Now playing in limited release is director Richard Linklater’s fantastic new film Last Flag Flying. Based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Poniscan, the film takes place in 2003 and follows three Vietnam War veterans played by Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne who reunite under unfortunate circumstances. The son of Carell’s character has just been killed serving in the Iraq War, and instead of burying him at Arlington Cemetery, he enlists his veteran buddies to help bring the casket up the east coast to suburban New Hampshire.
The other day I got to talk with Richard Linklater about the making of the film. He talked about the genesis of Last Flag Flying, why it’s an exciting time for filmmakers, landing his fantastic cast, getting from his first cut in the editing room to the finished film, and a lot more. In addition, he talked about his next film, Where’d You Go Bernadette, which stars Cate Blanchett.
Check out what he had to say below. You can also read Chris Cabin’s Last Flag Flying review here.
Collider: I’ve talked to you in the past where sometimes you’ve mentioned that it’s surprisingly difficult for you to put together financing or get a movie off the ground. Was this a project that was easy to get off the ground? Can you talk about the genesis of it all?
RICHARD LINKLATER: Most aren’t. This is another one that lingered for 10 years. Didn’t really achieve liftoff 10 years ago, 10 or 11 years ago I think. It was ’05, ’06. It just wasn’t meant to be at that time, I don’t think. The Iraq War was still real fresh. It was an open wound. Now, I think it’s a scab so people are ready to think about it a little more now than they were then. That probably helps the most. But it never really went away. I always thought, “Oh that’s the movie that’s time is going to come,” and sure enough it did. I just sent the script to Amazon. Ted Hope, who I’ve known forever, he just asked me, “Hey we should do a movie together,” and I’m like, “Here, check this out. I’ve always thought this was …” He said, “Yeah, yeah. I like that one.” The time had come for that, so that’s what gave me an in. You got to deal with the reality of what you’re hearing back about your scripts and projects, but it is satisfying when the planets align and actually you get to make it and thank god for the — We’re in a good era. It’s a lot better than it was seven years ago, whenever. The industry’s in a better place now because of Amazon Studios and Annapurna and there’s Netflix. I don’t know. It’s just a much better place right now than it has been in the past.
From my perspective, I totally agree with that because it seems like there are films being made that were struggling to be made even a few years ago but now with all the distribution channels and everyone wanting to work with filmmakers and actors and telling stories that don’t have to be put on a 4,000 screen release. The P&A costs are very difficult.
LINKLATER: I’m so relieved because there was a time it looked grim. Like, oh my god if it’s not a big tent-pole it’s not going to exist. Are we witnessing an extinction? [Laughs] I was practically thinking that. I remember those years, 9-10, whenever … Post-financial crisis, whatever was affecting everything. I’m so happy and relieved for the indie spirited film world because … I don’t even know if it’s indie, it’s just alternative cinema that’s just not … It’s just different than what the studios are doing and it’s a big variety in that category, but I think I’m so thankful and I think the world is thankful too because these stories can get made. Everyone always is complaining about the film industry but I think it’s important to acknowledge when it’s actually a pretty good time when that comes back around. I’d be remiss not to say, “Hey, it’s a pretty good era right now for these reasons,” and maybe that doesn’t last or maybe it does, but I will acknowledge it.
As I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but notice that you put your protagonists on a train, and of course I’m immediately thinking Before Sunrise.
LINKLATER: Trains and cinema, they have a pretty long history together.
LINKLATER: That’s just the road movie aspect.
Totally. Being serious, you managed to get three great actors together and the film works because you care about these people and the dialogue that they’re saying, the road trip. Can you talk about the casting process? How’d you get all of them involved?
LINKLATER: Yeah, you just come up with a wish list and even though I hadn’t worked with — The only one I’d worked with before was Quentin Johnson, who played young Washington. The others I just got lucky that they responded to the material and wanted to work on it. It usually starts with a phone call. You talk or then there’s a meeting. You feel your way through it and then there’s always scheduling. Can you do it here, then? I just feel very blessed it came together with my top guys here, and they’re all so wonderful. The best thing is I could tell they really wanted to work with each other. Each one said, “Oh, the other two, I really want to work with them. That’s really interesting.” I had these guys who really respected one another, really wanted to work with each other. We all really worked well together. It required it. It was such an ensemble. It felt right. Very blessed.
From when you got them involved to what people see on screen, did stuff change along the way as a result of a read-through or rehearsals?
LINKLATER: Normally my process is to sit in a room and read it and talk about it and ask questions and just create a dialogue. That goes all the way through shooting. We knew the line … All kinds of thoughts and ideas can find their way in there. As long as you’re all on — We’re just all trying to tell the story so my job as a director is just to find out what this film wants to be based on, it’s just words on a page at some point but then it just needs to go to some level of believable storytelling. I’m discovering the film as I make it, to some degree.
How long was your first cut compared to the finished film?
LINKLATER: I have about an extra 30 minutes in there. I thought that was pretty good. I had a really nice 2 1/2 hour version that was just … but you watch it and you go, “Okay, here’s the redundancies.” You’re on a train and there’s a long conversation and then they talk about that somewhere else and they do that, do we need that? It’s a lessening of everything, but I didn’t cut out … That’s a real lengthy process for me and my editor, Sandra [Adair]. I just keep screening it for four people in the editing room and every time I watch it knowing other people are watching it too, we just find things. We’ll be months into the process and go, “You know, we could just cut it right there and cut there and save 30 seconds and you’d never know it.” It’s like, “Okay, why did it take so long to discover that? It’s so obvious now.” It just takes time. You just got to hang out with your film and keep shaping it. To me that’s just honing the storytelling and the pace. That seems to be a challenge on every film. I get better at it, but I guess I do trust the process.
It’s funny because I’ve spoken to so many filmmakers and they all talk about the editing process and no one says … It’s very rare for me to talk to a filmmaker who says, “Oh the editing on this one was really easy.”
LINKLATER: [Laughs] No. I don’t know there’s such a thing as easy editing. Because it’s like, is there an easy script to write? Not really. You can do it quicker than others maybe sometimes but it’s never easy, easy. It’s a big process. It definitely takes time.
You mentioned that you show it to 4 people at a time in the editing room. Is that typically your process when you’re editing or do you ever do a bigger friends and family screening or even test screenings?
LINKLATER: No, I give bigger … I’ll do bigger screenings too, but I just like to know. Editing rooms are kind of, by definition, a bubble of you and the editor and what you’re thinking. It’s a truth-telling thing to watch it through someone else’s eyes, is to get another level of real with your material. Like, “Maybe that’s not that funny. Maybe that’s not as interesting. Maybe that’s redundant to something else. Maybe we can cut down.” I don’t know. It’s a brutal, honest process. You’ve got to be pretty — You can’t be sentimental. You have to be. It’s a cold process. You can’t be nostalgic. You have to make those tough decisions.