The first thing you need to know about Richard Linklater is that he’s a Texas moviemaker. From his breakout hit Slacker, which told the poly-vocal story of several eccentric Austin residents, to his latest film Bernie, which is based on the true story of a murder that took place in Carthage, Texas in the mid-1990s, the bulk of Linklater’s films have taken place in his home state.
What else do you need to know about Linklater? He has made a name for himself as a director who makes independent films but can also work within the studio system—that rare moviemaker who can seamlessly cross genres and blur the lines of style—and he’s a man who simply loves movies.
“Rick is a visionary,” says Dr. Charles Ramírez Berg, a contemporary of Linklater’s who lectures at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Radio-Television-Film. “Twenty-seven years ago, a few of us regularly got together and watched movies. Most of us just saw movies, but Rick saw something that would benefit the greater community, and that became the Austin Film Society. Later we saw empty hangars at the abandoned airport, but Rick saw a movie studio; that was the beginning of Austin Studios. Rick brings that same vision to his filmmaking. Just look at his wonderfully idiosyncratic films: Waking Life, Slacker, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles… these are films that ask us to look at life and at the movies in a new and exciting way.”
Bernie, the 51-year-old auteur’s latest effort, is no exception. Bernhardt Tiede’s controversial trial, for the murder of wealthy 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent, was the talk of the town among East Texas residents in the mid-1990s. But where most people simply saw an open-and-shut murder case, Linklater saw a story waiting to be told… even if it took him more than a decade to tell it.
MM caught up with Linklater on his home turf, at the SXSW Film Festival (where Bernie took home the Louis Black Lone Star Award, named after the fest’s co-founder) to talk about truth, justice and the moviemaking way.
Andy Young (MM): First of all, congratulations on winning the Louis Black Lone Star Award at SXSW!
Richard Linklater (RL): Thanks. It’s great to have any award with Louis’ name on it.
MM: So how did you first come across the story for Bernie?
RL: I read an article about it in Texas Monthly that was written by Skip Hollandsworth [who co-wrote the film].
MM: Did you immediately see it as a film?
RL: It definitely jumped out as a story I was attracted to; I saw the humor in the situation and I really dialed into those characters. I grew up in East Texas and I felt like I knew people like [district attorney] Danny Buck [Davidson] and Miss Nugent. It’s like when Martin Scorsese called up Nick Pileggi when he read his book Wiseguy (which later became Goodfellas) and said, “I’ve been waiting for this story my whole life.”
MM: So did you work closely with Skip adapting this story in the writing process?
RL: Oh yeah, he was heavily involved from the get-go. I contacted him, we talked about the story and we actually attended the trial together.
MM: Was some of the dialogue taken directly from real events?
RL: Word-for-word in some cases, especially stuff from in and outside of the courtroom. I even got confirmation from the real Danny Buck to do that Les Misérables line [where he pronounces it as “Lay Mis-Er-Ay-Bels”].
MM: You’re known as a director who pushes the envelope when it comes to genre. This movie is based on some pretty dark subject matter, so why did you decide to portray it as a comedy?
RL: I don’t see it as dark. There’s a dark act, for sure, but the movie itself isn’t dark. Bernie is the nicest guy in the world, and I always saw it as a comedy first with a dark act.
MM: What about as a mockumentary, with the story being told from the perspective of the townspeople?
RL: Well I don’t see it as a documentary or mockumentary either; I think the Greek chorus of the town gossip is a storytelling device intertwined with the fact that Bernie can’t speak for himself because he’s in jail, and Miss Nugent can’t speak for herself because she’s gone. Who’s left? People who were involved and affected in the town.
I don’t like the term “mockumentary” because I’m not making fun of documentaries as a medium, and I’m certainly not making fun of the people involved.
MM: This definitely isn’t a typical Jack Black comedy. You’ve worked with Black before; what made you see him as a character like Bernie?
RL: It was only years after working with him on School of Rock. It didn’t occur to me then because he was so young, but once I got to know Jack, and as he got older, I saw him more and more as Bernie. Jack really is a sweetheart, and I knew he could have fun with that element in his performance.
MM: When you’re portraying real events, do you want the actors to research or meet the actual people they were based on or would you prefer they be a bit detached from the source material?
RL: I leave it up to the actor. In Jack’s case I asked him if he wanted to meet Bernie and he was like ‘Absolutely,’ because he had so many questions for him. When he observed things like Bernie’s walk and his accent, he absorbed it like a sponge and I think it definitely added to his performance. Matthew McConaughey, on the other hand, didn’t think he would gain much from meeting the real Danny Buck… So it really depends on what works best for the actor.
MM: Does it affect your process when your characters are based on real people?
RL: My first goal is always to be true to the stories and the characters. We’re definitely trying to build a re-creation of actual events, but I’m not obsessed with minor details like ‘He stood here’ or ‘He said this exactly like that.’ With an independent film, things like locations are more like ‘Whatever works.’
The house isn’t really Miss Nugent’s house, but it looks very similar. For me, I’m trying to capture the spirit and tone of the story, and this story was a tonal challenge.
MM: Especially if people are expecting to see Jack Black in a goofy performance, there’s a risk of the story coming off as campy.
RL: Yeah, but his character is all about repression, so it was a very inward-bound performance.
MM: How supportive were Bernie and the Carthage community of the film?
RL: Bernie was really supportive, but factions of the original community had concerns, the church especially. It took them a while to come around to the idea. The film is not so much about the murder as it is the before and after, the suspension of morality in a very conservative town. It just shows you that belief and ideas come first, and all of your justifications come later. Yeah he killed her, but you also like him and don’t like her, so it’s harder to take sides.
MM: I think this was the largest number of producing credits I’ve ever seen on a movie (27 total). Was it frustrating having so many cooks in the kitchen?
RL: Who said they were cooks? I don’t even know most of them. A lot of them were just investments. If anything, the biggest problems came out of our limited schedule and budget, but that’s the fate of the indie world right now: There isn’t a lot of money out there and you have to raise it from a lot of different sources and companies. Things have changed, but you have to roll with it.
MM: If you were on the jury at Bernie’s trial, would you have found him guilty or not guilty?
RL: Bernie confessed, so it’s not really a matter of saying guilty or not guilty. The issue is how much he’s getting punished. Bernie got a life sentence, equivalent to someone who planned a murder and carried it out, so I think he got a really harsh sentence for what he did. Most people would have just gotten 10 or 20 years, but because of Buck, it went from Bernie getting off too easy to him being punished too severely.
It’s an interesting trial, and the movie itself was an interesting legal case, because this was never a case of guilt or innocence, it was really a case of sentencing. MM
Millennium Entertainment will release Bernie on April 27th, 2012.