Bernie director Richard Linklater (left) with Jack Black
Richard Linklater’s latest film, Bernie, has been making its festival rounds and has been getting plenty of attention — but it isn’t necessarily cut from the same cloth as other Linklater favorites such as School of Rock or Dazed and Confused.
The dark comedy is based on a Texas Monthly article about the real-life relationship between Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent in the rural town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie was one of the town’s most beloved residents while Marjorie was a rich widow that everyone despised. Although complete opposites, the two were basically best friends. After years of friendship, the people of Carthage noticed that they hadn’t seen Marjorie in a while. It turns out that she had been dead for months, and Bernie was charged with the murder.
We recently had the opportunity to talk with director Richard Linklater about working with Jack Black, casting Matthew McConaughey‘s mom, and the gay assumptions about Bernie Tiede as portrayed in the film.
AfterElton also received an exclusive clip from the film, which can be found at the end of this interview.
Jack Black as Bernie Tiede
After Elton: What was it that captivated you about Bernie Tiede and why did you decide to make a film about him?
Richard Linklater: He is such an interesting character. I grew up in East Texas and I felt I knew the people kind of like that, but there was something about him that is very enigmatic. I’ve gotten to know Bernie. Jack (Black) and I have visited him in prison, and I’ve visited him since.
AE: Has Tiede seen the film?
RL: No. I don’t think he will be able to either. They don’t really show films in prison — except Mel Gibson’s The Passion. But that’s the only film, for 14 years, where they sat them all down and said “you must see this!”
AE: How did you approach the gay assumptions surrounding Bernie? Did you think that was a touchy issue, or did you think it was an issue at all?
RL: To me, it was a fascinating issue. When you grow up in these small Southern communities, it’s like no one is really gay. It’s like he was choosing to live this closeted life, but I wanted the film to portray his own perspective. Certainly, I think those people know who would know… then people who don’t know could say, “Oh, he’s a nice young man, I’m sure he’ll meet a nice woman one day.”
He was kind of my mother and grandmother’s view toward like Liberace or something. East Texans are still kind of like that. It’s still kind of the land that time left behind. So I was just fascinated why he would choose to stay there and live.
But there’s comfort in a small town. There’s community, his love of all those people, his life in the church and all that. You know, if you choose not to talk about your religion, your sexuality, or your politics no one will ask you. But if you want to flaunt it then you are engaged — but that doesn’t mean they won’t gossip about you behind your back about all those things. (laughs)
Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in a scene from Bernie
AE: How did the casting of Jack Black come about?
RL: I worked with Jack in ‘02-03, and he was probably too young then — this was a film I’d already conceptualized and had the script, but the time wasn’t right. I think sometime a few years ago, I just sent [the script] to Jack and thought that Jack has this great singing voice.
AE: That seems to be a big part of Bernie.
RL: Yeah it was very important. Bernie’s known as a singer. He travelled the world singing. That’s really a big element of his personality. I also thought Bernie has an element to him where he is a non-confrontational person that can smooth over conflicts. And Jack is sort of like that. He could relate to Bernie in a lot of ways. He was just intrigued enough that we started to try to get this made.
Matthew (McConaughey) did me a favor. He’s from Longview, which is probably the nearest town to Carthage. I called him up and said, “I have this East Texas movie and you HAVE to be in it!”
AE: Did you always want to film Bernie in a narrative/documentary format?
RL: I always thought like that in the first draft. A lot of it came from reading Skip Hollandsworth’s journalistic files — reading all the accounts of all the townspeople. In a small town you are what everybody says about you. It seemed appropriate for small southern town “gossip.” I did have that idea to just have that be a huge narrative element, but other than that, I didn’t want it to seem like a documentary.
There’s this drama going on, and the (townspeople’s accounts) are just interjected into the story. I thought that was pretty essential.