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.
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