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Richard Linklater chats about ‘Last Flag Flying’s’ rich characters, performances

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Director Richard Linklater, left, and Bryan Cranston work on the set of “Last Flag Flying.” (Courtesy Wilson Webb).
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Richard Linklater has been on a roll in recent years, with outstanding films like “Bernie,” “Before Midnight,” “Boyhood” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” The new “Last Flag Flying,” opening Friday, joins the list.

Recently visiting The City to discuss the movie, he talked about his love for the characters, Sal (Bryan Cranston), Doc (Steve Carell) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), three former members of the military who, in 2003, help Doc transport the body of his son, killed in the Iraq War.

“We’ve all been to funerals where people tell funny stories and we laugh,” says Linklater, explaining why he made a funny film out of a sad situation.

“There’s a lot of gallows humor, a lot of joking around. It’s just how we are. The worst physical circumstances you find yourself in with other people, you lighten it up! That’s the human spirit,” he says.

Sal is the ringleader, an outspoken, obnoxious type, but loyal and sometimes lovable. Linklater calls him a “performance artist,” and the source of most of the film’s humor.

“Bryan’s one of those chameleon guys who can kinda do anything,” says Linklater. “It was great to see what he brought. He just loved Sal. He kept saying, ‘I know this guy! I know this guy!’”

Linklater laughs: “We all know this guy. Unfortunately.”

Steve Carell’s character, who has lost his son and his wife in the same year, was more difficult to sculpt, the filmmaker confesses. He says Carell took inspiration from his own father, a World War II vet who kept his feelings inside.

“What a beautiful, interior performance,” he says of Carell. “Actors want answers from their directors and I didn’t always have answers for Doc. He just felt his way through his performance.”

As for Fishburne, he drew inspiration from a friend who had been on roughly the same path as Mueller, a war veteran-turned-preacher.

“He works in his own mysterious ways,” Linklater says of Fishburne. “He’s a great guy. He made ‘Apocalypse Now,’ so he is kind of a Marine; He said, ‘I feel like I have been to war.’”

The three characters together form a heartfelt bond that makes you want to spend more time with them. Linklater agrees, marveling at how different the characters are and how different the actors’ approaches were.

“Cranston had his character. He was, ‘I got this guy.’ And Carrel was like, ‘Why do you think Doc’s doing that?’ And Fishburne’s a little in the middle. It’s what each one had to be.”

As with Linklater’s “Before” trilogy — “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight”– “Last Flag Flying” is driven by fascinating conversations and truthful, profound dialogue that gets to the hearts of the characters.

“If we could all live in such scripted and rehearsed environments!” Linklater laughs. “I’m not Mr. Smooth public speaker. I’m not a good in-the-moment arguer. But as a writer, you can go back and correct all that and make it perfect.”

IF YOU GO
Last Flag Flying
Starring Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson
Written by Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan
Directed by Richard Linklater
Rated R
Running time 2 hours, 4 minutes

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