At Ebertfest on Thursday night actor Jack Black’s disembodied voice spoke to the audience, prompting Michael Barker to say, “You sound like God.”
“It’s a miracle of modern technology,” responded Black, who was to have appeared in person at the 15th annual Roger Ebert Film’s Festival after the screening of “Bernie,” in which he plays the title role.
Black did not speak by Skype — just his deep, husky voice filled the Virginia Theatre, prompting “Bernie” director Richard Linklater to look up whenever he addressed the actor.
Black apologized for not being in Champaign — his flight out of Los Angeles earlier Thursday was canceled due to the weather. It was so bad Black admitted he felt afraid to get on a plane that day..
“Bernie,” Linklater’s 2011 movie about the true crime story of Bernie Tiede and rich Carthage, Tex., widow Marjorie Nugent, provided comic relief at the end of a day of somewhat darker Ebertfest fare: Paul Cox’s “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh” and Patrick Wang’s family drama, “In the Family.”
However, some folks might not believe a murder, even of a widely disliked woman who many believed abused Tiede, is funny. A Carthage church posted a sign that read, “Murder is dark but not comedy,” when Linklater filmed there.
He said he shot in Carthage for only a few days and did the rest of the scenes in towns outside Austin, where he lives, as does Matthew McConaughey, who plays district attorney Danny Buck.
For a better chance of convicting Tiede, Danny Buck asked for and was granted a change of trial venue because Tiede was so popular and well-liked in Carthage. The 1999 trial took place in St. Augustine, Tex.
Tiede was found guilty and has served 16 years in state prison toward his life sentencer. Many folks, among them Black and Linklater, feel his sentence should be reduced because the murder was not been premeditated and could be attributed to temporary insanity.
Black said Tiede deserved to do time but there was a question of intent. “I think he’s done enough time,” the actor said. “I don’t believe he’s in any way a danger to society.”
He and Linklater said Texas state inmates are not fed a nutritious diet, and Tiede’s health has suffered as a result. A lawyer is working toward trying to gain an early release.
Before performing the role, Black met with Tiede in prison for three hours. (Tiede has not yet seen “Bernie”; prison officials scuttled a plan to show the film to him and fellow inmates.)
Black said he felt he had to meet with Tiede. The actor tried to channel him, both emotionally and physically. “I was profoundly moved by our meeting,” he said. “He’s just a really sweet guy. Until you meet the guy you don’t really understand the complexity of the story.”
Black said Tiede’s mother had died when he was 2 and his father passed when Bernie was 14. Bernie was raised by his grandmother. Black believes that’s one reason Tiede, a bachelor, befriended elderly women old enough to be his grandmother. Among them was Mrs. Nugent, the wealthiest person in Carthage.
Black asked Tiede why he didn’t leave his “classic abusive relationship” with the widow, who besides being hated by Carthagians was estranged from her family. The answer is not simple, Black said. He believes co-dependency played a factor. Tiede also felt a strong need to be liked by everyone.
“If he had left her high and dry he couldn’t have lived with himself. That’s his fatal flaw,” Black said.
Black said he believes the relationship was not sexual or romantic. Some of the townspeople in the movie believe the relationship was romantic. Tiede and Mrs. Nugent had traveled together, and Tiede eventually took over her financial affairs.
She in turn become more and more controlling. She at one point gave Tiede a pager so she could contact him whenever she wanted. Tiede told Black and Linklater she once left 90 pages for him in two hours.
Linklater attended Tiede’s trial and was surprised he was convicted. The director had become interested in the case — notorious in East Texas — after reading Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth’s story about it.
The two co-wrote the screenplay. Linklater said he decided to insert in the movie interviews of townspeople because he had read in Hollandsworth’s notes the comic things Carthage residents had said about Tiede and Mrs. Nugent.
“No one came to her defense,” Black said, adding, “It was great to have so many people from Carthage in the movie.”
Shirley MacLaine played Mrs. Nugent, and Black said he found himself in character as Tiede when he was with the veteran actress.
“I liked to take care of her needs and protect her from the rest of the cast,” he said.
Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics and a perennial Ebertfest guest, handled the Q-and-A of Linklater and Black after the screening.
Barker called Black’s performance as Bernie one of the great performances of the last several years. He also mentioned Roger Ebert’s comment that in a fair world, Black would have been nominated for an Academy Award for best lead actor.
During a telephone interview with me before Ebertfest, Linklater called Black’s performance rare, one he would put up against Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis’s as Abraham Lincoln.
Barker also said Linklater, when making the movie, made all the right choices on a difficult subject. The movie mogul, who lives in New York, said Linklater defies our expectations as to genre and called him the 21st century’s answer to director Preston Sturges.
The Chicago-born director, who died in 1959, was known for his screwball comedies and naturalistic dialogue.
This was Linklater’s second visit to Ebertfest; he attended in 2011 with “Me and Orson Welles.”
“It’s such an honor to be here,” the 52-year-old director said when he first took the Virginia stage. “I was here a couple of years ago and couldn’t wait to get back. I love this festival. I’m here for Roger.”