Oscar-Worthy: Jack Black and Richard Linklater Talk Bernie


Back in 2003, filmmaker Richard Linklater teamed with Jack Black for a musical comedy called School of Rock that would elevate both their careers dramatically. Their most recent collaboration, Bernie, was released earlier this year–April to be exact–to less fanfare, but even with a lower-key release, word soon got around about what a great performance Jack Black gave playing the title role. It ended up becoming one of Linklater’s biggest independent films since 1998’s The Newton Boys.

In this true story, Black plays funeral director Bernie Tiede of the small town of Carthage, Texas who befriended and then killed a rich widow named Marjorie Nugent, played in the movie hilariously by Shirley MacLaine, before putting her in a freezer for nine months.

Nowadays, any performance on par with Black’s with any sort of awards potential gets one sort of campaign or another. While we’re not deluded enough to think that Black could be competing with the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix at the Oscars, his performance is definitely worth another Golden Globe nomination, similar to the one he got for School of Rock.

With that in mind, ComingSoon.net was offered a chance to sit down with Black and Linklater to reflect back on the production as they prepare for the inevitable awards season to come that will have them put in front of as many journalists and awards voters possible.

Now mind you, this was originally going to be a spotlight piece on Black, since we were under the impression Linklater’s schedule couldn’t line up, so we were surprised when he actually got into town early enough to join the interview, even though we hadn’t really prepared anything specifically to ask him.

From the way the two of them bantered back and forth–which we’ve kept here as faithful to the actual conversation as we could–it was pretty clear to us that these are two guys who are meant to be working together. Here’s hoping one day we’ll get a third movie from them, whether it’s the long-rumored School of Rock 2 or something else. In fact, trying to get either of them to talk about any upcoming projects was harder than usual, especially getting Linklater to talk about the recently-filmed Before Midnight, which he just finished shooting in Greece, but we had a fun time nonetheless. Enjoy!

ComingSoon.net: One of the reasons we’re talking today is because “Bernie” is one of the first screeners to go out to awards voters.
Richard Linklater:
Really? How awesome is that? Alright.
Jack Black: They’re on the ball.
Linklater: I’ve never had a film where they’ve been on the ball. I’m always the last screener to go out, if I got a screener at all.
Black: Dude, I’ve never been on a film where they were on it either.
Linklater: Never.

CS: So how does it feel to actually have a studio who cares enough about your movie to make that effort to send out screeners?
It’s a very strange whole new world. I didn’t know there was this world until this film, where after you’re done with the movie and after you’ve released the movie, there’s still like a machine that needs to be worked.
Linklater: Well, that’s your fault for giving such a good damn performance.
Black: Now here I am trottin’ my wares around town in the dog and pony show, showing my ass all over the place. You know why I’m really here? Because I’d like to do more like this, so you go and toot your horn when you want to do more of the same.

CS: When last we spoke, no one had a clue how well the movie was going to do, so it’s nice when a movie you like making ends up doing well.
Yeah, when it has a nice second or third act.

CS: So have you started the whole dog and pony show or is that just starting now?
You are my first. I’m showing you my bushy tail.
Linklater: I think this is an indie version of that.
This is the indie version.
Black: Yeah, we’re hoping for some recognition from the indie underground prize awards whatever those are.

CS: The Independent Spirit Awards, those are great!
Oh, yeah, there actually is an award. (laughs)

CS: I know you were nominated for a Golden Globe for “School of Rock” so did you do the whole Hollywood Foreign Press thing back then?
No. No one trotted me around to the various places.
Linklater: You got that completely on the film. They ran that film for nothing.
Black: No one was thinking prizes at the time we did it. We were making a fun movie.
Linklater: And I don’t think they sent out screeners or anything, but you got it. You should have won that year. Who won it?
Black: A little guy named Bill Murray.
Linklater: For what comedy or musical was that?
Black: That was a little comedy called “Lost in Translation”…
Linklater: Which isn’t really a comedy.

CS: Did you write to them and say, “You know, that’s really not a comedy. It’s kind of sad…”
I did try to get the word out but it was too late. The votes had already been tabulated.
Linklater: You’re the “Goodfellas” of that year.
Black: I remember I was drunk, but I was listening to his acceptance speech and he thanked a lot of people that horrible things had happened to. He thanked his personal trainer who had died of a heart attack recently.
Linklater: Oh, God.
Black: And it sounded like a joke at the time, all the people he was thanking and all those things, but then we came to find out later… all true.
Linklater: But his deadpan was so (good)… that’s true comedy. That’s comedy genius.

CS: I guess it’s tradition for the winner in the comedy category to tell really tragic stories.
Are you polishing up your tragic stories?
Black: Tragic and hilarious… yes…
Linklater: Polish up your tragicomedy. That’s what the film is, so that would be appropriate.

CS: You might end up in another rematch with Bill Murray because he has two comedies this year, or at least one.
What is he doing?

CS: “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Oh, yeah. Have you seen “Moonrise Kingdom”? Is it fantastic? I haven’t seen it.

CS: I wasn’t that big a fan but a lot of people loved it. I’m the exception.
But the adults aren’t going to get nominated. It’s all the kids.
Black: It’s all about the kids in “Moonrise Kingdom”? I gotta check it out.

CS: So let’s talk about your movie and let’s go back in time to whenever it was that you got the script. How long after “School of Rock” was that?
We actually started talking about “Bernie” before we did “School of Rock.” No. Wait a second, you were thinking about “Bernie” before “School of Rock.”
Linklater: Before I met you, yeah. I’d been to the trial a lot but it preceded me knowing you. But when was it? Five years ago?
Black: When you first told me about “Bernie.” No, dude, not five years ago. More recent. Yeah, you told me about “Bernie”…
Linklater: What was the gap in between?
Black: It felt like we were filming it one year later, no more than a year later, so that would make it almost three years.
Linklater: Okay, more recent.

CS: Was there anything you were particularly anxious about doing when you read the script and knew what was expected of you to play Bernie Tiede?
Well, mostly I was anxious about the fact that it’s a real story and that there’s real people being portrayed. I don’t do that very often, so when it happens, you get a special pit of anxiety to get it right. So there was that. The fact that this was a guy who was still living and in prison and he has a stake in his story being told properly.

CS: Has he had the chance to see the movie yet? Have you had a chance to show him it yet?
We wanted to show it at his prison.
Linklater: No, we were trying to.
Black: But the prison politics…
Linklater: The Texas prison system is not a good place to be imprisoned, let’s put it like that.

CS: No movie nights?
No. The only movie they’ve ever shown was “The Passion,” the Mel Gibson movie.
Black: Didn’t Johnny Cash play a Texas prison or was that not in Texas? Where was that?
Linklater: Fulsom is in Texas, but he played a lot of prisons. But he actually was in prison in Texas for a while, just for a little while.
Black: Ohhhhhh…..

CS: But you can’t even send him a DVD?
They don’t have anything… I’m still steamin’ but I think he’ll watch it within the year.
Black: They have a TV but they don’t have… it would have to be a TV Movie of the Week when the TVs are on. But even then, you look up and the TVs they have in there? They’re like wavy gravy…
Linklater: Like 1974 reception.
Black: No one’s really paying attention to it.
Linklater: They’re all talking. That would be a bummer screening.
Black: Yeah.
Linklater: You can watch like daytime TV that way but I wouldn’t want to watch a movie.
Black: It was in color but someone needed to go there and adjust the tint.
Linklater: If they had a widescreen and high definition, but no, they’re not going to indulge that. They don’t even have fans. It’s 109 degrees in there.
Black: But he was keeping himself together. He had a good system worked out in his cell. Everything was really clean and tidy and he was making the best of it.

CS: So you guys have been keeping in touch with Bernie since making the movie?
I sent him an Email. The way you can send messages to prisoners through a special… I haven’t heard back from him, but I just basically said that the movie turned out great and that everyone is really proud of it and I hope to watch it with him someday and see what he thinks. I hope that his new prison is going okay—he moved to a new prison since I met him. But I haven’t spoken to him again since then.
Linklater: He writes nice letters and stuff.

CS: Going back to the script, there’s stuff in the movie you have to do like put on stage productions, sing gospel hymns and know how to do the… I don’t know what they call it.
Mortuary science?

CS: Is that what they call it when they make someone presentable for the funeral?
I’m sure there’s a technical term.

CS: But you had to learn how to do some of that stuff so how did you go about learning?
I tried to get in with a mortuary and really watch someone do it, but they have rules and regulations about that and I wasn’t able to gain access to it. I wasn’t allowed to be around corpses without…
Linklater: We spent some time with a lady who does it.
Black: Yeah, talked to a lady who does it. Talked to a couple people actually with tips, but that was mostly just imagining what that would be like. I didn’t do any actual work with corpses.
Linklater: It’s called acting, putting yourself in that position.
Black: Yeah, but with regards to the musical stuff, the preparation. I luckily had some experience in that realm having done tons of musical theater in my youth. I was Pippin in my high school production of “Pippin” and did a few other musicals. Yeah, Ben Vereen was a big influence on me in my early theater days.

CS: That’s a great answer to give when you do the real dog and pony show.
Yes! (laughs) Ding, ding, ding!

CS: I feel like I’m here to get you ready for the real dog and pony show. Ben Vereen is definitely a good quote, that’s golden.
Please, any tips that you have. I want to be best in show. I don’t know if you could tell but I used a little extra conditioner today in my hair, so it’s got a nice wave, a sheen. I’ve been de-flead.

CS: When I was watching the movie again, I was really impressed that you have all these scenes from musicals and the fact you just staged that one song from “Music Man.”
What makes you think it was just one section?
Linklater: It’s on the deleted scenes. We put on the whole production. No, that was all we did.
Black: Is that what you did with “Me and Orson”? Did you do just the pieces that were shown or did you ever do some more?
Linklater: No, we did about a third more, we rehearsed quite a bit more.
Black: Almost the whole thing.
Linklater: Yeah, there’s a lot of deleted fun stuff. I did it for the actors just to get them in the mood. We didn’t have that luxury on this one.

CS: So you basically had one stage and you just cycled through the musicals, like “Okay, now let’s do ‘Music Man'”?
Yeah, it was tight.
Linklater: We did all of that in one day.
Black: It was…
Linklater: Well rehearsed, put it like that.
Black: Yeah, you gotta be well-rehearsed.
Linklater: We worked very hard. Music was a huge element of the movie and that was kind of the most fun when I think back. Just sitting there with Graham, working up the hymns.
Black: You got that shot in there, we just did it all in one from “76 Trombones.”
Linklater: Yeah, everybody loves that. Yeah, I’m a ‘50s musical kind of guy, not the cutty MTV stuff.
Black: But we also had to do some preparation with regard to… what are some of the other things that were tricky? Oh, just doing the music in the congregations, leading the congregation in hymns. That was a whole world of music that I’d never explored, so that took some real listening and rehearsing those songs, those gospels, and that particular type of gospel.
Linklater: We had the real Bernie to go by on some of those, remember? We got some of the actual recordings of Bernie singing them.
Black: When people say “gospel,” the first thing I think of though is soul gospel, a huge black choir singing “Hallelujah”-style, but this is not that, this is much more…
Linklater: More Southern…
Black: More restrained and yet beautiful songs and in some ways, not to poke fun at it, but somewhat humorous in its innocence. When you really love the Lord passionately, it can sometimes sound as though there are sexual connotations, some which are hilarious.

At this point, Jack starts singing one such song… and here’s a little taste of what Jack Black sounds like singing gospel:

Linklater: Couldn’t resist that one.
Black: These are songs that I’d never heard and we listened to them a lot with Graham Reynolds, our musical director? What’s his credit on the film?
Linklater: Composer? And all around music guy.
Black: And we picked out the songs that sounded the best when we performed them and what fit the story best.
Linklater: There was a lot to pick from.
Black: Yeah, we went through a lot of songs. Whatever happened? Did they ever release a record of those songs?
Linklater: That’s a dead genre, isn’t it? There aren’t really any soundtracks anymore. It’s available for download.
Black: It would just be a weird iTunes release, right? We gotta do it, those songs are great.

CS: You have a great voice for gospel, so has that transitioned into your work with Tenacious D?
We’ve talked about it, but we want to let this one breathe. It would be a little weird to be back on it right now.
Linklater: It’s a little close. The folks in the production, they’d come up to you and say, “Oh, honey, you have to sing gospel. You have to do it.”
Black: Yeah, I actually would like to do it.
Linklater: You really have to. I was really looking forward to Jack’s voice in this movie early on. You’re the only guy who could do it, really.
Black: What was important to me was that we don’t do that thing… I hate it when in movies when you see people—and I feel like I can always tell—when there’s prerecorded stuff where they’re lipsyncing, so we took extra care to make it look as… We couldn’t play it all live because you couldn’t have all the musicians there. I was able to listen to the prerecorded music in my ear and then sing along.

CS: As a director, how involved are you in getting Jack ready for a role like this because there’s a lot of stuff to do, so how much do you figure out how to get him up to speed and how much do you just let him go off and do it on his own?
I’m trying to think, but it’s just an ongoing collaboration. I just give material to Jack and see what he does with it, and just keep rehearsing and working on stuff.
Black: Rick’s there for all of it. What are you talking about? He’s there for all of it.
Linklater: I’m there.

CS: I ask because some actors like to go off and do their own thing to figure out how to play a part and then come to the director for notes. Actors get into roles in different ways.
Yeah, everybody has their own methods.

CS: Was it very different from when you did “School of Rock”?
(After a long silence) Can you remember “School of Rock”? I don’t remember anything about that production. (This cracks us all up.)
Linklater: I remember you were tired. This one seemed harder in a way but you said that one was tougher at the time. This one you felt kind of elated. I was the exhausted one this time.
Black: You were the exhausted one.
Linklater: Last time, on “School of Rock” I was the one…
Black: Well, you know, for the actor, the waiting is the hardest part.
Linklater: There was no waiting on this film.
Black: You just sit in your trailer and you got this thing in your gut going, “Oh God, it’s coming up pretty soon” and you sit there for hours and hours getting ready to do your thing and when it’s time to do it, you’re exhausted just from waiting and being nervous. On this movie, there’s no trailer time!
Linklater: No, there’s no time to think.
Black: It’s acting, acting, acting, acting.
Linklater: We shot the whole thing in 22 days.
Black: End of the day, we shot three pages and you’re just like Zing! You feel exhilarated.
Linklater: Two numbers, a sermon and a three-page scene.
Black: I actually prefer doing that.
Linklater: It was a sprint.
Black: As hellish as it might have been for you, being under the gun and being barely able to make the day, that’s the way to go for the acting experience.
Linklater: Yeah, it was fine.

CS: It’s funny how the indies where you have to rush to get things done tend to turn out better than the big studio movies where you have all the time in the world.
Well, you deal the hand that’s been dealt to you and we were just lucky to get this movie made, so no complaints. It worked. I don’t know what we would have done differently.
Black: With $50 million? It would have been a little more trailer time.
Linklater: You.
Black: There could have been a trailer. Well, you know I had a trailer. It just wasn’t a double pop-out wide, but you know who had the real trailer? Was Matthew (McConaughey)…
Linklater: Because it’s his own trailer.
Black: It’s his own trailer that he built from the ground up.
Linklater: He renovated an Airstream.
Black: So I definitely had trailer envy. And you could tell he put so much care into it.
Linklater: That’s his house. He lives in it most of the time.
Black: Every square inch of it, thought was put into it.

CS: Hey, this isn’t a piece about Matthew McConaughey. This is a piece about you. He can do his own “Magic Mike” or “Killer Joe” dog and pony show.
Yeah, talk about busy. He’s on fire.

CS: From what you can remember, how different was this from “School of Rock” besides having less time? Since you’d worked together before, was it a lot easier to do so much in less time?
Well, “School of Rock” there was some stress because we weren’t done. We were never done.
Linklater: We were originating a lot of music and we were never done.
Black: We were a work in progress while we were filming and that caused an incredible amount of stress.
Linklater: It was all about that last number.
Black: That song at the end…
Linklater: We were still working on it.
Black: We were working on it and I was trying to write one and it wasn’t coming together and it didn’t sound right.
Linklater: We were trying to figure out that last song. That was kind of the fun creative process but it was kind of nervewracking.
Black: But it all came together.
Linklater: Despite our $30 million budget and our studio.
Black: We didn’t have certain songs that we wanted in the movie and we had this huge audience of people.
Linklater: We were lobbying.
Black: You were like “Can you do a little video pitch to Led Zeppelin?”
Linklater: It worked though.
Black: We were scraping and squeezing and clawing to the finish line on “School of Rock.”
Linklater: Oh, and there’s kids around, too, so there’s a certain anxiety just keeping yourself PG-13 instead of our usual R or NC-17 selves. (laughs)

CS: Has Rick changed a lot as a director in the time since you did that movie working with you as an actor?
“How has Rick changed over the years?” Hmmm… has he mellowed? I’m going to say “no.” He was already very mellow. Maybe technique. (thinking) The way that you rehearse, the preparation… no? Very consistent. Learned some new tricks? Yes, perhaps. He’s only gotten better with age.
Linklater: This is a non-answer. (laughter)
Black: Has anything changed in your approach?
Linklater: Nope. I just worked with someone this summer who I worked with 20 years. I mean, we’re stuck with ourselves for better or worse. You didn’t feel any different.
Black: Nope, felt the same. But I will tell you something about Rick that will probably make him embarrassed. But part of his genius is his patience. Because there’s not a lot of people who have the long view in mind when they work on projects. He started thinking about this (movie) thirteen years ago. How many people work on a germination of an idea for thirteen years, one that sticks with them. He’s got a movie. I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell anything about it. Another movie… when did you start making that one?

CS: Right, there’s a movie you’ve been shooting a little bit each year, that one?
Yeah, I started shooting that right before we did “School of Rock.”
Black: Okay, so he’s been working on that movie for eight years. A lot of his projects have this sort of patience where it’s like. Patience is a word that yeah, everyone has a certain amount of patience, but when you have an incredible amount of patience, then it almost becomes a magic power. It becomes like a superpower. It stops being patience. There should be another word.

CS: These days, there’s such a short attention span, you feel that you work on something, it’s done, then you move on and do something else.
But it kind of requires patience, doesn’t it? It’s such a craft, it’s such a long-term… I mean, from the time you start a film until the time it’s out, that’s sometimes a year or two. If you don’t have patience, you probably shouldn’t be doing… For performers it’s a little different. It’s kind of an intense thing but the long-term thing of getting a film together, you kind of have to have it, don’t you? If you don’t, there’s other mediums that are more immediate that you get to indulge yourself in plenty, Mr. World Tour.

CS: Is that pretty much what you’ve been doing since the movie came out in April?
Yeah, it’s been all Tenacious D.
Linklater: It’s true. You were heading out on the tour right when the movie came out.
Black: Yeah, and we’re still touring. We’re very big in Germany apparently. They’re clamoring for us and we have to go back and feed the beast. And Australia, and we also have a new album that we just finished, that’s going to be released in November, if you don’t mind me giving a sideplug. It’s called “Tenacious D Jazz.” It’s all jazz. Now we’re an album a year. This one was actually recorded in one day, we did it live.

CS: So you and Kyle are both playing guitars?
No, I’m just singing. Kyle is playing wind instruments, and we’ve got the band playing jazz guitar and jazz bass.
Linklater: Are there any Hadens involved?
Black: No Hadens involved. I’m a little worried that my father-in-law Charlie Haden, a great jazz bass player, will hear it and judge me harshly, but it’s been a long time coming, our jazz album.

CS: So then you’re going to go on a whole year of touring for that album next?
Jazz dog and pony show? Jazz tour? I think when you hear it, you will agree that it’s Grammy time. (laughs)

CS: I still think you should break out with some gospel during a Tenacious D show and that will absolutely throw people off.
I think a little bit of gospel creeped its way into “Rise of the Phoenix,” a little bit.

CS: Is it true that you’re going to do another movie with Shirley MacLaine?
No, that’s just a phantom thing that’s on IMDb that there are no plans for any movie, as of now. I’m just focusing on my music. I got some things in development, but nothing that is officially on the Cadillac board.
Linklater: What do they say?
Black: There’s some movie…

CS: “Wild Oats” with Howard Deutch, who directed “Pretty in Pink”?
Right. What? “Pretty in Pink”? Wasn’t that the dude who just died who directed “The Breakfast Club”? (John Hughes)
Linklater: No, he wrote it, but Deutch directed it. He didn’t really like directing movies that much, John Hughes, so other people started to direct them.

CS: But basically you’re doing music and not doing any acting in the coming months?
Yeah, well I do a little thing here and there. I did a music video for a friend of mine’s band, a punk rock band called Off. Keith, he was the lead singer of Circle Jerks and the first singer of Black Flag and now he has a band called Off and they had a music video I did. It was kind of a kung fu 1970s video where I kill the whole band. Little fun things here and there but I don’t have a big one yet.

CS: What have you been working on in the six months since this came out? Do you still have a couple scripts you want to get going on?
Yeah, little things floating around always. Doing “Bernie” gave me hope because I do have all these backburnered projects and there’s always hope for them. (At this point, he gets really quiet making it obvious he doesn’t want to talk about it.) Yeah, I shot this thing in summer in Greece, shot it in 15 days, less than “Bernie.” I need to go in the other direction.
Black: How’s Greece doing?
Linklater: Good, nice.
Black: Did you have some good Greek food?
Linklater: Yes, in Greece. It’s so nice there.
Black: I love a good Greek meal. It’s too bad you don’t eat chicken.

Before we could ask anything more about it, it was time for us to wrap things up…

Linklater: Is there anything you didn’t get? I can still leave the room and you can ask him anything else. I feel like I crashed this interview.
Black: I think we nailed it. (laughter)

Bernie is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.