Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction In 'Bernie'

Melissa Block talks with Skip Hollandsworth about Bernie — a new film he co-wrote with Richard Linklater. The project started out as a Texas Monthly article Hollandsworth wrote back in 1998 called "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas." At the heart of the story is Bernie Tiede — a 39-year-old soft-spoken assistant at the local funeral home — who admitted to killing an 81-year-old heiress and stealing her money.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In the truth is stranger than fiction category, we can include the true story behind the new movie, "Bernie," a dark comedy. It's a murder story based on what happened in the small town of Carthage in East Texas in 1997. The main characters are Marjorie Nugent, a rich and notoriously mean widow, and her young companion, Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral home director in Carthage. They're played the movie by Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black. The bizarre part is that, when Bernie Tiede confessed to killing Marjorie Nugent, shooting her in the back, no one in Carthage seemed to mind. In fact, they banded solidly behind Bernie Tiede.

"Bernie," the movie, is based on the story by Skip Hollandsworth that ran in Texas Monthly magazine. He also wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater. And Hollandsworth says, he knew right away this was a story for him.

SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: I saw a two-paragraph story in the Dallas Morning News about a funeral home director confessing to murdering the town's grande dame and that nine months passed before anyone started looking for her. That's how much they did not miss her. And sort of instinctively, I began to put notebooks and pens into my briefcase.

Then I read the second paragraph, which said Bernie Tiede would have been able to have inherited all of the money in her estate - and she was worth millions because she was an oil widow - and yet he went ahead and shot her four times in the back anyway, because he told police in his confession she was just so mean and demanding that he didn't know what else to do. And at that point, I was hightailing it to Carthage.

BLOCK: One other detail there that Bernie Tiede didn't get rid of the body. He put it in her deep freezer.

HOLLANDSWORTH: He hid it in her deep freezer for nine months because he told the police in this proper sanctified way that he had. He had this very endearing personality to the town, because he was so kind to everyone. He told the police that, no matter what he had done to Mrs. Nugent, he still felt she deserved a proper burial. And it's the kind of anecdote that makes you think, this can't be made up. It's just so beyond imagination that it can only be true.

BLOCK: We hear in the movie a chorus of people, sort of like a documentary film technique, people talking about how skilled Bernie Tiede was a mortician.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BERNIE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) Oh, honey, he was a magician. He made all of us just look beautiful. I mean, he could make your wrinkles just all go away and he would - if you had an overbite, he'd fix that so it wouldn't be so sticky outy. I mean, he just made everybody look so beautiful, except too bad you were dead.

BLOCK: Too bad you were dead. This is from the movie, "Bernie." These characters, who are really some of the high points of the movie, don't seem at all like actors. Are these actually people from the town of Carthage?

HOLLANDSWORTH: And, in fact, the woman that you heard is a retired hairdresser who lives in the town just outside Carthage. Because Bernie was in prison and Mrs. Nugent was dead, their lives were basically defined by the gossip said about them. And in this case, it was sort of extraordinary, so what Rick wanted to do was have the gossips drive the narrative.

So he had a variety of people talking about what happened to the two of them, and there are about 23 gossips. Twenty-one of them are genuine East Texans who've had little or absolutely no acting experience whatsoever. So you had this interesting mixture of genuine East Texans and Hollywood superstars who arrived to play the lead roles.

And there were times when the East Texans who loved Bernie and despised Mrs. Nugent so much would watch Shirley McLaine playing Mrs. Nugent and you could feel the hostility emerge in them. And then when Jack Black as Bernie arrived, very meticulous, solicitous, always patting people on the back - when Jack arrived on the set, you could hear some of the older ladies from East Texas actually coo as if Bernie had come back to life for them.

BLOCK: What about Marjorie Nugent, who seems to not have had any friends in town, didn't speak to her own sister, rarely talked to her son, was there anybody in town who stood up for her?

HOLLANDSWORTH: Well, her stockbroker, who made commissions off every time she made a trade, was constantly on the phone with her. When I arrived in Carthage, I went to the town's best restaurant, Daddy Sam's Barbecue, with the marquis, you kill it, I'll cook it. And there sat Danny Buck Davidson, the district attorney, surrounded by Carthage residents, all of them trying to persuade him to not prosecute Bernie because Mrs. Nugent was so mean and Bernie was so beloved.

You have to understand how significant Bernie was in this town. He was this kind of closeted gay man. He was the town's best citizen. He decorated the town square at Christmas. He funded things using Mrs. Nugent's money. He took a lot of her money and kept the town alive like a Robin Hood. And so, people loved him for this. And at the same hand, they completely despised Mrs. Nugent, who took over her husband's bank after he died and refused to give out any loans.

BLOCK: In the movie, you hear these townspeople seeming to say that, you know, Marjorie Nugent had it coming. Let's take a listen to another scene here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BERNIE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Character) Well, hell, even if he did do it, she was so mean and ornery, she had it coming to her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (as Character) It's not as bad as people say it is. He only shot her four times, not five.

BLOCK: And Skip Hollandsworth, that was something somebody actually said to you, right? Four times, not five.

HOLLANDSWORTH: Someone said that to me and what was remarkable about doing this screenplay was that you didn't really have to invent any lines. A lot of it just came straight out of my notebook and we gave them to the characters to say again.

BLOCK: What's happened to Bernie Tiede?

HOLLANDSWORTH: Bernie's in prison. He got a life sentence. He tried to get an appeal. That got turned down. I don't know if he will make it. He's already got some diabetes, and the other thing is he'll never see this movie. The prison does not allow movies to be shown. And so this whole story that's emerged and is being disseminated nationwide, the one person it's about won't get to see it.

BLOCK: And what about the reaction in Carthage, Texas, because we are talking about a real woman here, an 81-year-old woman who was killed who lived in that town? It's presented as a comedy, but it is a murder.

HOLLANDSWORTH: There was a lot of controversy over the movie. But at the same time, there were plenty of people, including Danny Buck, who thought the movie was fairly accurate in exactly what it portrayed all the characters out to be.

BLOCK: Did this story make you at all uncomfortable as a reporter or your work on the movie, that line between humor and tragedy and death?

HOLLANDSWORTH: I think there was always the concern that people would think we were making fun of a death or we were parodying the people of East Texas. So, that's why we tried to keep the story as accurate as possible and let it play out. And Rick would always remind the actors, don't overact. This is what happened. You don't have to be campy. This is the way it happened, and let's play it as it happened.

BLOCK: Skip Hollandsworth, thanks so much.

HOLLANDSWORTH: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Skip Hollandsworth co-wrote the screenplay for the new movie, "Bernie." It's based on his 1998 article in Texas Monthly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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