Richard Linklater’s newest movie, Bernie, received a rollicking hometown reception Wednesday at the Paramount Theatre, and Linklater, Jack Black, and Matthew McConaughey all participated in a Q&A after the film’s only SXSW screening.
If you haven’t watched the movie’s trailer or read the TEXAS MONTHLY article the film is based on (Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 story, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”), consider this a SPOILER ALERT.
The movie is based on the true story of Carthage funeral director Bernie Tiede’s unlikely relationship with Marjorie Nugent, an elderly widow. Tiede was a pillar of the local community, while Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine) was less than beloved, so when he later confessed to killing her, most of the town rallied around Tiede.
The Q&A primarily focused on the fact that real events inspired the movie. McConaughey, who plays Carthage district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, said that he couldn’t share his character’s zeal for prosecuting Tiede. Although McConaughey said it was the second or third time he’d seen the film:
The thing that got me tonight–it felt like it got everyone else–was, after Bernie goes down, as soon as he gets life … and I know I’m playing Danny Buck, who’s trying to send him that way and then some … I felt–‘Oh shit! No! That’s a long time!’
The audience agreed. When Linklater asked how many people in the theater thought that Tiede deserved a life sentence, only six or seven raised a hand.
McConaughey, who delivers a high-motor performance, was asked how close his portrayal was to the real Davidson. He said “I’m told by those in the know that I, if anything, underplayed him.”
Jack Black, outfitted in bright green sneakers, said the movie asked the question, “How could such a kind and gentle person be capable of this heinous crime? And if he could be capable of it, maybe anyone under the worst possible cirucmstances could be capable of a horrible crime like that.”
“We all know we could do it,” Linklater cracked. “We’re in the entertainment industry.”
But Black acknowledged that knowing it’s a true story “is a heavy thing.”
Linklater also recounted his initial contact with Bernie Tiede, who is serving his life sentence in the Telford Unit outside of Texarkana:
I wrote him a letter, introduced myself, once the film looked like it was gonna happen, and just kind of let him know … talked a lot about Jack playing him. He wrote me back a really nice letter–a long letter. The only guys who still write letters in this culture are prisoners. So I get these long letters from him. He’s the nicest guy.
I described it as kind of a dark comedy and he told me … he was thinking, first off, why doesn’t this story go away? And then, what could possibly be funny [about it]?
So he went back and got the TEXAS MONTHLY article, and he let a friend of his in the craft shop read it, because those guys usually don’t share why they’re there or whatever, [but] he let him read the article, and he said about five minutes later he hear some howling laughter. His friend was just laughing as he read the article, so [he thought], ‘I guess it is kind of funny.’
Black said that they were hoping they could screen the movie at the prison for Tiede, though Linklater noted inmates really only get to watch TV. “I’m hoping, like Tim League and the Alamo Drafhouse will do a [Rolling Roadshow],” he joked. “It’s a maximum security prison. It’s a hardcore place. [Maybe] they’ll get the top five hundred inimates to qualify to see it.”
“That’s gonna be a good Q&A after,” Black said.
Bernie begins a limited theatrical release on April 27.