Bernie director Richard Linklater on the delicate art of the true-crime dark comedy

Bernie director Richard Linklater on the delicate art of the true-crime dark comedy

Along with movies like sex, lies, and videotape and Clerks, Richard Linklater’s 1991 breakthrough Slacker was a watershed moment in independent cinema, a movie by fringe-dwellers about fringe-dwellers, far outside the Hollywood system. A Texas native, Linklater chooses to stay in Austin, in spite of his occasional forays into studio filmmaking, and his Texas roots have defined him nearly as much as his creative eclecticism. Linklater’s filmography reveals a willingness to work at varying budget levels and multiple formats, and to experiment with live-action, animation, and different ways of telling stories. From the philosophical inventories of Slacker and 2001’s rotoscoped Waking Life to the dusk-to-dawn drama of 1995’s Before Sunrise and 1996’s subUrbia to innovative adaptations like 2006’s A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation to studio fare like 1998’s The Newton Boys, 2003’s The School Of Rock, and the 2005 Bad News Bears remake, Linklater has pivoted through an impressive range of projects. 

Based on Skip Hollandsworth’s January 1998 article “Midnight In The Garden Of East Texas,” Linklater’s new dark comedy, Bernie, follows a peculiar case of small-town murder. In Carthage, Texas a year earlier, authorities found the body of Marjorie Nugent, an 81-year-old millionaire widow, crammed in a freezer on her property almost nine months after people began looking for her. The confessed killer was her 39-year-old companion, Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director who befriended Nugent after her husband’s death, gained control over her finances, and eventually became the sole benefactor of her will. For district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, it was an open-and-shut case of embezzlement and murder, but to his surprise (and Hollandsworth’s), Carthage residents were sympathetic to Bernie, who had been generous with his time and (Marjorie’s) money, while Marjorie was seen as condescending or much, much worse. Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey play Bernie, Marjorie, and Danny Buck, respectively, but the other major star of the film is the town, represented mock-documentary style by the many Carthage gossips who provide context for this stranger-than-fiction tale. Linklater recently talked to The A.V. Club about attending Bernie’s murder trial, finding the right tone, and dealing with the controversy in Carthage. 

The A.V. Club: Skip Hollandsworth’s article begins with the scene where Danny Buck hears some Carthage residents express sympathy for Bernie, and he has to remind them that Bernie actually confessed to the crime. How much does the film align with Danny’s perspective?

Richard Linklater: It’s a fine line. Danny’s sort of the voice of reason, in a way, and there is this bubble of Bernie adoration, his popularity and all the good he’s done for people. It just proves that life is a lot like high school. If you’re popular, you get away with stuff, and if people don’t like you, you’re kind of screwed no matter what happens. Reason eventually wins out, but that’s the contradiction [of this story]. This is a conservative small town in Texas, where they lock the door and throw away the key. We have a huge prison system. Prison is just packed with people for much smaller crimes. Reading that article [when it was published], the trial hadn’t happened yet. It looked like [Bernie] was going to either get off lightly, or maybe we’re not sure to what degree he’s going to be punished at all.

AVC: Moving the trial to a different site probably helped a little bit. 

RL: It didn’t help a little bit. It was the key factor in the whole thing.

AVC: You were there for the trial. What was that scene like? 

RL: A lot like the movie itself. That was the jury: There was just not a whiff of sympathy for Bernie at all. Our criminal justice system is a pretty arbitrary thing, based on emotions, so Danny Buck was able to take advantage of that once he moved the trial—which by the way, no one’s ever heard of. I’ve followed this case for 12 or 13 years now, and I’ve asked every DA, lawyer, judge, everyone I come across, and nobody has ever heard of a trial being moved because the defendant was too well-liked. So that’s pretty strange. And also, the judge disallowed Bernie’s psychiatrist, who was going to testify to his disassociation. By the time they got to this other town where Bernie is completely unknown and the defense had no witnesses [to testify about] his disassociation, i.e. temporary insanity, he was just screwed. There was not a damn thing he could do. 

Danny Buck was able to show some really damning documentary evidence of how Ms. Nugent looked after she died. Here we have a confessed murderer. They were just staring at him like, “We would just love to give you the death penalty. You’re other. We don’t know you. We don’t like you. You seem like an elitist, fancy first-class flying New York guy who can pronounce Les Miserables.” It was true. That all really happened. I couldn’t make that up. And Danny Buck played it kind of brilliantly, I have to say, [by mispronouncing it as “Less Miserables”]. So part of me has this respect for his ploy, his game. And I asked him years later. I said, “So, ‘Less Miserables.’ Did you make that up?” And he really gave me a big expression, like, “Hey, did you like that one?” He’s a performer. 

AVC: How was your collaboration with Hollandsworth on the screenplay? How did that process work?

RL: It was great. It was great just getting all his journalistic notes, a big file of everything, and then spending time with him talking about the characters, the story, and all that. It was an ongoing process. I wanted him involved. 

AVC: How did you come upon the idea of using testimonials? 

RL: That came out of looking at all of Skip’s notes, this big file, and I was kind of laughing at all the interviews with local people, and it just reminded me so much of being in a small town. Growing up in a town like that, how you’re defined by gossips and they ultimately do tell the story of your life. Ms. Nugent’s not there, Bernie’s in prison. It’s all anyone’s talking about, except the main people. So I said “I’ve never seen a movie really pull through the viewpoint of a town”—in this case, town gossips in a place where everyone knows each other’s business. That was always going to be a major element of the storytelling.

AVC: With Bernie in jail and Marjorie dead, was imagining the nature of their relationship the hardest part of writing this script? 

RL: I guess so, but even that was pretty public-record. Most of the things we’re showing were things Bernie talked about, or that were pretty well-known. Even the biggest events, like her closing the gate on him [trapping him on her property]. That all was part of the record also. It didn’t feel like we had to make up too much, really. Little specifics, maybe, but within the bigger structure—like when they met, what their relationship was like—all that was out in public. They traveled to cultural events. They traveled together. He sang in church. I felt I had a lot of knowledge of their life together, and her relationship with her family and all that. Jack and I met Bernie before we started shooting, and we got know more talking to him, too. That was the final little dial-in moment for the movie, particularly for Jack as a character.

AVC: When you talked to Bernie, what kind of insight did that give you in terms of the authenticity of his feelings for Marjorie?

RL: That was very telling, because he doesn’t really say anything bad about her. He really likes the time they had, and he remembers the good times they had. He admits she had this part of her that wanted to possess him. She would send him literally 90 to 100 little messages a day, and she kind of drove him crazy. I really believe that. He talks about that. How he did feel imprisoned. He just snapped.

AVC: Was it difficult to settle on the right tone for this movie? It’s a very funny movie, but this is a murder that happened in a town where murders don’t happen very often.

RL: It’s all about tone. There’s a much campier version of this movie easily had. If this was a Broadway musical, I would camp that up a whole lot more for comic effect, probably. This felt realistic. I wanted to do a straight, realistic version because I knew the facts on the ground were so bizarre that just to play it straight would be enough. When you study the great black comedies, like Dr. Strangelove or something, the straighter you play it, the better it can work. Not that this is at all like that. 

AVC: What sort of films did you have in mind when making this? Were there any influences or templates you were trying to follow?

RL: There wasn’t one film I went and looked at again. There’s The Loved One that Tony Richardson filmed from the ’60s, about the funeral industry, but that’s really kind of out there. The tone of that isn’t the right tone for Bernie. You have to apply your own sensibility, I guess.

AVC: Did this feel a little like The Newton Boys? It seems like out of all your films, maybe that’s the closest in terms of its attitude about lawlessness.

RL: That’s not a bad example, actually. I hadn’t really thought of that. What does it mean? It’s all in the perception. They [the Newton boys] felt completely justified in their crimes, mainly because they weren’t hurting anyone. Here, [Bernie] really does hurt someone. But people are going to give him a break because they like him.

AVC: It’s hard to imagine anyone but Jack Black in this role. 

RL: When I first [conceived the project], I didn’t know Jack. This preceded our working together on School Of Rock back in ’02, ’03, so it was some time after that that I started thinking of Jack. He was too young then anyway. So that was probably one of the reasons the movie didn’t gel back then. One of the reasons. I didn’t really have the right cast, and the script was weird. The element of gossip just looked strange on the page. No one really trusted that.

AVC: You had tried to get it made through other people?

RL: I did. And [the reaction] was “Eh, it’s just not really a movie.” I think that one element [the gossips] was hard for people to wrap their head around, even up until the finished film. I was always like, “It’s going to be funny, you see? You’re going to get to know these people, and it’s like you’re living in the town. It’ll be a person, and not just a word on a page. It’ll bring it to life. That’s what films do.” But every film, you’re just starting all over. It’s like you’re a first-time filmmaker with no track record. That’s what it feels like.

AVC: Is it still as hard now to get something done as it was earlier in your career?

RL: Harder. Much harder. Well, every filmmaker would say that. It’s just a different landscape. Ten years ago, [Bernie] would have been a small studio film, probably. One of those $12 million, $15 million studio comedies or something. But in today’s landscape, it becomes a completely off-the-grid, independent film financed outside the industry. We had a 22-day shooting schedule, despite the cast. Everybody worked for nothing. If you’re going to do anything out of the ordinary right now, you’re going to do it on your own.

AVC: Did the film take on a different form once Jack Black came on board? Did that open up other possibilities that weren’t there from the beginning?

RL: Well, it certainly got the ball rolling as far as it becoming a real film. I think once I could say I had Jack and then Matthew [McConaughey] and Shirley [MacLaine], people have take that seriously. Suddenly the script gets better. [Laughs.]

AVC: How did you get Shirley MacLaine involved in it?

RL: I just called up her agent and started talking about it. Every actor, no matter how legendary, no matter how Oscar-winning, is looking for a good part. So I hoped she would see this as a fun part she could play. It was a few weeks’ work. Work with Jack. Do something. I was lucky she responded to it. What Shirley particularly liked—and I think what kind of lured her in—was the way [Bernie] saw [Marjorie] after she was dead as if she was still around. And [MacLaine] goes, “Because that’s how I’m going to be. Even after I’m gone, I’m still going to be around.” She’s funny.

AVC: What kind of reception has the film gotten in Carthage? Was there any trouble shooting there?

RL: It was controversial, as you would expect. First off, the town hasn’t seen it yet. We haven’t shown it there. We had a screening in Austin that a lot of people [from Carthage] came to, and they all loved it. I think because the thing in small-town America, especially in the South, they’re worried about Hollywood coming in and making them look like a bunch of hicks, and rightly so. They would say they’re the last group you can openly discriminate against—the redneck, the Southern redneck. You can make fun of them and everyone agrees. And hey, I’m a local. I grew up just down the road. I’m from East Texas, and Matthew’s from Longview, which is just one town over. And one of our producers is from Paris, Texas, just a little more north, so we’re kind of local guys. If you look at all my films, I don’t think I make fun of people. I try not to. I find humor there, but I don’t think it’s cheap. Though while we where shooting in that town, there was one church sign [that caught our attention]. Churches have signs in front that say inspirational things, and the sign across the street said, “Murder is dark but not comedy.” I was like, “Ooh, welcome to town.”

AVC: Has the real Danny Buck been somewhat critical of the film?

RL: No, no, he saw the film. He liked it. He came up to me and said, “You’ll be fine in Carthage.” He looked in and said I don’t know about St. Augustine, though, which is the town they moved the trial to. I don’t know about St. Augustine, because they’re the hick town in the movie. They’re the ones where Carthage looks down and says “That’s the little rural town.” People don’t understand that no matter what you think is the small hick town, there’s one smaller, that everyone can go, “Okay, those are the backward people.” So I was doing a riff on that.

AVC: You mentioned that the film was shot very quickly over 22 days. What kind of problems did that create for you?

RL: On one hand, you’re lucky to get to do the movie, so you want to feel grateful for that. On the other hand, when you show up, you’re already a half-day behind, because you have so much work to do that day. But Jack liked it. He says “I’m singing two songs in the morning, and in the afternoon, I’m playing out this whole scene.” It’s a lot of work, but he seemed energized by it. The actors make it okay. It’s a lot of work, but it’s kind of a sprint, so that’s okay. Ten years ago, I would have been more stressed-out, but now I’ve internalized this process so much, I know what I’m doing. 

AVC: As someone who has worked on film and in digital, do you have any thoughts about the rise of digital over 35mm, both in terms of production and exhibition? 

RL: I’m more and more excited about it, in terms of distribution especially. When you see projectors break down and dim bulbs and reels out of order and scratches and poor sound quality… you’re more likely to get better image quality and sound via digital production. I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever been a purist. I was shooting digital in 1999 on a couple movies [Tape and Waking Life]. But for certain movies, like the one I did before this, Me And Orson Welles, it did cross my mind to shoot digital. And I was like, “No, it’s a 35mm widescreen. That’s just the texture and the tone.” I don’t get too precious about it, really. There are no absolutes out here. There’s another film I might be making in the future, and I thought, “Why don’t we shoot that on Super 16 and do it digitally?” Technology’s great, because it just gives you more possibilities. I think all the advances are good, but I think there’s a real possibility for digital projection and delivery once you don’t have to make up the film and spend those hours plattering the film. And then it becomes easier to show films, too. Thinking from a film-society perspective [Linklater founded the Austin Film Society. —ed.], you can share movies easier or get audiences into theaters. There’s an upside. I’ll always be nostalgic for prints, and those aren’t totally going away, or they will very slowly.