The Purple Heart Foundation is proud to announce the premiere of the film ‘Last Flag Flying.’ The film follows a Vietnam Corpsman’s journey with his two Marine friends to take his Iraq war son to his final resting place. We got the chance to talk with the Executive Producer of ‘Last Flag Flying’, Tom Wright, about the film and his life growing up in a military family.
You come from a military background. Can you tell us about who in your family served?
Among those in my family who’ve served are a grandfather, James Irwin Alger, who was severely wounded in France during WWI and an uncle, Philip Ray Kottraba, who signed up for the Marines in his teens and ended up fighting in several key battles of the Pacific theater during WWII. My father, as a young Air Force officer, was an instructor of pilots in San Marcos, Texas, in the 1950s.
Other relatives served honorably in the U.S. Army and National Guard. When my Uncle Phil passed away recently, we found his uniform in a closet. While he had never talked much about the war, the ribbons he had earned spoke volumes – a Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) for extraordinary heroism, and TWO Navy Unit Citations (NUC) for meritorious service, Good Conduct and WWII Victory Medal. He was a corporal in the First Marine Division and I wish I had learned more from him before he passed.
How did your family’s military service shape you as a person and in your work?
Well, for one thing, it was inspiring – a source of fascination, awe and respect. Those in my family who served did so almost exclusively during war-time and they seemed a breed apart. More often though, a ‘military family’ today is comprised of spouses, siblings, parents, and children who routinely make personal sacrifices for our country every day – being in harm’s way or having a loved one there regularly, multiple tours of duty and/or frequent reassignments, years of faithful service followed by retirement and possibly a second civilian career thereafter. Most of all, it carries with it the daunting prospect of perhaps some day joining one of our country’s most hallowed communities: the families of troops killed in combat. The word ‘hero’ is often overused, but to me it applies to those on the battlefield as well as those they leave behind. Personal stories of service to God and country have been a lifelong interest and that’s reflected, I think, in many of the projects I’ve worked on over the years.
They say “It all starts with the script.” How did you know that the script for ‘Last Flag Flying’ was one that you wanted to produce?
In today’s world, I think it’s clear that most Americans do not fully understand the military community’s sacrifice. As a result, a lot of veterans rightly feel that America is disengaged from its wars. With so few doing the work of defending freedom for so many, there now exists a disconnect at the heart of our society that must be addressed and healed. ‘Last Flag Flying’ tells the story of one man’s sacrifice and how he shoulders unbearable loss with the help of two old friends, [who are] also veterans. When I first read Darryl Ponicsan’s book, it was instantly clear this was a story that needed to be told. And once Richard Linklater showed an interest in directing and co-writing the script with Darryl, the film became inevitable. These men are massively talented. Darryl is one of our great storytellers, particularly with regard to military life, having authored ‘The Last Detail’, ‘Cinderella Liberty’ and ‘Taps’, among others. And Richard is simply one of the best film directors working today. His movies speak to what it means to be American and always deal with relationships in a meaningful way. His humanism is profoundly moving. Both men are compassionate and neither shies away from dialogue as a primary means of communication, which is a rarity in today’s cinematic world of video games, super heroes, explosions and computer-generated special effects.
What was the most important lesson learned when producing this film and what did you learn from it?
Watching Rick work with his actors and crew, I was reminded that the best movies happen when there are bonds of trust and respect among collaborators. Sufficient prep time contributes to an ease of process that leads to ultimate success. He has the keen instincts of a four-star general with all the confidence that implies. With Rick, nothing is forced because he knows what he’s doing and he’s ready for anything. He allows for small surprises because he knows what leads to joy in the viewer. His methods encourage the blossoming of wonderful performances by his actors. I’ve never been on a more relaxed set in my life. Amazon Studios wisely gave him the autonomy and unconditional support he needed to make this movie the right way. As an executive producer, in a case like this, the best thing you can do is get out of the way and let the miraculous happen.
Did you have to change your production style for this film?
Simple, sincere, direct and honest – without artifice or pretension – that’s the style ‘Last Flag Flying’ required during its making. These are standards Rick is very comfortable with and aspires to, and the positive results are obvious on-screen. Underlying everything is a sense of humor that is very entertaining. It begins in the clever writing and emanates through the sensitive, masterful performances of our trio of iconic actors – Bryan Cranston, Steve Carrell and Laurence Fishburne.
What kind of audience reactions have you been getting so far?
Excellent, enthusiastic responses. Preview audiences have given us a warm reception, especially veterans and active service members and their families. As you know, those who fought in Vietnam were never welcomed home in a proper manner, never accorded due honors or the thanks and recognition they so richly deserve. This film acknowledges their service and promotes mutual respect across generations. There are things actually happening in the real world right now that amazingly echo events we depict in this film in a visionary way – certainly in its central situation and in nearly the same words we’ve heard on recent news broadcasts – that could never have been predicted.
What are your hopes for the film?
We are hopeful that ‘Last Flag Flying’ provides an opportunity for real healing to take place in our nation. We hope that whatever rifts may exist – culturally, socially and geographically – we might through the telling of this story help to heal the isolation too often felt in military circles and civil society alike. We want to provide an opportunity for viewers to celebrate what makes this country worth fighting for. Ultimately, I believe that ‘Last Flag Flying’ has the potential to generate a much needed public conversation as well as catharsis for our national audience in these tumultuous times.
Thomas Lee Wright began his career as an executive at Paramount Pictures and went on make movies for the next three decades. He has directed documentaries for the Discovery Channel and for Human Rights Watch, among others, including one that tells the story of a ninety-day cross-country bike trip undertaken by an Iraq war veteran to honor his fallen friend. Wright published the first edition of the novel “Last Flag Flying” by legendary writer Darryl Ponicsan, which eventually attracted the attention of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater – an odyssey that has led to the finished movie opening soon in theaters across the country.
To purchase tickets to see ‘Last Flag Flying’ in theaters, please visit http://bit.ly/LFFEmail.
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