Yes, it may technically be a war movie, but Last Flag Flying is very much a Richard Linklater movie, even though he’s certainly not a director really known for war movies. A good portion of the film is set on a train and there’s a lot of talking, which is very much up Linklater’s alley. (Ahead, Linklater says he’s surprised some people think Last Flag Flying is some kind of departure for him, saying bluntly, “I’m like, really? A bunch of people talking?”) Only instead of two lovers, as we saw in the Before trilogy, it’s three Vietnam war vets (played by Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston) trying to work out their demons – Carell’s “Doc” especially, who is reconnecting with his old friends in 2003 after learning that his own son has died in Iraq.
I met Richard Linklater at his hotel room, just south of Central Park in Midtown Manhattan. When you meet Linklater, he’s incredibly friendly, and also as talkative as one of his movies. He’ll sometimes go off on so many tangents that it can’t help remind you of so many of his characters. It’s kind of like getting your own little Dazed and Confused performance. Linklater does get a little flustered when trying to talk about Hal Ashby’s 1973 film, The Last Detail. And it is a little confusing: Darryl Ponicsan’s book, Last Flag Flying, is a sequel to his prior novel, The Last Detail. But Linklater’s movie is not a sequel to Ashby’s film. The character’s backstories are changed and it’s just impossible to match up. But, instead, Linklater’s film feels like a sequel to something he already made years ago. It’s kind of like if Before Midnight hadn’t had a prior film.
With the Before trilogy, Boyhood, and a list that keeps going (we could keep going: Dazed and Confused, Bernie, Everybody Wants Some!!), Linklater has a filmography that’s always trying to get down to the basics of human emotion and interaction. Here again, the characters might be older, but it’s the same premise. Ahead, we talk to Linklater, one of the most fascinating and influential directors working today.
Last Flag Flying doesn’t really match up with The Last Detail. And I’m assuming it’s not supposed to…
You shouldn’t have to. Oh, I’ve been thinking of films, can you be a sequel without the same cast? Can you be the sequel if there’s so much information that’s very different?
Maybe The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter?
But the book is a sequel. Yeah, since I don’t know the source material of those two films…
Thomas Harris’ books…
Right, but I haven’t read them.
I only mention that because people keep throwing it out there that Last Flag Flying is a sequel to The Last Detail, and it’s not.
Usually, it’s people who haven’t seen it. That was their reference: What is this movie? Oh, so it’s a book that was a sequel. So it’s been very confusing for the last year for people. But I thought once they saw it, that kind of shakes out. Oh, here’s what it is. Those guys aren’t those guys. But I think it’s a bonus if you know The Last Detail. A little DNA there.
Before anyone saw The Silence of the Lambs, people were probably saying, “Well, I know Brian Cox plays Hannibal Lecter,” which was spelled differently in Manhunter.
So, is The Silence of the Lambs a sequel?
People debate this. Next time someone asks you this question, just rhetorically ask if The Silence of the Lambs is a sequel.
Is it a sequel?
I personally don’t think it is a sequel because they made Red Dragon to replace Manhunter in the film series. But people go back and forth on this.
Well, Darryl’s book on this is a sequel. Those guys have the same names and stuff. But we adapted it away from that.
Why did you change the names?
Because we weren’t going to have that cast. They were slightly different guys and different backgrounds. The upside of that was we got more Vietnam details. These guys were soldiers in Vietnam, where in The Last Detail, they weren’t. They were a little older. Jack Nicholson’s mid-thirties. I mean, he’s a lifer. They’re not in Vietnam. Where these guys, we could place them there in those situations, so we couldn’t have done that with a sequel.
I’ve never read The Last Detail book.
And Darryl brought him back to life for the second book. I’m in the middle of watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam doc…
Aren’t we all, yeah.
I’m nine episodes in…
I’m about four, and I’ve been pacing myself.
I was four episodes in when I saw your movie. So I already had the Vietnam War in my head.
To me, it’s good subtext. It’s like, yeah, this is what it felt like; this is what it looked like. And to have been a soldier over there then, the contrast between the two wars is amazing, you know? It’s so different. There’s a similarity, and then it’s so different.
You leave little pieces about what happened to them in Vietnam, but they never really talk about it. My family members who were in Vietnam do not talk about it.
They don’t talk about it. The guys a little bit older than me, a lot of my mom’s students were returning vets in college. The apartment complex I lived in, there was this guy with PTSD who had come back from Vietnam. Well, my mom got to know him and told me he had come face to face with some Viet Cong. And they looked at each other like, “Oh, fuck, like one of us has to kill the other.” And he killed him. But he would be screaming at night. And guys I grew up with, in class when you say what does your dad do, or whatever, he’s like, “Well, my dad was killed in Vietnam. My older brother was killed in Vietnam.” So it was all around, but I was too young.
So in the movie, you get this buildup with Carell, Fishburne, and Cranston. And then Cicely Tyson shows up and it’s just…
People are talking awards about her performance and she’s only in the movie for a few minutes.
It’s a pivotal one. And, the book, it’s not written that she’s even African American. It was an Irish name. But I was just kind of daydreaming the movie and I was thinking of the shot when the door opened up there, and it was Cicely Tyson. I went, wow, yeah. I just know her face, you know? So I sort of tracked her down, had lunch with her and talked to her about it.
We’ve established this isn’t a direct sequel to The Last Detail, but it’s hard to ignore two of the actors from that movie were nominated for Academy Awards.
Who was nominated, Quaid?
Quaid and Nicholson. I read an interview with Nicholson from the ’90s and he was still pretty steamed that he didn’t win.
Oh, he got his Oscars. But yeah, for an actor like him and such a gung-ho performance, and then to win for like Terms of Endearment?
Or As Good As It Gets.
Yeah, you’re that middle-aged guy, but you’re not that scene-chewing badass. Should have won. He probably should have won. Well, in a career like Nicholson’s, in a fair world he probably won seven Oscars in the ’70s alone. You know, every one. It’s kind of like Meryl Streep. Do you just give her one for every one, or that other great performance that year?
This is my favorite Steve Carell performance.
And it’s the kind of performance that sometimes goes underappreciated, because it’s so subtle, you know? But, yeah, I think he’s sublime.
And being set in 2003, obviously, this movie has a lot to say about the Iraq War…
Yeah, it’s pretty fucked-up over there still.
And it seems pretty far down the list of things we’re worried about right now.
It’s fallen off the bestseller list. Yeah, when else in our history do you go back 13 years and the same war is going on? Never. That’s a new phenomenon. Can we all agree? World War II was so brief. Four years.
For the United States, yes.
Well, yeah, that’s what I mean. It’s just going to be the long war. Less casualties, but long.
You might hate this, but it feels like a similar tone to the Before series, only with middle-aged men going through a crisis.
Maybe. Maybe there’s a little bit.
They’re on a train and they’ve got a lot to say to each other.
Yeah. Trying to connect.
It feels in the same spirit.
Did you ever think about that?
And as those progress, they are looking back and there are regrets and connections and, you know, missed things. And people just want to connect, you know?
It feels like a sequel to a movie you made.
Okay. I don’t hate that. Well, people are like, “Oh, the movie’s very different for you.” I’m like, really? A bunch of people talking?
I didn’t feel it was different at all.
I was kind of like, this feels like it’s my kind of war movie.
Who’s saying that? Because halfway through, I’m like, “Yeah, this is a Richard Linklater movie.”
Well, that was the word on the book when I was reading it: the word is this isn’t a movie. This book is just not a movie.
Did you feel like that was a challenge?
Yeah, kind of. Well, it’s a movie to me. It’s not a war movie. But I was like, hell, yeah, if you care enough about these guys, it’s a movie.
This makes Everybody Wants Some!! even more feel like you had one more adolescent itch to get out of you…
Well, Last Flag, Everybody Wants Some!, and my film Bernie all had 10 years on the bench before they got made. All three of those had 10-year gestations, for various reasons. So they’re all films that I wanted to get made and got the opportunity and got them made.
Do you feel this movie works better the fact it is 10 years later and we have more retrospection?
Yeah, people didn’t want to sit back and think about it. It was too fresh. The wound was still too open. Look at us now. You know, even in the Republican debates, the hands went up. How many of you would do it differently, it was a mistake?
And they’re all, “Oh, of course it was.”
The only guy who agreed was the brother of the guy who did it [Jeb Bush], or had mixed feelings about it. So, times change. War is in the rearview mirror. And I think a lot of the good war movies come out later. You know, the Full Metal Jackets and Platoons. Apocalypse Now…
That was very close.
Yeah. But the Vietnam that was about was early ’70s…
Right, by the early ’70s it was a lot of withdrawals and Americans weren’t fighting as much.
It was pretty much over. Even as a kid, I noticed guys weren’t getting drafted from my neighborhoods and it was winding down. But there it was. And then one year there were Vietnamese refugees in my little town. I was like, wow.
It was good to talk to you.
Well, thanks. And I’m going to use that Manhunter line.
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