[From Mar. 9th to 17th, Flixist will bring you live coverage from deep in the heart of Texas at South by Southwest Film 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]
On March 15th, myself and a few other reporters were invited to a roundtable discussion with Bernie director Richard Linklater and supporting actor Matthew McConaughey. Read on as Linklater sheds some insight on why he was attracted to the story of Bernie Tiede, what it’s like working with McConaughey, and even McConaughey’s thoughts on working with his Mom, Kay McCabe, who made a special cameo in the film.
[Header via Michael Buckner/Getty Images North America]
You [Matthew McConaughey] played a lawyer in this film. In some of your best movies, you play a lawyer, and I was trying to think of all the movies: The Lincoln Lawyer, A Time to Kill, Amistad… Am I leaving any out?
Matthew McConaughey: What do we got here? A Time to Kill, Amistad, The Lincoln Lawyer… yeah, I have fun playing lawyers.
And you wanted to be a lawyer, originally? You were in pre-law?
MM: I did, that’s where I was heading. Luckily, I ran into a friend of ours, Don Phillips, in the right bar who introduced me to this guy [Richard Linklater].
Richard Linklater: Not far from here, yeah. He came in, auditioned, and no more law school.
MM: I worked for a few months on a movie, quit being a lawyer, and moved on to do something else.
RL: You can act a lawyer.
MM: Yeah, much more fun.
How does Bernie fit into your j.k. livin (“Just Keep Livin”) philosophy?
MM: Well one, I’ll tell you, Rick’s really the only director that I’ve worked with that can go, “Hey McConaughey, I got a role in this next film I’m going to do and I think you might be right for it.” The Newton Boys we talked about more. Rick and I will always know… and that’s someone I can go, “Yeah, let me read it,” but it’s pretty much a, “Yeah, we’ll work something out.” The process of getting to the day of shooting is really fun for Rick and I. It’s a really fun process. There’s nothing formal about it. We really play. How many hours it takes us, it doesn’t take us that long.
RL: In this one, we were pretty dialed in, but it was crucial, a couple days of crucial rehearsal.
MM: And it’d usually be he and I, one-on-one, and I always look forward to that. And so, that’s part of the j.k. livin philosophy right there. He’s a good friend, a guy I like to work with, a really talented director, somebody that [says], “I’m going to do the work, I’m going to be serious about it, but I like to have fun doing it.” I always have fun working with Rick, as well.
There’s obviously the opportunity to do some research, one-on-one research, for this role. Did you have any resistance from some of the real-life people? Did you go out and seek them out?
RL: I sought out Bernie himself. I started writing him just when it looked like the film was about to happen, and then I talked to Scrappy and Danny Buck, also. That was good getting to know Bernie. Jack wanted to go meet Bernie, so we did that, and I’m so glad we did. It confirmed a lot of what I felt. I went to the trial over 10 years ago, I was into it back then. I felt like I knew the guy just seeing him testify. The scene where he nails Bernie with the Les Miserables [pronounced “Lay Mis-Er-Ay-Bels”] and all that, that all, word for word, really happened. Matthew threw in a bunch of cool stuff around that. It’s tricky when you’re doing something based on real events, real people. I was concerned of the Nugent family and the survivors. You just dive in and be as accurate as you possibly can.
What was it like to work with Skip [Hollandsworth] (Bernie screenwriter)?
RL: Skip’s great. He’s a very beloved writer in these parts. It all started with him. Skip has that nose for an off-beat story and that’s what I responded to when I read the Texas Monthly article way back when.
I know he’s involved with you writing the script, but was he involved with helping you developing the characters? Did you work with him at all?
RL: No. I mean, I worked with him on a script level over the years, but he was around. He visited when he could. I consider him a partner all the way through. He had done so much research. He was great.
I noticed that it was his first screenplay that he had ever written. Did you have to talk him into getting involved in that?
RL: I think I have this way of just sort of pulling people into my world. I mean, most people, you option a story, and that’s it. Usually, you would never talk to the director, like some agent calls. But I called him directly and started talking about… You know, I grew up in East Texas. I was just talking about how much the story got to me, how much I liked it and thought, “I think that’s a movie. I really want to tell that story.” I think, subconsciously, I’ve been looking for an East Texas story. I had a football-related story I’ve been sort of trying to tell for years, but that hadn’t quite come to fruition, so this was just one more story I was trying to get told. I think it’s up to me to just include or not include, and I kept including him. Why wouldn’t I? He had so much good point[s] of view, and a good, appropriate, dark, twisted humor I think that this story lends itself to. The more collaborators, the better.
Why did you want to use this sort of documentary-style of interviewing the characters, but they’re the actors playing the characters?
RL: Well, the main characters aren’t interviewed. They are, but you’re talking about all the gossips, the townspeople. I just thought… having grown up in a small town, I hadn’t really seen that in a movie before. If you think about the story, it’s about how I receive the story: Mrs. Nugent gone, Bernie in prison not talking or on trial. You have no access to the two main players, right? So what are you in this world? You’re what everybody says you are. You hear it from a lot of different angles. And as I went through all of Skip’s interviews and his notes, I was reading a stack of his journalistic notes, that’s when it hit me. It’s like, “Gossips, yeah. It’s all people saying different things, their own experiences.” So, I got that little notion in my mind about gossips and thought that could tell the story. There are movies that do interviews, they just have a different angle. This is kind of right in the mix. You know, I went to that trial, I saw how people… you know, they’re excited. Gossip is fun. Socially, it’s kind of a lubricant for a town. It’s a small town thing. It’s human, but it’s especially strong in the small town, so I thought people would understand that. I never thought it was a documentary element, though obviously when you have someone speaking to the camera, it has that, but I just thought it was a storytelling device.
I like the structure of the film: Light and whimsical in the beginning, then it kind of goes dark and macabre. When you were editing the film, was there… We concentrate on Jack Black’s character in the beginning, and then we introduce Matthew. Was there ever a point where we’d meet Matthew before the first 30 minutes?
RL: No, he comes into the story… We had a couple bits where he comes in early. It was just interesting, because it’s like, “Well, that’s Matthew McConaughey. Is he just a townsperson?” It was when to bring him in, how to feather him into the story. There were a few things earlier I ended up not using and got it more on message. There were a few things I ended up shortening for that reason, but really, Danny Buck shows up kind of when he showed up in their lives.
Matthew, how did he describe the story to you, because it can, just straight-up on paper, seem a bit really, really dark, and your kind of humor is a bit more whimsical, I suppose. When he described the story to you…
MM: Have you seen Killer Joe?
MM: Rick’s got a… When he pitched the story and when I read it, I was pretty much on tone. And I thought it was the funniest thing on paper that I had read that has his hand on it. I really thought it was very, very funny. There’s an innocence that Rick… there’s a bit of charm that you give to a place and a people. You did it in Dazed [and Confused]. You’re charming from it. There’s something charming about this movie, and there’s something innocent about that… attractive in that way, in that innocent, charming way. I never read this and thought, “Oh boy, that goes really…” I know it came from him after he pitched it to me for 50 minutes in his truck, and when I read it, I felt on pace with the tone. And really, I thought it was much more funny than I ever thought it was dark. I liked that it was dark comedy, but I was laughing more.
RL: Yeah, that’s the appropriate tone, because I don’t really think it’s dark. I mean, it’s described as a dark comedy only because there’s a murder in it, and that’s the darkest subject you can imagine. But in Bernie’s life, he had a few seconds of darkness. I think really the tone is supposed to be… And then there’s the avoidance… denying for months.
How exaggerated were the characters in the movie compared to their real-life counterparts?
RL: You’ll see. Danny Buck’s going to be at the screening tonight. Matthew underplays him. Jack so nails the real Bernie. When we visited, he picked up his walk, he picked up the exact… He was kind of working on an accent thing, because we had some recordings of Bernie. He was going on, I have some videos of him, like a one hour church service he had lead. We had some recordings of, not only singing, but talking. Jack was kind of working on the accent a little bit, but when he finally met Bernie, we got to hang out with him for a few hours, [he] dialed in that last little bit.
Was Shirley MacLaine’s character really that vicious in real life?
RL: Oh yeah. Shirley was talking to Mrs. Nugent, too.
Could you talk about your collaboration with Dick Pope (Bernie cinematographer)? He shoots a lot of Mike Leigh films. Didn’t he also shoot The Matrix?
MM: No, he didn’t shoot The Matrix, no. Could you see Dick Pope doing The Matrix?
RL: He’s worked with Matthew a couple of times.
MM: Thirteen Conversations [About One Thing], yeah.
RL: He’s a great guy, British DP. I worked with him on Me and Orson Welles in England. I just enjoyed the experience. He really responded to the script. We started talking about it, and yeah, he was able to come over. I hope to work with him again, but there’s no… It’s kind of like actors, there’s no long term… you know, when it’s right, it’s right. He seemed like the right, fun guy to get it done.
I totally understood everything that the characters were saying, but sometimes you’ll see these British films, like a Ken Loach film, and they subtitle everything. And I’m thinking, “This film might be subtitled for the East and West Coast.”
RL: I wonder if you have to. I had a friend in New York who saw it at a press screening. He called me up and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way,” a real New York guy, “but I thought I was watching a film from like another country or something.” I was like, “Eh, you kind of are.” Its otherness, even in Texas where I live, it’s another country, isn’t it?
That scene with the breaking down of the states. That was hilarious.
RL: I had that in my mind for years. I had always wanted to do that in a movie because if you live here and have friends elsewhere, they don’t know Texas, and it’s hard to describe, it’s impossible. They say, “Oh, did you grow up in…” They think you’re in a John Wayne movie. I say, “No, I grew up in the East. It’s all woods.” They go, “Huh? There’s trees in Texas?!” And there’s South Texas, there’s all these different sections. I had been wanting to kind of break that down in a funny way. I remember seeing that postcard as a kid, did you ever see that, how a Texan sees the country? It was a postcard like in the 70s and that stayed on my mind. Texas goes all the way to Canada and the other states are squeezed all around it. So when we were working on that graphic, I went, “Oh yeah!”
I did want to talk to you [Matthew] a little about how it came about, and what it was like working with your Mother.
MM: This is the guy to ask this! He’s done this in The Newton Boys; he hired my oldest brother, Rooster, and put us in a scene together. So Mom tells me she went to audition and goes, “Rick said he thinks I’m just right for it.” I go, “Alright.” So a couple weeks go by and I go, “So… did you get the part?” She’s like, “Well, I mean Rick said I was just right.” I go, “No no no, that’s what a director says when they like it in the room, but did he say, ‘You’ve got the part?’” She goes, “…no, no he didn’t.” I said, “You may be getting a callback. You better get ready to get out there some more.” So I get her pumped up. She keeps working, and I work with her one night. She’s walking around at any given time for a week saying her, “Weeeeell maaaaaaybe.” I’m working with her and stuff and telling her, “Don’t worry about the lines, just relax and be yourself, and that’s what Rick is probably going to like the most, too.” I don’t remember exactly how it went down, but you finally said yes, you gave her the formal yes. And everything went notched up. Then she’s in the movie, that’s great…
RL: Here’s the punch line.
MM: But then, I got a scene where I’m in the café one day and old cat here, sneaky cat here, who’s sitting next to me in the scene? He puts my Mom in the scene right there next to me.
RL: It was in the script. It took him awhile to notice.
MM: But there were all kinds of different townies.
RL: But once I assigned names to all of that… you had to do a lot of math and go, “Oh wait!”
MM: I had no idea until she was sitting there. He got my brother and I in one film, and now he got Mom and I. I don’t think he’ll have too much luck getting the middle brother.
RL: One more brother to go. Patrick will be good. Kay (McCabe, McConaughey’s Mom) would say, “Hey, I got a part for you.” She’s been trying to get into every Matthew film. She wanted to re-do The Graduate with you early on. She was going to play…
Mrs. Robinson?! Well that’s twisted.
RL: She thought that was a good idea. When I finally cast her, she’s like, “Well, at least someone appreciates my talents.”
MM: And tonight, I’ll be there having a great time.
What did she say to you after Killer Joe?
MM: I don’t want to spend too much time on that because we only got our 20 minutes here. She liked it. What did she say? I don’t think she said too much interesting about that, I don’t think. I think she was just like, “You bad. Oh, you bad. Matthew, you’re no good. You bad.”
Were you looking for a real change of pace from the lovable, romantic leading guy?
MM: Sort of, just a different chapter, same book. I’ll probably do some more of those again. They’re fun in a very different kind of way. I just wanted to go… and it actually ended up five films I’ve done, with this one being the second in a row, they’re all independents. So the material was much more attractive, the budgets were much lower, but working on them was just so much fun.
RL: What artist isn’t looking for a change?
Have you screened this in Carthage, TX?
RL: No, not yet. We’re going to sometime. We’re hoping to get a screening at the prison where Bernie’s in. I’ve talked to the warden; she’s kind of up for it. I hope we get the chance.
I know that Some Came Running was one of your favorite films and you’re finally getting to work with Shirley MacLaine. Surely, you had to bounce some thoughts off of her from that film.
RL: No, not until months after we had worked together. When you’re working with someone with such a career… I never asked any questions, but she would offer things, and I was all ears. She wants to talk about [Alfred] Hitchcock, or Billy Wilder, or Bob Fosse, or anything, I’m like, “Oh!” But I wasn’t going to be one of those, “Oh, tell me…” Someone with a career like that, she’s got her stories and she’s got her own experiences, but I wanted her to concentrate on Mrs. Nugent. I wanted her very much in the present. It’s just a weird thing sometimes. Months later, I called her up because we were showing Some Came Running, and she told me everything.