Richard Linklater 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.

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