Bernie stars Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine; Richard Linklater directs and co-writes the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth.
Magazine writer Skip Hollandsworth has written dozens of crime stories, but none, he tells us, were like the 1998 "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas." Set in the tiny East Texas town of Carthage, it was the story of Bernie Tiede, a 39-year-old assistant funeral director and all-around good guy, and Marjorie Nugent, the 81-year-old cantankerous widow and town grinch he befriended and eventually murdered.
"In all the stories that I wrote for Texas Monthly," Hollandsworth tells Art Attack, "I've never seen a story that was so astonishing. You really didn't have to make up anything to make it into a movie." And East Texas native Richard Linklater, who directed Slacker, Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused, wanted to do just that. He called Hollandsworth as soon as the article ran. Did Hollandsworth want to co-write the film, Linklater asked. As it happened, Hollandsworth did and the pair wrote a screenplay.
It went nowhere for several years.
In part, Hollandsworth says, because Hollywood types didn't understand East Texas humor. "On the page, the line wouldn't be funny at all, but we knew once somebody said it in an East Texas accent, it would be hilarious."
While the project was shelved, Linklater went on to work on other film projects, most notably High School Rock, which starred Jack Black. With Black, Linklater had found the perfect person to play Bernie Tiede, a seemingly nice guy who is much more complex than he first seems. Always willing to help anyone, talented at everything he tried his hand at and beloved by everyone in town, Tiede snapped under the constant abuse from the millionaire widow he worked for and shot her in the back. Four times.
He then proceeded to stuff her into her own freezer, where she stayed for nine months while Tiede spent some $600,000 of her money. He didn't spend it on himself. He donated some of it to the local church's building fund, he bought nine cars for people in need and even bought a house for one family. The whole while Marjorie Nugent was in her freezer.
Ten years after they wrote the screenplay for Bernie, Linklater called Hollandsworth and said the project was on. And that Jack Black would be playing the lead role. They eventually signed Shirley MacLaine to play Marjorie Nugent and Matthew McConaughey to play the district attorney who prosecutes the case. By the way, Tiede's case may be the only one in Texas to have a change of venue because the defendant was so well-liked. Once the district attorney realized that no one in Carthage would ever vote to convict Tiede, he moved the trial to the next county, a place where one Carthage townie complains, "the people there have more tattoos than teeth."
Linklater decided to shoot the film in a mixed narrative/pseudo-documentary style. The main characters would act out their parts, and a slew of townsfolk would act as gossips talking directly into the camera, a sort of Greek chorus.
Hollandsworth says the only difficult part of his job as co-screenwriter was figuring out which parts of the story to throw out. "Most screenwriters invent things to give the story cinematic appeal. Here, it was which of these facts do we throw out because of space? We had too much to work with.
"Actually, my job was to be an overglorified researcher. I just got everybody's quotes and stories and antidotes in a row and the screenplay wrote itself. The quotes from the gossips, I got out my notebooks and got the quotes from the story. Then we just had the gossips say them."
Hollandsworth is happy with Bernie. It's funny, it's fresh and it's all true. He's not sure audiences will believe it's all true, but he assures us it is.
"It's going to be interesting to watch when people see this movie, to see if they believe that everything that happens in the movie happened that way in real life. Because it did. There are a few pieces of dialogue that were invented, but the actual narrative of the story happened just like you see in the movie."
Bernie opens in limited release in Houston on May 4 at the River Oaks Theatre, 2009 West Gray. For information, visit the theater's Web site or call 713- 866-8881. $7 to $10.