Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” is a film about a peculiar man in way over his head. This man is Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), an honest member of the community whose desire to please everyone in the East Texas town of Carthage is his fatal flaw. A mortician whose interests also include musicals, gospel music and largesse, Bernie becomes the man-slave to the wealthy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the lonely town bitch. Pushed to the edge by her demands — and her nasty habit of chewing loudly — Bernie ends up killing the woman and stuffing her body in a freezer in the garage. No one notices, or even cares, because everyone hated Marjorie in the first place.
Linklater based the film on the article about Bernie Tiede entitled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth, published in 1998 by Texas Monthly. An East Texan himself, Linklater is known for his talky, exuberant films “Before Sunrise” (1995) and “Before Sunset” (2004), as well as the gen-X classic “Dazed and Confused” (1993). His diverse repertoire makes it difficult to pin down his auteur style, especially since “Bernie” is so far-removed from these more romantic films. Along with actors like Black, MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey (who plays the prosecuting attorney in the murder case), Linklater includes real-life residents of Carthage to tell this true story.
After “Bernie” screened at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival in April, I spoke about the film with Linklater — an easygoing guy who doesn’t care about craft and just wants to tell a good story.
Daily Californian: Tell me how this film began and how you became fascinated with Bernie’s story.
Richard Linklater: It just so happens it was a story I got obsessed with. Of all the stories floating around, coming at you all day long, what makes you want to make a movie is kind of a mystery. You never know where a story’s going to take you.
DC: You made a lot of gen-X ennui movies in the 90s, some of which carried over into the 2000s (such as “Waking Life”), so I was wondering how that background informed this film.
RL: You so don’t think like that. It’s story to story, what you want to express. This is pretty adult. Bernie’s the youngest in the story, in his late 30s. This truly is a film from the land time forgot. It feels like a period film. Even though Bernie has an iPhone, it could be 1970. Carthage is one of those regions solidly behind the rest of the world in a lot of ways. I never really got with the gen-X thing. I’m glad we’ve moved onto Y or Z or whatever generation we’re on. It’s more interesting.
DC: You’ve done a lot of ensemble pieces and “Bernie” is one such film. How did you approach the different characters?
RL: You cast unique people with unique characteristics. You have to cast your ensemble very carefully for different personalities. It’s like an orchestra. That’s the fun part, really: finding the personality. In movie-making that’s the magical moment, when these lines and these texts meet the person, the actor, and manifest themselves through them and their personality and quirks. Almost all those people in the southern gossip circle are from Carthage. They aren’t professional actors. None of them were playing themselves, though some of them did know Bernie pretty well.
DC: How much of this movie was your interpretation and your creative license and how much was pulled from fact? Tell me about the interesting moments when fact and fiction collide, like the last shot during the end credits when Jack Black meets the real Bernie Tiede.
RL: It’s rare you get to see the person you are making a movie about. [For the last shot] I just grabbed that with my flip camera when we were visiting Bernie in prison. The film is definitely filtered through my own viewpoint but, honestly, it was like a journalistic piece. I really stuck with the public record, the trial, the interviews. Everything really happened. There are no elements in the movie that are fictitious. I wanted it to be his view of the world and the world’s view of him, which is pretty formal. He is a mannered, southern gentleman kind of guy. The issues of sexuality in the film are ambiguous in the way Bernie is. You have to respect people’s privacy.
DC: I see some satire in this film, but I also understand that you definitely respected the characters and wanted to preserve the humanity of their real life counterparts.
RL: I’m a [Carthage] homeboy. These are my people. I’m from East Texas. Southerners are sensitive to being portrayed in the media as a bunch of rednecks. They certainly are but what the media always misses is the humanity and the friendliness. Texas is a tough place. But in this case, the people in Carthage didn’t want this guy prosecuted because they liked him. There’s something human about that.
DC: Is there a difference in the way you approached this film versus your previous films, which often feature hyper-intellectual, urban characters?
RL: Not really. You’re kind of stuck with your own skill set and sensibility. I would like to approach things differently but you’re just stuck with yourself. Each movie I do, even though they look different, I have a very similar experience. It’s the same process but you are trying to tell the story the way it wants to be told. It’s this organic, not-always-rational process of feeling your way through.