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Richard Linklater on ‘Last Flag Flying,’ Confidence, and the Film That Launched His Career

Richard Linklater has returned to his roots — specifically, his hometown of Houston, just a week or so before that World Series thing — to conduct a series of interviews for his latest film, “Last Flag Flying.” But he’s easily distracted by twinges of nostalgia as he settles in at the Hotel ZaZa for a late-afternoon chat.

Back when he was in his early 20s and working on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Linklater would spend much of his downtime in H-Town educating himself in movie history by attending screenings just across the street, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Or at the nearby Rice University Media Center. Or at art houses like the River Oaks Theatre — back when it screened repertory double bills — and the long-shuttered Greenway 3. He has spent most of his life and career in and around Austin, where he shot his breakthrough indie feature, “Slacker,” in 1989. But Houston is where Linklater earned the equivalent of a graduate degree in film studies.

And now, at age 57, the director of “Boyhood,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Tape,” and the “Before Sunrise” trilogy is home again to talk about “Last Flag Flying,” his well-received dramedy starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne as Vietnam War vets who are reunited in 2003 after the son of Carell’s character is killed in the Iraq War. (The movie has been described as a “spiritual sequel” to 1973’s “The Last Detail” — which, like “Last Flag Flying,” was based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan — but the characters here have different names and markedly different backstories.)

Here, in some of the highlights from the conversation, Linklater talks about “Last Flag Flying” and the film’s ensemble, and looks back at the film that launched his career.

Would it be fair to say “Last Flag Flying” is your first film that’s informed by a middle-aged man’s sensibilities?
Absolutely. Yeah, I was very aware of that. And it was so much fun to be, like, with contemporaries. We’re all in our 50s. Actually, I think Cranston had just turned 60. But we were all within about seven, eight years of each other. You know, when I first conceived of this, the characters were a little older than me, because I was in my mid-40s. But by the time I was making it, I was their age. So, it was perfect, yeah.

Do you think it would have been possible for you to have made this film immediately after, say, “Dazed and Confused”?
Oh never. But now, having a grown child and then running into buddies from college — well, that’s a big difference from running into someone you went to first grade with at age 21, you know? In this case, that gap in time is important, because you have these guys getting back together all these years later, and you see how that informs their lives, and their relationship. So it definitely has that kind of looking back vibe. Which is rare for me, you know, because usually the characters in my films are looking forward. Young people are always kind of looking forward.

It’s funny: If they look at “Last Flag Flying” in the context of your career, coming right after “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Boyhood,” some folks will be tempted to say, “Well, gosh, looks like he’s saying goodbye to his youth. Now he is a grown man.”
[Laughs] Uh-huh. But I’m gonna disappoint them, because I have other films that are going right back to my youth. But, yeah, it is an interesting phase. You know, I’m in post-production on a movie that’s a middle-aged woman’s movie. It stars Cate Blanchett, this thing I adapted from a book, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” But it’s more from a female perspective.

In “Last Flag Flying,” you have three very different actors playing three very different characters — and yet they mesh beautifully as an ensemble. Did you have much rehearsal time before you started shooting?
Thankfully quite a bit. But in patches, you know? They kind of came and went, because everybody was so busy. Like, Cranston’s on his book tour. Carell’s got this, that and the other. But you know, we got some serious time and it paid huge dividends. Because by the time we were shooting, we were so confident and really ready to go. In fact, we wrapped early. We had a 33-day shoot, but we wrapped on day 30. Everybody was so ready, it was just frictionless. It was just so smooth. I’m gonna say this is kind of my Sidney Lumet phase. You know, every day, I’d be like, “I think we’re done. It’s not like I have tickets to the ballgame, I’m not going anywhere, but we’re done.” I wasn’t being lazy — we were all pushing ourselves. But I’d be thinking, “OK, we nailed it. I’ve shot this, I’m gonna use this, let’s move on.”

Isn’t that kind of confidence something you have only after you’ve lived long enough, and have done the job enough times?
Yeah. As a coach said once, “You can’t fake confidence.” You only get it through experience. I think a lot of youthful passion is actually lack of confidence. You’re having to double your energy because you really don’t have, you know, experience. And experience can kind of lighten you up a little bit, so that you’re thinking, “OK, maybe the sky isn’t falling. We can fix this problem. We will fix it.”

Looking back to “Slacker,” which kicked off your career: Do you think it would be easier or more difficult to get that film made today?
You mean if I were starting out now? Well, technically, I think it would be easier. And cheaper. I needed 23 grand back then. Today, you can do a movie like that that for 7,000, 6,000, or whatever you wanted to spend shooting digitally. So, yeah, it’s a better time now. There used to be a definite paywall to get through to make indie films. You needed to come up with that 20, 30 grand, or however many thousands, which is a lot. It really kept people out of filmmaking. Now, I think a lot of people can do it. You look at the submissions at, say Sundance. When I submitted “Slacker,” there were, like, 200 other submissions. And I thought, “Man, that’s so many films!” And only 14 or so got in. And the rest — well, you had a lot of bankruptcies. A lot of credit cards that never got paid off.

Of course, from a critic’s point of view, there was a downside to the success of “Slacker.” For about three or four years afterward, it seemed like you couldn’t go to the SXSW Film Festival in Austin without seeing three or four films made by people who obviously saw “Slacker” and thought, “Hey! I can do that!” And the problem was, they couldn’t.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was that way at Sundance, too. Quentin Tarantino and I talked about that once: For a few years, it seemed like every indie movie was trying to be “Reservoir Dogs” or “Slacker.”

Maybe that’s because both of you guys appeared to have so much fun being creative. It’s like “Citizen Kane.” I think it was Truffaut who said it made more people want to make their own movies than any other movie ever made.
And I don’t know why, because I’d look at “Citizen Kane” and say, “Man, I could never do that.” But if you looked at something like “Chan is Missing,” that’s more accessible. Or you looked at Eagle Pennell films, or John Sayles films. When I saw those, I thought, “OK, you can kind of do a film in your backyard.” “Citizen Kane” was like, for me, “Raging Bull.” You see that, and your first thought might be, “You’ll never have the skill set to do that.”

One last question: Do you think that, as a young man, you might have gotten an even better film education if you’d had access to DVDs and streaming video?
You know, I don’t think so. Because I meet all these young people who, while everything’s at their fingertips, no one’s pointing them to stuff. Back in the day, I would get that River Oaks schedule, or the Rice Media Center schedule or the Museum of Fine Arts schedule, and I would get excited. Because it was like, here’s this list of films that someone had curated, you know? But now, how do you learn if they just drop every film ever made on everybody? Where do you begin?

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