Don’t believe everything you read, Richard Linklater said today at Deadline’s inaugural Contenders London event, sitting down opposite Bryan Cranston to discuss his New York Film Festival-premiering drama, Last Flag Flying. Based on Darryl Ponicsan’s novel of the same name, which is itself a sequel to his 1973 novel, The Last Detail—a piece that was adapted into a classic film starring Jack Nicholson—Linklater’s film is more of a companion piece than anything else. “Darryl’s book is actually a sequel, but the movie obviously is not,” the director told Deadline’s Joe Utichi, addressing the audience at BAFTA. “We never talked about it.”
Starring Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying is a buddy film with crackling dialogue, witnessing the reunion of three Vietnam veterans under unfortunate circumstances, as they gather to bury a son killed in action overseas. In the decades since they parted ways, each man has gone his separate way, and while the characters initially chafe at each other upon reuniting, there is also the rediscovery of an impenetrable bond between them. “It’s an examination of who you are now, who you were then, how something can affect your life forever, and I think old friends, too,” Linklater said. “Once you’re a comrade, you kind of always are.”
“It’s about how, even after such a long absence, the dynamic that was reintroduced to these three men is so familiar to them, and I think it’s an honest way to depict it. We can get together with friends from high school, and all of the sudden—‘Oh my god, I’m back in high school!’” Cranston added. “It’s steeped in a foundation of, What is friendship? How far would you go to help a friend?”
An intimate, character-driven drama, Last Flag Flying required Linklater to give great consideration to the casting process, winding up with three actors who couldn’t respect one another more, driven on by their excitement, given the opportunity to work with one another. For Linklater, casting and working with his actors is a crucial component in finding the film for himself, and discovering what it could be. “I kind of discovered the movie via these actors. You get different actors, you get a completely different movie, so my job as director, I’m kind of like the head coach. What does this team want to be?” he said. “You kind of mix their personalities with these words on the page and it becomes something really special.”
Standing in for his castmates, Cranston reflected on Linklater’s unobtrusive, thorough process, which allowed him to find his character as Linklater found the bigger picture. “What was most helpful was we had a two-and-a-half, three-week rehearsal period beforehand where we sat around, we talked and we went through it. We chatted about it, and Rick would rewrite something, or introduce a couple things, or clarify something, and we were just kind of hovering around those characters, finding out where we were going to land,” the actor said. “Each one of us brought in a particular point of view and energy that is vacant or empty in the other characters, so you could see how these three men depended upon each other way back when, and how it affects their lives now.”
When it comes to picking his projects, for Linklater, there is no grand plan. The process is organic, led on by obsession with characters and the story they travel through. “It’s just kind of story by story. I think it comes down to that: What story do you want to tell? It’s only somewhere along the way that I kind of realize, Oh, I guess this is kind of my war movie,” he said. “There’s not a battle scene or anything, but this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a war movie. So that genre, I’m putting a little check in—with a little asterisk, maybe. But I don’t think in terms of what I have and haven’t done.”
In the current political climate, where it seems that any film could raise political questions—even in an oblique sense—Last Flag Flying is driven on more by emotion than didacticism, though Linklater has found that the film may offer an experience of hope. “Despite all [the characters’] differences, someone was saying, ‘This film could unite people.’ It’s a good time for that, I think,” the director reflected. “Guys who are very different—different races, different backgrounds, starkly different beliefs—who really find a common bond of friendship and humanity.”
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