Richard Linklater was in a jovial mood at the after party for “Bernie,” his new black comedy that opened the L.A. Film Festival on Thursday. The movie, a mockumentary in the vein of Christopher Guest, stars Jack Black as a cheery mortician who raises the suspicions of a small Texas town. Following its first public screening, reactions from the audience were widely positive. Stepping away from the crowd for a brief chat with indieWIRE, Linklater opened up about his inspiration for the new project and why – unlike longtime friend Steven Soderbergh – he has no plans to retire.
You have certainly done your state proud with this one.
This is such a Texas movie–very specifically East Texas, too. It’s very overtly Texas.
A big part of the movie revolves around interviews with local people who knew Bernie. Why did you decide to adopt the mockumentary structure?
It’s all scripted, but a lot of those people are the real people from that town. The idea came from this story I read by Skip Hollandsworth [in Texas Monthly], and so much of it was just interviews. It hit me that Bernie’s in prison and unable to talk, so a lot of the story was refracted through everybody in the town. It reminded me of small town gossip. In small towns, you are defined by your city. If everyone thinks you’re a bitch, guess what? You’re a bitch. If everyone thinks you’re nice, you’re nice. It’s a popularity contest. I’d never really seen a movie that had this narrative that came through gossip. I just saw it as this forest of gossips. And Bernie’s kinda enigmatic. He only has a voiceover at the very end.
The story could have been told in a much more conventional fashion. The approach you’ve chosen introduces multiple challenges, from getting people to finance it to figuring out how to make a very unconventional storytelling approach into something appealing for general audiences.
The gossip element almost kept the film from being made, because it reads boring. I said, “But they’ll be funny characters.” You’re limited to your imagination. I could just imagine the accents. I said, “I want people to smile every time these characters come back, like they’re people you like running into.”
The film wasn’t ready in time for Cannes. Were you tinkering with it a lot at the very end of post-production?
It was a longer process. I had a lot more gossipers. I just had to keep feeling my way through it. Every film has something about it that makes it almost impossible to pull off.
What makes you keep challenging yourself?
Everything you make, you want to feel like, “How the hell am I gonna pull this off?” That’s what life is. Something easier would be going to a baseball game.
Sundance hosted a 20th anniversary screening of “Slacker” this year. When you watch something like that, does it make you think about how you’ve grown as a filmmaker?
A little bit. I was just talking to my friends Greg Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh. We realized that we met 18 years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival. Eighteen fucking years. We all looked at each other and went, “Wow. That’s pretty fucking cool.”
Back then, it was easier for guys like you to take a movie to the festival circuit and find a distributor from there.
Yeah, we don’t have a distributor for this film yet. All you hope is that someone likes it and believes in it enough to let people know it exists. Hey, listen, I got philosophical a long time ago about this part of it. If it happens, great, and if not, it’s just like, “Next!” You kinda have to do that.
Have you considered self-distribution? You partially self-distributed your last film, “Me and Orson Welles.
My last film was an unfortunate hybrid of that, which really didn’t work. It took extra time and was really frustrating because we didn’t really have the money to do it.
In both that movie and this one, you have star power, but you use it in really unconventional ways.
Yeah, although this one is a comedy. Jack Black is funny, but it’s not a mainstream comedy. But it’s still funny for some audiences. I don’t think Jack’s fans are going to walk out, but it might not be their first cup of tea. I don’t know.
When you introduced the movie, you said that even though you had fun making it, that doesn’t mean it’s good.
(laughs) The more I talk, the more no one wants to see the movie. I do that so they quit asking me to talk. I’ll just pull a Malick. But, you know, the more you talk about a film, the more it disintegrates in front of you.
You’ve been working on your film “Boyhood” for the better part of a decade, filming characters as they age.
Yeah, it’s about a kid growing up. I shoot a little bit of it each year. I have three years left on it.
What’s going to happen between now and then?
I seem to make another movie every year or so. I’ve got a couple of things I’ve written. I’m not sure which one is next.
Soderbergh keeps saying he’s going to retire from filmmaking. Could you imagine yourself doing that at some point?
No, I don’t think I’ll ever quit making movies. I don’t believe Steven, either. When it gets really tough, you go, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind being alone and painting, or doing something else for awhile.” But it’s a compulsion, if you’re lucky enough to get to do it. It’s a pretty great life.
Although “Bernie” has now premiered in L.A., you don’t seem too hot about the Hollywood scene.
I mean, in my ideal world? Of course not. But you go where they point you at certain times. You just roll with it.