Richard Linklater Finds Laughs and Tragedy With His ‘Bernie’

By  · Published on April 24th, 2012

Writer/director Richard Linkater is a filmmaker who can never be accused of making one thing. Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, School of Rock, Tape, The Newton Boys, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, and his latest film Bernie, about the nicest murderer you’ll ever meet, all make for an eclectic filmography. If there’s one noticeable connection in Linklater’s works, it that he’s always mixed comedy and tragedy. As the director puts it, that’s just how he sees the world, and he generally shows that view in different structures. Unlike, say, A Scanner Darkly, Bernie is a plain and simple story, with zero tangents to speak of. Although Linklater isn’t a fan of the normal three-act structure, a fact you can see in his films, Bernie mostly fits into that box.

This, along with his writing process and where he draws inspiration from, is one of the few things I discussed with Mr. Linklater in an all-too-brief conversation.

Do you enjoy the festival experience?

Yeah. I’ve now seen it with audiences in different parts of the country, so it’s always interesting to get the different responses. A film festival audience is good because there’s different people from different parts. The film also being a Texas thing there’s certain laughs in it that the locals would appreciate more than others, I suspect. Even from people in big towns they imagine a parallel life of what it’d be like living in a small town. So much of our media or stories are from small town America. Even if you didn’t grow up in that part, you’ve seen movies like Field of Dreams or Frank Capra’s films. They make you feel like, “Oh, America’s a small town country!” [Laughs] I wanted to make a story from there.

There’s been some discussion over how dark the film is. Do you find the film dark or only the one incident?

Yeah, it’s a one incident dark. I feel a desire from some that it should be darker. Really, the movie is 100% from the viewpoint of Bernie, who’s not a dark character; he has one dark moment. He truly isn’t a dark person, you know? He isn’t a psychopath faking nice; he really is nice. Even Marjorie Nugent, she’s a lot worse, according to people who knew her, but, again, from the perspective of the movie, Bernie didn’t see her as bad as everybody else did… until he did [Laughs].

[Laughs] I’m surprised to hear you say that. She’s pretty horrible in the movie.

Oh, she’s pretty horrible. Again, there’s worse. She’s pretty horrible [Laughs].

[Laughs] The movie is obviously a tragedy with how it plays out —

Yeah, it’s definitely a tragedy.

And it’s mixed with humor. A lot of your films have that dichotomy. Is that just your sensibility?

You know, I guess. You’re kind of stuck with your view of the world, and I’ve always seen the world as doomed and tragic but in very comedic terms; it’s just an irony of the way you see life. The one time I show someone get killed in a movie I really wanted to show the tragedy that ensues from that. We kind of take it lightly and as entertainment, but it destroys a lot of lives. You have to remember that: one act of violence like this affects towns, people, and everybody connected. It’s nothing to be taken lightly, even though I take it kind of lightly [Laughs]. It’s tragedy plus time! Nothing funny about it in the moment, but now we can have fun with [Laughs].

[Laughs] That’s a fair point. I was rewatching A Scanner Darkly the other day, which is also a funny but really sad story.

Oh, fuck yeah.

And when it comes to that type of connection in your work, is that ever something you think about, or do you prefer leaving that for others to interpret?

Nah. You’re just telling the next story you’re trying to tell and get obsessed with. A Scanner Darkly and, well, Fast Food Nation was pretty dark too. That was a dark period. That was my Bush and Cheney years [Laughs], where I went, “Whoa, things are dark… and funny.” I’m that myself, though. I can see that side of things pretty easily.

A Scanner Darkly definitely fits into those Bush and Cheney post-9/11 years.

Yeah, that’s in there for sure. It sort of adapted Philip K. Dick’s view of the future, and it felt like that story’s time had come.

When you’re adapting a book or a real life incident, is the writing process much different than working on an original story?

Well, it’s different. By the time you’re making the movie it all feels the same, but the origin point is certainly different. I have movies, like original screenplays, that I wrote over long periods of time. I take notes for years. I have a bunch that I’m sort of feeling my way through and designing. When you have a template, like Bernie, which was sort of a story and you had journalistic notes to work off of, and a book like Scanner, it’s just a different process. It’s a different process, but it all ends up in the same place: you’re trying to tell a story and make a movie. I don’t really prefer one over the other; it’s just what story you’re feeling. What that starts from is hard to say, you know?

Are you also worrying less about writer’s block when you’re adapting?

I have to say, I’ve never suffered a second of writer’s block. Even though I spent my life as a writer and novelist, I feel like I live the life of a writer. I always have various things I’m writing at any given time. If I’m not inspired by something, then I just work on something else. Once I really sit down and do it, I’m methodical and have outlines. I’ve never had a lack of ideas. It’s probably because my threshold for what a movie could be is so low I’m not waiting around for the great thing that says everything! I have a lot of specific movies I’m trying to do that aren’t waiting around.

You mentioned that period of Bush and Cheney leading to darker works. Do you draw a lot of inspiration from that, what’s going on at the time?

I don’t know. It was kind of a coincidence. It’s weird that you do a film that seems to have anything to do with what’s going on, especially in my case [Laughs]. You don’t aim for that sometimes. Sometimes it does seem like your film and the culture are ships passing in the night. It can feel like, “Oh, this is relevant for our times!” every now and then. I think Bernie is sort of a timeless tale. Even though it’s contemporary, it could lend itself to anytime.

The film has a pretty tight three act structure, and you’ve written films that don’t have that and go off on tangents, like Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly.

Yeah, the digressions, and I like those, of course. I’m always looking to tell a story in a unique way, and new ways to tell a story that still work cinematically. I think if I could define my quest as a writer and as a filmmaker, I’d say it’s trying to find the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, which we all play with. I’ve never been too super satisfied with the clean three act structure. Although, when I do it, I want to do it exact. Ultimately I think I’m a pretty clean storyteller. With most of my movies, there’s not a lot of confusion. Even though there are digressions, there’s simplicity on another level, even if they’re more out there than others. I’m conscious as a viewer of not wanting to go like, “What?” I don’t understand movies easily myself when they have a lot of plot points that are supposed to add up to something. I don’t know, that’s not the way my mind works. I’m more character-based storytelling.

Is that why you’re not a big fan of those clean three-act structures?

[Laughs] Well, you naturally fall into a three act structure, whether you like it or not. You know, it just seems like a construct from another era. Does Bernie have three acts?

I would say it does.

Yeah, you got all the way up to the murder and the last part’s the legal trial.

Talking about A Scanner Darkly earlier, that movie got a bit of a mixed response. How much do reactions to your work affect your view on a film?

I don’t know. Did it get a mixed response? I felt like people liked it, but maybe I wasn’t paying too much attention [Laughs].

[Laughs] I would say it’s slightly mixed, but of course there are people who love it.

Yeah. We played at the Cannes Film Festival and felt like we got a good vibe. You know, that movie is not going to be for everyone. Even as we were making it I knew I was making a film that some guy is going to watch in his room alone at two in the morning. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a mainstream success!” At the same time, you hope you can catch a wave and relevance. You have to be positive about stuff. I’m always thinking, if we do a good enough job, no matter how obscure the subject matter, it can work if we’re just honest and do our best. If we can totally crack it, good things will happen.

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Bernie opens in theaters this Friday, April 27.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.