Richard Linklater’s fourteenth feature chronicles the strange but true tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the young man who arrived in Carthage, Texas with some neatly pressed shirts and pants, a smart little moustache, a gift for politeness and a mortuary degree, and Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the crabby, extremely wealthy old widow loathed by everyone in town. Bernie and Mrs. Nugent became close companions, so close that, despite Bernie’s apparent homosexuality, many wondered if their relationship didn’t include a sexual component. But that relationship became increasingly oppressive for Bernie, and one day in 1997 Bernie shot and killed Mrs. Nugent, hiding her body in a freezer. No one discovered her for nine months.
Inspired by Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly profile of the case, which much of the film quotes directly (Hollandsworth is credited as co-scenarist), Bernie comfortably hovers somewhere between semi-staged documentary and true crime feature. It’s a black comedy and place study narrated by a chorus of townsfolk (the cast mixes actual Carthagians and hired actors, including a very funny Matthew McConaughey) speaking direct-to-camera from front stoops or greasy spoons or seated before farm equipment. Their Bernie is a Robin Hood figure, killing the rich and donating to the town: murder as a benevolent act. “He had the ability to make the world seem kind,” one of the locals says. Linklater, a Texan himself, exudes affection for his subjects and their things (check out the attention to detail in the set dressing, ie: the horse painting lampshade on Scrappy Holmes’ desk). Told from the inside out, Bernie neither condescends nor soft-pedals, and seems ever-fascinated by its own incongruities and enigmas.
I’d never spoke to Linklater before but found him just as friendly and easygoing as I’d always assumed he’d be from watching his films, some of which feature an occasional director’s cameo. He appears in Bernie as a deadbeat dad engaged in one of those weird contests where you have to keep your hands on a car for as long as possible.
JB: I realize that the film is called Bernie, but I was really struck by how beautifully it works as a portrait of a community.
Richard Linklater: When Shirley first read the script she said to me, “Really, it’s the gossips’ movie.” I laughed. To some degree that’s true, because it’s seen through their eyes.
JB: That’s just it. The film refrains from psychoanalyzing Bernie. It offers little about his roots. It doesn’t try to get inside his head. Instead you build your portrait as much as possible from the perceptions of the Carthagians. You let them author your Bernie.
RL: We’ll never know what really happened between Bernie and Mrs. Nugent, but we do know the effect their relationship had on Carthage. It always seemed like the most interesting choice to hear these multiple voices testify to how the events reverberated through the community. Such events are more poignant in a small town, because everyone really does know each other. Small town gossip has this unanimity to it: Bernie was the nicest guy in town and Mrs. Nugent was the meanest bitch. Life is high school. Ultimately you are what everybody says you are. If you were to go to Carthage today and get in line at Sam’s barbecue, you might find someone telling you how Bernie should have done it—without getting caught.
JB: For all the movies that have been made in Texas, I feel like very few have paid close attention to a sense of place, to how it really feels to live there. I think of The Whole Shootin’ Match...
RL: [Laughs] Speaking of Sonny Carl Davis! You know Sonny Carl is in Bernie, right?
JB: I had no idea.
RL: He’s the guy with the map of Texas.
JB: Holy shit. I didn’t recognize him.
RL: Well, it has been 34 years since Whole Shootin’ Match. He’s a real character. I’m glad I finally got to work with him. He’s one of a handful of actors that I mixed in with the, quote-unquote, real people.
JB: One of the really intriguing things about this whole story is the way the theme of disguise and the denial of death weaves its way through Bernie’s vocation and right into his crime.
RL: Even in death we disguise ourselves. There’s that telling line from the opening scene, where Bernie’s demonstrating his craft: “You don’t want him to look unhappy to be there.” Put a little smile on the dead man’s face, you know? [Laughs] I heard that from a lady who dresses the dead as her job. She was our consultant, giving me some pointers. I thought it was hilarious. I don’t think she thought it was funny.
JB: The casting of Jack Black struck me as really inspired. He’s very funny as Bernie, but he also has this quality, this very particular pathos, that feels both native to the character and distinctly Jack Black.
RL: I’m so proud of Jack’s work here. When you’re funny no one thinks you’re a good actor, but the truth is Jack’s a great actor. And a great singer. And both skills are required for this part. It’s hard to think of other actors who could bring all these things, the right kind of charm. Jack has this ingratiating element; he wants to be liked. But then there’s this tinge somewhere in Jack that’s a little off. This edge. That edge itself is funny. It’s forever intriguing. That’s what makes him a movie star.
JB: You’ve been carrying around this idea since 1998. Did your concept of the film change a lot over the years?
RL: Not much. All I did the whole time was think about the tone, and that was beneficial. Everything clicked when we met the actual Bernie. I had been writing to him for years, but when Jack and I got to visit him in prison and spend some serious time, it kind of confirmed my hunches about Bernie. He truly did seem like the nicest guy who did this one horrible act. To me, that was the story. He’s not a psychopath, so the question arises as to whether any of us, under the right circumstances, could be driven to kill somebody.
JB: The scene where Bernie pulls the trigger really isn’t especially dramatic. It’s just this moment where the barrier between fantasy and action becomes so slim.
RL: And it’s so easy with certain weapons. It happens in a flash.
JB: Have you given any thought to whether you’d like to be buried or cremated? Would you like someone like Bernie to prepare your remains for your grieving loved ones?
RL: [Laughs] That’s a great question. You’re first person to ask me that! I’ve spent all these years thinking about the death industry and you’re the only person to ask me that question. So I’ll tell you honestly, because you deserve it: I will in no way let the death industry get close to me when I die! [Laughs] I’ve been researching this and there’s this thing called green burial. You die, they put you in a biodegradable stack, bury you vertically so you don’t take up much room and you immediately return to the soil. You don’t kill a bunch of roots. They just throw you out in the woods, really. It’s the least you do can do and it only costs about $200. Not $10,000. The idea of putting all these fluids in your body and going through all this rigmarole to act like you’re not dead is just crazy. It’s a horrible industry, really. So expensive. They treat the bodies like shit. There are these companies where you go to the funeral home and then they ship the bodies to Mexico immediately because it’s $75 cheaper. It’s ridiculous.
JB: I know. This whole idea that you can buy a casket that will keep worms off your body for an extra hundred years. At some point, when the people that loved you and even all your grandchildren have all died, you know, maybe it’s time to finally let go. I’ve always liked the idea of cremation, though I hadn’t really thought about the pollution aspect.
RL: That’s an issue. And it’s expensive because of the fire and because they still do all these things to treat the body beforehand. Mind you, they make you think you have to do so many things but if you check the books there’s actually very little that you’re obligated to do, legally.
JB: Well, I hope that neither you nor your loved ones will have to be thinking about your death rites for a very long time.
RL: Thanks, but we all get there sooner or later. Thinking about it’s not so bad.