NEW YORK — Almost a decade ago, Richard Linklater and Jack Black first crossed professional paths. Black had been a fan of the sometimes-studio-usually-indie director going back another decade, all the way to Linklater’s debut, “Slacker,” but never really thought of him when he and buddy/screenwriter Mike White were developing “School of Rock.” Producer Scott Rudin offered the outside-the-box suggestion of Linklater and the rest was history.
Earlier this year, Linklater and Black clocked in their second collaboration, the dark comedy/true story “Bernie,” which just recently made its way to DVD and Blu-ray. Ostensibly, they’re out on the circuit now to promote the home video release, but with it comes a fair amount of rejuvenated awards buzz. The film was critically acclaimed when it hit theaters in April and many called Black’s performance as a small town Texas mortician who murdered an elderly woman (in a story where that premise doesn’t begin to scratch the surface) his best to date. And now, after an intimate soirée down town the night before, they’re sitting with me having lunch, more than happy to breathe more life into it.
“I can’t imagine Sean Penn going around town doing a dog and pony show to get prizes,” Black tells me after thoroughly flossing his teeth. “I’ve never been asked before to go and do extra stuff after the DVD’s been released because there’s a buzz for accolades [he emphasizes it in that Jack Black way — you know] and prizes. So I was like, ‘I want to give it its best chance.’ Not just for me but for Rick and the cinematographer and the rest of the cast. We’re all really proud of the film. So you just keep on going, keep on selling!”
Going back to that premise, though, for Linklater — who first heard of the story through a newspaper article — it was broadly about “a nice guy [the titular Bernie Tiede] who did a bad thing,” he says. “I was so intrigued by that relationship. You do movies to figure something out, I think. You’re looking for something. Until Jack and I really met Bernie I hadn’t really thought about what was going on between these two people. This old, cantankerous woman, kind of hateful. She clearly had problems, whatever, personality disorder. No one liked her. She should have been seeking some mental help, but she’s so rich, the rich are just put up with.
“So why would Bernie stick around? So many questions. But it was when we were talking to Bernie, Jack asked, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ And he’s like, ‘She didn’t have anybody. I was her only friend.’ He cared about her so much that he didn’t want to hurt her by leaving her. And it’s perverse but that is the psychology of the abused spouse. So I realized Bernie’s an abused partner in a strange, perverse way. But she had to leave him. He wasn’t going to leave her. If you could get in his head, it has its own logic.”
Linklater attended the trial and had seen Tiede give testimony prior to the meeting, of course, but he didn’t really know the man. But that visit confirmed the tone of the movie for him. “We came out going, ‘What’s that guy doing in prison still,'” he says. “He really is a sweetheart of a guy.”
And that “sweetness” is the element Black says he most wanted to convey. Meeting with Tiede of course gave him plenty of clues into physicality and syntax, etc., but he was most drawn to that spark Tiede has, the same spark that kept him, despite being a murderer, a beloved member of the community.
“I could see why everyone in town liked him,” he says. “But it was important for me to meet Bernie because he’s alive and you want to get the blessing of the person you’re going to play. You don’t want that haunting you. I’ve got a little bit of that Bernie thing, too, where I want to be loved.”
Linklater takes a moment to interject and note that this was why it was, for him, such a pleasure to cast Black, who he calls “the nicest guy.”
“Although he’s way nicer than I am,” Black says of Tiede.
“Yeah, he doesn’t have your sinister undercurrent,” Linklater responds.
“He doesn’t have the devilish glint I can have at times,” Black says with a smile. “And so a lot of the times I was trying to suppress my inner demon. Because he didn’t really have that escape valve of letting out a little evil, and maybe that was the problem, that he bottled it all up.”
And in more ways than one, perhaps. There were more layers there that Black was interested in, such as the question of Tiede’s sexuality. “I never asked him but I felt like I knew the answer,” Black says.
“And that’s Bernie,” Linklater adds. “He’s kind of dignified, straight-ish, in a small, Southern town. I think it’s less and less that way, thankfully, but every church has that lifelong bachelor who’s really sweet and leads the choir and everyone likes him and, he’s gay. And he’s really religious, too. I mean, it’s a tortured life, in a way, to not really be yourself.”
The nature of the circumstances, despite the presence of a vicious crime in the narrative, never once suggested a drama to Linklater. It had to be a comedy, rather, a dark comedy, because it was just so bizarre. And it was likely the only way he’d tackle something like this.
“It would be very different if he had done this five other times and bumped off old ladies, then he’s a serial killer,” Linklater says. “But there’s really no darkness in Bernie. Some people want to push in that direction. I mean, murder’s a dark subject. But in this case, it really isn’t. The act is tragic and dark but everything around it, strangely, wasn’t. That’s what attracted me. I’m not really interested in murder or psychopaths as subjects for things I want to spend time on. I don’t do serial killer movies. But this was my kind of murderer. I think any of us could be this guy. None of us should be too confident that it couldn’t be us, let’s put it that way.”
But for as wretched and villainous as Shirley MacLaine’s depiction of the late Marjorie Nugent might be, the two note that, even by the admission of the Carthage, Texas residents who knew her, the film took it easy on her.
“The movie’s way nice to Mrs. Nugent,” Linklater pleads.
Adds Black, “Her family members in particular were like, ‘She was way meaner than that.’ The reality was maybe a little more Nurse Ratched. You remember in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ when Nurse Ratched gets the choking, you’re fucking saying, ‘Yeah, choke that fucker!’ But what villain thinks they’re the villain?”
Whether or not the push on behalf of “Bernie” and particularly Black gains traction, it’s anyone’s guess. Oscar is tough but Independent Spirit Awards recognition isn’t out of the question. And he did, after all, land a comedy/musical Golden Globe nomination for his last Linklater collaboration, so that’s a distinct possibility, too. For now, though, they’re happy to have gotten back in the saddle again after “School of Rock.”
“We had been flirting around for a couple of years, trying to get the planets to align,” Linklater says.
“Now that we’re on a schedule, it’s every eight years, I know,” Black says. “So, I look forward to 2020. Have you started working on it already?”
“Yeah, I got it,” Linklater says with a smile. “But I’m not gonna drop it on you for another five or six years.”
“Bernie” is currently available On Demand and on DVD/Blu-ray.