Rarely has a convicted murderer been portrayed with such heart, humanity, and humor as one is in “Bernie,” the ripped-from-the-headlines story of a popular small-town Texan undertaker (Jack Black) who snapped, shot a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine), and was prosecuted by an ambitious D.A. (Matthew McConaughey). In the hands of director Richard Linklater (“The School of Rock”), it becomes a black comedy about court justice and common courtesy. I sat down in New York with the director and star to discuss life, death, and Broadway musicals.
Thelma Adams: You optioned a magazine article in “Texas Monthly,” Richard, but how did you know this was the story you had to do next?
Richard Linklater: It got its hooks in me. I felt I knew the town. I knew the people: Bernie and Shirley’s Miss Nugent. That’s where it starts. The article ends inconclusively. I attended Bernie’s trial. At that point, it became a legal question. I saw all the dominos fall backwards. They disallowed the psychiatrist. They allowed the jury to see Miss Nugent being pulled out of the freezer. I had one look at the jury, and I knew: If this was a capital trial, they would gladly [have] given Bernie the death penalty.
TA: I love that relationship between Bernie and Miss Nugent — and how it sours.
Jack Black: It spoke to me. When I read it three years ago when Rick slipped me the script, I felt like I knew Bernie’s voice and how I wanted to move. It was a very compelling story: The most beloved man in a small town that’s least likely to commit murder. That’s what it should have said in his high school yearbook
RL: And Miss Nugent would have said “the one most likely to be murdered.”
JB: It’s about that flaw in the pearl. It’s a little eye-opener about crime and what it is to be at the center. Is Bernie a monster, or is it possible that anyone in the worst possible circumstance could be capable of monstrous thing?
RL: That’s the central question. You could have a little brain tumor that could change you. It’s an intriguing…
TA: I’m curious, Jack, about how you put Bernie together from the outside in. He has such a distinctive way of walking and moving.
JB: I got to meet Bernie in person. I spent some time in [a] maximum-security prison.
TA: And is Bernie still so “zippity doo dah” in prison?
JB: More so. He’s not a flamboyantly out kind of guy. I was able to see him in Carthage on video, and it’s pretty subtle. It’s there, but it’s subtle. He’s not flaunting it. In prison, he seemed a little looser with his sexuality.
TA: The movie never announces outright that Bernie is gay, although the town gossips discuss it.
RL: It’s a Southern manners thing. If I choose not to talk about my politics, religion, or sexuality, then people won’t bother. But if you put a sign out and are overt, it’s a different story. If not, you’re subject to gossip, but you can control your image. The film wants to respect Bernie’s viewpoint of that. Bernie was very out with his religion, his love of the Man. And politics are not really an issue in a town like that. Not Democratic or Republican. National politics are far away.
TA: The movie is shot partially in documentary style, with a string of Carthage, Texas, talking heads, functioning like a Greek chorus. Were they actors or citizens?
RL: The vast majority of the gossips are Carthage residents and people nearby. Some of them even traveled with Bernie or Miss Nugent. It’s a mix between actors and locals. One’s even Matthew’s mom. I almost put my mom in.
TA: A lot of how you define Bernie is through song — the first time we see him, he’s singing along with the radio as he drives into Carthage. He sings gospel at memorial services, and he’s part of an amateur theatrical production of “The Music Man.” And then, Jack, you go heavy metal in the upcoming “Tenacious D” tour.
JB: A lot of people say you’re singing gospel, and you’re usually singing heavy metal, but I say it’s two sides of the coin. Heavy metal is about the Antichrist, and the way that the devil dominated rock in the ’70s. Gospel is the sunny side of that street, and it felt very natural to me. They were beautiful tunes, and I loved singing them.
RL: Jack would perform, and I couldn’t get that uplifting song out of my head.
JB: Lip-syncing can be such a nightmare. We recorded all the songs, soup to nuts, so that later I could listen to the prerecording in my ear and sing live. It was live singing on prerecorded instrumentation.
TA: I loved the musical numbers where Bernie is in the local community college production singing “76 Trombones” with all his heart. Is there a Broadway musical in your future, Jack?
JB: Shirley has mentioned she would be willing to do a limited run — a “Bernie” musical.
TA: I recommend a Broadway revival of “The Music Man” starring Jack.
JB: ‘There’s trouble right here in River City.’
RL: In a parallel life, I’m Vincent Minnelli.
TA: Hey, let’s put on a show! I own a barn…
See the trailer for “Bernie:”