To Richard Linklater — the lauded director behind Dazed and Confused, the Before trilogy trilogy, and Boyhood — laughing and crying are “kind of related, in a strange way.” His latest film, Last Flag Flying (based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan), explores that idea in a fascinating way, following three estranged Vietnam vets — Sal (Bryan Cranston), Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Doc (Steve Carell) — who reunite in 2003 to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in Iraq.
The Houston-born filmmaker talked in-depth with PopMatters about his filmmaking process, from his approach to music, to balancing the dynamic of the three leads, to the importance of earning the film’s heartrending finalé. Linklater also discusses whether or not the Before series is over, as well as what we can expect from his forthcoming picture, Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Writer’s note: This interview contains minor spoilers for Last Flag Flying..
Songs always play an important role in your movies. What’s your process?
I’m very thorough. It’s usually the soundtrack of your life that’s bouncing around your head. It’s always a fun, important element [of my films]. This isn’t exactly a needle drop movie where it’s a bunch of songs, but there are some really key ones. There’s the Dylan song during the closing credits, but more importantly, there’s the Levon Helm song that fills the funeral, which isn’t a very popular song. There’s something in his voice, that yearning. It’s a big choice [for that scene], but I think it’s perfect. Me and my editor were talking about that [scene] and she played me that song, and I didn’t know it. We thought about it for a long time. “Is it too big? No, we’ve earned it.”
What about the Eminem song?
[laughs] That was just listening to his album of that moment in time and saying, “that one’s good”. It was cool of him to let us use it. He could have been like, “nah.”
I’m such a fan of your dialogue that, when I see a group of your characters sitting around in a circle, I get really, really excited.
Whenever I talk to you, you tell me about how almost no dialogue is improvised and that it’s all about rehearsal. But I’m always amazed by how naturalistic your dialogue sounds.
I think it’s a combination of things. We reach a peak in this movie where they’re literally sitting around in a baggage car. It’s rare that they’re out of the confines of a train car. It’s sad because it’s the first time we see Doc really have some kind of breakthrough, emotionally. The humor is my version of him crying, because they’re kind of related, in a strange way. He’s sitting there laughing, but his son is right there in that box, out of his view.
We did that scene, we rehearsed it forever, shot it probably, like, ten times. Take after take after take. I’d say “cut” and they’d go again. That’s good acting. They have the freedom to throw in a line here and there. Fishburne said, “I’m also known for kicking a muthafucka’s ass!” I’m not sure he said that every take, but by take three it was like, “Keep saying it. It works!” I want the actors to feel empowered. They’re not just rendering something we determined six weeks ago. They’re still feeling it.
[Me and the actors] would get together in the morning — usually in my trailer — and read through the script and find new stuff right there and then. I’m always interested in that last five- to seven-percent [of dialogue] that you’re dialing in right when you’re shooting. You’re maximizing the performance and the ideas right at that moment. That’s what I’m always going for.
You’ve talked about this film being a spiritual sequel to The Last Detail…
I didn’t use those words. [laughs] I feel like people are going, “What the fuck is a spiritual sequel?” I made the mistake of describing Everybody Wants Some!!! [as the spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused] to kind of categorize the movie. It totally was [a spiritual sequel], but I didn’t expect it to be a term that [now] haunts me. [laughs]
[Last Flag Flying] isn’t a sequel, really. I think, in film terms, you can’t really have a sequel if you don’t have the same actors. The DNA is definitely there. The book [the movie is based on] is a sequel, but [you could never film it that way]. That gave us a lot of freedom to take the architecture of that… and made this movie a lot different. Ultimately, it’s an adaptation in the classic sense.
There’s a recurring character type in your movies who is a comedic, anti-authority figure. Why do you keep going back to that?
I have an anti-authoritarian streak, and that’s so pronounced in the military, too. The chain of command is so intense. It’s not just one boss, it’s 27, going all the way up to the colonel. When you’re on the bottom of that, you’re like, “they all suck”. That’s the natural human response when you find yourself trapped in a bureaucracy.
The people who complain about the military the most are the military. They admit it. They’re starting to see the movie, and I’m really pleased that they like it. They’re like, “Oh, yeah. That’s the love/hate relationship you get with the military.” You’re all a little screwed over, ultimately. Or a lot screwed over. But that doesn’t mean you’re not there for the [greater good]. It’s a fine line.
Sal is all those things, but he’s also the guy who would take a bullet for you. He’s all in. That’s what happens in a wartime situation if you talk to people who’ve been through it. When you’re down there fighting, you’re not thinking of the bigger mission. You’re thinking of your buddies. How are we going to survive the day? We’ve got each other’s back. That’s a human, pack-animal instinct.
Guys tend to search that out, gathering together to do something in the world, for better or for worse. Often worse.
I found the dynamic between the three main characters to be perfectly balanced. I’m sure a lot of that was on the page, but I imagine the actors changed that dynamic a bit when they showed up for work.
They brought themselves, which is all an actor can do. If you cast three different people, you’d get a largely different movie, I think. My job was to let the movie be what it wanted to be with these three guys. Luckily, they really respected one another. Each guy was looking forward to working with the other. They didn’t really know each other, but the respect level was really high. Cranston and Fishbourne had worked together briefly on a movie, but it was, like, a day or two.
Those guys really bonded, and it was beautiful to watch. They were there for each other, they were so generous with one another. It was like true soldiers — they had each other’s backs. It was fun, too, because we’re all around the same age, so we’d get each other’s references. It was kinda fun.
Unlike Everybody Wants Some!!!
[laughs] I couldn’t [talk about] a Saturday morning cartoon I saw as a kid around those guys. They’d have no idea what I was talking about. But these guys [on this movie]… we’re all of the same generation. It was fun for us. It kind of felt like the movie feels. It was funny, but it was kind of intense, too. Flag-draped coffins. Even though it’s a prop in a movie, it feels so damn real.
Cranston is known for a small public persona, but he’s playing a big character in the movie. Carrell is known for being broad in interviews, but his character is soft-spoken. Was it a conscious choice to flip the script with their real-life and onscreen personalities?
No, I just thought Carell was a thoughtful, contemplative guy. If I were to say, “Which of these three actors did stand-up comedy?” You’d think Carell. But he never did stand-up. Cranston did stand-up. Isn’t that funny? He’s hilarious, and he’s smart. You can’t fake those things.
I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a sense of humor. That’s why I’m worried about our country right now. Remember that Obama laugh? That big smile? It was so reassuring. It was like, there’s a human being there! I haven’t seen that smile in a while…
Throughout the movie, you uncover a lot of lies the military tells to maintain a certain image. The ending, then, is bittersweet when you find out what the son’s final wishes were. Was that always the ending, or did you have an alternative take?
That was always the ending, but it was like, oh gosh, we have to earn that. That’s what I always told the guys: We have to earn that ending, because we’ll have to adjust it if we don’t.
I think the whole film is a contemplation of the truth. There’s a difference between truth and honesty. I had a tagline for the movie…”The lies that bind.” [laughs] People, cultures… they have to do that. You have to congregate around a certain myth or a lie to, you know, start a war or whatever your little system has to be. It’s quite tragic. You see big lies, you see little lies. I read something, that the average person would say they were truth-tellers, but we all lie pretty regularly. Like, ten to 18 times a day.
Little lies. It’s social lubrication, verbal alcohol so that we can all kind of get along. Little things like, I wouldn’t say, “I’m late. I wasn’t that excited to [see you], so I’m cutting short our lunch by being late because I was sorta just checking my messages in my car.” No. [I’d say,] “I got caught in traffic, I’m sorry I’m late.” We all kind of do that as we negotiate the world.
In families, you avoid a lot. There’s a lot of avoidance. Is that lying? It’s an interesting area of thought.
Is there anything in this movie you tried cinematically that you hadn’t done before?
It was kind of a texture/tone thing. Not just the comedic/tragic element of the movie, but the feel of it. Like, there will be no sunlight in this movie. It’s just going to be rainy, gritty… kind of dark. Wet, cold, gray was the color palate. You’ll see Christmas decorations here and there because it’s Christmas season, and that’s kind of sad. I wanted it to feel like the only life in the movie was coming from the characters. The only uplift certainly wasn’t coming from the environment — it had to come from their spirits.
Sometimes, with beautiful settings and beautiful cinematography, the spirit soars. No. There’s nothing [the characters] encounter that’s technically beautiful, here. When you come in on a train, it’s always in the industrial section of town, it’s kind of crappy. Beauty is where you find it.
Changing gears for a second, have we seen the last of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) ? Is there a possibility for more Before movies?
I don’t know, man. We’re hitting about the five year mark [since the last movie], which is usually when we have an idea [for the next one]. But it hasn’t happened. I just saw Ethan in New York, I’ll be seeing Julie soon. But nothing has percolated up. Maybe that’s it. It’s okay for stuff to be out there just sort of hanging. Maybe, maybe not. It’s not a bad way for us to go through life. The door’s not shut, but we’re waiting for it to open. Only time can do that.
What can you tell me about your upcoming project, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
[We] just finished shooting a few weeks ago, so it’s very fresh. Editing feels really good. It’s a middle-aged view of the world. A portrait of a long-term relationship, I guess. But it’s also about a really complex woman, Bernadette. Cate Blanchett is amazing. It’s been really fun to do. It’s kind of a big film, an intimate epic. She runs off to Antarctica, so it’s big.
I think I laughed and cried harder at Last Flag Flying than any other film this year. Have you seen an audience’s live reaction to it?
Yeah, and I didn’t know [they would react like that]. I knew how I felt. No one could be closer to this movie than me, and I still get kind of [emotional when I watch] the end. I really do. Again, we had to earn that.
Sometimes you go for that, but… the worst would be a shoulder shrug. You want people to invest and care about these people, even the son you haven’t met. You’ve seen his picture, and he’s in that box. It’s tough material in that regard. I’m glad people seem to care about [the film]. That’s nice. Because we did.