In ‘Last Flag Flying,’ Linklater confronts war, friendship and change

If there is one question Austin director Richard Linklater is probably a little sick of answering, it is this:

Is “Last Flag Flying,” which opens in Austin on Nov. 10, a sequel to “The Last Detail,” Hal Ashby’s 1973 New Hollywood semi-classic starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid?

The very short answer, from Linklater himself: “No, it’s not.”

One can understand the confusion. Darryl Ponicsan’s 2004 book “Last Flag Flying” is in fact a sequel to his original (and debut) 1970 novel “The Last Detail.” But while the movie version of “Detail” was a reasonably close adaptation, the movie version of “Flag Flying” (with screenplay by Linklater and Ponicsan) takes many liberties with the text.

The guys — played by Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne — are now Marines who served in Vietnam together rather than career sailors. A few names are changed. The basic plot of the novel remains (a man enlists his military buddies to help him escort his son’s body home after the son is killed during the 21st-century Gulf War), but much is changed.

“I read the novel back in ’05 and loved the characters,” Linklater says. “I was kind of wound up about the Iraq War, as we all were, and it just seemed like a nice reflection on what it felt like post-9/11 and how that was speaking to the Vietnam War through these vets. I don’t think I would make a war movie; I’m not all that interested in depicting that. So this is my version of a war movie: three guys sitting around talking about being affected by wars, the old one and the current one.”

But the adaptive process soon moved it out of sequel territory. “There is some DNA there, but moving their backgrounds into something post-Vietnam made certain through lines more dramatic, I think,” Linklater says.

And now, unlike many of his movies, “Last Flag Flying” is about middle age, a period of time Linklater has addressed only a little bit here and there (the parents at the end of “Boyhood,” the main characters in the final “Before” movie).

“It’s definitely a middle-age movie,” the 57-year-old Linklater says. “I am appreciating that point of view these days.”

Linklater, like a lot of Gen Xers, has a very different relationship to the war than the boomers just above him. Linklater was born in 1960, so like a lot of folks his age he does not remember a time before the Vietnam War. Growing up and serving seemed as inevitable as the sunset.

“I remember in first grade thinking, ‘Oh, no, when I get out of high school, I am going to have to go be in a war,’” Linklater says. “That was what everybody in my neighborhood did. We were in a perpetual state of war. On the news, every night, here is a body count from some city you can’t really pronounce. It was always a huge subject that was part of the entire culture.”

But as Vietnam was winding down, Linklater says he saw a sea change in the way the population responded, a response you can find in, for example, “Dazed and Confused,” which takes place in 1976.

“By the time Vietnam was over, in the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s, there was this feeling of freedom,” Linklater says. “This hedonistic vibe. You just feel so relieved. The last thing a teenager wanted to do in the late 1970s was be in the military. I remember there was some talk of conscription again in the 1980s, and my whole generation went, ‘Nah, I don’t think so,’ and that’s when they realized that we can never have a draft again. This was very much the era of, ‘What if they gave a war and nobody came?’”

Linklater says he knew almost immediately that “Last Flag Flying” would work. “From the first rehearsal, the first read-through, I knew we had all the right guys, asking all the right questions, right vibe, humor, seriousness,” Linklater says.

A big believer in rehearsal, he contends that there is where the movie is found. “The way I work, everything is enhanced via rehearsal process,” Linklater says. “It’s a rewriting of sorts. I never think the script is good enough or finished. For me, the script is always a good beginning, and that’s all it is. When you rehearse, you earn all this stuff in the story and ask the tough questions and do it weeks earlier and not during filming.”

Then again, it wouldn’t be a Linklater film without a sterling performance for at least one young person, and in “Last Flag Flying,” that person is J. Quinton Johnson, a former University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance student who absolutely holds his own with his high-powered co-stars. Johnson, all of 22 years old, appeared in Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some,” the TV series “The Son” and, oh, yeah, a play he was obsessed with.

“When he came in for me on ‘Everybody Wants Some,’ that was his first professional audition,” Linklater says. “That guy just had it. His skill set is off the charts. And now he’s in ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway. The guy is 22 and he’s in this movie and a bunch of other stuff.”

At the end of the day, “Last Flag Flying” is about the profound effects on people and cultures. But it’s also about how we change who we are and how we deal with our pasts. “These guys clearly went through some good stuff and very bad stuff when they were young,” Linklater says. “And when you get back together years later, are you still the same person?”

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