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In the tiny, rural town of Carthage, TX, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede was one of the town’s most beloved residents. He taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir and was always willing to lend a helping hand. Everyone loved and appreciated Bernie, so it came as no surprise when he befriended Marjorie Nugent, an affluent widow who was as well known for her sour attitude as her fortune.
Bernie frequently traveled with Marjorie and even managed her banking affairs. Marjorie quickly became fully dependant on Bernie and his generosity and Bernie struggled to meet her increasing demands. Bernie continued to handle her affairs, and the townspeople went months without seeing Marjorie.
The people of Carthage were shocked when it was reported that Marjorie Nugent had been dead for some time, and Bernie Tiede was being charged with the murder.
The dark comedy ‘Bernie’, starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey is set for a limited release on April 27. In a statement, the director Richard Linklater said the following:
Back in December of 1998, I read Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly story about Bernie Tiede, Marjorie Nugent, and the town of Carthage and something just clicked. It’s hard to articulate what exactly draws one to a particular story, and what would compel one to undertake the often lengthy and often fruitless task of trying to make a movie out of a real life story.
Maybe it was my being a native East Texan and feeling like I knew everyone involved. Maybe it was Bernie’s unique character and the complex relationship between him and Marjorie. He played roles in her life from chauffer to chef to best friend and confidant. Maybe it was the interesting legal proceedings that were playing out at that time. Maybe it was what I saw as the dark humor surrounding the entire story.
I called Skip and we started talking about how it might work as a movie. I optioned the rights, and not long after we were attending some of the trial, where I would first see the real Bernie, Danny Buck, Scrappy, the many visitors from Carthage and the jurors from San Augustine where the trial had been moved.
It all ended for Bernie in the opposite way it felt it was going at the time of the article. In the movie, it is overly apparent during the trial that those on Bernie’s side truly believed that he had done nothing wrong and didn’t deserve to be punished. One witness even says “It’s not as bad as people say; he only shot her four times, not five.”
Early on, Skip gave me all his journalistic notes and the treasure was revealed: with Marjorie now gone and Bernie sitting in jail, unable to give interviews; it was what the many townspeople were saying about them that would be the record. Whether you like it or not, on a perception level, you ARE what they say you are, especially in a small town.
The majority of the story is told through townspeople’s accounts of what happened and their feelings of Bernie and Marjorie. They are the narrators. I’d never seen a movie told from the perspective of a group of gossips, but in this case it seemed like the proper narrative technique that would reveal everything you could ever really know about the town and the people involved.
And what characters! There’s no storytelling like that of a townsperson from East Texas with that deep southern drawl. It was also this unconventional storytelling device that almost kept the movie from ever getting made. But eventually, ten years later, once Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey had come aboard, Bernie, Marjorie, and Carthage’s story could finally be told.