Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey on their true-crime comedy, 'Bernie'
Stepping into the interview suite at the Four Seasons during South by Southwest to speak with director Richard Linklater and co-star Matthew McConaughey about their new film Bernie, you instantly forget all the awkward trappings of the studio press tour and instead feel cosseted by the comfortable familiarity shared by these old friends. Bernie is a supremely Texas movie based on a strange-but-true crime story set in Carthage, Texas – a story that originally caught Linklater's eye in a Texas Monthly piece written by Skip Hollandsworth, who eventually co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater. The film features Shirley MacLaine as an ornery widow whose hard shell softens as a result of the unlikely romantic attentions of a much younger man, a well-liked mortician played by Jack Black. McConaughey plays the attorney who pursues a case against Bernie – to the chagrin of many Carthage locals – when the relationship goes south. Although Bernie is a crime story, it's handled with a light touch. The film is more about the characters than the deeds they commit. And, boy howdy, is this film rich with characters.
Austin Chronicle: Matthew, we heard you announce at the Texas Film Hall of Fame that you and your family are moving back to Austin.
Matthew McConaughey: Yes, I'm going to spend a lot more time here.
Richard Linklater: Glad to have him back. Move him out of Tarrytown with neighbors who don't like music playing after 10 at night.
AC: With Bernie and Killer Joe [the upcoming NC-17-rated thriller, in which McConaughey plays a contract killer], you seem to be changing your image some from the bongo boy/surfer dude/action star reputation you've acquired over the last decade.
McConaughey: Same dude, same man, I pro-mise you. I still surf; I still play the bongos.
AC: You've played so many lawyers in your career. Do you worry about getting typecast?
McConaughey: Bernie is my first time to prosecute. I've always defended before. Big difference. Big difference in their approaches, too, and how you win your side in each one of those. On these two films, there was a lot of room and a lot of excitement on my part to co-create the character. This is fun to do. Rick and I do well together. It's one of the strong points in our relationship. One of the funnest parts of my career is working with Rick. It's the leading up to it. I engage more with him in preproduction about creation of character than with any other director.
AC: Even as the script is being written?
McConaughey: He's always kind of got the script prepared but ...
Linklater: It's always a fluid process where I'm looking to make it real and incorporate ideas from the cast.
AC: [to McConaughey] You also got to work with your Mom, I noticed. [Kay McConaughey appears in Bernie as one of the gossiping townspeople.]
McConaughey: I noticed that, too. I didn't notice that until the day it happened. That's him; it's that sneaky man [pointing at Linklater]. He snuck her in there. I did not know.
Linklater: You knew she was in the movie. He just didn't know he had a scene with her. I've been around those two enough over all these years, I knew that would be the right dynamic, that that would be effective.
AC: Was it weird?
Linklater: You were such a good son that night. Forget mother/son; actor to actor, you really helped her. You gave her some ideas.
McConaughey: Yup. She did good.
AC: You're so smart to keep working with so many of the same actors again and again.
Linklater: I don't know if it's smart; it's just fun. It would be crazy not to with these guys. I've got to say, it was really special for me because Matthew and Jack didn't have a lot of scenes together. You were in your own worlds until the courtroom scenes. And rehearsing that, it was so much fun to look over and see these guys I've worked with before. Two of my favorite actors in the same scene together is kind of heavenly.
AC: You get such a nuanced performance from Jack, too, which is really impressive. His last few roles have been so over the top.
Linklater: Well, it's what the part required. I think he totally got Bernie from the beginning. There was something about Bernie that intrigued him. He felt he is Bernie in a way. We all have that part that wants to please others. He took that element in himself and then ratcheted it up to its full capacity. And Jack really is a nice guy. He really is the sweetheart that you might suspect.
AC: But it could have easily gone another way; I mean, that mincing walk, for example, could have been played for pure comedy.
Linklater: Yeah, that was what actually meshed Bernie for Jack. I think Jack doubted the last percent of his interpretation until he met the real Bernie. He soaked it up like a sponge.
McConaughey: That walk is epic, isn't it?
AC: And then of course Shirley MacLaine. You must have geeked out.
Linklater: You know, you have to not. I can't let my mind go there. Who's had a career like that? I can't really think of anyone who's doing relevant work in this decade who was doing relevant work in the Fifties. There are some people who are still alive and work. But who has given great performances in every decade – for seven decades now? There are not a lot.
AC: There are not a whole lot of roles for 70-year-old women.
Linklater: I was thrilled she would be in our indie movie – like everyone else who came aboard. But I think she liked the idea of working with Jack and being in a film with Matthew, whom she had met on a beach. She liked you. [Both men smile knowingly at this point.] I don't know to what degree I ever registered with her.
AC: Now that the financial paradigms are changing, is it getting more complicated to be an Austin-based filmmaker?
Linklater: I'll say this: We were lucky we got to film in Texas. This project was prone to heading toward Louisiana. They've got the bigger incentive. And we would have been perfect. Shreveport looks exactly like East Texas. It would have been the logical place to go, financially. But you know, we just made the argument and they kind of threw us a bone. But if the budget would have been much bigger, I don't think we could have held them back much longer. Half a million bucks here and there; a million dollars is real money when you're talking equity. Times are tough. So those incentives are very real for our film industry. I barely got to do it, and I'm a local. I just couldn't bear the thought of this "Texas movie of Texas movies" being made outside the state.
AC: Since Bernie was filmed in Bastrop prior to the fires, the film also serves as a document of another time.
Linklater: Almost every house, every location we used in Bastrop – so many of those are no longer. This movie is like a record of the Bastrop that was, it's a record of the changing environment, so I'm happy about that.
AC: Do you keep a lot of projects in semiready states in order to pivot when need be?
Linklater: It used to be there was one or two, but now there's like seven, eight. And a couple things I've been writing. Maybe 10. Once you go into double digits of projects that you want to do, that you haven't been able to do yet ... I realize that, gosh, Antonioni toward the end wrote a book of all the films he was never going to be able to make. But he wrote something like a page of each one of them. I hope I don't have a book like that.
McConaughey: So if you've got seven, how does one usually rise?
Linklater: It's what has a chance. I think when I thought of Jack as Bernie and sent the script to him, that got me reinterested in it; I could see the movie. When Matthew and Shirley came on, it got real. It felt like its time. It had always been on my mind, but you can just tell: Oh, it's not its time. For years it did that. It's so cool, though, when they finally do get their moment.
Bernie opens Friday at the Violent Crown Cinema. See Film Listings for a review.