Ever since his debut, “Slacker,” earned him a spot on the national filmmaking stage, Richard Linklater has been one of Texas’ favorite sons. It’s certainly helped that so many of his movies not only took place in the state, but paid real and honest tribute to its citizens, without insult or parody. But in “Bernie,” his latest, he skirts that line between celebrating and satirizing Texans with his retelling of the true story of Bernie Tiede, a funeral director who killed an elderly widow and threatened to go free thanks to his hometown’s near-universal affection for the man. Jack Black stars as the title character, and Matthew McConaughey plays the self-aggrandizing prosecutor who despite his legitimate pursuit of justice ultimately proves to be the film’s unexpected villain.
The Playlist sat down with Linklater and McConaghey last week at the SXSW, where “Bernie” had its regional premiere. In addition to talking about his initial attraction to the story, Linklater and McConaghey examine their responsibility to the real people upon whom the film is based, and the director and actor discuss their longtime partnership on Texas-based projects.
Richard, what initially drew you to the story of Bernie Tiede and what thematically resonated with you that made you want to tell his story?
Richard Linklater: Just the story, the environment, the people. I grew up in East Texas, and it was that story that really got its hooks in me. But it’s always about the characters, and then it operates on a lot of levels – it’s a dark comedy, but by the end it’s a really interesting, to me, legal-ish story; that trial was really unprecedented, moving it. And the ambiguities of morality and judgment, all of that. It’s a good test – if something’s in your head and stays there for years and years, you probably should make that film, so I was glad to have the gestation time; it proved to me that there was a lot of depth to this story on a lot of levels.
Matthew, how did you initially see this character, and what responsibility did you feel towards portraying his real-life counterpart accurately as opposed to telling the best story possible?
Matthew McConaughey: I thought the script as a whole was really, really funny. I said, “Rick, I think this is the funniest thing I’ve read coming from you or funniest script I’ve seen come from you.” Then I got to play the prosecutor, and in terms of roles, I’ve gotten to play the defender three times so it was fun to play the prosecutor — there’s a very different way they go about it. A defender weaves the web of possible doubt, but the prosecutor just keeps driving the nail in the coffin, so it’s much more of a straight shot – much more aggressive. But I didn’t approach this biographically, like I did, say, with “The Newton Boys.”
RL: Yeah, we had so much to go on there.
MM: And that was a lot of spending time with him. But this guy had a clear path on the page, and I knew what his role was. And then Rick and I got off to such a good creative start when we did our pre-production rehearsals with each other, with my impression and then him tweaking me, and after one sit-down, I already had so much imagination that was point-on that I was like, one, I don’t want to muddy myself with more, or two, make it finite if I go and really study the guy. So I chose not to do that for this role.
RL: But Jack wanted to meet Bernie, which I thought was a great idea, and I didn’t think it was important that Matthew met Danny Buck, really.
How did you come up with the structure for this, since it includes interview footage and even acting with real people who were involved, alongside the material that Jack and Matthew are recreating?
RL: It’s an odd storytelling element, but I thought it was essential. I mean, it was just there from the DNA of my thinking about this story as a movie once I read [co-writer] Skip Hollingsworth’s journalistic notes. He gave me a stack as he researched the story, and it hit me that, oh, Bernie’s in prison and can’t talk. Mrs. Newgent isn’t around. So it’s all what others say. And I remember being in a small town, and it just operates kind of on hearsay and gossip and “Did you know?” People do that anyway socially, but in a small town it really rules the day, so I just had that idea of gossips kind of being a Greek chorus storytelling device. And people were like, “Oh, you should dramatize some of this,” and it was an odd thing that kept the movie out of mainstream production, I think. But it was just the way that I saw them, and I was looking to tell the story in a unique way; I wouldn’t use it for every story, but for a story about small town life, it seemed appropriate to have these gossips. And I looked forward to hanging out with them, but the thing that freaked people out about the script actually ended up being some people’s favorite [part] – like, “Oh, I love all of those people,” or “There’s a lot of funny people there.” So I’m happy it worked the way I knew it would work.
How did you look at the way that Bernie was an embodiment of generosity, and even though Danny Buck is justified in his pursuit of justice, he’s self-aggrandizing and aggressive? Was it tough to make sure Buck wasn’t vilified?
RL: From Matthew’s point of view, you’re the only sane person in this [town]. I mean, that’s a valid thing; you’re the only one seeing it who’s not influenced by whether he went too far.
MM: The challenge with that I knew I wanted to monitor, because I tried it other times when I did go into it, is in the embellishments and the flourishes, not to go into caricature. Because he becomes very extroverted – a showman. So I’ve done that before where I was like, “Ooh, I didn’t believe that was a real person” – so Danny Buck is still a real person. Still a grandstander, but with the backbone of “I’m right, and this is about justice.” And as long as I hung it on justice, that kept me grounded. He walked in and said he did it. All of these other facts, this other rhetoric, I don’t care how much you like him or dislike him, this is not emotional, when in fact right after that, he’s saying, “and you’d better lock your doors at night” – those little additions that were like whoa, the boogeyman. I don’t think Danny Buck probably thought that was true, but it was useful.
RL: I don’t know if he sees himself that way, but I was at that trial, and you never topped the real Danny Buck as far as “out,” because I don’t think people would have believed it on film so much. So you were always in the zone in my mind, because what you were doing was perfect, because the real Danny Buck is even more; Matthew’s a subtle version of Danny Buck compared to the real thing. I mean, that line “he’s an angel – an angel of death,” the way you played it, I saw that on the courthouse steps with my own eyes, and you did it exactly the way he did it. I mean, you hit it straight and then played the punch line, and I was like, yep, we are recreating real moments.
“Bernie” opens on April 27th.