Ever since leisurely ambling onto the cinematic scene with his generation-defining 1991 classic Slacker, Richard Linklater has remained one of the most influential and innovative figures in American independent film. A restless creative force frequently driven to push himself into personally uncharted territory, Linklater’s filmography is remarkably diverse: ensembles pieces beloved (Dazed and Confused) and overlooked (Fast Food Nation); dialogue-driven character studies romantic (Before Sunset/Before Sunrise) and claustrophobic (Tape); animated films adored (Waking Life) and alienating (A Scanner Darkly); and big-studio comedies iconic (The School of Rock) and ignored (The Bad News Bears). And now, for his 15th feature film, Linklater has returned to his native Texas to explore yet another genre: darkly comedic true crime.
Bernie is the strange-but-true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a much-beloved assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie was extremely active in the Carthage community, dedicating himself to activities ranging from teaching Sunday school at church to directing school plays. He was especially adored by the older women of the town, and possessed a legendary bedside manner when dealing with grieving widows; he was known to befriend them and continue checking up on them long after the rest of the community had stopped. This is how he met Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a supremely wealthy woman despised in Carthage for her rudeness and arrogance. Bernie somehow got through to her, and the two became constant companions. But when the relationship became mentally and emotionally abusive, Bernie shot Marjorie. Four times. In the back. And put her body in a freezer. Where it remained for nearly a year.
Yet when Bernie was arrested for the crime, the townspeople of Carthage were so unswerving in their devotion to him (and in their utter hatred of Marjorie) that the prosecuting district attorney, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), was ultimately forced to move the trial two counties over to find impartial jurors. This is the only known time in history that such extreme measures had to be taken solely due to a non-celebrity defendant’s likability. It is an extremely fascinating sociological study, as well a vividly insightful portrait of the small-town Texas life with which Linklater (who co-wrote the film with journalist Skip Hollandsworth) is quite fluent. Below, Linklater sits down with Spinning Platters to discuss his relationship with the real-life Bernie, the controversy over his depiction of Marjorie, and how this role is unlike all the other lawyers McConaughey has played.
There are so many different opinions about Bernie in your film. What first drew you to his story?
He’s just such an interesting character. I grew up in East Texas and I felt like I knew people kinda like that. There was something at the core of his relationship with Miss Nugent, and him in general, that is very enigmatic. I’ve gotten to know Bernie. Jack and I visited him in prison, and I’ve visited him since. We talk.
Has he seen the film?
No, I don’t think he’ll be able to either. They don’t really show films in prison. Except Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. [laughs] Talk about murder!
How did you approach the subject of Bernie’s sexuality? In the film it’s presented as the topic of rumors, but Bernie never identifies as gay.
It was a fascinating issue to me because, again, you grow up in these small southern communities where it feels like no one’s really gay. They either move, or they choose to live a closeted life like Bernie. I wanted the film to portray his own perspective. It respects his choice to live like that. I think certainly people who know would know, and people who don’t know will just be like, “Oh, he’s a nice young man.” Sort of like my mother’s and grandmother’s views toward Liberace. [laughs] “He’s such a nice young man!” And it never occurred to them. East Texas is still kinda like that. It’s a little bit like the land that time left behind. So I was fascinated about why he would choose to stay there and live his life there. But there’s comfort in a small town. It’s community, his love of all these people, his life in the church. In the film, I think it’s there pretty obviously, but I wanted to respect how he presented himself. Because if you choose not talk about your politics, your religion, your sexuality – no one will ask you. But if you flaunt it, then you’re engaged. Not that they won’t gossip about you behind your back about all those things.
Have you had a chance to read the New York Times magazine piece (“How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze…”) about your film and Bernie’s story, which was written by Marjorie Nugent’s nephew, Joe Rhodes?
Yeah, I just read that a few days ago! It was pretty fascinating. It made me think, Wow, we were very kind to Marjorie. [laughs] She was worse than we showed her! And I knew that, because we never heard, nor has anyone I know ever heard, one good word about her or her husband, who passed before [she met Bernie]. He was a horrible guy too; everybody hated him. Just these two rich people who were just mean. And again, they didn’t play by the small town rules where you have to acknowledge people. You’re a community. You go to a grocery store and you run into someone you know, you stop and you talk. Like when I visit my mom back in Huntsville, Texas, I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m gonna go run out and pick up your prescriptions. I’ll see you in about 45 minutes.” Because I’m gonna run into someone from high school! And you can’t just say, “Hey, how ya doin?” You really do have to stop and talk. So yeah, that story was pretty great. But again, the movie was Bernie’s perspective of her, which is that she wasn’t as bad as everyone said she was.
How do you feel about her son’s characterization of Marjorie as just very misunderstood? That she was shy in a way that came across as arrogance?
Yeah… [sighs] Too many stories of cruel and dismissive behavior. And maybe she just wasn’t an extrovert. She didn’t enjoy engaging that much. She just liked to sew and be on her own. So I don’t know. Bernie certainly saw something in her. To this day, when he’s asked about her, he’ll say, “Oh, I remember the good times.” She had these qualities, and he feels like he was the only one who could kind of understand her. Which made it more horrific for him, that much tougher to leave, because he felt like he was her only friend in the whole world, the only person who could even remotely tolerate her.
How was the casting process?
I worked with Jack on The School of Rock in ’02-’03. He was probably too young then. This was a film I’d already conceptualized, but the time wasn’t right. Then somewhere a few years ago, I sent it to Jack, because he has that great singing voice. That was very important. Bernie was known as a singer. He actually traveled the world singing with a group; he sang at Carnegie Hall. That’s a really big element of his personality. So I thought Jack really is this nice guy, but there’s also this element I think I share with him where we’re really non-confrontational people, so you kinda smooth over conflicts. Jack’s sorta like that, so he could relate to Bernie in the way. He was intrigued enough that we started down the road to try to get this made. Shirley liked Miss Nugent enough, and I think she wanted to work with Jack. And Matthew kinda did me a favor. He’s from Longview, which is the nearest bigger town to Carthage. I called up Matthew and said, “I’m doing this East Texas movie and you have to be in it! You’re an East Texas actor, I’m an East Texas director…”
And he gets to play a lawyer again.
Yeah, and a DA this time! He finally got to prosecute someone. He was like, “Don’t you know it, every time I play a defense lawyer I’m defending someone I think is guilty, and the one time I play a DA I’m prosecuting someone I think should not punished as harshly as I’m punishing them.” So he can’t win. [laughs]
When you first started conceptualizing the film, did you want it to have this documentary/narrative format?
I always thought that, like in the first draft. It was really when I was reading over the journalistic file that Skip Hollandsworth gave me, reading all the accounts from the townspeople. I was like, “It’s kinda funny what they’re saying.” And I realized there’s no Bernie or Miss Nugent here. They’re both incommunicado. [laughs] So it’s like, in a small town you’re whatever everybody says about you. I had never seen a movie that was so based on that idea. It seemed appropriate for a small southern town that runs on gossip. So I did have that idea to have this be a huge narrative element, but I didn’t want it to seem like a documentary. There’s this drama going on and those are just interjected into the story. I thought that was pretty essential. Some [of the townspeople] are real people and some are actors. Matthew’s mom is one of them, actually. She’s been trying to get into Matthew’s films for years, and he’s always like, “Yeah Mom, I’ll talk to the direct about that,” and she never does. [laughs] So now she’s like, “Someone finally appreciates my talent!”
So you’re wearing a Criterion t-shirt.
It was the least wrinkled of any of my t-shirts. [laughs]
And I was already going to ask you a Criterion question, so this seems like destiny. You have three films on Criterion [his first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, is included as an extra on the Slacker disc; the third is Dazed and Confused]. Is there another film of yours you’d love to see get the Criterion treatment?
It’s kinda arbitrary [what gets released on Criterion]; it’s whatever they can make the deals on. But you know, the only film of mine that isn’t available is SubUrbia from ’96. So they’ve talked about that, but they’ve gotta work out a deal. It’s just business, I guess. I wish everything could be on Blu-ray, but some films just get left behind in history. All those movies that were only on VHS; there are even films that were released on laserdisc that have never been reissued.
On the subject of heightening the film-viewing experience, what is your position on 3D? You’ve been pretty adventurous about experimenting with different styles of filmmaking.
3D is pretty fun when it’s done right. It’s neat to look at. I read one piece that said it doesn’t let you relax into the dream state that you enter for a two-dimensional film because of what your brain has to do to fully process the visual information. That thing where you’ve kinda forgotten your life for the last hour and forty-five minutes, that doesn’t happen in 3D. So I thought that was interesting. I was trying to monitor that for the last couple of 3D movies that I watched; I’m not sure if it’s true. But that said, I would like to work in 3D on the right project. It’s, like, sculptural.
Bernie opens in San Francisco on Friday, March 18.