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"That's the hot button with Southerners : that there are these hoity-toity people who think they're better than you and they want to run your life and tell you to drink white wine with fish."

No matter how far he strays, Richard Linklater's heart remains in Texas. He might travel to Vienna in Before Sunrise (1995), to Paris in Before Sunset (2004), to dreamland in Waking Life (2001), but he always comes back to his native state. Not the "all hat, no cattle" state of George Bush, but the no-hat, no-cattle (Linklater, a vegetarian, adapted the anti-agribusiness bestseller Fast Food Nation in 2006), no-bullshit Texas of non-conformist heroes. Like the real-life bank robbers in his film The Newton Boys (1998), or the teenaged anarchistic hedonists of Dazedand Confused (1993), or the oddballs and secret geniuses of his breakthrough hit, Slacker (1991).

>> READ: "Review: Bernie" by Ann Lewinson <<

The titular hero of his latest film, Bernie, based on a true story, joins that list. Played by Jack Black, he's an undertaker in the tiny town of Carthage in East Texas. Bernie was the nicest guy you could meet — except for that one time when he shot Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) four times in the back with the armadillo gun. Linklater spoke to me over the phone from his home base in Austin.

TEXAS HAS INSPIRED A LOT OF YOUR FILMS. WHAT MAKES IT SO CINEMATICALLY RICH? For me, it's just home. I grew up in East Texas, where this movie is set. Whenever I read a story like this it resonates personally. I felt I know that milieu, those people. . . . But if I grew up in Ohio I would probably be attracted to stories from around there.

YOU'VE BEEN INTERESTED IN THIS CASE FOR A WHILE. I read the article [by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly] in January of '98; attended the trial, I think, the next year; had the script pretty early on; and it was just the passage of time to finally get the movie made. It ended up being a long haul. But I think it's a better film now than it would have been back then.

ONE ASPECT OF THE FILM THAT RINGS ESPECIALLY TRUE TODAY IS HOW THE PROSECUTOR, DANNY BUCK [MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY], TRIED TO LABEL BERNIE AS "ELITIST" BY ACCUSING HIM OF SEEING LES MISERABLES. It worked. That's the best thing you can do politically, whether you're on a trial where someone's on the stand, or in the political arena. Just paint them as not like you and me. And in that case Danny Buck did another really clever thing by moving the trial to a place [another small Texas town, San Augustine] where they didn't know what kind of guy Bernie was. They only knew he was a confessed murderer, and they saw these awful crime photos and once you can paint someone as elitist, that they think they're better than you, that's the hot button with Southerners. That there are these hoity-toity people who think they're better than you and they want to run your life and tell you to drink white wine with fish.

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