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Interview: Richard Linklater talks loss and war in his latest film “Last Flag Flying”

Richard Linklater explores loss, guilt and war in his latest film, “Last Flag Flying.” Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne play Vietnam veterans who are reunited when Doc (Carell) brings them together to bury his son who just died fighting in the Iraq War. There’s a history with these three men that goes a long way back and scars that haven’t fully healed. Linklater’s examination of both the Vietnam and Iraq war are interesting parallels as they are built upon the same thing – a lie – and spoken through these three men who have lived with the consequences for decades. We had a chance to talk with Linklater about what it means to be a hero, working with these acting giants, and more!

From L to R: Director Richard Linklater, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston on the set of “Last Flag Flying.” | Photo credit: Lionsgate

What makes Austin special place to be in the film industry?

I moved here in 1983 and it was a music community and a big literary community. There was a film school here and Tobe, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” there had been a tradition. It was pretty dispersed and off the beaten track. It was out of the ordinary for sure. I think things were changing in the ’80s and a lot of us wanted to see a bunch of movies and make movies. It’s just been cool to see it grow and get really big but I think that’s a tribute to Austin more than anything. It’s just Austin Film culture, not every town can pull it off a lot of curious people. It has a way of renewing itself.

The truthful depiction of how soldiers die is at the forefront of this film and asking the question of what constitutes a heroic death. Can you talk about that?

It’s just a real thing. If your kid dies in a training exercise or if the helicopter goes down are they a hero? Well, yeah there a hero because they signed up to put their life on the line for their country. Did they save other lives? No, but I think like Bryan Cranston’s character says in the movie, “Heroes, they’re all heroes. But how did this guy die?” There is a big picture and that word is overused as is and so many shallow terms in this area so I think the bigger picture demands a deeper analysis of all of it.

I’m trying to show something that people don’t really want you to ever really see. It’s interesting that this week people are talking about it because it’s in the news this same thing. To see a body, what were they doing over there, what’s the full story, grieving widow, Dover Air Force Base. This is all kind of hidden. I don’t even think most Americans knew what a Gold Star family meant. That’s such an insider term, but now every one knows. More transparency is a good thing to give some notion of the truth or the sacrifices. We’re all citizens, we all should know what’s being done in our name and with our dollar.

What was it like working with Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell?

From L to R: Bryan Cranston as “Sal,” Laurence Fishburne as “Mueller” and Steve Carell as “Doc.” | Photo by Wilson Webb

They were so awesome and just the greatest guys at the top of their game. It was just so refreshing too, they just work really hard and had a great time doing it. The movie demands all the energy and humor but also a lot of drama. They were up for it and had a wonderful collaboration. We had the time, the rehearsal time, we were always there for each other and it was just great. It kind of feels like the movie I hope. There’s the humor but then the seriousness. They hadn’t worked together but they all came in and really respected one another and as they say left it all on the battlefield.

How did your formative years when Vietnam was on the present aspect of your life shape how you approached this film? 

Ever since I could remember it’s just the nightly news, ’39 Soldiers Died’ in something you couldn’t quite pronounce. Guys I knew, friends who’s dads fought or some died, older brothers getting drafted or going off to war. One of my friends, James, lost both his older brother and his dad. By the time I was draft age the war had been over for a while and there wasn’t a draft anymore. The military was at an all-time low, post-Vietnam. Even Reagan was thinking of going down into South America and doing some regime change or something so they asked us all to sign up and we were all ‘hell no.’ And realized they had to start this all voluntary army, we’re not going to be able to do a draft anymore. That’s kind of sad too because it created this big divide. I think what we have now is the end result of that. There’s such a military/civilian divide which we should all be kind of against because it’s a legacy. There’s sort of like a warrior class that’s very divorced and don’t speak to each other. But we’re all citizens and they are on the mission for us supposedly.

In the process of making the film, what was the biggest commonality that you found between the Vietnam War and the second Iraq War?

I think the falseness of its origins, the political calculation, the lie at the beginning. Gulf atomic and weapons of mass destruction, neither true. Politicians wanting to go to war for other reasons or feeling they had to probably. Things don’t change that much; those relationships are the same with the guys you’re in war with and also the love/hate relationship with the chain of command above you is very common. No one bitches more about the military than the military. It can actually be like Cranston’s character here: he can love it, and then complain about it constantly, that’s very true to life.

“Last Flag Flying” hits theaters in Austin on November 10! Find more information on where to watch “Last Flag Flying” in your city here . 

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