Richard Linklater on How His War Movie Will Play in the Trump Era

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Richard Linklater and Bryan Cranston on the set of 'Last Flag Flying'

The director's 'Last Flag Flying,' starring Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston, opens the 55th New York Film Festival on Thursday.

Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying, which opens the 55th New York Film Festival on Sept. 28, stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne as Vietnam War veterans who reunite to bury Carell's character's son, a soldier who died in Iraq. Adapted by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan from Ponicsan's 2005 novel, the Amazon production will be released theatrically by Lionsgate on Nov. 3.

Linklater, 57 — whose credits range from 1993's Dazed and Confused to 2014's Oscar-nominated Boyhood — considers his new movie a war film, even though it takes place on U.S. soil. The director tells THR of shooting the veteran-centric film throughout last year's presidential election, distinctly re-creating post-9/11 America and delving into the "fetishy" world of military precision.

What drew you to this adaptation?

You know how filmmakers approach the world through genres, like, "Do I have a musical in me? Do I have a Western or a war movie?" Well, this is my kind of war movie. I'm not into shooting combat, blood and guts or any of the heroism of typical war movies. But I was interested in the characters. They echo a lot about Vietnam and Iraq and the long-term effects of war: how it bonds people for life, how it tears people apart and kills people.

Do you come from a military family?

I wouldn't consider us a military family, though my dad was in the Navy, just like a lot of guys in his generation. It was more of a duty thing at the time. He doesn't talk about it much, but I could tell those were good years in his life. His uncle died in World War II, someone way back was in the Union Army — you can run down the list. Every family has military stories and ancestors who did this, that and the other. But no, I didn't have a rah-rah military family. And my dad never spoke of it as something he wanted me to do, so I was never, never compelled to be in the military or anything.

The film reflects on two wars — Vietnam and Iraq — generations and decades apart. Are there parallels between them?

I think they'll go down in history as similar wars. War is a choice. We didn't really need to be there, but we were kind of itching for a war and manipulated the public into it, like a lot of wars. It takes a pretty good PR campaign and some good lying to convince everybody, but everybody's up for it at a certain time, and the culture's kind of ready to go to war, as we were post-9/11. "Somebody's got to do something" — it was that kind of vibe, and it's fairly deadly. And [they have] similar ends, a shoulder shrug of, "Wow, that's a lot of dead people. For what reason? Are we better off?"

But I think the treatment of the soldiers is different. Everyone learned from Vietnam — the soldiers returned [home] to animosity toward them personally. That's completely lacking now; in fact, it's the other extreme, that we're supposed to just really love our troops so much because there's this kind of communal guilt. There's a strata of our culture that now fights our wars for us, and everyone else is made to feel guilty about that.

How do you see the movie playing in the Trump era?

That's interesting. I don't know if it's any different. Any president, particularly of our country, is in a really, really powerful spot to influence such things. So if Hillary [Clinton] were there, it would be the same thing — as we know, she hasn't always been a pacifist on these issues. There's always saber rattling going on. This is an ageless, timeless tale about how wars affect people. It probably forever falls into the, I don't know what category of war movie it is, hopefully cautionary. Maybe you should just always remember the human toll, not just the big-picture, win-lose element.

We shot last year in the fall; we were in Pittsburgh shooting the scene with Cicely Tyson on election night. She's a big Hillary supporter and had to vote absentee. We expected that night to be a party; Ted Hope from Amazon was in town with us. As the night went on, we just said, "Well, we got to get up early in the morning, so …" The next day we shot the scene with the five coffins covered in American flags, and we just had to laugh and say, "We feel like that's us in there!"

What's something you didn't expect in making your war movie?

As much as I've seen all of it, [I still wasn't in the] military. It's weird to do a movie where you actually don't know things. Usually by the time you're making a movie about something, you know a lot about it. The director should know everything. I had to give it away, "You know, I don't know what that means. Help me here." So it was nice to have a Marine advising us the whole time. This guy served a bunch of years, and he's acting in a new film, so he's kind of the perfect guy. You can't get it all right, but darn if you can't try. I guess I didn't know little things, what it all represented. You know what the "fruit salad" means? All those little medals on their chest, everything means something. There's a ton of military details like that, so it was kind of fun to get it into that world. It's kind of fetishy. I don't know what I feel about it — I'm not a buff of any war — but you know, well, it's kind of weird. It's like, "They had seven buttons in that war, not eight." You've heard people say, "Yeah, he's a button counter. He knows that little detail." I don't know.

Is this a liberal movie?

I don't know. I didn't really think of it like that. The guys in the movie aren't that liberal, and honestly the politics aren't really discussed that way. I mean, there's definitely nothing more political than war, if you ask me. That's a political ass thing. But I don't really know where it falls on the spectrum, because the guys who have served, I think they get a special card to criticize or say things — they were there. That's why it's always kind of depressing and ridiculous when we're running up to where the people who were for it, the people who were against it. You get singled out by someone who didn't serve as pro-war, is that hypocritical? A whole generation didn't serve, and the rich kids, the rich, smart people. Then it was ultimately, like all war, is it's a poor man's war, a minority's war. So that's very political; it's touchy areas all-around.

I hope it's not, to answer your question. I really don't think it is that much, and the veterans I've talked to and heard from who saw it — who I don't think are particularly liberal at all — they still appreciate it because it focuses on that love-hate relationship that most of them end up with vis-a-vis the military, as any human would. Anytime you're stuck in a huge, hierarchical, bureaucratic organization, even if you love it and dedicate your life, you end up with mixed feelings, messages. You can't help it. It's just going to happen. That goes for all walks of life. But it's particularly poignant when it has to do with the life-and-deathness of the military.

Why discuss how governments lie to citizens and people lie to each other, especially in wartime?

That's one of the important through-lines of the movie: What is truth? The older I get, the more I think that absolute truth is a pretty blunt instrument; it's got to be doled out in the right percentage, maybe. And there's all these levels of lies — there's white lies that make you feel better, then there's really tragic lies that result in death for hundreds of thousands of people. No one goes through the world thinking they're a dishonest person; Trump wouldn't admit to being a liar, although it's pretty demonstrable. It's always just shading things for interpretive use, and it's just a nice little complex area for everybody. [One scene] really brings it to the boil — maybe truth is a little blunt. It's not always the best thing, we can shade things a little bit, and if it'll help someone else get through their life, what the hell! I'm all for that in that moment.

How was it re-creating the early 2000s onscreen?

On one hand, it felt like not that long ago; if you're over a certain age, that was yesterday. But a lot's different, more than just the specifics of the music and technology. Even while we were experiencing those years in post-9/11, it was really that weird, paranoid attitude. I remember that very well. I was happy to depict that — when everyone was a suspect, and everyone was kind of looking at everyone. It was so horrible to feel that way within our country. How did that happen? We couldn't have been attacked from more outside our country — there were a bunch of Saudi Arabians, and yet we all became suspects. I don't know how that happened, but it happened. And man, that just became our world.

How did you end up with Eminem's "Without Me" as the song on the radio?

It was always gonna be that song; we were just trying to get the song. We made a little plea to Em himself. I got the actors to make a little tape to him: "Marshall, can we use your song?" It was really sweet. Who could say no to those three guys? We were having some trouble just breaking through to him — sometimes these kind of things can just fall through the cracks — and you know in your heart they're cool, like they're not going to actively be an asshole, I don't think. He must've seen it, or someone did. They were cool.

You just finished shooting Where'd You Go, Bernadette with Cate Blanchett. What do you like to do after wrapping a movie?

Pick up the kids from school, lay around and read, start watching some movies again. I'm trying to watch a film a day of everything I missed over the summer. Yesterday I went to see Dunkirk. I couldn't help but think of it in contrast to the war, but I thought [director Christopher Nolan] did a great job. It's pretty wonderful. I liked it.

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A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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