The film tells the real-life story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a much-loved funeral director who forms a relationship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a cold and insanely rich recently widowed woman. After several years of under-appreciated service and company, Bernie loses it and puts several bullets in Marjorie’s back, killing her. During the following nine months, Bernie is able to keep his crime a secret as he goes about spending her fortune buying gifts for the people in the town of Carthage and saving struggling businesses sort of like a dark Robin Hood.
Spattered throughout the film are a series of documentary-style interviews with the citizens of Carthage expressing their views on Bernie and his violent act. Despite being a confessed murderer, the folks around town speak well of the man, essentially suggesting that the killing was justified. For Linklater, this kind of attitude isn’t surprising, as he explains, “Our beliefs and our allegiances tend to trump any laws or any contrary information that comes at us. That’s what attracted me so much to the story. Cause here’s a conservative little town who kind of wants a guy to get away or get lightly punished. But that actually happens all the time, there’s murders with circumstances all the time. Particularly in the South, they kind of understand that frontier justice that still kind of exists in the South. “
A life-long Texan, Linklater has been trying to tell Bernie Tiede’s story since it actually occurred. He wrote the script (along with journalist Skip Hollandsworth) with a good deal of first-hand knowledge. Much of the film’s third act concerns Bernie’s trial, where evidence, such as the fact that he had kept Marjorie’s body preserved in a freezer for the nine months he successfully hid his crime, didn’t earn much sympathy from the jury. Linklater recalls, “I was at that trial. They would have given him the death penalty if they could of. It was so horrific- on the surface it looked so bad. He would have been better off disposing of her body or chopping her up and feeding her to the fish in the local lake. They would have understood that in some way. But the freezer thing threw everybody, it’s just so out of the ordinary.”
Looking over the director’s career one can find a developing interest in narratives with some sort of factual root. Recently Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” gave us a fictionalized account of a young actor in Welles’ theater company and, though again fiction, “Fast Food Nation” examines the horrors of the fast food industry based on the content of investigative journalist Eric Schlosser’s book of the same name. “Bernie” carries on with that pattern and it is no accident as Linklater reveals: “I never was a big myth person. I was never one of those kids obsessed with superheroes or myths because I thought the real world was so fascinating. You know the real history, the real geology, the real cosmology- it’s so fascinating, and it’s real. I’ve always found so much interest in that. Maybe I’m just not that creative. This story attracted me like others have just to know that it really happened and that it was true and it’s bizarre, but you try to be true to it.”
One possible next step in the fictionalized history vein for the director is “College Republicans,” a comedy-drama about the young Karl Rove and Lee Atwater playing politics at university level before they grew up to be giants of conservative politics. But while Linklater expresses an interest in true stories, even more attractive to him are characters he can relate to. The director lays out the difference, explaining. “Obviously you have to relate to those characters or feel yourself in them. I really felt for Bernie in this whole process and I felt I knew him, and Marjorie too,” Linklater said. “”College Republicans,” that was a thing, I don’t know if that film will ever get made, but it’s kind of from a different viewpoint, kind of more political, more like ‘what an interesting moment in time.’ But I don’t feel the same way for those characters. It would be weird to make a film about, ‘The world would be better if my protagonist never existed.’”
Besides “College Republicans,” Linklater’s name has been linked to a remake of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” the “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused” called “That’s What I’m Talking About,” and another entry in the “Before Sunrise” series. While the director isn’t ready to confirm his next film, that doesn’t mean he’s willing to let his projects fade away. Linklater describes his commitment to the projects he has passion for, saying: “Early on I could just go from one to the next but I’ve got this pile of backlog. I gotta say, it’s pretty satisfying twelve plus years later to have ‘Bernie’ finished, for something that’s been on that back-burner through 10 other films or so.”
“Bernie” comes to New York and Los Angeles this Friday and will roll out across the country in the coming weeks. The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 3rd. You can read more about the film in our interviews with Linklater, Matthew McConaughey and Jack Black from SXSW, as well as our review.