Based on a true story, “Bernie” centers on Bernie Tiede (Black), a steadfast and ambitious mortician, beloved by the locals in his East Texas town of Carthage for his hard work ethic and ability to charm anyone he meets. That latter talent comes in handy when he gets to know Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a reclusive millionaire widow despised by everyone in Carthage, including her own family. As depicted by Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, there’s nothing redeeming about Marjorie (she really is a sourpuss of the highest order), so imagine the townsfolk’s collective surprise when Bernie moves in with the grouch, giving up his practice to become her full-time aide.
After putting up with her petty and demeaning demands for a good long while, Bernie one day loses his cool and shoots Marjorie in the back four times. Like we said, nothing like “School of Rock.”
Indiewire caught up with the pair to talk about the real Bernie, why they chose this as their follow-up project to “School of Rock,” and adding some local Texas flavor to “Bernie.”
So this obviously marks a departure from your last collaboration together. How did the whole thing come to be?
Linklater: He’s a bit of a music man…
Black: It’s hard to see Dewey doing “Music Man,” though.
Was it the fact that Bernie sings that made you think of Jack? I’m guessing not.
Linklater: That actually was a huge element. Bernie is loved for his singing voice in East Texas. He traveled all over the world with his singing group. He was at Carnegie Hall. He has this amazing voice. They’re still people in Carthage, at their funerals, they hit a button and play a recording of Bernie. So that’s how much he’s beloved. So how many actors can sing that well? I knew that Jack had that voice, so it was a big element. Who else could do it? Other than that, I just thought it would be great to work with Jack again. So I sent it to him and just hoped he would find Bernie intriguing the way I always had.
You weren’t intent on casting a fellow Texan in the role?
Linklater: No, because Bernie actually wasn’t very Texan-y. He’s from the region, but there’s something about him. And Jack’s a southerner, too.
Black: That’s right. Southern California.
When did you first come across the story of Bernie, Richard?
Linklater: I read a Texas Monthly article in 1998 and I’m from East Texas so something about that story just went DING! I haven’t done that much in my life, you know I read everything and take in, but the idea that I would read something and go ,”Oh, I gotta make a movie about this” was pretty uncommon for me. But it got its hooks in me. I ended up attending the trial and working on the script. I saw Bernie testify at the trial. Something about him confirmed my feelings about what I thought he was and wasn’t.
When you finally saw him the flesh?
Linklater: Yeah. You know you can kind of tell if that guy’s psycho or if that guy’s a sweetheart and that’s who he was. He cares about everybody and he’s emotional. He wasn’t this bad guy, really.
When did he and his family realize what you were attempting to do? Was it during the trial process?
Linklater: No. At that point, we were probably just undercover as journalists. I don’t think anybody knew anything about a movie until a few years ago. Then it started creeping up. Once Jack was on board, you knew it was happening. That’s when I started writing to Bernie, too. I hadn’t spoke to him before, but I wrote him and told him I was gonna do this movie. I wanted him to hear it from my first and not some prison guard. And Jack and I eventually met with him before we started shooting.
How did that first meeting with Bernie go?
Black: It was surreal. We were at a maximum-security prison and it was real intimidating situation there. You got the big signs there that say “if you bring in such and such a thing you will be prosecuted.” Five security checkpoints. You know, there’s a lot of serious customers in there. Then to see Bernie, who’s really just a gentle sweet guy, it was incongruous in that world. It was invaluable to me just to meet him in terms of finding out what he’s like in person.
How deep did you guys get with Bernie? Were able to delve into why he did it? Or was it more just like, we’re doing this?
Linklater: Well, we talked socially for a long time, but then you start asking questions like “Why didn’t you leave?” without asking him to walk you through the day. But I have been with Bernie when that was a question, you know “walk me through the day” “when did you first think about killing?” That’s more like journalistic.
I was with Skip where we did an interview more recently. But it was nice, I learned a lot about his relationship with Miss Nugent and that was the missing piece of the puzzle. We started talking about that and it occurred to me that “oh, it was just a domestic…,” you know like when a husband kills a wife or vice-versa. It was just this crazy, mutually destructive relationship. Unfortunately it wasn’t really seen like that at the trial. It was seen like it was him after her money, but it really wasn’t like that. And he spoke a lot about Marjorie and the movie kind of has that reflection. He says a lot of good things about her like, “I think of the good times we had.” The closer you get to her you find out that even her family thinks she’s mean. But Bernie never said she was this crazy bitch, he was just like, “Well she had a bad side and could get possessive”
Black: And then I killed her.
Linklater: You could just see that she drove him crazy. He couldn’t leave because he was literally her only friend and he felt sorry for her. So she had to leave him because he wasn’t gonna leave her. The part of him that just needed to be sane. It’s fucked up for sure, but people can fall into these relationships and then suddenly it makes sense.
Black: It was important to me to get deep enough to where I could understand his motivations. But the script doesn’t spell it all out for you and that’s one of the great things about it is that it leaves some areas grey so that it doesn’t become an explaining movie where they say definitively why everything happens. But it’s important to have that as a basis for your subtext.
One of the things we talked about with him was what his childhood was like. His mother died when he was very young and one of the things he said was that he didn’t have a mommy. I could’t help but feel that struck a chord. That speaks to why you’re in this relationship with this older woman that you’re taking care of. Yet she’s also taking care of him, there’s co-dependency there.
The other big question I had for him was why didn’t you leave? Richard points out that’s always the question in any domestic dispute: why didn’t you leave before it got toxic? You stayed and of course it turned violent and some will say it’s stupid. But it’s not stupid; you’re trapped. Maybe that’s why he loved all the old ladies in Carthage. He made it his mission that they were OK. He wanted some motherly love.
Linklater: He needed approval and love as much as he gave it. That’s probably why he stayed in this small town, too. He could feel like the whole town loved and accepted him. You can’t feel that in a big city so much, but in a small town where you really do know everybody nd you’re friendly with everybody, she presents a great challenge. She isn’t nice and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her.
Did you film in Carthage?
Linklater: A little bit, a few days, but we faked East Texas with this little town area in Austin that looks a lot like East Texas. Production wise, it was just simpler and cheaper. Yeah, we definitely filmed in the Carthage area for a little while, though.
When did it occur to you that you wanted to use locals who knew the real Bernie to narrate the film?
Linklater: Early. From the conception. That was the beginning, so it was always ingrained.
Was is it a tough sell to financiers? Steven Soderbergh attempted to pull off the same approach with what eventually became “Moneyball,” but Sony backed out because of his unorthodox approach to telling the story.
Linklater: Yeah, it throws people. At first it’s just a lot of words on the page and everyone sounds the same. It’s not something you can get away with at the studio $50 million level, but we were super low budget and indie. I always saw the narration as integral to the storytelling; to see it from this gossip perspective of this small southern town. It’s the way I took in the story. It’s the way everyone did. You know, Bernie was in jail. Miss Nugent was gone. It was just the town in reverberations.
They add so much flavor to the film. Did you become close with the subjects to help inform your portrayal of Bernie, Jack?
Black: Well most of the gossip documentary style was shot before we even started.
Linklater: We shot so many of them in a short amount of time with such a small crew. It was kind of a pre-production thing.
Black: I came to town a little early with my family to do some rehearsals. You were shooting these interviews at the time, I remember.
One of the most memorable subjects actually shares a scene with you Jack, near the end, when Bernie finds himself in prison. Was she a local or an actress?
Linklater: She was a local
Black: She knew Bernie.
Seeing the two of you interacting was a strange meta moment.
Linklater: We just sort of worked that scene up. We initially had a different ending, but that just wasn’t true and everything else in the movie was. So we worked up this scene with her and that was based on our meeting with Bernie. We got him to describe this scene about his life in prison. It was this gift to have him describe that he wanted to help people while in there. I mean, that’s Bernie, so we wanted to integrate that into it with that visitor.
And it’s true, there are people who thought he could get out to come sing at their funerals and they’re still trying.
Black: We saw the stuff he was working on in the workshop and he was making memorials for peoples’ funerals back in Carthage.
Linklater: You go into the prison workshop and it’s funny because everybody is doing woodwork and there’s Bernie crocheting these wonderful little things that say their names and the years they were alive. He said that he has a little personal service for them, too.