Written and directed by Richard Linklater, Bernie tells the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the popular assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas, who befriended the most loathed person in town, the affluent Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Bernie traveled around the world with her and handled her business affairs, until the day he shot her four times in the back.
Nobody in Carthage missed her, and for nine months Bernie continued to control her money, until her body was found by the police under some frozen food in the large freezer in her garage.
Shirley MacLaine and Richard Linklater spoke with us about their quirky comedy at the press day for the movie.
I would imagine there is no film available of Marjorie?
Shirley: No, I just heard from whoever I met during the filming they truly hated her. Everybody thought she was the biggest bitch on the planet and were frankly glad she [was gone]. All the stuff that makes comedy for me!
You’ve played difficult women in the past, what is it about those kind of characters that you enjoy?
Shirley: I don’t know, I just love to be impossible. When people ask, ‘Why did he kill her?’ Of course he killed her! Maybe I had somebody in my life that made me laugh at being horrible, or maybe I’m rehearsing for later!
But I would say there is something deeper in why Bernie didn’t leave. I think they chose each other, and I think they were having this adventurous, kind of theatrical, complicated relationship in the third dimension called the Earth, to just learn about themselves.
How could you give up that kind of entertainment? She was so horrible. To me that kind of horribleness is funny.
You used a lot of the real townspeople in this. What was their reaction to the movie?
Richard: A lot of those folks are the real people. That really is Marjorie Nugent’s neighbors and hairdresser. Some of those people were actors too, it was mix. I think the churches in a lot of areas didn’t like the idea that we were making fun of it.
We were shooting at one location in Carthage, and at a church a across the street there was a sign out front that said, ‘Murder is dark, but not comedy.’ Welcome to town!
What is your perspective on Bernie and Marjorie’s relationship? Do you think Marjorie knew what Bernie was up to?
Shirley: Oh, I think she did. I think she knew it. First of all, being so hated gives you some kind of sophisticated outlook on human behavior, and I think she knew he would do anything to be loved. But she had never felt that kind of emotion, nobody ever put it out like that to her.
I think she understood and accepted it. It put her in control if she was financing it. So they went around the world having a good time as long as he stayed within her clutches.
To me it was as much about money as anything else, and I think because she was financing him, she felt she owned every hour of his time. Frankly, anybody would have killed her if she had acted like that, it didn’t have to be just him.
When you have that combined with a person who needs to be loved, adored and celebrated, more than anything else it’s a perfect combination for a friendship.
Did your opinion change about Bernie by doing this movie?
Richard: I’d been at the trial, I’d seen him testify, and I had this hunch about him. It was good spending time with him, it confirmed the basis of the movie, that he really is this sweet guy who did this one horrible thing.
Shirley: Why didn’t he leave, Rick?
Richard: Isn’t that the question? You ask that of every domestic incident like this, the wife who shoots the husband, ‘Why didn’t you just leave? They’d be alive and you wouldn’t be in prison.’ It’s so obvious a question.
Bernie felt so sorry for her, he was her only friend, he couldn’t leave her, it would hurt her too much, she had to leave him.
You’ve worked with some great comedians in your career, including Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon. What was it like working with Jack Black?
Shirley: It was terrible, it was the worst experience ever. (she laughs)
I thought he was going to chew up the scenery. No, he can really act. I think he should get a nomination for this, I really do. I loved getting up at five o’clock in the morning, which I [normally] hate, [because] I knew I was going to be with Jack all day.
I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be interesting all day long to go to work with this guy who is really a mini-genius.’
For me, it was all about the freedom to improvise, which you have to say we did a lot of, and then (Rick) wrote it down in the script, so he looked good.
Richard: Yeah, you got to play it out and I took all the credit! (he laughs)
Will Bernie be able to see the movie?
Richard: We certainly hope so. In the fall the Warden said she thought there could be a screening, but I got back to her recently trying to set that up and I got back a nice but short letter saying, ‘There will be no screening.’ I was really sad.
The only movie he’s seen in thirteen years in prison is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Shirley: (roaring with laughter) Talk about wanting to murder people!
Richard: Yeah, and that was a mandatory screening, like, ‘Here, this will do you good.’
I asked Shirley about recently working on Downton Abbey with Maggie Smith. Click below to listen to her response.
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