In Bernie, Richard Linklater tells the true story (based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth) of a man in a small East Texas town who is so beloved that he almost gets away with murder—literally. Linklater, who grew up in East Texas himself, talked to us while he was in town this week promoting the film he calls “the most purely Texas thing I’ve ever done.”
I lived in Texas for 7 or 8 years, including three different times in Austin, because whenever I had no reason to be anywhere else when I was young, I kept going back there—
Well, of course! Where else to be young and lost but Austin?
Exactly. So anyhow, I love Texas, which is a lot of why I loved this movie.
Yeah. It’s the most purely Texas thing I’ve ever done.
There’s this language Texans use that’s descriptive and inventive and creative and funny, and you really captured that.
This is my mom and her friends. I just sit around and die laughing. I’m like, what a great turn of phrase! No writer could capture this; it’s so perfect! So it was fun, as a filmmaker, to use that in a movie.
I bet. A lot of the quotes from the townspeople who are the kind of Greek chorus come from Skip Hollandsworth’s article, but a lot of them felt improvised, especially from that guy Sonny.
Yeah. Sonny Carl Davis. He threw in quite a bit. All of them were scripted, and then to varying degrees they improvised. Some of my favorite lines were people saying extra stuff. Those people, “the gossips,” are a mix of actors—Sonny’s an actor—and people who lived in that part of the state, lived in Carthage. The majority are from that area.
It’s been about 14 years since the article was published. Have you been trying to make it into a movie all that time?
Yeah. I had a script back in ’98 or ’99. It just sat on the back burner for a long time. I guess I didn’t really have a cast, and something just didn’t quite gel until some time after I’d worked with Jack on School of Rock, and I started thinking of him for Bernie.
Once Jack was interested, I could get just enough money to make it.
It was still weird, though. I took it to a producer I knew who I thought might want to make it, and he said, “It’s not really a movie, is it?”
What do you think he meant by that?
Ah, just weird. You know, the gossips.
What’s weird about a Greek chorus? That’s as old as … a Greek chorus.
The abundance of it. Maybe just a little too much. And on the page, you don’t see the unique personalities. They all sound the same, kinda. I think that was the most challenging element. Even though I knew, in my heart of hearts, that would work. That was there from the first draft. I just knew that was the way to tell the story.
All of my favorites of your movies all really talky—Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, Slacker….
All of ‘em, really. They’re all talky.
Do you think that’s the Texas in you?
[Laughs] Maybe. Even though I’m not particularly—I‘m a guy who kind of sits back and listens. It’s funny: When I first started making movies, they were silent, experimental things, and then the more I got close to actually telling stories, people just wouldn’t shut up. I think that was my upbringing, colorful characters just yammering on. I guess it’s just a part of me.