Richard Linklater On War, Patriotism, And The Perpetual Timeliness Of ‘Last Flag Flying’

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Richard Linklater has never shied away from variety when making a movie. A disparate storyteller, his filmography includes love stories, coming-of-age tales, and examinations of authoritarian themes.┬áHis latest movie, Last Flag Flying, is a bit of a combination of all of them. Set in 2003, it follows the story of Larry ‘Doc’ Shephard (Steve Carell), a man who’s recently lost his son in Iraq, who reaches out to his old Vietnam buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to help him process his grief. Along the way, they’re forced to reexamine their feelings on the military, their country, and what it means to be a patriot.

We got the chance to sit down and talk with Linklater about the process of bringing the story to life, and the complex notion of what it means to be a patriot in today’s world.

This has been something you’ve been working on for a while now. What finally brought it to the big screen?

Read a book in 2005. Kind of an unpublished novel, more or less. But got real obsessed with those characters and at the time it felt timely. The Iraq war was going on. But we didn’t get it made then, it wasn’t meant to be. But over time it was like, oh yeah, some things are eternal. I really love those characters so much. I thought they have something to say about these two wars and I think the time was good for it. So I’m glad it came back around. The planets lined up and this cast, in particular, these guys are so fun. We had such a great time making it.

It’s interesting, because when you talk about the timeliness of it now versus then, there’s a real relevance with what’s happening regarding how this administration has been handling veterans and their families.

Yeah, it’s so weird, like it’s more relevant this week than it was a year ago when we were shooting it.

I guess that’s just the happenstance of the news cycle.

Yeah, but this is based on kind of an eternal relationship between the guys at the very bottom of the military, the ones in the field, the ones who are cannon fodder, basically, versus the chain of command, the commander in chief. There’s a big disconnect there. As there is a big disconnect between the military and the rest of society now. Unfortunately, it’s gotten bigger and bigger and more distinct.

Well, and I think there’s something to be said that given the plethora of Vietnam movies, from Apocalypse Now onward, we’ve never really seen a story told from this perspective.

Yeah, there’s usually there’s a bunch of war movies that cluster around the war, and they get a little farther away. But I don’t know if there’s one that’s still dealing with the Vietnam PTSD from guys who are in their 50s.

But I mean that’s kind of what it is. But I think nations have PTSD, too. The thing about it, we’re still dealing with that war. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the Ken Burns, Lynn Novick PBS documentary. But it’s a gut-wrenching reexamination, where it just pulls you through that war. It’s a tough one. So that really defines this era when I think of my life, to a large degree.

And there’s something to be said about the endlessness of it now. There’s that scene with a soldier on the train who was talking about how he was in the first Gulf War. And the war that they’re dealing with here, that Doc’s son was in, is still going on today.

I know. I don’t think any of those people would have thought, “Oh, well still be at war in 2017.”

Yet, here we are, 14 years later…

That’s how war should be. Quick, achieve your objective. I mean, it’s bad for those families of those 18 Americans who died in that war, and God knows how many Iraqis, but at least it was over. This perpetual war thing is really taking its toll, I think.

And to hear them say just a couple of weeks ago that there’s still no endgame in sight. This is a war of perpetuity.

I think it was in the Orwellian sense it almost felt like maybe that was where we were always leading. To just have a perpetual war somewhere. It keeps that machine going. It keeps the Pentagon bubbling along. Especially when you think about Afghanistan, I don’t think we want to leave. I think we’re there just for the region. Since there’s not much of a state there, that’s kind of our military base in Afghanistan. We can call it a war or we can call it whatever.

It’s the American industry.

I just think we’re there now. And our contractors are there and just… we live there now.

When you talk about what these characters are going through, when did you land on these three actors?

Well not in ’05, necessarily. But certainly in the more modern [timeframe], it’s the dream cast. I was so lucky they were available. You just float it out there to them and try to get people schedules in line, because they’re very busy. And, so it’s like, oh, Cranston’s on a book tour, so we can rehearse here, and then Carell has to do this. But, you know, I got them. We had rehearsal time and we got the movie made. It was a blast. They were so good. And they really, really were looking forward to and enjoyed working with each other. It was at the top of their game. The top of their game, man. It was cool.

When the stars finally aligned and you were able to start production, were these the characters you had in mind for them? Each of them really embody their respective roles.

Yeah. In some other version you could probably flip Doc and Sal. In some strange way, but I never thought of that. Because I knew Carell a little bit and just he’s a really thoughtful. There’s [that] side of him.

It speaks to Carell’s ability as an actor, too. When you stack up the lines and even the screen time, he still measures up as an equal third, even though he’s a much meeker character, you don’t lose his presence at any point.

At all, because it’s sort of his story. He’s the force, but he’s kind of the listener of the group. That speaks to Carell’s confidence. I think there’s a kind of actor who’ll really go, “Well, it’s gonna be Sal” or “They have more lines so I don’t want to do it because I’m gonna get upstaged.” But Steve obviously doesn’t think like that. He found so much in Doc to dig into and his dad was a World War II vet, [the] kind of thing [where he] never talked about it. I think he was kind of coming from some really personal place. He just sort of felt his way through this movie in a really unique way.

Like everything else you’ve done, there’s a real natural sense to the dialogue, especially between these three characters. Was all that on the page or did you let them go off-book a bit?

Well one of my rehearsal processes is rewriting. They can improv in rehearsals all they want. But once we’re shooting we’re pretty much doing what we’ve worked on. But even then, in the scene on the train in the baggage car where they really probably hit the high note as far as laughter and telling crazy stories, they did it nine or ten times. Just the same scene, over and over. But it’s meant to feel pretty loose. And they can throw in a line here and there, hit some kind of new note, find something.

Fundamentally, it’s a story about separating duty as an abstract idea versus duty as a personal responsibility. Everyone having to come to terms with that in their own way, especially Doc. Was that something that was found over the course of making it?

Yeah, there were a lot of themes swimming through. Duty, honor, patriotism, sacrifice, all these notions that we kind of grew up with theoretically, or you know are swimming around the military in particular. I felt we had to earn that ending. I would tell the guys that. We just have to have really gone through something and feel that [it’s] real. And I think the film can capture, ultimately, the love-hate relation a lot of people who go through that can have. You can still love the military, like Sal does, but then be a vocal critic at the same time. You can be a patriot, you can love your country dearly, and still be a big critic. Those aren’t exclusive. In fact, you could say that those are incumbent, and that’s part of being a citizen. So, people look at it different ways, but I think we’re all people who love our country.

So, a football player’s taking a knee. Who are we to judge someone else, a fellow citizen, [over] their patriotism or what they’re respecting? You know, get to know them. Listen to their story. Why don’t you dig in and see why they’re doing what they’re doing? Like a protest movement or “Oh, go back to …” What does that mean? Inform yourself before you have an opinion.

I don’t know. Crazy times, but feelings run deep. We always knew that this is right in a, by definition, political area. So, it was always a challenge. But, I wanted it to feel true to life, so I guess we did it.

Last Flag Flying is now playing in theaters everywhere. See our review here.

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