"Excited, I do get," Richard Linklater grins, leaning back from the table and settling into his seat. I've asked the director what, after 20 years of making movies professionally -- "30, if you count my early Super-8 efforts," he chimes in -- gets him excited to still do what he does. "I just think the storytelling, you know?"
"I used to see it as more of a technical thing. Like, Oh, I'm a filmmaker first, and I'll make a film about this," he explains. We are sitting in a suite at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, and Linklater is dressed in his go-to ensemble of a gray button-down and jeans, his bangs splashed across his forehead. "Now it's in full embrace of storytelling. It's such a powerful storytelling medium, and there are so many great stories in the world, so many great characters. I'll never get enough."
Linklater's latest story is Last Flag Flying, out now, about three estranged Vietnam veterans who reunite decades later after the son of one man is killed fighting in Iraq. "My version of a war movie," Linklater admits of the talky drama. His latest characters include "Doc" Shepherd, the bereaved father played by Steve Carell; a provocateur barkeep, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and the reformed Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). Last Flag Flying is adapted from Darryl Ponicsan's 2005 novel of the same name, a direct sequel to the author's 1970 debut, The Last Detail, which was adapted by director Hal Ashby in '73.
Linklater's movie, however, is not a direct sequel to Ashby's film -- it features a different cast, playing characters that have different names and different backstories. If you ask Linklater, Last Flag Flying is not a spiritual sequel, either, no matter how frequently it is referred to as such. "It's so silly! I don't like!" he exclaims. "I said that kind of in passing about Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, and they ran with it. But no one knows what it means..." he shrugs. "Certainly, this is no more of a sequel than Silence of the Lambs is a sequel."
As withDazed and Confused in 1993 and then straight on through Linklater's filmography to recent work like Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!! and now Last Flag Flying, he was drawn to the story because of some autobiographical element. "I admit to that. I'm one of the few who admits to it," he chuckles. Linklater was born in 1960, just in time to see the number of U.S. troops involved in the Vietnam War triple. By the time Saigon fell in 1975, he was a teenager who'd seen firsthand the effects of war on the people around him: soldiers in his Houston, Texas, apartment complex suffering from PTSD, a vet his mom dated at the time who shared stories of what he saw over there, a childhood friend who lost his father and his brother overseas.
"That's when war permeated all of culture. It seemed like everyone's dad had done a hitch in the military, it was kind of more pervasive," Linklater recalls. "From the time that I can remember until I was about 14 or 15, Vietnam was just everywhere. Then, years later, to see the run-up to the Iraq War and to know what was coming, to see that, OK, this is going to be a disaster. This is a huge mistake that we're making as a culture."
Linklater was among the millions of Americans who took to the streets in protest of the Iraq War in the early oughts, speaking out in dissent as leading politicians labeled anyone who did not want the war as unpatriotic. "That war felt wrong from the start," he says. More than 10 years later, Last Flag Flying arrives in theaters in as divisive a political climate.
In 2017, the President of the United States seems on the verge of tweeting his way into a war with North Korea, but makes time to relentlessly condemn anyone who dares kneel in protest during the national anthem as not supportive of the troops. How, then, does one make a movie that is actively anti-war but still pro-troops? "It's always a political minefield, because you fall into these shallow jingoistic terms," Linklater considers. "But I think that's the crucial moment to double down and say, 'I don't give an inch of patriotism to anyone. I don't give any ground on love of country, at all.'"
"It's taken me this long to realize it, because I went in with profoundly mixed feelings. I said, 'Yeah, I support the troops. I don't want them killed, that's how much I support them,'" he chuckles. "’Yeah, I don't think they should be in battles. It's not good for the human psyche to be killing and being killed. I support them.’” It took telling this story for Linklater to realize, "You can still criticize, but you can actually honor the people who really did, in the purest sense, put their lives on the line for their country."
Actual politicsare one thing, but Linklater is much less keen to discuss the politics of Hollywood. He has been Academy Award-nominated five times, with Boyhood a favorite to win Best Picture in 2015. (It lost, controversially, to Birdman.) Yet, despite Last Flag Flying's premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival and a plum release date in peak consideration season, Linklater feels no yearning to return to that stage. "In fact, it was kind of great to be doing Everybody Wants Some!! after Boyhood," he reflects. "Saying, 'The best thing about this movie is it has absolutely zero chance of being taken seriously on that level.'"
And now, when this movie is being taken seriously on that level?
"Eh, there's not much to add. You know, what can you say? There's not much to..." he sighs, good-naturedly. "It's-- It feels like... Yeah. I dunno, there's nothing-- It's not why you do it, you know?"
He absentmindedly twists a water bottle cap off as he thinks. "It's not like sports, you know?" he arrives at. "The whole point of sports is to win your game, your match, for the team to win. But art is very different. It's to express yourself and to maximize your gifts and to tell the story. And then that's just kind of luck -- happenstance -- if any of that stuff happens."
Linklater has moved on to his next story, anyway, helming an adaptation of Maria Semple's comedic mystery, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and his next characters, including Cate Blanchett's portrayal of the titular agoraphobic architect, Bernadette. (On casting, Linklater has three qualities he looks for: intelligence, humor and work ethic. With Blanchett, he says, "Add on genius.")
"It's a bigger movie. More of an epic structure [with] a lot going on," he teases of the project, which filmed last summer. "It's fun for me: two middle age movies, one very masculine, one very feminine. So, different sides of myself. Again, just telling a story."