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Bernie

Submitted by MBergeron on May 2, 2012 – 7:54 pmNo Comment
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Matthew McConaughey has played lawyers in a number of movies – The Lincoln Lawyer, Amistad, A Time To Kill, and now Bernie, the latest collaboration between McConaughey and Richard Linklater. “You mean movies where I’m defeated,” laughs McConaughey. While McConaughey was studying pre-law at University of Texas he met a casting director in a bar that lead to his role in Dazed and Confused. “That’s where I was headed when I ran into Don Phillips in a bar and that’s how I met this guy,” McConaughey says pointing to Linklater, sitting next to him at a press roundtable in Austin (during SXSW).

“The process of getting to the day of shooting is really fun for Rick and I. However many hours it takes us it never seems that long,” notes McConaughey. Adds Linklater: “There’s always some crucial rehearsal time.” “Sometimes it’s one on one, and I always look forward to that,” says McConaughey.

A little over ten years ago Linklater had heard about a murder trial in East Texas after reading about the case in an article in Texas Monthly. Linklater felt that one day this crime of passion would make a great movie. “A lot of the dialogue is word for word from the transcripts of the trial,” says Linklater. McConaughey plays the small town district attorney Danny Buck who prosecutes Bernie (Jack Black) the town’s kindly mortician after he kills the town’s wealthy yet shrewish widow, (Shirley MacLaine) herself the object of scorn from everyone in the town. The actual events took place in Carthage.

Linklater optioned the rights to Skip Hollandsworth’s article, titled Midnight in the Garden of East Texas (January 1998), and together they attending the trial. The whole affair appealed to both Linklater’s sense of curiosity and his East Texas background. While Linklater took his cues from Hollandsworth’s story (they share screenplay credit), the movie also uses the people of Carthage to tell the story. “I’d never seen a movie told from the perspective of a group of gossips, but in this case it seemed like the proper narrative technique that would reveal everything you ever wanted to know about the town and the people involved,” states Linklater in the film’s director’s statement.`

Hollandsworth in a separate interview last week in Houston told Free Press Houston how the script itself was written around the same time as the trial and that’s the draft that was shot; it just took that long for the movie to get made. “Linklater knew from the time he read my story how he wanted to make the film,” Hollandsworth explained. “He hired me not to invent dramatic scenes but to tell real stories about these real people. Rick was adamant that we were going to use the factual story arc. There was a period where I began making up things thinking it would be great. And Rick would say did that really happen? And I would go, no. Rick only wanted things that actually happened.”

“I have a way of pulling people into my world,” explains Linklater. “Most times you option the story and that’s it, I directly called up some of the people involved. I told them how much this story got to me, how much I liked it.”

In reality everybody in town hated Mrs. Nugent, an animosity brought on by her despicable ways. As much as the widow was despised Bernie was adorned mainly because of his many contributions to the community. People honestly thought that Bernie would be found not guilty. As one person says in the movie, “He only shot her four times, not five.” When that piece of dialogue comes up in the conversation Hollandsworth notes “that quote came to me from a niece of Mrs. Nugent, who told me her dad said that.”

“I think I’ve been trying to tell an East Texas story for years but was never able to find one. I have a football story based there but that’s never happened. While this movie has some appropriate dark twisted humor it really lends itself to what I’m trying to say,” says Linklater. “I had no access to the two main characters, Mrs. Nugent’s gone and Bernie is in prison. I was hearing the story from a lot of different angles. So the format of having town gossips tell the story evolved out of that. It’s a small town, and the sense of humanity is just stronger in a small town. I never saw this as a documentary so much as the story of a small town.”

Regarding the tone of Bernie, McConaughey states “This was one of the funniest scripts I’d ever read, but there was also a charm to it. Yes there’s was dark comedy but I was laughing more than anything else.” One reporter asks how exaggerated McConaughey’s performance as Buck was to which Linklater answers: “Danny Buck’s going to be at the screening tonight and if anything Matthew underplayed his character.”

One reporter asks Black how it felt to be one of the Jacks that romances Shirley MacLaine – first there was Jack Lemmon (The Apartment) and then Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment). “That’s a lot of pressure, those are some powerful Jacks,” Black says with a straight face. “I feel like the third Jack on that list, definitely the one-eyed Jack.”

Black considers Linklater one of the best directors he’s ever worked with and hopes to one-day film School of Rock 2 although presently there’s no script. “Linklater’s a real worker, he just doesn’t show up on set. He likes to do his due diligence, reading through it with the actors a month in advance, rehearsals.” And Black did meet the real life Bernie. Visiting Bernie Tiede in prison (he’s currently incarcerated at the Texas unit at New Boston) was a humbling experience. “It’s a tricky spot to be in,” Black says in total seriousness. “You want to be funny but this is a person’s life. So it’s a little dance you do with respect. It’s just intense going to a maximum-security prison. Five security checkpoints, you get scared. Guys with facial tattoos, heavy stories around every corner. And then you see Bernie and it’s so incongruous. He’s like a gentle giant; really what it comes down to is he had one bad day. He’s been in prison for twelve years so he’s not aware of my career at all.”

Bernie gives Black the chance to sing (there’s some community theater) and when you think about it some of his best roles involve music (School of Rock, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, High Fidelity). When asked to describe the album cover of Tenacious D’s new recording Rize of the Fenix, Black leaps to the occasion to display his trademark wit. “It’s a Phoenix rising, the most powerful mythological bird. It’s a terrifying creature made of flames. It’s head is sort of helmet shaped mushroom cap, purple and the legs are so powerfully muscular they’re like round globes with a blue tint. A majestic creature, thanks for mentioning it.”

Bernie opens this weekend at the River Oaks Three.

- Michael Bergeron

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