Producer Scott Rudin set up Jack Black and Richard Linklater nearly a decade ago for "School of Rock," with Rudin persuading the indie filmmaker to tackle the commercial comedy. Black and Linklater reunited this year for "Bernie," a disquieting, dark comedy chronicling the true story of the relationship between a crabby East Texas widow and the affable assistant mortician who became her only friend and, in one dark moment, her killer.
"Bernie" found an appreciative audience in theaters this spring, and its backers hope to keep the momentum rolling into awards season, touting Black's subtle and touching turn as the title character. Over a recent breakfast with Black and Linklater, the conversation, like it does in so many of Linklater's movies, took surprising, tangential turns.
Rick, you've been following this story since you attended Bernie's trial. What made you think of Jack?
Linklater: I just think he's the nicest guy and could bring some of that friendliness to Bernie, a guy who had a million friends.
Black: But Bernie's way nicer than I am.
Did they make it a challenge, Jack, to always be nice?
Black: Oh, yeah. There were many occasions when I had to supress my inner demon. I wanted to unleash it so badly. And I think that was maybe Bernie's problem. He didn't know how to blow off steam. So when he snapped ...
Linklater: She wound up dead and in the freezer.
That's one take-away from the movie. If a nice guy like Bernie could lose it, we're all capable of one, messed-up moment.
Linklater: That's why I think it's an interesting case. It begs you to think about yourself. It puts everyone on notice.
What did you learn from meeting Bernie in prison?
Black: I was able to ask him, point-blank, questions like: Why didn't you leave? What was your life like before? I just wanted to get to know him as a person and try to get some clues as to what would lead a person to snap. It was essential.
Linklater: We toured the crafts shop too, where Bernie works.
Black: The warden gave me this gorgeous pen made from deer antler.
Linklater: You have to be well-behaved to work there. They've all got these sharp knives. They could have held us hostage pretty easily.
Black: Or put that deer antler pen in our necks!
Jack, you probably didn't hear too many of Bernie's gospel songs growing up in synagogue.
Black: I had heard some gospel. When I was a kid, my mom had this strange Jews for Jesus phase.
Linklater: Like Bob Dylan?
Black: She was really into this guy on TV, that eccentric preacher [filmmaker Werner] Herzog did that documentary on.
Linklater: Dr. Gene Scott?
Black: Yeah ... my mom gave me this tape of his, talking about songs that were "evil" and how you shouldn't listen to them.
Linklater: Because they were the devil's music!
Black: But it really had the opposite effect on me. It turned me on to some great music. Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult
Linklater: I sent Jack a couple of CDs of gospel jams just to see which ones he liked the most.
Black: I really got into it. The revelation was that Jim Nabors — Gomer Pyle — was actually a huge deal in the gospel music world. His version of "Blessed Assurance" is this amazing, baritone masterpiece. I really latched on to that one.
Linklater: Jim Nabors was a big influence. Hence, the D [Tenacious D, the rock band Black fronts with Kyle Gass] will put out a gospel album at some point.
Black: [Laughs] It could be funny to have a born-again album. There's a movement in music now that comes from a place of glory. Bands like Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire ... there's a rousing spirituality about them. There's a hunger in the kids for something meaningful, something bigger.
And that's where your gospel album comes in.
Linklater: You're repented. You realize you're going to hell. And that's a problem. So why risk it? You're going to play both sides.
(Long pause as Black seriously ponders the idea.)
Black: At some point, I'd have to address my Judaism though.
Linklater: Well ... if Dylan and your mom could do it, I think you could too.