Dillard: “Oh. That’s tough. I’m going to go with Station Eleven.”

Smith: Elvis. I’m from Memphis and I really enjoyed the movie and it just felt like there was a love letter to Memphis in there. It just felt like it was time for Elvis’ story to be told. And I thought Austin Butler was amazing.”

The fifth edition of Film Fest 919 wrapped up Sunday night with two showings of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. The festival awarded the film’s director and writer Rian Johnson with its “Distinguished Screenwriter Award.” Johnson couldn’t make it to Chapel Hill but taped a message that aired before the film’s screening.

In a joint statement, festival founders Carol Marshall and Randi Emerman said, “We both felt that Rian Johnson’s script stood out in such a significant way that we just couldn’t let his not being able to attend affect that decision.”

In all, Film Fest 919 showed audiences 21 films from 13 countries in two theaters across five days. After screenings, viewers got to rate films and vote on them for the "Audience Favorite Award." There was a tie for the award this year between Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl. The runner-up was She Said, directed by Maria Schrader.

“We had such a great time with everyone this year and were thrilled to be able to share this incredible lineup with a community of film lovers,” Emerman and Marshall said in a statement.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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