Any list of top indie filmmakers would include Richard Linklater. But maybe because he has
proven such a stylistic chameleon, shifting from the scruffy, seeming verité of
his iconic "Slacker" (1991) the glitz
and gloss of mainstream studio films
like "School of Rock" (2003)
and "Bad News Bears" (2005)
he doesn't have the more recognizable profile of such more recognized auteurs
as Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, etc. His new movie "Bernie" is the
true story about an undertaker (Jack Black) in a small Texas town who's loved by everyone and then
has one bad day, when he shoots his millionaire companion and benefactress Marjorie
Nugent, and puts her in a freezer. Maybe
the film will remind people what a great director Linklater is. Anyway, it's a
lot of fun.
Linklater spoke with me recently over the phone. Here's what he
had to say.
has inspired a lot of your films. What makes it so cinematically appealing?
RL: Gosh, for me, it's just home. I grew up in East Texas, for
instance, where this movie is set. Whenever I read a story like this it kind of
resonates personally. I felt I knew that milieu, those people. I felt pretty
close to all the people there. It sort of attracted me. But if I grew up in Ohio I would be
attracted to stories from around there. Something natural about that, I would
Q: Blue state people like myself have this notion of Texas as this big, red
state monolith. I found the geography lesson in the film very helpful. It's
actually almost a small country in itself.
RL: That's an extension of the same rap I've been giving people
my whole adult life, when I try to explain Texas. People have no idea. It's so big.
It's a lot of different places. You've got different politics, very different
looks, you know. So that was kind of a fun riff on things I've been saying for a
Q: You've been interested in the case for quite a while, since
1998. You attended the trial?
RL: Yeah, I read the article in January of '98, attended the
trial I think the next year, had the script pretty early on and it was just the
passage of time to finally get the movie made. It ended up being a long haul.
Q: Do you go to trials, like John Waters?
RL: Not really. I grew up around the criminal justice system
having grown up in Huntsville Texas, which is where the state prison is, which
is where they do the executions. My mom was involved in criminal justice
reform. I'd visit guys in prison and stuff. She was kind of an activist. In her
own way. When guys got out of prison, she heard that the first time you're out
prison you have drug dealers and hookers waiting for you because they know that
you have $200. So, welcome back to society. So she created this thing where
people could have a donut and just talk with someone for a little while before
they were shipped out of town and attacked by vultures. She came up with this
30 minute transitional period where this group of people just talked to him.
Q: It seems to me that Bernie might have had hard time making the
transition to prison life.
RL: Yeah. Jack [Black] talks about it. He goes to these maximum
security prisons and he talks to these pretty rough customers and then there's
Bernie, this kind of a sweet guy. So he was very incongruous to those
surroundings. But the truth is we got to know Bernie's friends in the craft
shop. They were really a good bunch of guys. You don't know what everyone is in
for or what the circumstances are but just like with Bernie himself, things
happen. I feel better having seen his life there, that he's made a life for
himself. He teaches. He's in the church. He does a lot of good. I think he was
the same guy inside that he was outside. I felt better about his day-to-day
life having visited him there than I imagined. People imagine the worst about
prison. And for good reason; it's not a place you want to be. It's horrible.
Yet he's taken a horrible environment and made it as good as he possibly could
be for him.
Q: You interviewed him for the movie.
RL: Yeah. That footage at the end of movie is Jack talking to
Bernie. We got a couple of hours talking to him.
Q: Did he shed insight?
RL: Oh yeah. It was very important. Because I had seen him at the
trial. I'd been writing him but it was great to be actually meeting him. Talk,
and stuff. It kind of solidified the last little pieces of the puzzle in my
mind. For me as a director and Jack as an actor it was very essential. Jack
kind of absorbed Bernie like a sponge. The walk, the accent, kind of his
general demeanor. His sweetness.
Q: Do you think that having to wait until now to make the film
was a good thing, that it might be more relevant today?
RL: Yeah, yeah. I think it's a better film now than it would have
been back then. A lot's gone on. We set the film in contemporary setting; it's
not like it's a period film. Just people who know the real-life case know it
was the late 90s. You just have to think of it from Bernie's perspective. When
you think of all that's gone on in the world you can't help but think of the
President's support of gay marriage, Lawrence
v. Texas, there's so much that has gone on that it's a different world from
the one Bernie was operating in.
Q: So you didn't have to make sure you had period cars and other
RL: You almost don't have to. East Texas is the land that time
forgot. I thought, this is going to have a period feel no matter what. But we're
not going to have Apple products and things like that.
Q: One aspect of the film that rings a bell today was how the
prosecutor Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) tried to label Bernie as "elitist"
or "other" by accusing him of seeing "Les Miserables."
RL: Yeah. It worked. That's the best thing you can do politically
whether you're on a trial, where someone's on the stand, or in the political
arena. Just paint them as not like you and me. And in that case Danny Buck did
a really clever thing by moving the trial to a place [another small Texas town called San
Augustine] where he had no context, nobody knew him, they didn't know what kind
of guy he was. They only knew he was a confessed murderer and they saw these
awful crime photos and once you can paint someone as elitist, that they think
they're better than you... Southerners really -- that's the hot button with
Southerners. Nixon knew it, with the Southern Strategy, Reagan really knew it,
and it's always worked. It's always worked. That, you know, that there are
these hoity-toity people who live better than you who think they're better than
you and they want to run your life and tell you what to do, to drink white wine
with fish. Good old resentment. And it works. Lee Atwater. It's always a
successful strategy to take away somebody's humanity and replace it with this
kind of.. because there's some truth to elitism everywhere. It's a real human
phenomenon. When you can pin it on someone. But who's more elitist than some of
these commentators? Sean Hannity's not elitist? How much is that guy making a
Q: Mrs. Nugent is the real elitist in the movie, having inherited
millions made in the oil industry. Do you see this as kind of a Robin Hood
RL: That was part of the appeal of the story that Bernie really
didn't have any greed in himself. He admits to enjoying all that part, once he
was spending time with Miss Nugent he enjoyed all that. But he never really had
that on his own. Once he had more of her money he didn't really spend it on
himself he was just giving it to others. He really did.
Q: Like the Newton Boys.
RL: My kind of criminals.
Q: Steal from the rich, give to the poor, maybe keep a little
RL: Yeah, a little bit for yourself. But you don't have a problem
taking it from the rich. And in Bernie's case Miss Nugent really didn't want
her relatives to have it. And she was getting old and didn't mind Bernie, you
know, it kind of went through her to him, and to causes he supported, while she
was alive. And Bernie just kind of continued after she was gone. He was the
sole beneficiary of her estate.
Q: Not anymore, though, I assume.So this is basically a socialist movie, then
RL: Yeah, socialist, pro-gay, everything you can imagine.
Q: Have you shown it to the people in Carthage?
RL: It just played last weekend, it just showed a couple of times
last weekend and it has its run coming up. But I heard from a couple of people up
there that it was raining and there was this huge line. some of the local
churches were kind of against the idea of the movie or making fun of murder and
all that. But I think the word got out .. it's playing in Austin,
so people are driving in five hours from East Texas
to see the movie. The word trickled back that it was respectful of the locals
and doesn't make them look like hicks. I think everyone is loosening up as far
as seeing the movie.
Q: The people in San Augustine don't come off too well, however..
RL: That's what Danny Buck told me personally. He said, "You'll
be fine in Carthage. But I don't know about San Augustine." I said, I don't
even think they have a movie theater, so that's okay.
Q: Are they as backward as that local Carthage guy says, that they have more
tattoos than teeth?
RL: I was at that trial. It was actually... That jury would
gladly have given him the death penalty had it been a capital murder trial. It
was a little scary. I talked to judges since then, and I said, my eyes couldn't
be deceiving me? They had Big Gulps, drinks, chewing tobacco. They said it's at
the judge's discretion. Other judges might say you need a coat and tie to come
into my courtroom. But there it was such small town southern life you wouldn't
Q: No shoes?
RL: No, they definitely had shoes.
Q: Sounds kind of like the courtroom in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
RL: It was kind of close.
Q: I was surprised that the prosecution didn't point out that
Bernie was gay. To enhance his otherness.
Q: You know, I think it was implied. I don't think the word "gay"
or "homosexual" ever came up. And yet, I think it was the implication. I wasn't
there at the very last... I saw Bernie's testimony but I didn't see this part
where they had Bernie's stepmother.. who he was never close to... his dad died
when he was 14 and he felt like he didn't have any parental guidance or else
she didn't want kids, or want him. But she testified that he had worn girl's
clothing as a little boy.
Q: Hang him!
RL: Yeah. It's a different era. I think even in our short little
12-13 years I don't think it would have flown like that. Maybe it would. It was
a pretty backwards place.
Q: And now we have an African-American president who says he
believes in gay marriage.
RL: That's like the worst nightmare of a certain percentage of
our population. The two worst two things ever! [laughs] A black President
promoting gay marriage! It's like, okay, this really isn't the country I grew
up in. A socialist Muslim black president who wants your kids to have to marry
someone of the same sex.
Q: You've gotten involved in other Presidential campaigns. In
RL: Yeah. That was a big one.
Q: You said you were audited by the IRS?
RL: [laughs] I mean you can never prove that shit, it seems
Q: Are you involved in this election?
RL: Yeah. This year isn't quite as desperate as '04 because there
you were the opposition. The damage was being done. An every day I'm sure
that's how Republicans probably see it right now.
But you're already in the incumbency... But, equally important.
But '04 was the most shameful, and for that we got Scalia, I mean Roberts and
Alito for the next 30 years. From the '04 election.
Q: Do you believe the system works?
RL: Yeah, it works, as always, the structure works. It's just
kind of... it's pushed to the margins, to the brink.
Q: One of the aspects of the film that apparently made it
difficult to finance was how it mixed documentary-like interviews with a more-or-less
conventional narrative. Why was that important for you and how difficult was it
RL: That was the weird element of the movie but it was just part
and parcel with my thinking about the story telling. When I was first getting obsessed
with the story and thinking how it might work as a film, Skip Hollandsworth
just gave me his Bernie file, all the trial, all the local interviews, his
journalistic interviews, the transcriptions, the misspellings, and I was reading
that and I thought, this is perfect -- with Bernie in jail and not speaking and
Miss Nugent long gone, they can't speak, so all that was left was everyone
talking about them. And I was like, of course, that's how small town's are -- it's
gossip. And it made me think. oh yeah, gossip, gossip. So that got me going on
I was thinking about my mom and her friends sitting around
talking. Her friends are so funny, just how they express themselves and the
things they say and I think that's so funny in real life, people saying
slightly different things about one subject. and then they go off and talk
about each other. And I thought, that would be a just great kind of
round-robin, sewing circle gossip circle. That just got in my head. but it did
look weird on the page. I think primarily because they all sounded the same.
They weren't really characters. They were just gossips saying... it was hard on
the page to distinguish the different characters. And there was a lot of it, too.
I think it just put us in this category of not really being a movie.
Q: There's no "Rashomon" effect, either, because everyone agrees
that Bernie was great and Miss Nugent was awful.
RL: If there was one 100% agreement it was that, and to this day
I'm looking for a dissenting opinion. I always think it's coming around the
corner, but it just doesn't. That someone would say that Miss Nugent was this
really great lady and Bernie was this horrible guy. But it hasn't happened. The
closer you get to Miss Nugent -- her own nephew wrote this story for the "New
York Times Magazine"
about three or four weeks ago -- the worse she comes off. Jack was on the plane sitting next to someone from Carthage and he thought ,
uh-oh, this is where they're going to tell us we're wrong. And the guy said,
yeah, Rod Nugent, her husband, and her, they were the two worst people I ever
met. We got letters when we started making the movie saying, we got stories
about the two worst people I've ever known. It is a little sensitive. There are
surviving family members, grandkids and a son, and the film is kind of neutral
on them. I don't think they're bad. She had pushed them so far away -- it looks
bad to be dead [nine months] that long and no one care enough to go and visit.
But it's her fault -- she had pushed them so far away. They weren't doing
Q: So what's coming up? I interviewed Julie Delpy recently and
she said you might be doing a third in the "Before Sunrise/Sunset" series.
RL: Quite possibly. It's about that time in the cycle. And we
have followed the same thing. Five years of going, "No, no we don't have any
ideas. And then in the last couple of years it just kind of percolated to the
surface. It was Julie and Ethan being in their 40's now, they both have kids.
Julie has a kid now. I don't know. It's a new phase of our lives.
Q: It's a collaborative effort?
RL: Yeah. I think that's the only way it will work. Who knows. It
might be happening. There's nothing set. But it could be going that way.
RL: Yeah. That's ongoing. A couple more years on that.
Q: So, anything next?
RL: No, nothing. Not really. I wish I did. It's a difficult time
to get movies off the ground. I've got a lot of projects and scripts swirling
about. But it gets tougher and tougher.
Q: One last question: what's your favorite Texas movie?
RL: Ooh. That's a tough one. Any given time and moment, just off
the top of my head today, if I had to watch a Texas movie -- maybe "Tender Mercies" with
Robert Duvall. Bruce Beresford. Directed by an Aussie, of course.
Q: Sometimes the outsider has the deeper insight.
RL: Yeah. I like "Written on the Wind" more than "Giant," for
Q: This film reminded me a little of "The Trouble With Harry."
Which also stars Shirley MacLaine. Did you have this in mind at all?
RL: Speaking of Shirley... No really. I saw that film a long time
ago in the 80s when they re-released four Hitchcock movies. I don't know if I
really know that one that well. There's a body floating around. And young
Shirley . She had some funny stories about Hitchcock, the way he talked. But in
this film she's become Harry.