Interview: Richard Linklater & Darryl Ponicsan (LAST FLAG FLYING)

LAST FLAG FLYING (Amazon Studios) is a war movie that’s not really a war movie, and a sequel that’s not really a sequel. It is a period piece about Vietnam War veterans that takes place during the Iraq War, and is not about either of those wars in particular as much as it is about both of those wars in general.  

In 2003, 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War, former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) re-unites with ex-Marines Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) for a different type of mission: to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc decides to forgo burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared experiences of the war that continue to shape their lives.

Director Richard Linklater and author Darryl Ponicsan collaborated on the screenplay which follows the trio as they wrestle with the pangs of war both past and present.

We spoke to Richard and Darryl about their collaboration and adaptation process; the inextricable relationship between the Iraq and Vietnam wars; and the importance of truth – in this story, and in our collective one.


I. “It just lingered, like the war itself.”

War is, as the saying goes, as American as apple pie, and arguably even more so —  that the U.S.  exists in the first place is the result of war, and since our founding we have been involved in different wars, to different degrees, almost ceaselessly.

Our official involvement in the Vietnam War lasted for just over eight years (from 1965 – 1973) and in the Iraq War for just under nine years (from 2003 – 2011).  The creation of LAST FLAG FLYING took twelve.

 What was the genesis of LAST FLAG FLYING?

Darryl:            You have to go back to 1970 when my first novel, The Last Detail, was published. In 1973, The Last Detail was adapted into a film directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne. Thirty-four years passed with a friend urging me to write a sequel to the movie. I didn’t want to write a screenplay, so instead, I wrote a sequel to the novel which was heavily influenced by the film. Thomas Wright, who became the Executive Producer on LAST FLAG FLYING, took the novel to Sony, which had the right of first refusal. Sony passed on it and we took it to Paramount, who optioned it in the hopes of getting the cast from THE LAST DETAIL – Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid. Otis Young, who also starred in the film, had passed away, but Morgan Freeman agreed to take on the role. Long story short, Nicholson decided to do THE BUCKET LIST. I thought we were dead in the water, then Richard and I started talking about how we can make LAST FLAG FLYING a standalone film, still based upon the book. In the end, we wound up with a film that is not a sequel to a film, but rather an adaption of a sequel to a book.

Top: Bryan Cranston as “Sal,” Laurence Fishburne as “Mueller,” and Steve Carell as “Doc” in LAST FLAG FLYING. Photo by Wilson Webb.
Bottom: Otis Young as “Mulhall,” Randy Quaid as “Meadows,” and Jack Nicholson as “Buddusky” in THE LAST DETAIL (film still).

Richard, when did you read Darryl’s book for the first time?

Richard:        I read Last Flag Flying for the first time when it came out in 2005.

Darryl:            It was a very limited publication.

Richard:         There weren’t many original copies, but Harry Gittes floated a copy my way. I read it and really liked it. I was excited about it. I came on board because I loved the characters. They were so alive, and the story was a nice reflection of these two wars. It seemed like a meditation on time, mortality, and middle age.

What was your process for adapting the book, and for collaborating on the screenplay?

Richard:         It was pretty lengthy. It sort of shifted and turned, and happened in a couple chunks, over time. I remember reading the book a second time, and just outlining all the stuff I would love to be in a movie – what would work in the movie, what wouldn’t. Streamlining. It’s all about storytelling and structure, I believe in that, and we had such a good road map with the book.

Darryl:           It happened over the course of ten years. We never did the traditional 3×5 cards sort of thing. If I recall, we started with the first scene in the book, and then let it evolve into the movie as we went along. There were sections that clearly weren’t going to make it in the film, and they didn’t have to. The script took on an evolution and a growth of its own. The process was that I would write something and send it to Richard, and he would rewrite that and send his rewrites to me, then I would rewrite him – it went on and on like that.

Richard:        That was over ten years ago, when we wrote our first draft, and then some time went by. The script went through two little incarnations. The first draft was a little more faithful to the book. The second draft was much shorter than the first, but important – the years went by, and that was when we introduced some new elements. The writing never really stopped.

Darryl:           No, it never did stop. Even during the shooting, I would wake up from a dream and call Richard up, and say, “Can you do this?”

Richard:         Yeah, and it would be a great idea. It was fun to collaborate with someone who so embodied it in that way. Darryl would have a great line which would just come out of nowhere when he’d wake up – a line like “You see these faces? They’ve already been spited,” for instance. I’d tell Bryan [Cranston] about it, and he’d like it, so we’d work it into the shooting.

II. “Some kind of shared reality.”

It’s often said that war builds character.

It’s said less-often that you can create a character from war.

LAST FLAG FLYING, like the novel on which it was based, paints a portrait of three men whose individual lives and their relationships to one another were shaped by the Vietnam War, and whose relationship to the Iraq War is laden with the echoes of that shared past.

 How much did you refer to the source material when you were developing Doc, Sal and Mueller’s characters? To what extent did you have to restructure their portrayals in order to work them into the film?

Darryl:            There weren’t really any of the transformations you might usually expect when turning a character in a novel into a character in a movie. The guys in the movie were the guys in the book.

Richard:         Yeah – it’s all largely there in the book. I also thought of it melding in with the actors. It was really about where the actors saw themselves in these parts. In our case, I just love the actors so much – they really inhabited these characters and were there for all the right reasons. They felt like they knew these characters, and they all wanted to honor them. You know, [Steve] Carrell asked me some point-blank questions — things an actor would ask a director, like “Well, why does Doc look up these guys? Certainly, it’s been so long, doesn’t he have other friends?” I couldn’t really tell him why – I said, “I don’t know if he actually knows. It’s a bit of a mystery what’s motivating Doc here, in a certain way.  We obviously know the pain he’s in. That’s obvious, but the choices and what he’s trying to do aren’t as clear. He’s just compelled to do it.” And that ambiguity of motivation was okay. I think some actors would want their director to tell them exactly why and what, but Carrell liked that. Lawrence [Fishburne] felt like he really understood Mueller in that way, too, as did Bryan [Cranston]. Bryan knew Sal – he’s that part of Bryan: the life of the party, fun, extroverted, loves everybody. Bryan’s not a big drinker – he doesn’t share any of those darker qualities, but he felt he really knew that guy and was fun to play.

Darryl:            I think in the book and in the movie, we’re portraying vets in a very different way than they’ve been portrayed in the past in other movies, or in other books, for that matter. You’ve got three guys who spent thirty-four years trying their best to pull their lives together, and we come upon them after that point, so whatever trauma they might have experienced, they’d moved beyond it, and yet they’re never entirely away from it.

Richard:         You can only move so far from it. Having known enough guys who served in different wars and different times, starting with Darryl, I appreciate the love-hate relationship that tends to grow out of that situation. Whenever you find yourself in an institution — and can there be a bigger institution than the U.S. military? I don’t know of one; the Church, maybe — it’s a huge thing that you’re inevitably going to be at odds with it, even if it does fit your psyche. I think Sal feels at home there. He says it’s the only place that makes sense to him, even though he’s probably the character who’s the most disgruntled about it. The other two dealt in different ways. For me personally, I thought this was my kind of war movie. I’m not interested in making a mission based, heroic movie. To me, that usually rings false, or else it’s not something I’m interested in. This felt very real. The stakes weren’t so big – we weren’t trying to say, “This means everything.” as much as we were saying “This is what it means to these three guys, and this is what they went through.” Three guys who had served, and are dealing with a new war under some of the most tragic circumstances imaginable.

Steve Carell as “Doc” in LAST FLAG FLYING. Photo by Wilson Webb.

Is there any scene with these characters that translated particularly well from the book to the script, and then from the screenplay to the film?

Richard:        Gosh – I remember just being so taken by the book because it was such a great reflection and echo of those two wars, seen through such a personal lens. We wanted the spirit of the book to transfer to the screenplay, and to the spirit of the movie. There was a vibe we were really trying to hit, and largely hit. It’s a process of extracting. You’re polishing and retelling the same story in a slightly different way, but not by much. The story has a linearity that carries the book and the film in a similar manner.

Darryl:            The big change from the book to the movie is the shared experience of the past. In the book, they didn’t really have a specific, shared Vietnam experience – they do in the film. That’s probably the biggest leap we took, which I think serves our movie well.

Richard:         It makes it more specifically Vietnam, which THE LAST DETAIL wasn’t. It’s seen as a great Vietnam film, but it didn’t really even mention Vietnam. In LAST FLAG FLYING the characters are a little older – it doesn’t take place during Vietnam, but it echoes it, and that’s one of the many reasons the film is so wonderfully in that period. Darryl wrote the book about the early days of Iraq, but even at that point everyone knew where it was going. That war, in the book, isn’t even a year old, and you already know that it’s a disaster.  We knew it up front of all things, unlike in Vietnam, where we just sort of crept into learning about it.

Darryl:         I think fate has helped us here. Had we made the film when we had originally tried to – in 2005 or 2006 – it would have been a different movie entirely. The Iraq War was such a subject at that time, in the middle of the early days of the war. We were chasing the moment back then, or we would’ve felt like that. It’s more poignant in retrospect, now that we’re looking at it from a thirteen, fourteen-year perspective. It’s a period film now, which is a more interesting lens to see it through. 

III. This is going to come back around.”

The Vietnam War was not, of course, the immediate cause of the war in Iraq. All the same, the two wars – their contexts, their histories, their aftermaths – are inextricably linked to one-another because they are both part of that same long-held American tradition.

 The Vietnam and Iraq wars are separated by a generation. Time passed between those wars, and time has passed between both of those wars and our present. Time, however, is more like a tapestry than it is like pointillism: actions have consequences, causes have effects.

“Now” and “then” aren’t a series of individual, discrete points as much as they are individual threads which weave together to form a coherent whole. LAST FLAG FLYING follows this logic: it’s a war movie armed not only with hindsight, but also with the knowledge that even the things that change over time tend to stay the same.

At one point in the film, Sal says that his future is in the past, and this sentiment echoes throughout the film. How did you approach the subject of time – and the passage of time – when writing LAST FLAG FLYING?

Richard:         I like the idea of reflection, and how time changes things. As you get older yourself – once you hit your fifties – and you look back at your friends from thirty years ago as adults, you think “Oh, that’s an epic change.”  That’s not a kid thing – that’s solidly middle age. You were adult thirty years ago. I was interested in how time changes, and how these experiences take on different meanings, and how one looks at their life and at themselves. Sometimes it takes being around people from a different era in your life in order to be reintroduced to yourself at that age. We all spin this little narrative of our lives, and we move on, and we pretend like we’re different people, but maybe we aren’t – no matter what trappings we’ve taken, or what choices we’ve made. I think you see that in Mueller’s character. All it takes is Sal riling him up, and boom, there he is. Mueller “the Mauler” just yelling at Sal. And Mueller can put himself in check, but you see him become a guy he hasn’t been in twenty-five, thirty years. It took Sal to do that.

Darryl:            Mueller has a line about how these two other guys represent a very dark part of his life. He hasn’t seen them in decades, and he’s not too thrilled to see them now. That’s one of the interesting things about Marines at war: you have this intense, intimate relationship. Your lives depend on each other. But when it’s over, you’re kind of happy to see them gone. They’re away from it, and they want to build their own lives. Then these three guys get together. Doc is seeking help from the source he remembers best from all those years ago. Mueller is obviously dragged into it, and I think ultimately Sal is just amused and excited by the whole thing.

Richard:         The reunion reminds Sal of his best days, whereas for Mueller, it’s reminding him of his worst. Part of Mueller would love to act like it never happened, whereas Sal hasn’t moved on that much. Sal thinks, “Oh, those days were great. Hey! It was fun! We were amongst the death and destruction, and God knows what a wasted effort,” but at least he felt alive. We wanted to find a way to really see how war affects people’s lives, and how it’s affected these three particular men and how they’ve responded in very different ways. They’ve had very different lives, but you’re never closer, probably in your entire life, than you are to people you go through something like that with.

Bryan Cranston as “Sal” and Laurence Fishbirne as “Mueller” in LAST FLAG FLYING.

Your respective relationships to the Vietnam War are very different. Were either of you surprised or challenged by writing with a partner whose experience during that time was so different from the other’s?

Darryl:            It was very interesting. This was only the second time I’ve ever collaborated with a writer, and the first time was with Alvin Sergeant, who was a dear friend. He and I are basically the same generation. With Richard, we’re of entirely two different generations. In terms of writing, Richard is far more free-flowing than I am. I’m old school. I know the format, and Richard doesn’t pay much attention to that – to his credit. I got the sense right away that the moments we were going to write were going to be real moments. They weren’t going to be “movie moments.”  During the course of the writing, if I was worried about a particular scene at a particular moment, Richard would say, “We have to earn it. We’ll get there if we can.” It was a nice feeling, also, to work with someone so much younger than me.

Richard:         I deferred to Darryl on anything to do with the military – he served, and I didn’t. My dad served before Darryl – he caught the end of the Korean war in the Navy. I grew up around the Vietnam War, and I’d always wanted to say something about it. It was the war of my lifetime: it was on TV, and I knew a lot of vets. I grew up in a poor section of east Texas, and whenever we talked about what our dads did, the guys I went to school with would say “Oh, my dad was killed in Vietnam. My older brother was killed in Vietnam.” It echoed throughout my life, and it was a wonderful, personal opportunity for me to express something I’d been around, but not personally served in. Darryl served – he was the real-deal guy – but I’m trying to tell a story that means something to me, too. Everyone’s just trying to be honest. I don’t think age matters as long as everyone is trying to be honest and love these characters and tell a story. Nothing else really matters. Like I said, this was my war movie.

Were there any films or shows that were particularly moving or inspiring to either of you while you were writing the film? 

Darryl:            I’ve been asked this question before, and my answer is always that I avoid comparing it to any other movies, because that tends to undercut your originality. Sometimes you’ll see  a film and say, “Oh, man, this reminds me of another movie.” I don’t want that to happen.

Richard:         I don’t really reference. I guess I’ve done this enough – I’ve made twenty movies. In the early days, you tend to say “Okay, here’s the genre I’m in. I’m going to watch these movies, and maybe even do it with the director of photography in my production.” I haven’t done that in years. The more films you make, the more and more in your own little universe, but I think that shows a certain confidence. To be honest, I don’t like most war movies. I don’t even know where LAST FLAG FLYING would fit in the “war movie” genre, but I tend to question some of the bigger motives behind war movies. When I watch war movies, I tend to ask myself “Is there such a thing as an anti-war movie?” Truffaut didn’t think so. I wanted to be conscious of that. So, this is my war movie, but it’s not really a war movie.

Darryl:            It’s a curious thing about war movies and the service. We don’t do anti-war movies – they’re all recruitment. It’s an odd phenomenon: when you shine a light on the experiences of soldiers and veterans, it increases recruitment. I think what usually comes through – it certainly does in LAST FLAG FLYING – is just how strong the sense of duty is. It never goes away, and I think kids respond to that.

Richard:         Well, young people are the ones looking for meaning and attachment, and all those things. That’s why the young person is much more vulnerable to this, and that’s who always fights the wars. It’s a tough subject.

Darryl:            I was of the generation where everybody put a hitch in the service. I grew up in a town with my brother and all of our friends, all did a hitch in the service, and I was in academia and finally it occurred to me that it was my turn. When I left, I was only twenty-four years old, but that made me the old man.

Richard:         By contrast, my generation was the in-between generation – there were no wars. There wasn’t a draft. You had to register, and my generation said, “You know what? No. We’re not even going to let you know where we are.” Then, in the 80s, Reagan was trying to reintroduce the draft because he had some plans for Central America. My dad had served, but he said, “No, you’re not going to go.” Even my mom would say, “If there’s war, you’re not going. I’ll drive you to Canada myself.” There was no more heroism to it. They gave us a war, and no one came. It’s a little-remembered fact from history, but it was a big deal for the military, because they suddenly realized, “Oh, shit – after Vietnam, we can’t just draft the public to come do our little misadventures any longer. We’re going to have to do an all-volunteer, quote-unquote army, which means we’re going to have to spend a fortune recruiting and doing psyche ops to get soldiers to fight our wars, because no one wants to.” It took a generation. Hollywood helped them with films like TOP GUN.

Darryl:          Vietnam exposed everything.

Richard:        It really did.

IV. “I think this story’s time has come.”

The first casualty of war is truth.

LAST FLAG FLYING is Linklater and Ponicsan’s attempt to revive it.

 The importance of truth — and the experience of finding out that the government that we’re supposed to trust implicitly has lied to us — is clearly very important in the film, and it draws such a strong parallel between Vietnam and Iraq. America only started to look at Vietnam with a critical lens years after the war ended. Do you think we’re ready yet to do the same with Iraq?

Richard:         I think it’s already been done. It was happening in real time at the moment, although not quite enough. The New York Times, for instance, kind of promoted the war. Then as soon as it was a disaster, they ran an article saying, “Well, here’s where we got it wrong.” It happened pretty quick, and it was painful to watch the run up to that war and thinking “I’m not even a historian or a pundit, but sitting here, I can tell that Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden hate each other. I know that Iraq isn’t even a threat to Iran, their neighbor. They’re not a threat to anybody, so how can people be buying this?” But then you start to read the papers and listen to the pundits, and you could feel the force for war in our culture: people who dissented were weasels, non-American, non-patriotic. They never apologized in retrospect. No one went back to the Dixie Chicks and said, “You know what? You guys were right. We take it back.” No, no, no, they’re still “un-American”.

Front page of the May 26, 2004 issue of the New York Times, in which the paper issued an apology for their coverage of the Iraq War. (Source: NYTimes)

Darryl:            No one went back to the French and said, “Gee, you know, maybe we shouldn’t have stopped calling them French fries.”

Richard:         You know who has done that? The Brits. The Brits are still having conferences – I just happened to be in England when they had a huge conference where they excoriated [Tony] Blair for how he lied, and for how they got into the wars. They lost around 180 soldiers, and they were angry, and they’re trying to prevent this from ever happening again to be a part of a war that was so needless. That’s something the U.S. would never do. Never. The U.S. just moves on -no war criminals, nothing. That’s a long way of saying that we’re destined to repeat this cycle again, because we have a machinery in place that likes it. That lives by it. That’s how our military functions within our culture.

Darryl:            I think we’re there right now, because we know now that the invasion of Iraq was fueled by arrogance and ego in the White House, and we’ve got a guy sitting there who has an ego second to none, and thin skin, and it has everybody worried. As well it should.

Richard:         It happens when people are in the mood to sacrifice, so we kind-of have to not be in the mood for any Americans to die – or for anyone to die. I hope we’re there now in the culture. I don’t feel any support for North Korea entanglement. Everyone’s just dreading the immaturity of these two people, particularly our guy. That’s what’s really sad.  Usually if you have people like Jimmy Carter, or Barack Obama, or even the Bush’s you think, “Okay, I don’t totally trust you, but I think you’re on the right side of things.” Now, though, my god – it’s so weird to have to watch this.

What do you think people are going to see when they watch LAST FLAG FLYING? What do you thing that they’re going to come away with?

Richard:         It’s hard to say. I hope the film expresses my own ambiguity – Darryl’s too – about our mixed feelings – this love-hate thing we have – about the military. They’re taking advantage of overwhelmingly well-intended, patriotic, good people, and they abuse that power over and over again. That’s why they’re catching soldiers young and a little naïve. They only become aware later on of America’s position in the world and what they’re really doing there. Then they wake up, and that can be pretty tragic, too – they realize how they’ve been used. If anything, I want to jostle that. Then, I can still honor that it meant something to them. Overall, though, my mission for LAST FLAG FLYING was just to honor Sal, Doc and Mueller’s own perspectives on their experience.

Darryl:            That’s an important point, because the attitudes we’re expressing now, are really not expressed in the movie. At one preview I went to, I was struck and really pleased with the feedback that LAST FLAG FLYING straddled the whole political spectrum.

Richard:         I think you bring your own predisposition, your own opinions, your own experience to the film. If you’re anti-war, I think you can see an anti-war movie. If you’re an “Honor the troops, dammit. We’re a good country, and we’ve just made a few mistakes.” type, then I think that totally holds up as well. The characters aren’t really didactic, because this is a character piece. If we had an agenda, it was really very subliminal, or very subtle.

What’s a line of dialogue that you think really represents or embodies what you are trying to say with this film?

Richard:       There’s one bit, about truth — Sal thinks truth is all important, and when they’re talking about the country, there’s the line “This is a good country. But when they lie, it all changes.” Sal’s all about what Darryl was saying – once you’re caught lying to everyone, it changes everything from an institutional perspective. Your relationship to the institution changes.

Darryl:          At the end, when Sal gives Doc the flag at the funeral and says, “Here’s the flag of your country. I don’t know how much the President regrets your loss, but take this and put it somewhere and let it remind you of what your son did.” I find that very moving. It was very moving in the book. It was very moving in the script, and I hope it’s very moving in the movie. I think that the scene where they decide to bury him in his uniform also has some dialogue that starts with, “Remember how it felt the first time you put on a uniform?” I can assure you that every veteran in that audience is going to remember that. I certainly do. When you put on the uniform for the first time, you’re overcome with pride. And there’s a line along the lines of “You know, he didn’t shirk it. He didn’t think it was somebody else’s job. He did it. And that’s what this uniform means.” I think that encapsulates the film for me.

Richard:         Every soldier can say that. Everybody who served can say that.

Follow Darryl Ponicsan (@DarPon) and LAST FLAG FLYING (@LastFlagFlying) on Twitter.

LAST FLAG FLYING will be released in theaters everywhere on November 22.

by Molly Beer

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