Shortly after dropping out of Sam Houston University, Richard Linklater burst onto the scene as one of the United States’ prolific Gen X directors. With the idea of ”film what you know,” Linklater steered his camera at his hometown of Austin, Texas, which produced the indie classic Slacker (1992), a stylized look at early 1990s “drop-out” society. The film’s amateur actors improvised the movie’s dialogue, so depending upon your disposition, you’ll either be enamored with its characters’ insights or plead them to shut the fuck up.
Linklater’s next work, his seminal Dazed and Confused (1993), transpires over the last day of high school in 1976. Many view it as the American Graffiti of the post-postwar generation* (*the ones who didn’t start the fire). Despite his success, and probably due to his shifting style exercises, Linklater has not achieved an auteur’s cult following. Rather, he’s content to screen new material at international film festivals and local organizations like his own Austin Film Society. Linklater went on to direct Before Sunrise (1995), a pretty but deeply personal film about a pair of listless, lovelorn young people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) drifting aimlessly in Vienna. Again festivals effused praised, but mainstream critics rolled their eyes at Linklater’s formlessness and ruminative qualities.
In the new millennium Linklater struck a chord, critically once more, then commercially, with the philosophical experiment Waking Life (2001), and then School of Rock (2003). Jack Black, star of the latter, is back working with Linklater, this time on Bernie (2012), which also co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine. Bernie derives from a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” that chronicles the 1996 murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent in Carthage, Texas by her 39-year-old homosexual companion, Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede. Nugent was shot in the back four times with a rifle by Tiede, who confessed to the 1996 murder.
How did your interest in Bernie come about? It was originally a piece of investigative journalism in the Texas Monthly.
I read the Texas monthly article in January ‘98 and immediately called up the writer and started talking about it. I was really intrigued with the story. I grew up in east Texas and something about the story really got to me. I felt like I really knew everybody and the humor of it. I just got really intrigued with those characters. The article, in its conclusion, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You think he’s going to get off maybe but then he went to trial and got punished way too harshly, I feel.
Do you regularly collect articles and stories to save that you’ve been possibly waiting to translate to film like that?
Not usually. I usually have some tips I’m working on from like a novelist or documentary filmmaker. I always have a bunch of files, things I’m interested in. It’s rare I read something and go, “I’m going to make a movie out of this.” That doesn’t happen much.
What were the challenges you encountered translating a piece of journalism or an essay to film?
Well, it’s such a lively story. This has what a good movie has, like strong characters, you know, good storyline, bottom-front dialogue. Other parts of the script involved me translating it from journalistic notes, all the gossips in town.
One thing that I noticed about the movie is that it seems to capture a very distinct Texan identity. Did you ever feel like, as a filmmaker, that you were waiting to make a movie like this? Where you revealed the charm and southern quality that so many Texans are proud of?
I think everybody wants to do a film from your own backyard, you know, what’s unique about your place. Some places are more popular than others. If you live in New York and you’re Italian or otherwise–all ethnic enclaves have their charm. You know, southern is kinda overdone, but I always had this very specific part of the state in mind, east Texas, where I grew up which I had never really seen on film before. So yeah, to answer that question, yeah, I had been always wanting to tell a story that I felt was very specific to a region. Just knowing the charm, southerners are a little cautious about people depicting them because they used to make fun of them and treat them like a bunch of hicks. They don’t see the charm, the kindness, the upside of these communities, which I do. My mom still lives in the town that I grew up in. This movie’s really about her and her friends.
So would you say that you went out of your way to try and show the people from the town in a good light? Did you want to avoid stereotypes and cliches even if parts of them were true?
I wouldn’t say go out of my way. I think the film’s pretty fair. I don’t think I showed it in a completely good light. This movie isn’t ”haha-funny.” There’s a murder at the center of the story; it’s pretty dark material. It’s really how this one murder really affects a town and how it really screws up people’s lives.
Was there ever a temptation to explore the topic of the Texas legal system since its infamous for it’s death penalty?
No. I grew up in Huntsville, where prisons have been the backdrop of my whole life. I wish in my film life that I would be able to explore it even more but I think this film speaks for itself. In that regard, it does dredge up how arbitrary and strange our legal system is, but it’s not a gruesome trial. I didn’t want half the movie to be a trial. It’s at the very, very end, and very brief. So the slightest curiosity or research will quickly take you to a place where you can quickly see the rather arbitrary nature of our criminal justice system in a place like Texas.
When you were organizing the film in pre-production, how quickly did you realize that Jack Black would be the lead role?
I met Jack in ‘02. We worked together in `02-03 with School of Rock. Bernie at that point was on the back burner as I was doing other films. I always wanted to get it made, I was just looking for the right combination and each film it’s kind of like waiting for the planets to align perfectly. And then at some point Jack had kind of aged into the part. I was like, “God, you know Jack, you’re a great Bernie.” And he’s the probably the only guy who could sing like him. You know Bernie’s known for singing. So I knew he could do it, he’s such a good actor. I knew he had this part of him that is very, uh. You know, Jack’s a really nice guy, he’s kind of like me, a non-confrontational guy. He just wants people to dissolve and get out of his life. That element of him, I thought, would be like Bernie, but he eventually had to leave the mustache.
It seems like Jack was already 60% of the way there for the role. Like he was a natural fit. But in terms of the intricacies of his character, being a mortician, I thought that one of the most fascinating scenes was the opening where Bernie gives instructions on how to prepare a body for the casket. I was wondering how much research, either Jack or yourself, put into learning about embalming and the casket makeup process?
Yeah, I did. I talked to a lot of people who do prepare bodies right before the final ceremony, not the draining of blood or anything. It’s the final artistry, what separates the best cosmetologists from the average. Which Bernie was known for hair and makeup and making people look so good, you know, it’s a real skill. And so I interviewed some people, and they were saying things that I thought were hilarious, but they didn’t.
So were you ever around any actual bodies while you were talking to them?
I wasn’t. Some people from my art department went in for a weekend there were some bodies laying around.
So how much time did you spend with the real life Bernie?
I’ve met with him a few times. We correspond quite a bit. But, Jack and I visited him a few weeks before we started shooting. It was very important and great that Jack just soaked up everything about him. The walk, the accent, the essence, it was pretty great. We got good time with him and I think because of Jack’s celebrity we got to tour the prison and they showed his cell and meet his friends in the craft shop.
Did he seem to be doing well and keep up the same personality in prison as he had reflected in real life?
Yeah. When you think of prison life, you just think of some horrible hell hole and I came out of that encouraged, or at least knowing that Bernie had made a life for himself inside. And he was exactly the same guy inside that he was out. Loved by all, helping people, he teaches, he takes them to church. He just does everything he can. That made me feel better about his day-to-day life and yet, its still, you know. The prison is kind of being cut off from information, you don’t have Internet, you don’t get to read a daily paper. It’s such limited access to the outside world. And someone like Bernie, who loves people, outgoing, I mean that really, you know. It’s tough on him.
I seemed to notice that you’re speaking with a very favorable approach to Bernie. Are there ever moments in speaking with him where you snap back and say like, “Oh wow, he murdered someone.” Is that a big part of your conception of him?
Not really. I mean, yeah, this guy did do this one dark thing but you know, spending time with him is kind of just like checking. I saw him testify, I saw the trial, I saw he’s a really sensitive guy who cares so much about other people’s feelings. I mean, he’s not a psychopath, like one of those charming killer guys, he’s really never done anything his whole life. He would be in the category of someone who’s not apt to ever do that again. But the legal system doesn’t make much distinction, really, so it’s very sad. You meet people all the time who have killed people, whether they were a soldier or accidents. I really think Bernie is a super nice guy who truly was driven crazy by this crazy relationship that he willingly participated in.
Do you have any response to the people of Carthage who are uncomfortable with the fact that you made a dark comedy about a murder that took place there?
Well I think they see the movie, they’ll be relieved probably that the town isn’t portrayed like a bunch of hicks and that there’s some affection there. You know, I’m a local, I play my east Texas cards right there. Every time Scorsese makes a gangster film the Italians basically go, “We’re not all gangsters” but a few are, so you know so I’m running my east Texas local card on this one. So some people don’t want that attention, but I think on the other hand, the flipside of that is that they’ve never been represented in a real movie either. People from Carthage who have seen the movie so far have loved it, so I’m not worried about it. If it was after people saw it, then I would pay more attention to that.
What is it about Matthew McConaughey that you’ve enjoyed working with him on several projects?
Great guy, good actor, first and foremost, really good actor. And a great character, he really digs in and is a good collaborator. He’s from a town about 20 miles from Carthage. I called him up and said,” You have to do this, its in East Texas, please.” And literally he’s doing me a favor being in the movie at all. On the other, I think he’s kind of perfect for Danny and Matthew said he enjoyed, for once, being on the other side of the legal since he’s always been the defense attorney. It was fun being the prosecutor.
Did he walk around the set shirtless like his reputation holds?
Yeah sure [pause] nooooo.
So your upcoming movie, “Boyhood,” is about a child growing up with divorced parents and it seems like some of your best movies, in my opinion at least, have adolescent inquisitiveness to them. Was there a deliberate return to boyhood to explore something more coming of age? It seems like its one of your pet subjects.
Well that project is still a few years away. The film starts in first grade so, it’s definitely about childhood and growing up. But it segways into full teenage mode. So yeah it’s completely a youth project. Bernie doesn’t have any youth in it. Film by film, you can’t help but return to or do what you’re interested in or what expresses yourself.
What is it about Ethan Hawke that you like working with him in your movies?
It’s kind of like your question about Matthew. What draws you to any artist or anyone you work with. You click with people, I almost click with all actors I work with, but I’ve worked with a very limited spectrum of actors in the world. I get along with everybody so I’m a good collaborator myself.
I was looking at your criteria in top ten list and I saw a decent amount of Tarkovsky, Bresson, Ozu and Bergman. I was wondering if you had any plans to make a nearly wordless 3-hour transcendent art house film anytime soon.
Bernie opens this weekend.