Interview with Richard Linklater


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.

Q: Texas 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 say.

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 while.

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 details.

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 year?

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 story?

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 bit.

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 believe it.

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 2004.

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 coincidental.

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 to execute?

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 that.

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 anything wrong.

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.

Q: "Boyhood?"

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 instance.

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.


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