"If it was an hour, we could walk in the park!" And what a perfectly Richard Linklater-esque thing for Richard Linklater to say when I enter a Manhattan hotel room for a short conversation surrounding his latest film, Last Flag Flying. Throughout his work and public persona, the 57-year-old director and indie-scene legend almost constantly projects an unhurried vibe, even as he's kept a fairly prolific reputation as a filmmaker. To him, something possessing the potential for drudgery such as a press junket is, well, a walk in the park.
Last Flag Flying is far from it, though; a practical 180 from last year's bro-y and wonderfully fun Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater's latest follows three Vietnam war vets on an impromptu road trip to bury the son of Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell). The somber, muted film still bears Linklater's ramshackle stamp and humanistic approach, but the grief and regret streaked throughout its framework is impossible to ignore and even harder not to be affected by.
The film's adapted from the Darryl Ponicscan novel of the same name from 2005, and also stands as an unofficial sequel to The Last Detail, Ponicscan's 1970 novel that was adapted into a film by Hal Ashby in 1973. "I just loved those characters," Linklater says about why he took this particular project on. "What happens to people 10, 20, 30 years after [war] resonated with me."
We talked about the film's political message, and what it was like working with Alex Jones in the 2000s. (Really.)
VICE: Last Flag Flying is political, but in the way that daily life in America is political.
Richard Linklater: Could there be anything more political than war? It's political. These are big decisions. They affect people's lives. With that, patriotism is nearby—who loves their country and who doesn't. Who owns that? You just have such mixed feelings about these engagements—you do the math, not a good track record in my lifetime. We have World War II hovering over us—that kind of made sense, but since then? I'm watching Ken Burns's The Vietnam War, and you see these calculated political decisions—Nixon and Kissinger being like, "Okay, this all sucks—but to get real, seven more years, thirty more thousand Americans, probably a million more vietnamese." These are families—loved ones—being killed. You see just how political it is, so you can't get anywhere near this and not be political.
My politics are as mixed as anybody else's. My dad was in the Navy and he caught the end of the Korean war. You come out of a big institution like that, there's a love/hate thing, and they've earned the love/hate. I never trust people who haven't served but love the military. It's like, Really? The military should be like a great insurance policy— not our elite football team. If we're too gung-ho, you run into war so quickly. There's a saying, "You can love the vet and not love the war." That's fair. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Love the soldier, hate the war.
Your last two films were very much about forward motion and growth, but Last Flag Flying has these moments where the characters are lost in the past and trapped in their own thoughts.
Middle age can do that to you, particularly if things haven't gone well. These guys have made choices that involve self-medicating or deluding themselves—whatever someone has to do in their own psyche to get through life, which we all do. We deal with our past—our mistakes, whatever life has thrown at us—and we just move on.
But to see that in contrast to others who you went through that with—it's a deep bond to go through something like war with those people near you. When you're there, you're just there for each other. Fuck the generals, fuck the President, we're going to survive, we've got each other's back. That's a deep bond, like teammates, and thirty years from now they'll still have those same relationships, but they'll be very different people. I was interested in that thirty-year gap. Everybody Wants Some!! really was me looking back at that moment in a young life, at a different age, which is a deep subject. Who you were then? Who you are now? Are you still the same person? What's your relationship like with each other, and with yourself? Are you okay with it?
I really like the scene where they buy cell phones in the middle of the night. It's a necessary breathing point for the film.
I was kind of thinking of it like, "This will be really funny if you're too young." There's a moment where you just want to scream, These are the last three guys who you'd want to see buy cell phones. Guys from [the Vietnam era] could still be like 'What's this?" At that point, rap had been around for 20 years to some degree, but they're still kind of not sure about that too.
Alex Jones was in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly . Obviously, a lot's changed since then. When's the last time that you spoke to him?
[Laughs] Alex was just this guy on public access TV. I liked his energy, but he was kind of a joke. I got to know him a little bit because he was in Waking Life and Scanner, doing some weird version of himself in both cases. He's not really an actor, so I haven't really talked to him since the Obama years. I guess there's a part of me now that's surprised, because he never seemed like that to me. I can't say he's not a good manipulator. I can't say I've really known him these years. Really bizarre.
When did you first meet him?
On Waking Life. He came in, had seen my movie Slacker, we started talking about a part, so I worked up a little part for him. He was more fun when it was the Bush era, put it like that. [Laughs] When he was anti-that, I was like, "Yeah!" and then I was like, "Oh, you're just anti-everybody." But then he's pro-somebody for the first time, which is like, "Big choice, Alex." We'll see how it shakes out long-term. I haven't spoken to him in years though.
I don't blame you.
Yeah, no, he's a total—he's doing pretty well for himself, though. You can't say he's not a self-made capitalist. Did you see that John Oliver bit on him? Someone told me about that and I finally looked it up, and I was like, "Oh my God." You gotta keep yourself employed. You're the one bracing for the attack, instead of the one giving the attack. It's how to play defense, but it's more fun to play offense.