The auteur behind Slacker and Dazed and Confused finds the film of his career – Bernie.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
Richard Linklater’s Bernie is the blackly comic true story of East Texas
mortician Bernhardt Tiede. Tiede, played by Jack Black, is a gentle
pillar-of-the-community who befriends a hated, newly-widowed woman (Shirley
MacLaine), becomes her man-servant and, in a fit of pique, slays her and covers
up the murder until the crime is uncovered by a determined hot-shot D.A.
(Matthew McConaughey). A trial ensues and the small town gossips become judge,
jury and Greek chorus to the intimate faux-documentary style affair. For his
part, Linklater – the quietly inventive auteur known for Before Sunrise, Slacker, Waking Life and Dazed & Confused – has made his most warmly funny and
disarmingly charming film with Bernie’s tiny comedy. (Below: Black and MacLaine.)
BLURT: Bernie is your most outwardly charming
film. Are you a fan of such enchanting films like Sabrina and It Happened One
Night? Few directors set out to make something luminous as what you’ve
RICHARD LINKLATER: I’ve always strived to make films that
are filled with life, inner life, what have you. As Bernie is really a film about a community rather than just its
leads, I try to give each and every member of that community their own
humanity. And I saw that, believe it or not, in upbeat comedic terms. People
have been calling it a dark comedy… I think it’s a comedy with one dark moment.
The community isn’t dark and neither is Bernie. He makes one regrettable
What were you at work
on when the original story of Bernie came up – somewhere between Newton Boys and Waking Life?
I was in post-production of Newton Boys when I first read Skip Hollandsworth’s story in the
paper I immediately called him. [Hollandsworth became Linklater’s script collaborator.] I recognized the feel of the
story. I’m from that part of the state and I knew there was something there. I
could smell it; it was mine. You know how Scorsese said he waited twenty years
for Nick Pileggi’s Wise Guys [eventually
Goodfellas]? That was Bernie for me. I felt it.
how long it took. We didn’t know at that time how things were going to pan out.
It seemed as if Bernie might not get punished too much for his actions. I
remember going to the trials with Skip – the end of the film was stuff I
witnessed first hand. Bernie testifying and getting punished was harsh – the
change of venue, the judge wouldn’t let the psychiatrist testify to temporary
insanity. It quickly went from one extreme to the other.
time I felt like an investigative journalist.
changing the ending to suit your own desires? It’s your film.
The rules developed early. Anyone could’ve taken the outline
to this and made something else with a different tone. There’s something campy
and big to made out of this story. Hell, you could do a full-blown musical. But
I was just taking my cues from the real world. What had actually happened was
so strangely surreal yet very realistic – which is my usual anyway – so I went
with that. Play it straight. That’s what makes black comedy particular to its
What came first as
you started on the script: getting
the facts across or making certain there was something funny to hang them on?
I sensed early on, during the first draft, that the town
gossips would drive the script.
Bernie was in jail. Mrs. Nugent was gone. It was the community still talking
that would drive things; how this one event reverberated through their town.
Still does, really. That southern gossip thing is so prevalent – a real social
component with the way gossip functions. They’re a Greek chorus.
The townspeople are
the stars of the film.
That’s what Shirley said to me from the start. That it’s their
I know that
MacLaine’s Some Came Running is a
favorite of yours. Tell me a little bit about your relationship to Shirley
during the film.
There’s no one who has had a career like her, who did Oscar-caliber
work in the 1950s then, nearly seventy years removed from that, is still doing
so today with that level of work in every single decade in-between. She’s it,
in a class of her own with a consistent body of work. When you work with
someone like that you never ask any questions about her past. No fanboy stuff [laughs].
If she started talking about Hitchcock or Billy Wilder I might have egged the
conversation along. Oddly enough, once we wrapped and became friendlier I was
asked to present a screening of Some Came
Running at a film club and, on my way, I spoke to her about it and she
opened up a bit.
McConaughey was the
voice of stoner-dom in Dazed &
Confused. In Bernie, you’ve made
him a voice of reason. How has he grown within your work?
He’s the voice of justice and reason in Bernie. Ha ha. That’s
one of the rewards of having done this so long – you really do make lifelong friends
with whom you can share work. And he does work. Out of the gate, he was and
still is a character actor. He’s not Wooderson (from Dazed); he is everything that Wooderson is not. Yet he found that character immediately. First thing he told
me was, “I‘m not this guy but I know this guy.” And he became that that guy.
Matt’s got has an innate ability to become – truly – anyone he wishes to
inhabit. He’s in a good place right now. He’s got like six similarly inventive
films of which Bernie is one. Twenty
more years of personal experience hasn’t hurt him.
How about you? Are
you still the same guy just older and more experienced?
Yeah. For better or worse [laughs] I am the same guy. You
want to tell different stories and you want to push your own boundaries. But
damn it, you are still working with your same tool kit [laughs]. That’s not a
bad thing. It’s what I can do. It’s my approach.
It varies… each story has its own
storytelling needs and agenda – but it’s me. An always developing me, but me
nonetheless. The only thing that really changed is the film business. It’s
gotten harder. I got a bunch of scripts [I’m] looking to develop that seem to
be taking a minute. And it just gets worse.
Bernie was released
August 21 on DVD via Millennium Entertainment – view the official trailer: