Interview with ‘Bernie’ writer Skip Hollandsworth
Skip Hollandsworth is a screenwriter, editor and journalist whose 1998 article Midnight in the Garden of East Texas became the inspiration for Richard Linklater’s latest movie – the morbidly comic docu-drama, Bernie.
The film focuses on the true story of Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black), an incredibly benevolent small town mortician and philanthropist whose high regard in the eyes of the people of Carthage is beyond reproach, even after he confesses to the murder of an extremely wealthy 81-year-old widow.
Despite Bernie’s obvious guilt, the District Attorney requested a rare change of venue for his murder trial – as Bernie was so generous and well liked in the community, no jury was thought fair enough convict him. I spoke to Skip, who also co-wrote the movie’s screenplay, about Bernie’s extraordinary story.
How did you come across Bernie’s story?
I saw a paragraph story in the paper about a wealthy old widow being shot four times in the back by the assistant director of the funeral home, I knew immediately there was a story – particularly after I found out that she had remained in her own deep freezer for nine months! I went up to Carthage and met the District Attorney at a restaurant, and everyone in town was gathered around him trying to persuade him to drop the charges because they loved Bernie and despised the woman he killed. Right then I said to myself: “Good Lord, this could be a movie”.
What kind of character is Bernie?
I was told by everybody in Carthage that Bernie was the most beloved person in town. He was almost saintly, the way he took care of people, bought them presents, loaned them money and took care of them when they were in need. He especially took care of them at funerals. He sent everyone out of the world with great dignity. Even though he was an effeminate man, no-doubt a closeted homosexual, he was even loved by the rednecks in town. Based on what everyone said about him, you just didn’t find anyone nicer. He loved taking care of the widows after their husband’s funerals, to run errands for them and that’s what he did with Mrs Nugent even though everyone in town despised her because she was mean.
Marjorie would have moods where she would get so angry at people. One of the townspeople told me that if she held her nose up any higher she would’ve drowned in a rain storm. The townspeople saw her as a snob that looked down on them and just didn’t take the time to be friendly to them. Bernie thought she needed someone to take care of her, and he was the only person in town who took the time to.
Bernie was a modern day Robin Hood. When Mrs Nugent gave him power of attorney and cheque-writing privileges, he never spent the money on himself. He spent the money on things for people in town that needed them. From playgrounds, to college educations, to people that wanted to open businesses.
How do you feel towards Bernie’s actions and the outcome of the extraordinary case?
I tried to play it straight down the middle in the way the townspeople felt it. What he did was an enormously gruesome crime – he shot her four times in the back. Yet, as everyone said, he was the best man in town. So, the question of my story and at the heart of the movie is what do you do about one very good man who did one very bad thing. It’s no secret to say that the town rallied around Bernie and literally thought that the prosecutor should forget it.
I wanted to let the audience make their own connections, so the movie doesn’t try to win them over to one story or another – we just lay out exactly what happened and let the viewer decide. Was Bernie a good guy, or was he a sociopath, as Danny Buck believes, who deliberately preyed upon Mrs Nugent to get her money?
What motivated Danny Buck Davidson to condemn a man so well respected in the community?
I think Danny Buck always had liked Bernie prior to the murder; he got along very well with Bernie, like everyone else in town. But once Mrs Nugent’s body was discovered, in his own country way, he saw this as a very black-and-white case. Bernie didn’t just shoot Mrs Nugent, he shot her in the back; and in Texas it’s cowardly to shoot someone, especially a woman, in the back. His sensibilities were completed outraged by this and he went on the warpath to bring Bernie down no matter what the town wanted him to do.
The film is presented in quasi-documentary style. How close to true events was your screenplay?
The story itself actually happened; and the people talking to the camera, the small-town gossips who comment on what happened, they use the lines I originally heard when I did my reporting. Even though it looks like a documentary, the townspeople are reciting lines that came from real-life people I interviewed 10 years ago. It’s an interesting smoke and mirrors game.
How closely did you work with the director and cast on set?
Once the screenplay was written, it was about the actors. I sort of took a back seat and watched Jack Black embody this bewildering man, Bernie Tiede, in a completely delightful way. He’s the spitting image of Bernie on screen. To see Shirley MacLaine do the kind of role that she’s famous for, the glorious Grand Dame, was just a delight. Matthew McConaughey lets his inner East Texan out playing this crazed District Attorney who’s determined to get his man.
Has the real Bernie seen the film?
The film is a huge hit in Texas and ran for months. But the one person in Texas that has never seen the film is Bernie. The rules of the prison are that inmates can’t be sent DVDs. The only chance for Bernie to see the movie would be if it plays on TV one day. He knew the film was being made, he was sent the script; he knew everything that was coming.
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