Jack Black's Bernie Tiede, third from left, is a well-liked funeral… (Van Redin, Millennium Entertainment )
Early in the movie "Bernie," a character describes the distinct regions of Texas with an on-screen map as a guide, noting that East Texas is "where the South begins. This is life behind the Pine Curtain." It is against that specific regional identity that the film's darkly comic tale of murder amid the rhythms of small-town life takes place.
"Having grown up there, that map is really the spiel I give people when they ask, 'What does East Texas look like?'" said filmmaker Richard Linklater, a lifelong Texas resident who has made films such as "Slacker" and "The Newton Boys" explicitly set in the state.
"They don't know what it looks like — is it like cows and prairies?" he added. "It's the South, it's trees and woods. Texas is so big it's different in different areas. So that's kind of my explanation of Texas to people."
The film is based on a real-life crime and reunites Linklater with his "School of Rock" star Jack Black. Here, Black plays Bernie Tiede, who came to the small town of Carthage as a funeral director and soon settled into the local social fabric. He befriended a wealthy, cranky widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and became her companion and caretaker. Although Tiede seemed to enjoy the lifestyle Nugent's affluence allowed, her emotional stranglehold on him grew to be such that he shot her dead. For nine months, Tiede hid the body in a freezer and was able to maintain the ruse that she was still alive.
"This was just a quirky murder story," said Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote a 1998 Texas Monthly article about the case after Tiede was arrested that brought the story to Linklater's attention. (Hollandsworth and Linklater share screenplay credit on"Bernie.")
Linklater and Hollandsworth attended Tiede's trial together. In an unusual move, Dist. Atty. Danny Buck Davidson (played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey) asked for a change of venue to a different county because Tiede was so well-liked locally there was concern about finding a jury impartial enough to convict him. Tiede was given a life sentence.
Giving the film a tangy sense of verite are towns folk who are sprinkled throughout the movie, providing context and commentary on the strange goings-on of Tiede and Nugent. Shooting in and around Carthage as well as his home base of Austin, Linklater cast a mix of actors and genuine East Texas locals, including Nugent's onetime neighbor and her former hairdresser, to portray his Greek chorus of gossips.
"You are what everyone says you are," explained Linklater, 51, during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "It just seemed like a storytelling device I hadn't really seen before."
"In a small town you're defined by the gossip said about you," added Hollandsworth on the phone from Dallas. "In this case especially because Bernie was in prison and Mrs. Nugent was dead. So their stories, who they are, were basically told by other people."
Among the chatterboxes is Kay McConaughey, mother of Matthew and a former resident of Longview, Texas, about an hour away from Carthage. "You couldn't live there without knowing about it," she said. (In a scene she shares with her son, her character needles Danny Buck not to prosecute Bernie.)
That town gossip structure, having people talk about events rather than show them, was written into the screenplay. The unusual storytelling method proved problematic for Linklater as he sought to raise financing for the project, which ended up costing about $5 million.
"It just didn't seem like a movie on paper," he said. "The standard note was, 'You need to dramatize all this.' Even a producer I'd worked with before said, 'Well, it's not a movie.' And now it's something people seem to appreciate about the movie, but at the time it was our albatross."
"I thought it was one of the most original aspects of the movie, the mixture of documentary and narrative," said Black, while adding that the structure deepens the film's darkly comic tone. "It's not an easy film to emotionally navigate. It turns a lot of rules on their head."
Some elements of the film that feel like flourishes have at least a grounding in fact. Tiede really did head to a rehearsal of a local musical production after shooting Nugent, although it was "Guys and Dolls" in real life, not "The Music Man," as it is in the movie. That small embellishment in the film provides Black a chance for a charmingly frenetic rendition of "Seventy-Six Trombones."
MacLaine was intrigued to play a character that was at once villain and victim. "Anybody who everybody hates," she said, "I'm interested in."
Keeping sight of what was really at the story's center — a little old lady was shot dead, whether she was much liked or not — Linklater and Hollandsworth were aware that the black humor of their telling of the tale could sometimes skirt the line of bad taste. Yet for Linklater, the story was just too odd not to tell as close to the truth as possible.