Amazon Studios / Lionsgate
Richard Linklater has been making movies for 30 years, mostly specializing in indies that have found their share of fans, like Dazed and Confused, though sometimes branching out into studio movies like School of Rock and the Bad News Bears remake for Paramount.
And then came Boyhood. Linklater spent 12 years filming that drama, which allowed the viewer to watch the film’s lead character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), grow up before their very eyes. Linklater and the movie were nominated for Oscars, as were some of its supporting cast, with Patricia Arquette winning an Oscar for playing Mason’s beleaguered mother.
Linklater’s latest film Last Flag Flying is an interesting choice to follow up last year’s Everybody Wants Some!! It’s partially a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 movie The Last Detail, starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young, but it’s also a new thing loosely based on Darryl Ponicsan’s follow-up novel that allows Linklater to offer a commentary on war.
Last Flag Flying stars Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell as Sal, Mueller and “Doc,” three former Marines who reunite to bury Doc’s son, who was killed during the early phases of the Iraq War in 2003. Their trip to Arlington National Cemetery becomes more complicated when Doc decides he’d rather have his son buried near him in New Hampshire, which is when the film turns into a road movie.
The Tracking Board sat down with Linklater for a rather lengthy interview about Last Flag Flying, though we also touched upon his next movie Where’d You Go Bernadette starring Cate Blanchett, as well as life after Boyhood.
How did you become aware of The Last Detail and was Darryl involved with getting the movie made?
No, just like all cinephiles, I knew that movie and of course, liked it. I ave a poster of it, whatever. But this book kind of floated my way back in ’05 I believe. I was like, “Oh, this book is actually a sequel, I don’t want to read that.” And I read it and just kind of got in touch and was like … I know a lot of people don’t think that that’s a movie, but I think that’s a movie. Three middle-age guys just talking on a trip. I said that’s my kind of movie. Because someone had made the pronounce that it’s not really a film. The hell it isn’t. That’s my kind of film, so I don’t know, it just kind of started there. I was talking about it and the book actually is a sequel, but the movie obviously isn’t. In between those two facts is an adaptive process where the B and A is sort of there, but it’s slightly different characters, different background. This whole “what happened in Vietnam” element, so it was a fun adaptive process to get into with Darryl Ponicsan, the writer of the book, but als compelling characters that I loved. I just wanted to hang out with those guys. To me, what was going on with them resonated so much that I just felt that that was my kind of war movie.
I think it’s natural for people to see a movie and wonder what happens next or in ten years, which you already explored with the “Before” series.
Yeah, what are those people doing 10 years later or in this case 30 years later. But again, they’re different people. I don’t know if we qualify, but I’ve done that where I’ve revisited people, and it’s kind of special, and I like it in movies if it’s done for the right reasons. It takes a certain bravery I think to go back in to characters that people know and feel they have a relationship with. I think you really have to have something to say, and I think Darryl felt that way about these two wars.
Amazon Studios / Lionsgate
Did you work directly with Darryl, or did you look at what he’d written and went from there?
Yeah, we talked a lot back and forth. The usual kind of thing. We weren’t around each other that much but in this day and age you can just send stuff back and forth and work on it. I remember going through the book and just kind of outlining all of the things that I liked and felt would fit the movie, but the architecture of the book is our movie. It didn’t vary that much.
Hal Ashby has been a huge influence on many filmmakers, but just by the nature of your films, it seems like he might have had a bigger influence on yours, so is that the case?
Everybody loves Hal Ashby in the ’70s; that’s just a great decade. You gotta give it up. And by all accounts a great guy and a great collaborator and a good… I saw a screening once of The Last Detail and Robert Towne was there and he dedicated to Hal Ashby, he says he’s a great collaborator. So yeah, it’s fine. Everybody loves him. But yeah, what can you say?
Was that a movie you revisited over the years and it finally kind of just clicked?
I have to say, I know people think because the book is based on it, but we never talked about The Last Detail amongst the cast or anything. It just never came up. None of us ever talked about like we were doing a sequel to The Last Detail, because we weren’t. These three guys, they had Vietnam experience, it was about other things, but it’s okay because the DNA of it is that, which is cool, those three guys. I just don’t know what you call it. Can you do a sequel to a movie without the same people? Or the exact situation? It didn’t make sense. Of course, I love the book because it was revisiting those guys – yeah, that’s absolutely a sequel. His book is a sequel, but once it was clear that we can’t make a sequel — Otis Young isn’t alive, Jack’s not interested, or he’s too old actually, doesn’t want to do it. It’s like okay, I still love these three guys so much, and what goes on here is important. How can we keep going here and still say what we want to say? And it was pretty easy. It let us bring another layer to it, because we weren’t beholden to anything. We could actually have the kind of a different, richer background for the story we were trying to tell. But it’s the spirit of those guys I think.
So while you were writing the screenplay, you were slowly getting away from the book and started changing names.
Yeah Darryl and I. You know, it was his book, and we still don’t even remember who came up with what. “That idea to do that, didn’t you come up…,” he said, “No, I think that was your idea”. We just kind of were feeling our way through and had ideas for stuff that went on, and it was a real true adaptation. You know when you hear the word “adapted”, like “What is that”? It’s like that’s what we did, we adapted. It’s a big time adaptation. The spirit’s there, but it’s adapted to something else.
I was surprised that he was involved with the rehearsal process, too.
He dropped in. It was good to have him around. It wasn’t like a theater piece where… you sknow, he was just being nice. It was kinda good for everybody to meet him and hang out a little bit, and he came on the shoot. You know Darryl’s the real deal. He’s had a long career.
What’s it like collaborating with someone from that era? I don’t know if you’ve done that before or if this is the first time you’ve done that.
I’ve written with other people, I always enjoy it. I’m a good… I like… Well I’ve written so many things alone so I kind of enjoy the company. I like another mind on it, if it’s in the right spirit, you know? And Darryl’s wonderful. And ultimately, he says this is the most… He’s had other books get made. He said this is probably the most faithful, in a strange way, it’s the most faithful ’cause it tells the story. Like Last Detail was really like half, and then they leave out, it’s not the full book. If you know that book. It ends at a certain point. Where this really is the architecture of his book- beginning, middle, end. So it’s the structure, it’s all in the book. It’s just a lot of these little details are tweaked for different times and reasons and stuff. But the gist of it is the story.
When you were writing the movie, did you have an idea whether it’s more of a comedy or a drama or is that not something you worry about while writing?
Yeah, I didn’t ever even think about it, I just thought these guys are very funny and there’s some humorous situations, constantly. I always go for the comedy but I knew that the tragic underpinnings of the whole story are pretty obvious. So I don’t mind that mash-up of drama and tragedy just right underneath the comedy, or on top of the comedy, or battling the comedy. Because I see that as these guys kind of asserting, particularly Sal’s character, he’s asserting his humanity via humor, and that’s what people do just to heal, just to get through it. Humor gets you through the tougher times, you’ve got to be able to laugh.
Amazon Studios / Lionsgate
I’ve always been curious about your casting process because you have actors you’ve worked with a few times like Ethan, Jack Black, Julie Delpy, but you don’t have a ton of overlap otherwise. You haven’t done five movies with Billy Bob Thornton, for instance.
Well if the part was right, you’re always like what story are you trying to tell? Who would be great in it? I just worked with Cate Blanchett in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I just finished shooting, I’m editing now, but I was like “oh she’s the only person who could play that part”. You know it’s good to feel that way. Like oh, of all the incredibly talented people in the world and the great actors, this is the right person for this part. It’s great to feel that way. You know how it is, you watch a movie and you just can’t imagine anybody else in that part. Yeah you want to feel that way while you’re making it, too.
As a filmmaker, when you’re writing a movie, you can’t think of specific people…
I don’t. I don’t, because you can’t get them. I mean, they’re busy, they’re not available. When people ask, “Are there any other actors you really want to work with?” Anybody who’s right for the movie I’m doing, who loves what they’re doing and will work hard, but I don’t go, “You know I really want to do a film with…” I can’t think that way. I gotta think “What story do I want to tell?” and then “Who’s right for it?”
It is an advantage if you know someone and you know their rhythms, it’s easier to write with them in mind, I think, once you feel like you know somebody. So working with someone again can be helpful or natural, I guess, but I like the adaptive process of people finding their way into a script. I think if it’s written for them… You know that’s probably a good start, but I don’t know, since I haven’t done that much.
I think we all know Bryan Cranston’s voice in our heads from previous things he’s done, so as you’re writing, you can’t hear how it might be with him playing Sal?
I don’t really think that way because instead, I think, “Well, Bryan can do anything.” I’ve seen him be this guy, I’ve seen him be that guy. The whole spectrum’s there. So I was interested in what he thought about Sal and what kind of fun he was going to dial in. But I remember looking up and thinking, “There’s Thurgood Marshall and LBJ together. I’m gonna be okay here. Those are the good guys.”
What about Carell? He seems a little more enigmatic, partially cause he doesn’t do too many interviews, but it’s also hard to tell which is the real Steve Carell since he plays so many different characters.
Well, the only reason he’s not here is because he’s in production on Robert Zemeckis’s film. He couldn’t get out, or he would be here. It’s not like he’s hiding or anything. It’s a really sublime performance. He’s very subtle and thoughtful. Such a thoughtful guy. My respect for him is off the chart.
What was your first conversation like when you thought of him?
Felt our way in. He had asked me questions that I didn’t really have answers too sometimes, which is okay. He’s like “Oh I like that”. He would ask me “Why’s Doc doing that?” and I’d be like “I’m not 100 percent sure”. And he thought that was intriguing. Some actors would run. “Oh, the director doesn’t know why the guy’s doing that, he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” but I said “You know, I’m not sure he even knows why he’s doing it”, and he was like “Oh, I like that. We’re gonna find something here.” There’s a kind of artist that’s interesting to work with. There’s another old school kind of like “I want to be told, I need exactitude,” and then you better have answers for things way in advance, and I’m more flowing than that.
Amazon Studios / Lionsgate
When I was doing research for this interview, I didn’t realize you were older than Laurence Fishburne. How the hell is that possible?
One year older. That’s what I told him, “Listen f*cker, I’m older than you. Don’t give me any shit.” We share the same birthday, but I’m one year your senior. This year, we were working together … he’s in my new film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and as he was leaving, because it was coming up in a couple weeks, he goes, “Happy birthday, man.” Yep, July 30th, so isn’t that funny? I think he was impressed because most people think his career started with Apocalypse Now or in Rumble Fish, because that’s the first time they saw him. I looked at him and think Cornbread, Earl and Me, if you know that film. You probably don’t. It was a youthful film about a little teenage boy. Laurence was probably 13 or 14 or younger, because he was acting young. He was on a soap opera when he was 12; he’s had a long career, so I knew some of his earlier stuff, and he was like, “Oh, a film buff.”
He also watched movies from an early age, as he told me that he saw The Last Detail on 42nd Street when he was 12 years old.
Yeah, that was his life. Well, he’s lucky. He had a lot of focus early and he was good at it and he had a passion for it and he didn’t get distracted by sports or anything else. I had to live a life before I found film, so I didn’t see The Last Detail till sometime in the ’80s.
You mentioned that this was a commentary on the two wars, and it’s set in 2003, so how did your opinion about that year change as you made the film?
When you break it down, we were making a period film. Once you get older, what’s 13 years in your life? It feels like nothing, but then you go, “God, it really was a slightly different attitude in the world,” kind of a post-9/11 thing, the attitude toward the war and the military and the, just everything. The technology … and the attitudes toward the war I think shifted over time. Eventually people felt very different about that war as they do about most wars. They start off with a lot of gung-ho patriotism, the reality sets in, and it’s kind of like oh yeah, this kind of sucks, maybe we shouldn’t have done it. So I don’t know how many times we’ve gotta learn that one over and over.
Hopefully not again in our lifetimes.
Yeah, but if you don’t remember and no one’s there to remind you or if the emotional memory isn’t there you’re destined to repeat it. The leaders who are like, “Oh this is the first time anyone’s ever been in this position, let’s go to war,” and it’s like, no, a lot of people have been here. You gotta know history. You gotta study things like that. You gotta have leaders who care enough to inform themselves.
Since the movie is set in 2003, was there anything you had to be careful when making a movie set in that year? Like you couldn’t have Twitter, I’d guess…
Subtle. Yeah, a lot of those little things, mostly technological. The phones obviously. We have a whole scene about that. Yeah, everything was little different … cars … but not much. I think the surface of the world changes less these days than it did a long time ago, and if you went back and jumped from 1969 to 1982 you’d have a very different-looking world in those years. But from 2003 to 2016 when we shot, not that much. You know the world slowed down as I think it’s all going on in our phones and our technology. That’s my theory anyway.
You’ve done quite a few indie films, so what was different about making this one, especially with all the locations the guys visit?
Yeah, we sort of based out of Pittsburgh. It was kind of a road movie, so we sort of based out of there and got quite a bit there. We came to New York and you just move around a little bit. We were sort of tightly-budgeted and scheduled, we had like 30 days, so we made do. You kind of just make it work.
What was it like doing this movie with Amazon?
They’re great. Well they’re filmmakers. A lot of the studios are run by kind of corporate types. Whereas the Amazons and Anapernas and all these, they’re real film people. They love movies, they’re all about movies, Ted Hope runs Amazon, he’s a film guy, a film producer. So yeah, it’s a good time.
Amazon Studios / Lionsgate
Are you generally going to try and make one movie a year now? You took a little break but you were doing one a year for some time before that.
Yeah, one a year sounds about a right. If that fits into the old schedule. Sometimes you’re waiting around for actors or financing that doesn’t work out like that. But I always was a guy who had a lot of stories I wanted to tell. I have a lot of scripts and a lot of projects and I’m always working on stuff, so that’s my pace. Sometimes the world doesn’t conform to the rate I want to work, but it’s good when it does.
Do you feel it’s been easier to get movies made since the success of Boyhood?
It’s hard to say. Couldn’t hurt, you know? But yeah, it’s always still kind of a matchmaking process. We just gotta get lucky with the right people who see the film what you do and want to make that movie. Pretty nice when it happens.
I know that Everybody Wants Some is something you’ve been trying to make for a long time, so were you generally happy with how it turned out?
I was very happy with it. I’ve been lucky, there’s three or four movies I’ve made in the last five or six years that seriously had a decade-long gestation. This one, Everybody Wants Some!!, and my film Bernie from whenever that was, they all sat on a shelf for 11 or 12 years. They’re all projects I wanted to do and it took a while for them to come to fruition, so it’s doubly satisfying when you get that opportunity and finally make it, you feel great.
Do you feel it’s necessary to have that kind of gestation period for a movie or would you rather just write a script and then go make it?
It’s not necessary. When you do have it, I mean it’s not at all necessary, but it’s frustrating sometimes. But when you do, the upside of that is you’ve made the film in your head a lot over those years and you really have the tone and the feel. So by the time you’re actually shooting it you’re not, you feel like you’re really on pretty solid ground because you just spent so much time thinking about it.
How can you be a director but also be so laidback at the same time? I think most people’s ideas of a director is someone always yelling…
Oh, I do, I think. I let them know, “I’m gonna outwork all you f*ckers,” in my own way. I’m laid-back but persistent. They’re very exhausted at the end of every day, but feel good, hopefully.
Last Flag Flying is now playing in select cities and will continue to expand to other theaters in the coming weeks. Look for our interview with Laurence Fishburne very soon.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor