By Iain Blair
Director Richard Linklater first made a name for himself back in 1991 with the acclaimed and influential independent release Slacker, an experimental narrative revolving around 24 hours in the lives of 100 characters. Since then he’s made the beloved Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise; Before Sunset, (he got an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay) and Boyhood (which received multiple BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards, and an Oscar for actress Patricia Arquette).
He’s also directed such diverse films as the Western/gangster picture The Newton Boys, the animated feature Waking Life, the real-time drama Tape, the comedy School of Rock and Everybody Wants Some!!
His new film is the timely Last Flag Flying, which deals with war, patriotism and friendship. Set in 2003, it tells the story of three soldiers — former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) and former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) — who reunite 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc decides to forgo a burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives.
Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with author Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote his novel Last Flag Flying as a sequel to his book The Last Detail, which was made into the acclaimed 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson.
I spoke with Linklater —whose other film credits include Suburbia, Bad News Bears (the 2005 version), A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie and Before Midnight — about making the film, which is getting awards buzz, and why his image as a loose, improv-heavy director is so inaccurate.
Is it fair to say this is not a war movie, but it’s about war?
Yes, I think that’s right. It’s my kind of war movie. It’s not a battlefield movie but about the effects of war — that sub-category about what happens when the war comes home and how the combat survivors deal with it.
My dad was in the navy in WW11 but he never talked about the war and his experiences.
Exactly. My dad was the same. Very stoic. They just held it all in. Now it’s even worse, I feel. The suicide rate among returning vets is so high today, and the big problem is the way the service breaks you down and trains you, but then they don’t really put you back together. When you’re done, the killing machine goes home, and you’re taught to be stoic and be a man, and you’re left with nothing. To me that’s so tragic. We should talk about it. And all these issues, along with all of the wars since Vietnam, are the subtext to this whole story. War is such a political minefield today.
Is it true you started to make a film of this a decade ago?
Yes, I tried to adapt the book, but I’m glad it didn’t happen back then. It wasn’t meant to be, and no one was really ready to deal with the war in Iraq. It takes a while to want to analyze a war and get a perspective. A little distance is very helpful.
You’ve got three great leads. What did they bring to it?
Everything — all of their intelligence, humor, experience and work ethic. They really dug in, and we spent a couple of weeks rehearsing and really talking about all the issues. Each character is very different, and the guys really found them and jumped in. The biggest contrast is probably between Sal and Doc. Sal is the life of the party type, clearly self-medicating, always talking, eating, drinking, while Doc’s very low-key and quiet. Then Mueller’s somewhere in the middle.
Technology has changed a lot since you started, with the whole digital revolution, but you still like to shoot on film? Was that the case with this one?
We shot Boyhood all on film, but we did this digitally. It was just more practical, and I think now you can get any look you want with digital. It’s pretty impossible to tell the difference between film and digital now. But I don’t think film’s dead, although economically it’s changed, obviously, but I don’t think it’s going away. I hope we always have it as a choice. Digital’s just one more tool.
Where did you do the post?
We posted in my offices in Austin, as usual, and we began cutting while I shot.
Do you like post?
I love post and all the stuff you can do to shape your film, but I actually feel the most creative in rehearsal and then shooting. That’s when I feel like I’m really making the film. I don’t feel like I’ve ever “found” the film in the edit and post, like some directors do. There’s a certain schematic at work that I’m trying to follow. I know certain kinds of films have to be deconstructed and then reconstructed in post, but mine aren’t like that. It sounds boring but I do all that in advance. I’m a big preparer.
So you’re not the big improv, loose guy people like to think you are?
(Laughs) No, no. I prepare everything. And with experience you just know what you’re going to shoot and actually use.
The film was edited by your longtime collaborator Sandra Adair. Tell us about that relationship and how it works.
She doesn’t need to be on set and we just send dailies and then we talk a bit. I don’t usually shoot more than necessary, as I tend to have pretty limited budgets and schedules. I usually have a fairly good cut done about a month into post. I used to cut my own stuff when I began, like all filmmakers, and then she cut Dazed and Confused for me 24 years ago and we’ve been a team ever since.
I think we share the same brain at this point, a certain shorthand; we have great chemistry, and she’s just really good. She can just look at the footage and know what I’m thinking. I don’t have to explain it. The big challenge on this was finding the right balance between all the heavy drama and then the moments of comedy, and keeping that tonal balance all the way down the line. So in the edit you go, “This is a bit dialogue-heavy, let’s cut to the joke,” and “this is redundant,” and so on. The re-writing never stops.
How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
A few hundred, all done by Savage VFX who’re in LA and (Pittsburgh) Pennsylvania, where we shot — mainly greenscreen, train stuff, compositing, clean-up and so on. Hopefully, you don’t notice them at all.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
It’s always been huge to me, and a couple of the songs — “Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan, and “Wide River to Cross” by Levon Helm — are so important. Big choices, with the Levon Helm song at the graveside, and Dylan at the very end. Again, it’s a tonal thing. There aren’t that many songs, but they’re all crucial, like the Eminem song “Without Me” and its humor.
Graham Reynolds, who’s done the score for a lot of my films, composed a beautiful score and I probably used it in places I usually wouldn’t because I felt the story needed it emotionally, and I wanted to give more clues in that area, and carry things through more.
The film has a very bleak look. Talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Light Iron with colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz (using Quantel Rio), and that bleak, rainy look was baked into the whole thing and started at the conceptual level — “We’re never going to see sunlight.” We’re going to have a lot of rain, grungy locations and a sort of texture and tone that’s fundamental to telling this story. Corinne did a great job, especially in the scenes where nature didn’t give us what we wanted. (From Corinne: “The movie was shot beautifully by Shane Kelly, who conveyed in the DI that the visuals needed to emphasize cool and dark tones. At the same time, we worked to maintain a naturalistic feel throughout.”)
I’m in the middle of post on my next film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a comedy-drama starring Cate Blanchett, out next year. And I have a big TV project that began as a film, a huge, sprawling historical thing. TV is now this really viable medium for filmmakers.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.