"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Like so many performers whose professional lives are spent expending immense amounts of energy and making people laugh, Jack Black is rather subdued when he’s out of the limelight. I met the voice of “Kung Fu Panda” and hard-rocking leader of the band Tenacious D a few days ago in a dark and austere corner of a midtown Manhattan luxury hotel, where we both struggled to read the fine print on a package of DayQuil. (Black was battling a cold.) Meeting journalists one after the other in a neutral and featureless setting, I suggested, might not be the most fun part of a movie actor’s job.
“This is what they pay you for, really,” Black responded. “But then, on these little independent films, they don’t really pay you. So why am I even doing this?”
He was kidding, sort of, and the movie he’s talking about isn’t all that little, really. It’s called “Bernie,” and it offers the latest cockeyed look at small-town life in Texas from Richard Linklater, the director of “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused.” An odd and delicate balance between Coen brothers-style farce and documentary-style realism, “Bernie” is based on a real-life murder case chronicled by Texas Monthly reporter Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater. Black gives a masterful performance as the mysterious Bernie Tiede, a beloved funeral director in the east Texas town of Carthage who romanced the community’s richest and most evil-tempered widow — before shooting her four times in the back with a hunting rifle.
Although Bernie’s maybe-sorta-platonic paramour is played by 78-year-old screen legend Shirley MacLaine, and the camera-hog district attorney who sets out to convict him is played by Matthew McConaughey, both of those roles are close to being cameos. The movie really belongs to Black, with his unctuous Southern accent, groomed mustache and high-waisted slacks, playing a character who seems flamboyantly queeny in a world where people would rather not think about that kind of thing. (It also belongs to the delightful ensemble of character actors Linklater assembles around the edges, who act as a sort of Greek chorus in talking-head interviews.) While the question of Bernie’s sexuality comes up only briefly in the movie, it might be the real subject of the drama and at least a partial explanation of the murder. To fit in so well in east Texas and become a widely loved community leader, Bernie Tiede had to pretend — to the level of convincing himself, perhaps — to be something he was not.
This role isn’t Black’s “dramatic breakthrough” for various reasons. One of them is “Bernie” sits right on the edge between drama and comedy anyway, and another is that Black has done dramatic roles before, most notably in Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding.” Furthermore, as he observed in our interview, Black is under no illusions that his career is suddenly taking a dark new direction. But “Bernie” does demonstrate that the 42-year-old Black — a Southern California native whose parents, quite literally, were rocket scientists — is an actor of considerable breadth and staying power, who can go well beyond playing a butt-kicking panda bear. (And I’m not saying that’s not the role of a lifetime, in its own way.)
I think this is a really great performance, Jack. It’s very impressive. You know what I really noticed? When you’re doing the community theater stuff as Bernie — like when we see you do “76 Trombones” from “The Music Man” — on one level it’s totally hilarious and then on another it’s also just really good. I mean, it’s not funny to Bernie. It’s really important to him, and you are actually bringing it. That was hard work, right?
Yeah, I was working hard on that choreography.
Like, if you ever reach that point in your career as a performer where you have to be the third guy to play Mr. Cellophane in “Chicago” or something, you could pull that off!
Wait, why would I be the third guy? Oh, because they’ve already done it twice – I thought you mean the third understudy. I was like: No, I will not! But yeah, I know what you’re saying. Or, why not “The Music Man”? I could do “76 Trombones”! Shirley has a harebrained scheme that we should do a short run of this, a musical version of “Bernie” on Broadway, and I think that’s a funny idea. But it’s so long! The process of workshopping plays for Broadway, we could be doing that for years.
Yeah, and you get tied up somewhere. You’re in, like, Indianapolis for six months fine-tuning it.
So be it! But that’s an awful lot of work for a limited run. You want the six-month commitment when you go through all of the rigmarole.
But you haven’t done a whole lot of theater, right? It was just impressive mastery of the form.
Well, thank you. But I have done my fair share of theater. I’m not known for it. But in high school that was my bread and butter – my first introduction into acting was the theater. I played the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz.” Which is a small role, but integral. Very important. And, uh, I was Pippin, in high school. So I was no stranger to the boards, as they say. I know my way around the stage: [Gesturing] Upstage, over there. Downstage, over there. Left, the opposite of what you’d think.
And you have some hoofer skills as well.
Yeah, li’l bit, li’l bit. I move well – that’s what it says on my résumé. Doesn’t say I dance …
I felt like the theater numbers were almost a metaphor for how you were playing Bernie. This guy’s this eccentric character, bigger than life, and you’re going right to the edge of parody or shtick, and then pulling back.
Yeah, yeah. I know what you mean. I think that I’m playing him really real. It’s just that I lean toward going over the top so much that it probably seems like I’m doing that on purpose. But really I was showing great restraint.
And of course you’ve met the real Bernie Tiede and I haven’t. We see that at the very end of the film, which is fascinating. What was that like?
It was a surreal experience because the prison is a pretty intimidating place to be. There’s a lot of rough customers, violent criminals, there. And then the crowds clear and you see Bernie and he’s just this gentle soul. Just a very soft-spoken sweet man. Lovely couple hours we had walking around the grounds with him, as he showed us around his cell, which was very well appointed and customized to make it as nice as he could within the guidelines of the prison rules. He fashioned sort of a little bit of a – what do you call that when you have a place to get your stuff together and look at yourself? A vanity! I don’t want to make him sound crazy, but he’s doing it. He’s so very clean and tidy, I can see why everybody in Carthage loved him. He really was the most popular guy in town. Especially amongst the old ladies. And he’s also very well liked in the prison.
He gets along OK with the other inmates?
Yeah, he’s got friends there. He’s allowed slightly more leeway than the average prisoner in the population there, because he’s a model prisoner.
I guess the guards are pretty sure he’s not going to shank them.
Right. When you’re a model prisoner you’re allowed to go to the workroom and build some arts and crafts and limited things like that. He’d go in there and make little lovely crocheted pieces for people he knew back in Carthage who had recently passed away. So his work continues – he’s teaching classes in there. It was a reassurance that we were on the right track.
Did he feel OK about you playing him?
He was a little trepidatious. Which is understandable because someone’s gonna tell your life story. I wouldn’t want people digging up all my nooks and crannies to tell my intimate details in a story. But that’s also why we wanted to reassure him that we didn’t want to smear him, we just wanted to tell it as truthfully as possible and also, yeah, just to get his blessing and also to get some helpful hints on how to portray him.
It must have been harder for Shirley, I guess. Obviously the lady she plays isn’t around anymore.
And there’s no videotapes of her. Bernie, there’s lots of videotapes of Bernie – on vacations and so on, and giving sermons, that I was able to study. But Shirley just had what the gossips had to say about Margie to go on.
You guys stayed away from complex psychological explanations, which was probably wise. But everybody that watches the movie is going to wonder, “Why? Why did this happen?” Was it your aim to answer that question without answering it directly, if you know what I mean?
Yeah, that is the tough thing about the script, that it doesn’t answer all the questions. And that’s what sets it apart too. It’s not one of those explainy movies that gives you all the answers in an easy way. And that’s always the question when you’re asking: Why didn’t he just leave? The relationship got so toxic and you were in hell, Why didn’t you just leave? That’s what they always say to the domestic couple when one of them gets killed. It’s like, “You’re so stupid, you should have just left!” But that’s not the way it works.
People get stuck in these codependent relationships. And he was taking care of her and taking care of her every need and she was taking care of him, with all the money. They were traveling and experiencing some fun things together. And also he was able to give money to people, and feel really good about that. So money had a corrosive force on that situation.
But also he was getting something else, I think. This is my theory – we didn’t put it in the script because, you know, it’s sort of conjecture — but his parents died when he was very young. He even said to me that he didn’t have a mommy. He was probably looking for that in all the old ladies that he was helping and taking care of. And so she was getting something and he was getting something too. And he couldn’t leave. He was a pleaser, that’s the thing. Everybody loved him for a reason cause he made it his life’s mission to be loved by everybody. And he would rather stay in hell than leave and risk her being angry at him.
That makes a lot of sense. It’s probably unfair to ask you to head-shrink a character you spent so long with, but Bernie reminded me of a college roommate I had, decades ago. I firmly believed the guy was gay but for various reasons hadn’t figured it out yet and didn’t even know himself. And I wondered – that really struck me as a possibility with Bernie.
Well, yeah. We never say it outright cause he never said it. He wasn’t openly gay. But it seems clear that he was, after meeting him. But never, you know, said anything and I never asked him, because it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to – it’s not my business. But I guess I should have asked. But that’s not my strength, I’m not a probing reporter. But he definitely seemed more at ease with his sexuality and with himself in prison than he was in the videotapes that I’d watched. In the videotapes there’s little hints and cues, but in person it was like: Oh, OK.
I felt like maybe that was part of it. In that part of the country, east Texas, you’re not going to find a lot of openly gay people. It’s a very conservative part of the country, and if you’re going to live like that with a secret, you get good at compartmentalizing things. You say, “I’m going to take one part of myself, put that over here, and go on as if everything is fine.” In a weird way, that feels like how he was able to literally take this dead woman, put her in a freezer, put it over there, and go on with his life like everything was fine. He’d done that his whole life.
That’s very convincing. You’ve been doing some thinking about this!
I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Tell me about working with Shirley MacLaine. That had to be a little bit intimidating, at least at first.
It’s intimidating because she’s Shirley MacLaine and I’ve loved her work for so many years. She’s up there with the greats of all time. So there’s a reverence. And as soon as Rick said Shirley MacLaine, it was like, “Bling!” and I got really excited about it. Luckily, she was able to deactivate my nervousness with kindness. She laughed at all my stupid jokes. She seemed to get a real kick out of me, and that melted away all my fears. She knew how to play me like a fiddle. Our relationship on the set was somewhat similar to the relationship of Margie and Bernie in the movie.
Meaning she bossed you around all the time?
Not so much, but I did take care of her every need. I would anticipate if she needed something to be comfortable, I would try to take care of those things.
It’s such a stereotypical journalist thing to ask if you want to play dramatic roles, but I’m going to do it anyway. It’s hard to say whether this is a comic or dramatic role, actually. But it must be fun to play such a complicated and rich character. It’s very different from “Kung Fu Panda.”
It was a great experience. You know, I don’t imagine that my career is going to become a bunch of darker dramas. I think this is the anomaly, probably. But it’s been a thrill.
You’ve done a lot of work in movies and TV shows for kids, and you seem to take that every bit as seriously as your adult-oriented roles. What’s the difference for you in performing for children? Are there any special traps or challenges?
I don’t distinguish. The big difference is the subject matter, but I approach it with the same type of zeal. I really put my all into those little things. I’m very critical when I see people doing kids’ stuff and I think they’re phoning it in because it’s for kids. I’m like, “Don’t slack it. The kids can tell!” Obviously you want to keep it clean when you’re playing for the kids, but you need to bring the energy, bring the goods.
To some extent, you’re dealing with less patience in the audience, aren’t you?
Right — shorter attention spans, so you’ve got to keep the balls moving. You have to cut to the roller coaster.
You have two sons of your own now. Has having kids changed how you perform for kids?
It doesn’t. I keep it pretty separated. I don’t even want my boys seeing my stuff. I think it’s a weird head-trip for them to see their dad on the big screen. I took Tommy, my littlest one, to see “The Muppets,” and I think it was a mistake. He did not like it when my head shrunk down all tiny. He was very disturbed. I had to be like, “It’s OK, it was just magic! Movie magic.”
You know, my 8-year-old son will be very excited when I tell him that I got to meet Po the Kung Fu Panda. But he’s going to be even more excited when I tell him that I got to meet somebody whose mom worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.
That’s true! What a great thing to have worked on, too, because the fruits of the Hubble continue to roll in long after they anticipated it to. I think by now they thought there would be Hubble 5, taking much deeper pictures. But the way things worked out, this is the premiere telescope camera for the world. And there’s such a backlog of scientists and astronomers who want to look at their little piece of sky!
“Bernie” opens this week in most major metropolitan markets.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)