'Last Flag Flying': Richard Linklater reveals secrets of his touching road-trip movie (plus, exclusive gag reel)

From Dazed and Confused to its spiritual sequel, Everybody Wants Some!!!, Richard Linklater has long been one of America’s finest practitioners of the so-called “hangout movie.” You don’t merely watch a Linklater joint; you kick back, relax and soak it in. And the Austin-based director apparently fosters the same hangout atmosphere on his sets. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment before the release of his latest film, Last Flag Flying, Linklater says that he and the movie’s trio of stars — Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne — took great enjoyment in each other’s company. That enjoyment is on full display in this exclusive gag reel, which Yahoo Entertainment is premiering today, and features the trio merrily joshing with each other. But don’t think these pros couldn’t put their serious faces on when the scene demanded it. “These guys are very funny and smart, but also very dramatic” Linklater says. “So when it was time to get intense and dramatic, they did that, too. We hit a lot of notes in this movie.”

Adapted by Linklater and author Darryl Ponicsan from his 2005 novel, Last Flag Flying tells the story of three Vietnam veterans who embark on an impromptu road trip to bury a young Marine. In book form, the story was a direct sequel to Ponicsan’s debut novel, The Last Detail, which was later brought to the screen by Hal Ashby and featured Jack Nicholson in one of his most famous roles. Echoes of The Last Detail can be glimpsed in the movie version of Last Flag Flying, but Linklater insists that he never set out to continue that story. “It’s no more of a sequel than Silence of the Lambs is a sequel to Manhunter,” he says, emphatically. Instead, Linklater set out to make a road movie in the ramshackle spirit of some of his favorite examples of the genre, most notably Wim Wedners’ double bill of Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road. “When you’re on the road, everything is new and vibrant. Even though this movie isn’t the upper echelons of travel — it’s all crappy train stations and bus stations—it’s still unique and still an experience.”

In its gentle way, Last Flag Flying, which is set in 2003 in the still-early days of the Iraq War, is also a critique of the blind allegiance to the “Support our troops,” slogans bandied about by some politicians and cultural commentators. While the central characters are all proud to have served, they also display a certain amount of cynicism for military pomp and circumstance. And few are more cynical than Cranston’s Sal Nealon, who the actor describes as a proud pot-stirrer. In one scene, Sal directly challenges the military’s official version of events that resulted in the death of the soldier they’re seeking to bury — who also happens to be the son of Carell’s character, Larry Shepard.

Given the tenor of the times, Linklater says it was something of a “minefield” trying to find the right balance between respect and skepticism. “I think the best place to start from is that we all love our country,” he explains. “And I think every citizen is onboard honoring those who bravely signed up and put their lives on the line for the highest ideals of this country. That doesn’t mean you can’t criticize or question the military or bigger decision-making. Because that’s where it all comes from: the bigger decisions that affect everyone’s lives. I wanted to portray life at the bottom of the chain of command, because the enlistees don’t have any power. So you’re left with the legacy of decisions that can often be very political and very wrong.”

Coming off of two very youthful movies — Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!!! — Linklater says that he relished the opportunity to hang out with actors more in his age bracket. “They got all my inside references,” he says, laughing. “When I made a reference to a Saturday morning cartoon from the ’60s, it was something we could all joke about. Whereas when I made those references to the guys in Everybody Wants Some!!!, they had no idea what I was talking about.” And he’ll continue to explore middle age, from a female perspective, with his next movie, Where’d You Go, Bernadette starring Cate Blanchett and Kristen Wiig. “I enjoy the perspective of characters who have had a long stretch of adult experience. That’s what middle age is! When I started working on the script for Last Flag Flying 10 years ago, the characters were older than me. But by the time I got around to making it, we were around the same age.”

Last Flag Flying is currently playing in theaters.

Watch: Bryan Cranston mourns a fallen soldier in Last Flag Flying exclusive clip:

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