Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens with the answer to its titular question. In an impressively executed overhead shot, the camera gazes down onto placid Antarctic waters as a group of highlighter-colored kayaks float into the frame.
One begins to break away from the pack and the following shot reveals the lone paddler to be Bernadette Fox, played by the always-impeccable Cate Blanchett. With not a soul in sight, her expression is positively blissful.
“That was a drone shot and something that Rick always had in mind,” says DP Shane F. Kelly, who has worked with Linklater on a number of films including A Scanner Darkly, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!! “It opens the film really well, even if it kind of gives away the ending.”
Adapted from Maria Semple’s satirical novel of the same name about a misanthropic former architect who vanishes from her Seattle home, the madcap source material, which includes everything from an FBI investigation to a cross-continental chase, might sound like an out-of-character choice for the director. Most celebrated for films that eschew the very notion of plot in favor of freewheeling naturalism such as Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and the “Before” trilogy, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Linklater is one of the most versatile moviemakers working today. His filmography also includes the mockumentary Bernie, the big-budget studio comedy School of Rock, and the war veteran drama Last Flag Flying, to name a few. There’s nothing, it seems, that he can’t do.
“I’m a simple-minded storyteller,” explains Linklater over the phone. “I don’t really like movies that have too much going on. I can take things that are pretty complex and pare them down into something I can understand. That’s always been my gift,” he jokes, “if I can understand it, anyone can.”
His ability to drill into the core of even the most complicated story is precisely why Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison, who worked with Linklater on 2016’s Everybody Wants Some!!, approached him to helm the project after a number of attempts at getting it off the ground had fallen flat. The epistolary structure of the book—it’s presented as a compilation of emails, memos, invoices, and receipts—coupled with its enigmatic and cantankerous protagonist—made it a challenge to adapt.
Linklater enlisted collaborators Holly Gent and Vince Palmo, who also served as AD on the film, to co-write the script. “In many ways the book is an embarrassment of riches because there’s so much to choose from,” says Gent. “It’s not just characters speaking back and forth. It’s a lot of information presented in different ways, and not always reliably.”
While in the novel, the mystery of Bernadette’s whereabouts is solved in retrospect by her teenage daughter, Bee (played with impressive depth by newcomer Emma Nelson), in the movie the events leading up to her disappearance unfold in real-time.
“It was a huge storytelling decision to make,” says Linklater. “To me, the point was to give the audience a front-row seat to the conflict. The book withholds quite a bit and Bernadette disappears from the reader— as well as her family—for a long time. I was like, ‘I don’t think the movie could do without Cate for 35 or 40 whole minutes.’ I wanted to give Cate’s Bernadette the benefit of the doubt, at least technically, so we could see the ways the other characters might misinterpret her behavior.”
Written with Blanchett already attached, the actor had her work cut out for her personifying Semple’s vitriolic protagonist without completely alienating audiences along the way. Aside from her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup), a Microsoft big-shot and TED Talk all-star, and their sweet, studious daughter Bee, Bernadette has actively withdrawn from everyone and everything. A recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, she has been on a 20-year hiatus from what should have been a successful architecture career—and being idle does not agree with her. One of the central questions the film explores is, “What happens to the artist who is no longer creating?” According to her former colleague (Laurence Fishburne), Bernadette is at risk of becoming “a menace to society.” His advice? “Get your ass back to work.”
Bernadette certainly has energy to burn, energy that she primarily channels into long-winded diatribes against, among other things, Seattle’s urban planning failures and what she finds to be the grotesquely false pleasantries of the other moms at Bee’s school, whom she gleefully refers to as gnats. (She has particular beef with her neighbor Audrey, played by a fantastic Kristen Wiig, who has been on her case to remove the blackberry bushes she claims are encroaching on her yard.) Bernadette also spends a great deal of time anxiously pacing around her giant, dilapidated house— a former Catholic girls school replete with a confessional and a fresco of the Virgin Mary—dictating tasks, opinions, and anxieties to her personal assistant, who is (allegedly) based in Delhi.
The main reason Bernadette doesn’t want to go on the family trip to Antarctica: “It would require me to be surrounded by people.” Blanchett delivers the word with such palpable disdain, even Molière would be impressed. “I’d be trapped with 147 other humans,” she continues, having already calculated the smallest possible cruise ship she could be on, “who will uniquely annoy me with their rudeness and waste, incessant yammering, boring small talk, creepy food requests, or worse—they’ll turn their curiosity toward me and expect pleasantry in return.” Impressively, she’s not even out of breath.
“It was a fine line, the likability issue,” says Linklater. “Some of the funniest parts in the book are Bernadette’s rants.” But what reads on the page doesn’t necessarily play onscreen and one of the biggest challenges writing the script was striking the perfect balance. “Cate knew that line, too,” adds Linklater. “She’d say, ‘Bernadette wouldn’t do this,’ or ‘Bernadette would do that.’ She’s such a great collaborator and a strong voice for herself. There’s a reason she is where she is in this world, obviously. I really did trust her.”
The film’s primary source of pathos comes from the interactions between Bernadette and her daughter. In one affecting scene, the two are driving in the pelting Seattle rain singing along dramatically to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” when Bernadette breaks down into tears. “I just want you to know how hard it is for me sometimes,” she tells Bee. The extent to which she is truly trying her best for Bee’s sake becomes increasingly apparent as the movie progresses. Even if Bee doesn’t fully understand why Bernadette is the way she is, it’s their unshakable mother-daughter bond that propels the narrative forward.
While her husband has serious (and not totally unwarranted) reservations about Bernadette’s sanity—he hires a psychiatrist (Judy Greer) to intervene in their family life—Bee remains absolutely steadfast that her mom is not crazy. “Just because you can’t understand something, doesn’t mean you can’t at least try,” she tells her father. It’s at Bee’s insistence that they hop the next flight to Antarctica in pursuit of Bernadette.
Though essential to the story, the geographical jump in the film’s second half brought with it a number of challenges. “It was a lot of logistics,” says Kelly. “ ‘How to get from the shore to the boat? Where do we land?’ You have to be able to roll with what you’re being presented with.” One of the things the crew had to roll with was a major storm that hit their boat in Greenland, where most of the Antarctica footage involving the cast was shot. “It was intense,” recalls Linklater. “We were shooting in it up to a point. I’d say, ‘Cut,’ and half the crew would disappear and go throw up. We had a little test screening and someone commented that they thought the CGI in that scene didn’t look real,” he laughs. “That’s a true hurricane!”
Despite that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a bigger budget project than he often works on—replete with special effects and exotic locations—Linklater maintains that his approach remains the same. “You only know your own process,” he says. “Maybe it changes regarding scale and pace, but it’s kind of the same damn thing every time. That’s what I’ve come to realize: You’re stuck with yourself!”
Did he at least have more energy to devote to directing given he wasn’t pulling double duty as a producer, as he normally does? “I didn’t even know I wasn’t a producer on this until we were doing the closing credits,” he laughs. “I did exactly what I’ve done on all my movies for the last 20 years.” An indie director through and through. MM
Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens August 16, 2019, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures / United Artists Releasing. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2019 issue. Feature image: Fox Hunt: In director Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) sends her family on a search mission when she abruptly goes missing. All images courtesy of Annapurna Pictures / United Artists Releasing