Monday, June 11, 2012

Reporter's notes inspire script for Hollywood movie

Matthew McConaughey as attorney Danny Buck.
Last week, in the process of reviewing Jack Black's new movie, "Bernie," I was given the opportunity to chat with Skip Hollandsworth. He was the Texas reporter, who followed a lead by the Dallas Morning News: A 39-year-old funeral director was arrested for murdering the rich widow in his small town, and confessed to putting her in her own deep freeze in order to preserve the body for proper burial, later. And it was his story for the Texas Chronicle that led Richard Linklater to do the movie, "Bernie."

Skip Hollandsworth
"Texans have always had a vengeance for unusual and strange crime stories," said Hollandsworth.
But viewers' reaction to his film adaptation "Bernie" is another matter entirely. "What is Detroit going to think of it?" Hollandsworth said. "How are they going to react?"

When Richard Linklater read Hollandsworth's story, "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas," in Texas Monthly, he knew immediately it would make for a great movie. "Something just clicked," he said. "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 ruthless task of trying to make a movie out of a real-life story. Maybe it was my being a native East Texan and felling like I knew everyone involved. Maybe it was Bernie's unique character and the complex relationship between him and Marjorie." Or perhaps it was the way Hollandsworth's story was told; through townspeople's accounts of what happened and their feelings for Bernie and Marjorie. After optioning the rights for the film, Linklater signed Hollandsworth on as the screenwriter. And while his interviews and research provided much of the fodder for the film, Hollandsworth said he really can't take any creative credit for the movie. Instead he applauds Linklater's direction and journalistic approach, going so far as to hold auditions for the role of the townspeople in Carthage, and the performances of the film's stars.

Jack Black, who worked under Linklater in "School of Rock," plays the soft-spoken, chubby-cheeked assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede, who was so beloved in the small East Texas Town of Carthage that no one seemed to care when he confessed to murdering the rich widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). 

That's a fact.

"I kid you not," said Hollandsworth. Upon his arrival in Carthage to cover the trial, he walked into the first restaurant he saw. And it was there at Daddy Sam's Bar-B-Q that he witnessed the district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). "There he was sitting at the counter -- this bulldog-looking, lifelong prosecutor surrounded by townspeople begging him to not prosecute Bernie," said Hollandsworth, adding that McConaughey did an amazing job in portrayinig Danny Buck, as did Black in his portrayal of Bernie.

When Black walked on the set of the courtroom, many of the older ladies (real-life Texans who knew Bernie) gaffed as if Bernie had been released from jail. He had all of the sweet swagger and convincing charm of the real Bernie Tiede down to a T. "He got to do the trifecta of acting: sing, dance and act." 

McConaughey, whose mother Kay does a great job as one of the gossips, also nailed his part. So, smiles for Bernie turned to snarls for Danny Buck. "I was totally impressed with him," Hollandsworth said of McConaughey. "I thought he would have this laid back (so what) attitude." Instead, he threw himself into the role choosing even to improvise some of the action -- hollering for the jury to bring in the freezer. "He was far smarter than you might think he would be."

So what's next for Hollandsworth? 

It's back to work and the hunt for the next good story.

"I think journalists don't realize the gold they have in their hands," Hollandsworth said. Under the pressures of a daily deadline, they also do not get to draw out a story into the longer narrative that it could become, as in the case of Bernie's story.

The universe is made of stories, not atoms -- Muriel Rukeyser

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