'Last Flag Flying' Director Richard Linklater Discusses Ensemble Stories, Time, And More [Interview]

Like many of writer-director Richard Linklater's films, Last Flag Flying moves with grace. The smooth rhythm of the dialogue, the lived-in settings, and characters you want to spend hours with – these well-known qualities found in Linklater's body of work are on full-display in his latest drama, based on Darryl Ponicsan's novel. The film stars Bryan CranstonLaurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell as veterans and old war buddies on a road trip and despite a tragic core, the film contains the sense of joy we often get from Linklater.

Characters talking in a contained space, like on a train in this instance, is filled with such character, personality, tragedy and laughs. How much he's able to subtlety communicate in a single scene – sometimes a single shot – is remarkable. We recently had a chance to discuss one of those slyly dense scenes with Linklater, who's now a few weeks into post-production on his next film, an adaptation of the excellent Where'd You Go Bernadette?, which apparently has a rather lengthy first cut.

Below, read our Richard Linklater interview.

I know when the film was announced, it was called a sequel to [Hal Ashby's] The Last Detail.

I know. We never said that. They defined us before we had defined ourselves. That's the mistake, when you don't get ahead of things. 'Cause the book is a sequel, but the movie isn't, obviously. But it's just hard to make that distinction.

When it was announced though, it sounded in your wheelhouse with characters talking and traveling. 

Yeah, I'm kind of a Ashby acolyte or whatever, you know [Laughs]. Certainly kinda humor in the comedies that I do, he's in there. But yeah, you can't really be a sequel, I think, in film terms if you don't have the same cast. So we adapted it once we decided we wanted to make a movie, we were able to adapt it farther away from what's actually in the book.

What was your reaction to the book?

I read the book and liked it a lot. I think there was some question of whether or not it was a movie. I read it and go, "It's my kind of movie!" You know, a bunch of guys talkin.' And yet it had that kind of dramatic intensity too, at the right moments. Which seemed appropriate for its subject matter, obviously.

So it was a challenge, you know, to make a movie about middle-age people dealing with the long-term effects, and how these two wars talk to each other. But it was fun. It was like something I wanted to delve into because I had my own complex mixed feelings, like every citizen did, you know, about another war.

The idea that people thought the story maybe wasn't a movie, I think about that scene where Doc talks about his first time on the train, just the feeling of joy and like you're right there with them, it's so cinematic.

[Laughs] I know. I've always, in my heart, known that that's cinematic. But you know, there's a kind of a [reaction of], "You know, movies don't talk about it, show it." Well, that is showing guys laughing and telling stories and being funny...I've known that to be close to life if you're trying to go with the key of life, that's what you're up against. This restriction of, "Why do I pay to see something that's so realistic? I could just live my life and not spend ten bucks or whatever." It's a pretty dumb argument, but one that's made kinda commonly.

What sort of atmosphere do you try to create on set when you shoot a scene like the one with Doc and them in the baggage car scene?

Well, we rehearsed the hell out of that and it always sang from the script on that scene was always working. So that wasn't the issue, it was just kinda finding more little nuanced things. So, we rehearsed a lot, kinda kept writing it, kept working on it. Come time to shoot it, it was just one ... We spent just take, after take, after take. People asked, "Was that just improvised?" I wanted it to feel that way, but it's the most out there ... It's kinda like giving themselves the most permission to be kinda out there.

It's really kinda sad, too, if you think of Doc. If he just reached back and went over a few more feet, he could touch the box, and yet, that's such an emotional outlet for him. To me, I always thought, "Well, that's the version of him crying." He's not going to have a cry because he's a stoic guy. That big laugh represents an emotional purge, and it kinda tells you he's done right. He had a good instinct to look up these two old guys who knew him back then, who were with him through whatever tribulations they lived through then and then to be given him comfort now in that accepting kinda, "We were there together. We can still give each other shit-way." That's real deep bonding, and to know that's bridged over 30 years. So, I think his instincts have been correct. He is kinda comforting, he's finding the support and comfort he needs.

Even though people ask you if it's improvised, I imagine writing those scenes you're constantly tinkering with every line on the page and trying to get the flow right.

Aw, yeah, just every little thing. And then you get another chance in editing to tighten it up too and to have it flow and trim little things. Yeah, it's a dance. But my assistant editor always talked about that scene like, just watching the dailies, he'd hear, "Cut," and then, "Cut," and then the actors would just ... You could see'm recharge their batteries a little bit, and like, "Okay, go again!" Each one was like a sprint. It's like, "Oh, shit we're doing this again." And again, and again, and again. I remember asking Fishburne, "Do you guys need a break?" He's like, "No, no break here, man. We take a break, we're not coming back. We just gotta keep doing it til we..." I'm like, "Yep." That's what it was.

Richard Linklater interview

From the script to the finished movie, have you ever had the pace or flow of a story drastically change?

Yeah, you do have the ... It doesn't happen much. I think most of my final films are a lot like the script, the tone and everything. But you do have the permission. I've done this more in ensemble work when you get a big ensemble, you can kinda ... You'd be surprised, you can enter a scene half-way through or go out. We tend to write A to Z, full arcs in every scene and everything, but you realize film's a very elliptical story-telling medium, audiences get ahead, you don't really need to explain. But we write and think that way. We try to represent stories. So, if you don't realize that on the page you can realize it in editing. Like, "Let's just cut out, what if we just cut it right after that funny thing they say and then we just go to the next scene instead of letting the scene peter out. We'll miss that one little piece of information, but we've already got the main thing."

Or the other way, "What if we came in here and we build to this, but do we really need all that preamble?" And often times, you don't. You don't need a lot of establishing shots, you don't need a lot of ... The best way to write a movie is to think you're in the editing room with a three hour movie that you're trying to get down to two hours. What's the most elliptical, economic ... A lot of movies have trouble getting started 'cause you've top-load it with exposition and backstory, and it's boring. It's not what they're there for, but how much does an audience need? I kinda just like jumping in and slowly revealing. Like on this, we jump in like literally, a guy walks into a bar. We're literally dropping on their lives. On top of 'em, and yet, it all reveals itself slowly. I like the slow feel. This shot was like, I just felt the world was just dropping in on Doc. Like, the rain, the pain, the world is just squishing you up from above.

What's it like when your casting an ensemble? Do you think not just about how an actor could work in a part, but how they'll work with others?

Yeah, ensembles are, even if it's just a few actors, very important with how they'll look together, aesthetically. How they'll feel. I got lucky here. These guys really respected one another. Each really was looking forward to working the other two, so that was a great start. They brought their A-game, that's for sure. I felt like I was just working with people at the top of their game. It was fun because we were all around the same age, in general, so we'd get each other's little references and jokes. We had fun. In my last film was a bunch of young guys, equally fun, but they don't get my 60's Saturday morning cartoon references. When you can talk about Top Cat for a little while, it's always fun [Laughs].

[Laughs] Does your dialogue evolve heavily from draft to draft or is it usually pretty close to the first draft?

Yeah, it always evolves. Certainly. It's always a good start. You would say, "Oh, it's the movie," of you could read the very first draft. It's all there in a certain way, but then you realize, it gets refined quite a bit and a lot good lines emerge out of rehearsals. I dunno, maybe it's 63% [Laughs]. It would be a funny analysis actually to ... I have some people, when they start asking questions, I'll say, "Well, here, read the first draft." I like it as a screenwriter, I've learned a lot by a movie you think you know really well, and then read the first draft of it. The earliest draft you can find and then say, "Oh, here's some choices they made." Whether they made that in the script or in the editing, they made storytelling choices to arrive at ... You hear these perfect screenplays, Chinatown or something, but you really do the history there and there's a fucking 300-page script that makes no sense, and someone had to hone in that storytelling. It's the writer and the director usually. What is it? How do make it clear? What does it mean? What are those metaphors?

Have you ever ended up with a gigantic script like Chinatown you had to widdle down?

Yeah, you have too much story for the form. But it's probably good to get it on the page and then you gotta hang out with it and go, "You know what, I could cram all this into this," and find the right vessel. Well, my last movie, Everybody Wants Some!, my first draft was like 183-pages and it covered the whole school year. It's just too sprawling and episodic. The transitions are kinda fast. You know what? It's too long, that's a TV series. I should just cram it all in ... I remember the first part, my favorite part was the first weekend. I said, "Well, I'll only lose a few things if I cram it all in there, let's just take all the fun stuff." So I made a choice and hacked it down and lost a lot of school and baseball and elements. But I said, "No, that's all just ... It's really about these guys." You make your choice.

Another movie, like a lot of your work and The Last Flag Flying, that deals heavily with time.

Yeah. Middle-aged version of time, which is looking back a little more. More and more rear-view mirror.

When you start a script, do you know, like with time, what you want to say specifically or does it all come out organically while you're writing?

It just comes out. I think storytelling, you gotta find the form for what you're saying. A lot of my films, time is kinda the form of it. So, it's a road movie. It only takes place over so many days, but it wasn't as constricted or expanded as others, but it felt right. Once you get the right form, then it's just how're you gonna play within those boundaries. You can kinda say everything you wanna say, I think.

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The Last Flag Flying is now in theaters.