A Q&A With Skip Hollandsworth
The executive editor on what it was like helping Richard Linklater turn his East Texas murder story into a star-studded film.
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In January 1998 TEXAS MONTHLY published a story by executive editor Skip Hollandsworth about a darkly humorous tale of murder that took place in the tiny town of Carthage (“Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.”) A few days after the story was published, director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) called up Hollandsworth to ask if he would like to work together on a screenplay based on the true story of Marjorie Nugent and Bernie Tiede. After nearly fifteen years of winding through the Hollywood process, the movie, Bernie—starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine—finally debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year and South by Southwest this past march. In the May 2012 piece, “Lights, Camera, Carthage!” Hollandsworth takes readers behind the scenes to tell the story of how a magazine article becomes a motion picture.
What was Bernie’s reaction when he learned Richard Linklater wanted to make movie about him and Mrs. Nugent?
Initially, he was dubious. He was worried the movie would make him out to be a vicious murderer. But he and Rick swapped letters, and Rick explained that the movie was basically a retelling of the factual story of what exactly happened. Rick also admitted to him, straight up, that there would be a comic tone to much of the movie. Bernie still didn’t understand how a story about his life with Mrs. Nugent could be a comedy. Then he had one of his friends in prison read the TEXAS MONTHLY story that I had written. And from across the prison dormitory, Bernie heard his friend laughing out loud as he read the story.
What was your reaction when you learned Linklater wanted to do the movie?
Well, as I explained in this month’s story, I knew all about who Linklater was, but I had never met him. In truth, I pronounced his last name “Linkletter,” as in Art Linkletter. (The real pronunciation is “Link-late-her.”) And to be really honest, at that time, I had never made it all the way to the end of one of his masterpieces, Before Sunrise, which is about a young couple who sort of fall in love as they spend an evening walking around Vienna, because I thought the characters talked too much. When I read articles about Linklater’s genius—“Classic Linklater films present life unraveling in front of the camera and force the viewer to sort through layers of unspoken connection and subtext,” wrote one reviewer—I’d just shake my head, utterly bewildered. And then, of all things, he asks me to write a screenplay with him. Needless to say, I was half scared to death when I left my basic North Dallas home and drove to his downtown Austin loft for our first meeting.
How did Linklater become such an admired filmmaker?
Well, he’ll be the first to say that he wasn’t a born cinematic genius. After spending a few years working on an offshore rig, he bought some camera equipment, moved to Austin, and tried to figure out how to be a filmmaker. As I mentioned in the article, his first real film, which was twelve minutes long, was titled Frisbee Golf: the Movie. It followed Linklater’s roommate as he played Frisbee golf near the University of Texas campus. Linklater and his roommate used the film as a way to pick up girls, inviting them back to their rent house to watch it and perhaps engage in some post-movie activities. “That was still a time in Austin before everyone you knew had a camera and was out making movies,” he said. “You called yourself a director, and girls thought that was a big deal.”
But Rick had been deeply influenced by watching foreign films, including films where characters sort of ambled in and out of the screen haphazardly.
That’s what led him to come up with this idea of shooting Slackers, about a day in the life of a group of eccentric young Austin bohemians. Critics and audiences raved over the movie, and he was on his way. But even Rick is a little befuddled by his success. “I can’t really explain what happened,” he told me with a shrug one afternoon while we feasted on some tofu-ish dish at an Austin restaurant called Mr. Natural. (Linklater has been a strict vegetarian since reading about animal rights issues in the early eighties.) “I guess I always kept my mind open about what a movie could be. And I wanted to do movies that were different.” He shrugged again. “Maybe what I do is instinctual. I just don’t know.”
What was it like to write a screenplay with him?
It was so insane that I was working with an art-house auteur that I wanted to laugh out loud. “I guess you should know that I’m more inclined to watch action movies where things get blown up,” I told him early on, thinking it would probably be best if he fired me sooner than later.
“No worries,” he replied in his usual cheerful voice.
And soon, I got really into it. During our meetings, I started talking like Bernie and even doing a Bernie-like swishy walk as we discussed ideas. Rick no doubt began to wonder if I was going through some perplexing transformation. I also wrote a lot of slapstick scenes—bodies falling out caskets, caskets falling out of hearses—that made Rick just shake his head in bewilderment. He kept telling me, over and over, that we didn’t need to add much to what really happened—the real story itself was interesting enough. But I kept getting carried away with more and more scenes that were just absurd, like a scene in which a funeral procession gets lost and drives through a poor black neighborhood. I think Rick and I both agreed it was good for my mental health that we finally finished the script.
And then there was this long period of waiting before the movie was made.
The standard Hollywood story: wait and wait. The script sat on a shelf for more than a decade. I assumed the movie would never get made, in part because the movie business changed. Independent films were not as popular as they used to be. It was much harder to get funding. In fact, when Rick finally got the green light do Bernie, his budget was only $5 million—a pittance in moviemaking. Everyone, including the Hollywood stars—Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine, acted in the movie for the minimum fees allowed by their unions.
You know what’s interesting about this whole funding business is that Rick could long ago have gone the studio route, doing big-budget pictures. But he has an unquenchable love for making intelligent, independent films. They are never commercial successes—a few of them barely get to the theaters—but he doesn’t seem to care. “I felt if I don’t do these movies, no one else will,” he once told the Los Angeles Times.
So what was it like watching Hollywood stars work on a movie you helped write?
Let me start with McConaughey. There’s a tendency to think of him as this freewheeling Hollywood character who plays bongo drums and periodically takes off his shirt. And the first day I saw him on the set, he did seem so laid back that I thought he was still acting like the stoned, high school hanger-on he played in his first movie, Dazed and Confused, about the last day in high school for a group of Texas teenagers in 1976. (The movie was directed by Linklater.) As McConaughey waited for the camera and lights to be repositioned, he sipped from a bottled water called Fresh Squeeze Cloud Juice, which is made in Dripping Springs. “I turned my lady onto this water last night,” he told me, referring to Camila Alves, his Brazilian ex-model girlfriend, who at that moment was outside on the courthouse lawn playing with their two children and wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans that were so tight that I wanted to lean out the courtroom window and shout “Thank you!”
McConaughey let out a heh-hey chuckle and said, “Oh, yeah, cat, she thought it was sweet, sweet nectar.” I just stared at him, thinking, “Really? How in the hell is the good-time, Just-Keep-Living Matthew McConaughey going to be Danny Buck, the bulldog-like district attorney?” Then Linklater said it was time to shoot a courtroom scene, and McConaughey flipped a switch, putting on a performance, much of it improvised, that I found completely riveting. By the way, there’s another story about Matthew in the May issue, written by our film critic Christopher Kelly. Kelly too sees McConaughey finally leaving his stereotypical rom-com roles and coming into his own as an actor.
What about Jack Black’s performance?
I think everyone knows Jack can be slapstick funny, but in Bernie he shows a different side. In fact, the film critics who’ve seen the movie almost universally praise him for turning in a virtuoso performance, going way beyond his standard one-note comic shtick to create a complex character, funny, talented, sympathetic, and disturbed. “More than the film that surrounds him,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter’s critic, “Jack Black is worth the price of admission in Bernie.”
There’s talk he will win awards for his performance. But even if he doesn’t it, he had a ball. “I haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” he told me after shooting a scene in which he performed the lead role in the musical The Music Man, which was followed by a scene in which he sang “Amazing Grace” at a funeral, which was followed by a scene in which he sang “He Touched Me” at a Sunday service at the Methodist church. Black had not grown up in a church: these traditional hymns were brand-new to him. (And they were new as well to some of the unchurched members of Linklater’s crew. After hearing “He Touched Me,” Mikaela Farrell, a makeup artist, marched up to me and said, “I can’t believe you and Rick wrote a homoerotic song about Jesus touching Bernie. That’s gross!”)
Anyway, for all that Black does in the movie—sing, dance, and act, a rare trifecta—what is perhaps most interesting is that he doesn’t show off. “Rick and I talked about how important it was to play this as real as possible and steer clear of pratfalls. I just tried to play it as real as possible and let the funny things happen naturally as they do in life instead of looking for pratfalls or slapstick. I steered clear of all that stuff.”
And then there was Shirley MacLaine.
Linklater had told me when we were originally writing the script that Shirley MacLaine would be the perfect Mrs. Nugent except for the fact that she was too young. But by 2010, when filming began, she was 77 years old. And she was raring to go. When she arrived on the set, I asked her about her love of playing these irascible older females. She said, “I like playing unpleasant characters for comedy. I like them. It’s fun. And it’s what I’m becoming. Not against my will, I love it. I love it when I do something outrageous and surprising . . . I’m too old not to not say things exactly as I feel them.”
Were you or anyone else intimidated by MacLaine’s star power?
In the story, I talk about how she was so good being Mrs. Nugent that many of the East Texans who were in the movie almost believed she had become Mrs. Nugent. (I did too: read the scene in the story of me sneaking out of town.) And yes, it was a little intimidating to walk up to a genuine Hollywood legend and say hello. But except for the times she was acting like Mrs. Nugent, she was a delight. She told us stories during breaks about her history in Hollywood. One of the extras was holding one of her many autobiographies she had written in hopes she might sign it. “I believe in UFOs too!” the extra exclaimed. Shirley just laughed. And another extra told her that in a dinner theater version of Steel Magnolias, she had played Ouisa (the character Shirley made famous in the movie version). “Now, Shirley, I was good, I was real good.” Shirley laughed again.
What about the real-life East Texans who were hired to play the townspeople of Carthage?
The East Texans were what made this movie so different. Among those Rick hired was an elderly former neighbor of Mrs. Nugent’s who used to travel with her. He hired Mrs. Nugent’s hairstylist of 32 years to play himself. He hired a man who cleaned Mrs. Nugent’s chimney, a woman at a dress shop who waited on Mrs. Nugent, and a woman who worked at a Carthage cafe and who served Danny Buck lunch nearly every day. Some of them were reciting lines we had written for them, and some were talking off the top of their heads. As a result, viewers are uncertain what’s taken from real life, what’s being made up by us, and what’s being made up by the real-life gossips.
How is the Carthage community reacting to all of the attention? Do people still support Bernie, or are they trying to move past this negative attention?
The movie has set off lots of talk in Carthage, of course. There are some people who are openly angry that a movie has been made of a tragic murder. And there are people who think we didn’t go far enough criticizing Mrs. Nugent and turning Bernie into a martyr.
What is your take on Bernie?
This is a difficult one, because no one will ever know exactly everything Bernie was thinking or doing in the weeks leading up to Mrs. Nugent’s murder. Was the murder carefully and deviously planned out? Or was it a sudden act of insanity? That’s what people will be debating for a long time to come.
After the filming was over, I went with Linklater to see Bernie, who’s now 53 years old and has been in jail or prison for the last fifteen years. He had gained weight and was suffering from diabetes, and Linklater, the good vegetarian, was worried that Bernie wasn’t getting the proper foods to keep him healthy so that he can stay alive for another sixteen years, when he’s eligible for parole.
As gentlemanly as ever, his hair perfectly in place and his white prison uniform immaculately pressed, Bernie met us in the visiting area and told us he was still working on his framed crocheted memorials for Carthage’s deceased. He mentioned that he was able to pick up the NPR station from Texarkana on the radio in his cell so that he could listen to classical music. He also said he was now going to Catholic chapel services on Sundays because there were no Protestant services being offered at the unit. “I miss being a Methodist, but the hymns are good, and I get to sing a solo every now and then,” he said. “I have a life in here, and I’m going to be okay.” And then his eyes filled with tears.
“I hope you won’t take offense if I told you that I wish that there was no movie,” he said. “I wish Mrs. Nugent was still alive and I was back at the funeral home, doing what I love.”
Bernie rose from his chair as a guard came over to escort him back to his cell. He slowly walked away, his back straight and his head held high. Linklater and I stared at each other. The last scene of the movie ends with Black walking away toward his cell, his back also straight and his head held high.
“Life imitating art?” I murmured. “Art imitating life?”
Linklater gave me one of his shrugs, and we stood there in silence as Bernie turned a corner and disappeared.