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Last Flag Flying's Linklater calls film a comedy-drama

By DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published December 8, 2017 at 1:46 a.m.

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Bereaved father Doc Shepherd (Steve Carell) talks to young Marine Charlie Washinton (J. Quinton Johnson) in Richard Linklater’s meditation on the cost of war, Last Flag Flying.

Richard Linklater admits he worries a little about his latest movie, Last Flag Flying.

"When people talk about it, [they say] 'Aw, it's about escorting a body. It sounds like kind of a bummer. Who wants to see that?'"

But the director quickly adds, "It sounds like kind of a dark story, but it's really funny. In and around a funeral ... people get up and tell funny stories. It seems like a discordant note. 'Is it a drama or a comedy?' Don't you get it? It's both.

"It's simpler to represent them as one or the other, but with most funerals, there's a buoyancy because humor is the adaptive quality. Humans probably came up with humor as a healing, coping mechanism to this tragedy called life. Most people when they get asked about their own funerals, they say, 'I want you guys to have a party. I don't want you guys to be sad.'"

It helps that the Oscar-nominated Linklater teamed with veteran novelist Darryl Ponicsan, best known for his debut, The Last Detail, which was the basis of Hal Ashby's classic 1973 comedy-drama of the same name. In that film, Jack Nicholson plays an experienced sailor escorting a pair of younger shipmates, one of whom is being sent to the brig for a petty theft. Thanks to a deft script from Robert Towne (Chinatown), the story effortlessly shifted from sorrow to outrageous humor.

While the 2005 novel Last Flag Flying moved the characters from The Last Detail into a new story, Linklater and Ponicsan carefully avoided potential comparisons by changing the characters' names and even their branches of the armed services. Nicholson's Billy Buddusky becomes Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a Marine, and Meadows (Randy Quaid) becomes Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell), a former Navy corpsman.

One reason for the changes may have been the fact that Otis Young, who played Mulhall in the earlier movie, died in 2001. Laurence Fishburne now plays the Rev. Richard Mueller, who has become a pastor after leaving the Marine Corps.

While following the novel's storyline, Linklater and Ponicsan did as much as possible to avoid echoing the earlier film. "We never even talked about The Last Detail," Linklater says. "There's only one Jack Nicholson. You can't imitate him."

No Crystal Ball

As with a lot of Linklater's movies, Last Flag Flying approaches the recent past as if it were even more remote than calendars suggest. In Boyhood, for example, Ellar Coltrane sits at a computer monitor bigger than his head.

"It's funny what time does to anything," says Linklater.

In a later section of Last Flag Flying, Sal introduces his fellow veterans to small, portable cellphones that seems a tad exotic in 2003. The three behave as if they were kindergartners receiving new toys.

"People weren't looking at them. They had them to their ears, but they weren't staring at them 24 hours a day," Linklater notes. The film also approaches the war in Iraq as if it would be ending soon. We now know it didn't.

In 1990 and '91, Desert Storm seemed to be "kind of a quick little turkey shoot," he adds. "That was over quickly, not a lot of fuss. Or at least that's what they were hoping."

The Road Less Traveled

Because of the way his films alter chronology and other narrative conventions, it's fitting that Linklater's production company is called Detour Filmproduction. Not surprisingly, he was on the road when I called him.

His last film, Everybody Wants Some!!, may be the only movie about a baseball team in which no games are played. "It was the off season," he laughs. He doesn't believe his animated reworking of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly would have survived a Hollywood pitch meeting.

"If it's done right, you'll be as disoriented as the characters. Thankfully, I didn't have to give that pitch," he says. He's also currently best known for Boyhood.

"Embarking on a 12-year film, that was like sailing in a little boat into the ocean and hoping to hit land," he says. "I did know there was land there, and I had a plan, and I tried to work with the future to shape that plan. I was confident I could roll with the punches, whatever they may be because I've been doing it my whole indie life."

Linklater received accolades for Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight even though Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy don't fall in and out of love in a traditional plot line.

"There's story. There's characters," he says. "Plot is largely a human construct, but story, that's a different thing. I believe in storytelling, even if it's kind of light on plot. I still believe in structures and a trajectory. One thing follows the next, as in prose writing. How to tell a story cinematically is not that different from writing. Either it flows and makes sense, or it's clunky and doesn't."

Similarly, there's a lot to Last Flag Flying, which had a long gestation period, that misses a synopsis. There are layers.

"There's a deep exploration of long-term bonds, identity, male bonding, middle age, loss, self-medicating, PTSD. There's a lot of stuff there. If I thought about it for over 10 years, I wouldn't have wanted to make it if it was a simple thing," says Linklater.

While he has the successful mainstream comedy The School of Rock on his resume, he admits his off-center output comes at a price.

"That's why they're hard to get made. I keep the budgets low as possible. That's always a challenge," he says. "Filmmaking used to have this huge paywall, if you want to call it that. You had to be really serious because to get started it was some serious money for film stock and developing alone, not to mention additional equipment.

"You had to be a hard-core film person to put all your assets on the line or raise that money from people. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing. I don't know if the films are any better or worse now. I don't think it was a bad thing that the art form became more accessible."

Lonesome in Lone Star

Linklater was born in Houston and has been based in Austin, Texas, most of his career. He also has not lost his Lone Star State drawl. Nonetheless, he expressed frustration that his home state doesn't support him and other filmmakers as it once did.

"Under previous Texas governments, they were all about jobs and everything. They liked our industry. Now it's more of an ideological group. They don't really care about the economy or what's good for jobs. They're doing stupid things like bathroom bills that would put a torch to jobs. To them Hollywood is 'Great Satan,' even though we're not Hollywood. These are Texas jobs," he laments. "Even with Bernie, they accused us of being Hollywood. I thought, God, we're all from Texas. This is a Texas story."

That said, even being featured on PBS' American Masters and receiving career achievement awards hasn't and won't stop the 57-year-old filmmaker, who first gained attention with 1990's Slacker.

"In that regard, they said they wanted to catch American artists in mid-career," he says. "Maybe they were running out of end of career people. I've been subject to that before in other countries. It's like, 'We're doing a career retrospective.' Or they give you some award. It's like, 'Oh, God. Is this some 'old man' award? Am I getting put out to pasture?' I feel like I'm just getting getting started.

"I'll accept mid-career. I can live with that."

MovieStyle on 12/08/2017

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