HOLLYWOOD - When the most popular guy in a rural Texas town went on trial for murdering the community's richest widow, filmmaker Richard Linklater saw the makings of a dark comedy. Bernie, starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black, is based on true events.
Bernie Tiede was a beloved mortician in Carthage, Texas where he made the dearly departed look their best for the funeral and took special interest in comforting the bereaved …especially the widows.
Kind, caring Bernie began his relationship with arrogant, rude and wealthy Marjorie Nugent like this:
BERNIE "Hi, just dropping by again Mrs. Nugent to pay my respects. I brought you some some soaps and a little bubble bath to soothe you in the tub and some chocolate cupcakes for a late night snack."
MRS. NUGENT "Come in."
BERNIE "Oh, it would be my pleasure."
Bernie and Marjorie became friends and traveled the world together. Then Bernie shot her and kept the body hidden in a freezer for nine months while he spent her money on local businesses and charities.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater, who came from a nearby town in East Texas, says he was drawn to the case when it went to trial in 1998.
"I just felt that I knew these people," Linklater explains. "It was like something out of my own life. I felt I knew guys like Bernie. I certainly knew Mrs. Nugent and that town. It just kind of got into me. I went to the trial and just kind of followed it."
That fascination led to the film.
Well known for rowdy comedies, Jack Black - who plays the title role - took a serious approach to Bernie.
"He was really an incredibly popular, well-loved guy in the small town in Texas," Black notes. "There's video of him conducting services at the church, and I was able to have that to research, which was helpful, as was meeting him in person."
That meeting took place in the prison where Bernie is serving a life sentence for murder. Shirley MacLaine co-stars as Marjorie Nugent, who, of course, she could not meet. But the actress says the folks in Carthage gave her an earful.
"Whoever I met during the filming, they truly hated her and were frankly so glad she went," MacLaine explains. "All the stuff that makes comedy for me."
Marjorie's abusive nature may have pushed Bernie to the edge, but MacLaine believes they also needed each other.
"I think because she was financing him she felt she also owned every single hour of his time," she says. "Frankly, anybody would have killed her if she had acted like that. It didn't have to be just him. But when you have that combined with a person who needs to be loved and adored more than anything else, it's a perfect combination for a friendship."
The cast also features Matthew McConnaughey as the prosecutor determined to bring Bernie to justice. The film was shot where the actual events took place in East Texas and it's something of a hybrid between feature film and documentary with recollections of local towns people mixed in.