In “Bernie,” Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater’s newest film, Jack Black plays real-life Texas criminal Bernie Tiede, a mortician who strikes up an unlikely friendship with millionaire Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). When the friendly, unassuming Bernie is driven to murder the curmudgeonly Marjorie, District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) swoops in to pick up the pieces.
The Daily Texan participated in a roundtable interview with Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey during last month’s South By Southwest Film Festival.
The Daily Texan: How long ago did you find the Texas Monthly article that inspired the film?
Richard Linklater: I read it when it came out. I think it was December ’98? I immediately called the writer, Skip Hollandsworth, started talking about the story and, at that point, there hadn’t been a trial. At that point, it looked like Bernie was going to get off, and that was kind of a joke. That was the angle of that article. They weren’t going to be able to get a prosecution. I went to the trial and went through the whole process, that’s all very personal to me. I was at that courthouse, I saw what the jury looked like. A lot of the dialogue, what Matthew’s character says in the trial, that’s all firsthand.
DT: Did the material from the townspeople come from actual interviews?
Linklater: So much of it. Skip, in his journalistic work, had a big file full of interviews. The people in the movie are a hopefully flowing mix of actors, people from the area who knew of the story, and some people who were next-door neighbors or knew Bernie.
DT: There are so many quotable moments.
Linklater: A lot of those jokes were in the actual transcripts of interviews Skip had done. I got that idea of town gossips reading all that because, if you think about it, Mrs. Nugent’s not around and Bernie can’t defend himself, so it’s a gossip chain that the story is absorbed through. I thought, “I’ve never seen a movie that told its story through town gossips,” because that’s really strong in a small town. It’s a huge social element and I thought it was appropriate for the storytelling.
DT: Matthew, your character is kind of the voice of reason in the movie. What’s the importance of having that guy who tells everybody else, “You people are nuts?”
Matthew McConaughey: Voice of reason? That’s what is really interesting about the whole story. Cases are moved all the time because they don’t think they can get an acquittal. This one was moved to try and get a guilty verdict. In research, you’re not finding many other cases like that. You talk about where you’ve got the info from. You’re getting it from the people. And then, Danny gets in there and, as a good prosecutor would, paints a different picture that may or may not be true. They work to get the verdict that they’re after, so he kind of exaggerated, really. Bernie wasn’t a serial killer, but it worked! This was my first time to prosecute [in a film].
Linklater: He was like, “I’m always getting these guys off that I think are really guilty. Finally, I can nail somebody.”
DT: With this character and your character in “Killer Joe” [another SXSW film], it really feels like a departure from the kind of roles that people associate you with.
McConaughey: I’ve tried to stay fluid with my career choices. I was looking for some things that were different, offbeat, not straight down the line comedies. “Killer Joe” was a great script that came off the page for me. I could taste it. It was something different. Independents are better stories, more interesting stories for me right now, and that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do more studio pictures. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to do more romantic comedies down the line.
DT: You guys worked together before on “Dazed and Confused.” What’s it like working together again on this film?
McConaughey: We’ve got real trust in each other. I really feel like he brings out the best in me. I like to listen to him. We like to play verbal ping-pong. We have a real shorthand, and it’s fluid. From the beginning, in “Dazed,” there’s not a demarcation line between behind the camera and in front of the camera. There’s just an easy flow. It’s very fun for an actor and creative.
Linklater: I like getting those calls from Matthew, too, as he’s building up that character. It’s fun. We can talk forever if he wants to. Wherever he’s at in his development, I’m glad to be there any way I can be.
“Bernie” releases April 27. Check back next week for an interview with Jack Black and a review of the film.
Printed on Friday, April 20, 2012 as: Linklater, McConaughey discuss background behind 'Bernie' film