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: