Of their five films as composer and director, fellow Austin-ites Graham Reynolds and Richard Linklater have journeyed together through any number of genres, among them the romantic drama of “Before Midnight,” “A Scanner Darkly’s” cerebral sci-fi, “Bernie’s” quirkily grave comedy and a girl’s globe-trotting search for her mother in the forthcoming “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” What unites each moviemaking venture beyond these collaborators’ mutual, alt. music-friendly home is how they’ve shined a distinctive light on relationships with all of the eccentricity, marital burn-out and head trippiness they might entail.
Perhaps no distinctive film from Reynolds and Linklater might be as relatable to an audience of a certain political, or moviegoing age in our polarized nation as “Last Flag Flying.” It’s been 44 years since we meet the hellraising trio of Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), Mulhall (Otis Young) and Meadows (Randy Quaid), two Navy MP’s and the prisoner they escorted to the slammer, but not before giving him a blow out sex and booze time before hitting the brig. As directed by Hal Ashby from Darryl Ponsican’s novel, the Oscar-nominated film stands as a counter-culture classic about men equally trapped by and rebelling against the military system. Now reunited by the same author, but under the different names of Sal (Bryan Cranston), Reverend Richard (Laurence Fisburne) and Larry, these grumpy old salts give the finger to military decorum in service to Larry’s son, a casualty of Iraq. Shanghaiing his casket from the forces’ preferred internment place at Arlington Cemetery, the trio becomes a personal escort to take the slain youth for his final rest in Larry’s New Hampshire hometown.
Along the incident-filled way to Larry’s old digs, comedic bickering and heartfelt emotion ensue, fueled by a distinctively thematic score that’s also the closest to musical home for Reynolds. With movie composing one of his many gigs, Reynolds is even more frequently on the stage with The Golden Arm Trio, The Golden Hornet Project (a composer laboratory for the 21st century) and any number of theater and dance works (including a new opera about Mexican neighbor Pancho Villa), “Last Flag Flying” is Reynolds’ heartfelt salute to the kind of 70’s guitar and organ grooves that these men listened to, and likely haven’t stopped to since their first politically incorrect misadventure. Here Reynolds gives that melodic style humor, energy understandable melancholy, as joined by piano and atmospheric synths to remind the men of the sad, honorable purpose of their venture, a musical destination also abetted by military timpani.
Through its understated journey, you can feel how “Last Flag Flying” comes from Reynolds’ heart, yielding his most memorable theme yet that singularly drives the score for these codgers who aren’t going to go gently into the night. Particularly striking about Reynolds’ old-school rock waving is just how well it captures the spirit of Tom Petty in its southern rock instrumentation – a rock god’s passing that now gives extra, moving resonance to Reynolds’ score for another perceptive road trip into the human condition by Linklater, their tank never running dry.
As “Last Flag Flying” is the sequel to “The Last Detail,” did you go back and watch the original film before starting this one?
Yeah. I read both of Darryl Ponsican’s books, and watched Hal Ashby’s film. I just wanted to be informed by them. There’s also just a touch of a nod to Johnny Mandel’s score as well, which had a lot of military-style drums and horns. The main three characters have different names in “Last Flag Flying” than they did in “The Last Detail,” so this film wasn’t meant to be a direct sequel. But at the same time you can see the connections.
How do you think these men have changed since “The Last Detail?”
The most overt change is in Laurence Fishburne’s character of Richard Mueller, who’s now a reverend. They were mischief causing bad boys in the first film, but now he’s turned his life around in a deep way. Sal and Larry are deeply attached to their pasts, and are continuing from where we left them in the first film. So it’s them meeting in the middle – the two that are more dedicated to their past find a way to move forward into the future, and Richard finds a way to reconnect with his previous self. That gave a couple of different palates to the score. One is meant to reference the songs that these guys would like and agree on – music that’s guitar and drum based. It’s super Tom Petty influenced. I was also listening to a lot of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Band. Then we end up moving up a little later to listening to Bruce Springsteen and most importantly Tom Petty.
How did your relationship with Richard work on this film? Or is it a shorthand thing by this point where you just go off, do your thing and come back with a score?
Each film we’ve done is different. Some are easier, and some are harder. For “Last Flag Flying,” we talked about a more intimate score at first that would use acoustic guitars. But that wasn’t really quite working, so we needed to adjust. I didn’t know if we’d be starting again with new material or developing what we had. It ended up being that, and adding more layers to it. When my scoring schedule works out, I try to start each morning in my studio by listening to a track to be inspired by for the rest of the day. So one morning on “Last Flag Flying” Richard and I listened to a Tom Petty song, and it was like “That’s what we need to do to these tracks.” So we took sketches that were more acoustic guitar-based, and then we layered on bass, drums, the organ and other elements that made the music a full band thing. It transformed the score and made it much more relatable to these characters, and just fit the world more effectively.
All of Richard’s movies are about relationships. How do you think “Last Flag Flying” carries on that thematic thread?
It’s a buddy movie of sorts, as they haven’t seen each other for decades. So it’s about the complexity of these deeply bonded relationships that have grown far apart, and where they go when you reunite. That’s the central thread of this movie.
There’s essentially one theme in “Last Flag Standing.” Why not create three separate ones for the characters?
As distinct as the three characters are, the core of the movie is their bond. So that theme represents that bond. It never felt like “Ok Bryan Cranston’s on the screen, so we need the high-energy music! Now Steve Carell’s on the screen, so let’s have something quiet and shyer. Or now Laurence is on the screen. He’s a preacher, so let’s have religious music!” The score’s about their singular relationship, so that’s where the music went.
Yet it also reflects their distinct personalities within the one theme.
Sure. You take that musical core and adapt it to the different scenes. If it’s a higher energy thing, like when they set off on their adventure, then the music goes with them. But what’s changed is that the more intimate, delicate music that plays with them in a way that I don’t think you would’ve heard back when they were young.
There have been mournful movies made about escorting the war dead, like “Taking Chance” and “The Messenger” Yet these aren’t exactly inward characters like those movies had. How important was it for your score to create that sense of playful ribbing between these guys, as opposed to music that would have been just solemn and potentially depressing?
It’s important, because all three actors are amazing, and they’re also very funny. Even though the movie’s dealing with a tragic subject, you need permission to enjoy them and be able to laugh at the film without disrespecting its tragic elements. So it was trying to find that right balance of levity combined with the seriousness that was also needed.
How did you also want to play the emotion in a stripped down way that defines Richard’s subtle style?
Dealing with how much emotional information that the music needed to carry here was also a big question about this score. We had some delicate music under dialogue in a way that we often don’t have when we work together. So we stepped very lightly and didn’t hit things too hard. That gave us a little bit of support for what was happening without the music screaming “You must be sad now!” or “You must be happy now!”
Do you know any military families who’ve lost someone overseas?
No one comes to mind, but my dad was in the military during Vietnam, though he was stationed in Germany. He’s the demographic that these characters are from. So when I’m wondering “Will the guys like this music?” I’m also thinking, “Will my dad like this music?”
Is there anything you notice about guys from that generation?
I think the war of course lingers more for people who were in Vietnam. But being in the army was a huge deal for my dad, even if he didn’t go there.
How do you think your score fits the “road trip” aspect of “Last Flag Flying?”
When you go on a road trip, music sounds and feels different. Once you get on a highway, you experience this freedom where there’s a lot of driving music, a lot country and rock music. It’s not super fast, or super slow, but steady as she goes. That makes it a real pleasure to sit inside of while your car. And then when you’re driving at night you just hear that music is so much more detail. Being in your car is just a different kind of listening. So for their driving in “Last Flag Flying,” we tried to have music that sat in that “feel good” place, that feeling of being on a road trip.
There are some cool, dreamy sampled atmospheres to the score as well.
Yeah. That’s a totally different palate from the Tom Petty-influenced thing. It’s delicate for the dialogue to sit on top of. Sometimes it’s tricky to have two different palates like that in a movie, but I tried to loosely tie them musically and thematically a bit.
“Last Flag Flying” is a relatively brief, but impactful score. Do you think movies in general need a lot of score?
I think Richard’s movies play well with no music. There’s so much about character, dialogue, relationships and conversations in them, so I need to step lightly to help frame and support Richard’s vision without getting in the way of what his films are already doing. “A Scanner Darkly” had a lot of music and “Bernie” had a fair amount of music. So when there’s a heightened element, like the animation for “Scanner” or the comedy for “Bernie,” then I think his films can work with more music. But in movies like “Before Midnight” and “Last Flag Flying,” I don’t want to overstep. It’s a delicate touch kind of thing.
Tell me about your opera about Pancho Villa that you’ve been performing?
It came from a commission out of West Texas, which I was doing a musical portrait of. It’s a huge part of the United States, but super sparsely populated. The first piece was a country and western big band piece. The second drove the audience out to the middle of the desert to hear a live score from sunset to moonrise. The director and I wanted an operatic figure from West Texas, for the third, and we and ended up in a hotel in El Paso where it turned out Pancho Villa had lived in during the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. He immediately became the obvious, most operatic figure we’d found in West Texas, and we latched onto that for “Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance.”
As an Austin resident, do you think there’s a “Texas” thing that goes through most of what you do?
Yeah. I think Texas is such a distinct place. And even in Austin, which is culturally different from the rest of the state, there’s still a huge stamp of Texas on it. For “Pancho Villa,” I dove into country influences quite a bit, but hesitated to dive too much into Tejano or Mexican-American influences for fear of cultural appropriation. Yet I live four hours from Mexico. You drive straight and you’re there. The Tejano population is obviously a huge part of the state. So I finally decided to artistically engage and start that musical dialogue. We ended up with a lot of Mexican and Mexican-American artists who collaborated on the opera. It’s been an exciting world to explore and I’m glad I finally started to engage in that conversation.
As intimate as your collaborations with Richard mostly are, would you ever want to venture together into a Hollywood blockbuster like a “Transformers” movie?
I think it’d be super fun. I’d love to see what Richard would do with a big blockbuster summer kind of movie. He dove a little into that with “School of Rock” and “Bad News Bears.” So he’s got his personal films, and then he’s got his studio pictures. I’d love to see a “Transformers movie by Richard Linklater. It’s a pretty fun thought!
Do you think there’s a direct relation between Richard Linklater and Hal Ashby in terms of their filmmaking styles?
I love both of their work. I would’ve necessarily drawn the line between Richard and Hal’s movies like “Shampoo” and “Being There.” without working on this project. But now I see that line, it made it even more exciting to score a movie that touched on both of their voices.
“Last Flag Flying” is the oldest-skewing film that Richard has made. How do you think it’s going to appeal to his hip, indie crowd, as well as fans of “The Last Detail” who’d want to see these characters’ continuing adventures?
I’m really curious to see how “Last Flag Flying” is received. It has a huge potential to speak to a wide range of people because Richard’s a very sophisticated director. He doesn’t answer the questions for you. These are all working class military guys who are positively portrayed. At the same time they’re often questioning the military, especially its leadership. So “Last Flag Flying” is both patriotic and pro-military, but also questioning the army. Given the polarized state this country is in, this has the potential to be appreciated by both sides of the political spectrum. And I’m curious to see if that will be the case.
“Last Flag Flying” opens on November 3rd, with Graham Reynolds’ score available on Amazon Music HERE
Find out about a performance of “Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance” HERE
Visit Graham Reynolds’ website HERE