Director Linklater and star Black threaded the needle in 'Bernie'
When it came to casting the role of real-life Bernie Tiede in his black comedy "Bernie," director Richard Linklater thought immediately of Jack Black.
Black, who can sing, as does Tiede, was the only guy who could do it, the director said.
"He looks a lot like the real Bernie, in a way. I had worked with him before. He's kind of a brilliant actor. He has so much ability."
The challenge was to convince Black to make the leap. After all, the role of Bernie, an assistant funeral director who murders a wealthy older widow in the small, colorful town of Carthage, Texas, was a tough one.
But Black, who with Linklater will appear with "Bernie" at 9 Thursday night at Roger Ebert's Film Festival, pulled it off.
Critics widely praised his performance. One called it finely disciplined, and Ebert wrote that Linklater's "genius was to see Jack Black as Bernie Tiede."
Ebert, who died April 4, "historically" admired Linklater's work — one reason he was invited back to Ebertfest, festival director Nate Kohn said last week. The director appeared at the 2011 Ebertfest with "Me and Orson Welles."
Linklater, early on a darling of the independent movie world, has turned out a variety of movies since his first feature, "Slacker," released in 1991. Among them are "Waking Life" (2001) and "A Scanner Darkly" (2006); both use rotoscoping, an animation technique in which live action video is traced to create animation that mimics the live action.
Linklater, who lives in Austin and refuses to spend long periods of time in Hollywood, also has made mainstream comedies such as the 2005 remake of "Bad News Bears" and "School of Rock" (2003).
The latter also stars Jack Black, a member of the real-life comedy-rock band Tenacious D, as a wannabe rock star who needs cash and poses as a substitute teacher to try to turn his prep-school class into a rock band.
As Bernie, Black received nominations for best male lead from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics.
Many fans hoped he would receive an Oscar nod as well. That didn't happen.
"It was a pretty rare performance," Linklater said during a phone interview last week. "I would put it up against anyone's including Mr. Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis. In a way, it was a much harder needle to thread."
He said the success of a black comedy like "Bernie" comes down to the leading character: "If Jack had gone off in any wrong direction, the whole movie would have failed."
It helped that Black had had a three-hour jailhouse visit with Tiede, who is serving a life sentence for having murdered Marjorie Nugent.
"I think Jack sort of wanted Bernie's blessing and for him to know that we cared about him," Linklater said. "The portrayal mattered to us, especially when you're doing a living person, and especially because of his situation. He's completely powerless."
(Tiede's case is notorious in East Texas, where Mrs. Nugent was disliked and he was well-liked and sang in church choirs. Some people are advocating for a reduced sentence for Tiede, arguing that the murder of Mrs. Nugent was not premeditated.)
Linklater and crew spent 22 days shooting "Bernie," and not on a big budget. Rehearsal times were important, particularly for the musical numbers in which Black appears.
Those and other action scenes are interspersed with sometimes hilarious on-camera interviews with residents of Carthage and East Texas, as well as actors with Southern accents.
"I was treating them all the same, whether they were a real person or actor," Linklater said. "There was a handful who knew Bernie and Mrs. Nugent, like her hair dresser, who were fairly close to them."
Among those appearing as townsfolks was actor Matthew McConaughey's mother, who once lived in a town near Carthage and is into community theater, Linklater said. Her son also appears in "Bernie" as the dogged district attorney who pursues Tiede and asks for and is granted a change of venue for the trial to have a better chance of a conviction.
Also co-starring in "Bernie," as Mrs. Nugent, is Shirley MacLaine. Linklater admitted he had been a bit intimidated to work with the now-78-year-old actress because of her long and distinguished career, which has spanned seven decades. Add another one, he said.
"What's so exciting about Shirley is she's not going anywhere," he said. "She's very alive, very vibrant. She's definitely an American treasure. There's no one like her. Maybe Jane Fonda. They feel like they're in your family."
On the "Bernie" set, Linklater had to put out of his mind his fan-like admiration of MacLaine and just get down to business.
"Fortunately she's all business, a total pro," he said. "I think she likes playing these kind of crazy, unhinged people. She really totally got Mrs. Nugent. I think she was a little jealous Jack could converse with Bernie, so she let us know she was conversing with Mrs. Nugent at night, channeling her."
Linklater, who co-founded and remains artistic director of the Austin Film Society, now looks forward to the release in late May of "Before Midnight," the third in his trilogy of well-received romantic dramas starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
The director also is "kind of in the home stretch" on another movie he began shooting in 2002 in Houston, where he was born.
It stars Hawke and Patricia Arquette as a divorced couple trying to raise their young son, played by Ellar Salmon. The story follows the boy from the time he is in first through 12th grade.