Texas Monthly's Skip Hollandsworth remembers reading a two-paragraph newspaper brief back in 1997 about an unusual murder case in Carthage, Texas.
The brief said the killer shot the old woman four times in the back, and Hollandsworth started gathering up some pens and a reporter’s notebook as he read.
When he saw that the killer was the sole heir to the victim’s estate, and that the man claimed the woman made him so crazy she drove him to commit murder he was “hightailing it to Carthage,” Hollandsworth recalls.
Hollandsworth interviewed residents who knew the killer, and they begged the local district attorney not to prosecute him.
“I went, ‘good Lord, this is a movie,’” he recalls.
Hollandsworth’s investigation led to “Bernie,” in limited release now but expanding to new cities tomorrow. The film stars Jack Black as Bernie Tiede, the beloved funeral director who befriends, and then kills, a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine).
Bernie brought joy to everyone he met and gave everything he had to his community. That left his Carthage neighbors stunned when he shot and killed Mrs. Nugent (MacLaine), seen by most locals as an angry shrew.
It’s a story too impossible to be fiction, but the real mystery is why it took nearly 15 years for the sad saga to reach the big screen.
Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly story on the murder case caught the attention of fellow Texan Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”). Linklater and Hollandsworth teamed up to write a screenplay, with Hollandsworth serving as the project’s key researcher.
At the time, Linklater didn’t have a working relationship with comic-actor Jack Black. But their 2003 collaboration “School of Rock” changed that. Linklater now had a name to potentially attach to the project, but the screenplay’s rich East Texan nature kept studios at bay, Hollandsworth says.
“East Texas is very much a different kind of [Texas],” he says. “There’s a lot more gossip. It’s a combination of Texas and the Old South. It makes for a delightful, eccentric and compelling group of characters.”
The production used real Carthage residents to help shape the story and the characters, a gambit that works beautifully in the finished film.
“The way they deliver the lines is unlike what you’ll get from a professional actor,” he says.
Black spent a day talking to the real Bernie Tiede to prepare for the film. The actor used the time to recreate Tiede's “solicitous mannerisms” and “mincing walk,” Hollandsworth says.
When Tiede told Black he was merely a “people person,” the actor remembered the line and used it in a critical scene late in the film.
“Bernie” only scratches the surface of the Carthage legend. Left unknown is whether Tiede was gay, if he had hidden some of the victim’s money in a Swiss bank account and whether his relationship with the old woman was sexual in nature.
Today, Tiede crochets memorials for the recently deceased on behalf of the Carthage Funeral Home. Hollandsworth says Tiede won’t be released from prison until he’s in his 70s, or possibly 80s. He developed diabetes while incarcerated, though, and may not live long enough to enjoy his freedom again.
For Hollandsworth, the project’s richest irony is that Tiede will likely never see "Bernie." The film’s producers tried to set up a screening inside the prison, but the rules wouldn’t allow it.
“The only chance he’ll get to see it if he’s walking past the [prison’s] day room one day and it’s on as a rerun,” he says.