Q&A: A true-life tragicomedy

The First United Methodist Church of Carthage, Texas plays a big role in the movie Bernie, slated for DVD release on Aug. 21. Skip Hollandsworth, who attends Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, co-wrote the screenplay, based on a true story he wrote for Texas Monthly magazine in 1998. Mr. Hollandsworth spoke by phone with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.  (She also spoke with the Rev. E.B. Beasley, Bernie’s former pastor. His response follows at the end of the interview.) 

There’s a scene in the film, where the United Methodist pastor preaches soon after Bernie confesses to murdering fellow church member Marjorie Nugent. Was that based on fact?

That scene came straight from the sermon that the Rev. E.B. Beasley preached after Bernie’s arrest. We shot the scene in the sanctuary of First UMC of Bastrop, Texas, and that’s the church’s choir that you see in the film.

Skip Hollandsworth

Even though it’s about a murder, the movie is a comedy. What kind of reaction have you gotten from the people of Carthage?

I have yet to hear from one person who said, “You caricatured us.” Anyone who has had to deal with the enormity of grief knows that’s the way life is. It’s tragedy, and it’s comedy, intertwined. I really wanted to see how my pastor, [the Rev.] Stan Copeland, would react, because he grew up in a small East Texas town. If he’d told me I’d gotten it wrong, I would’ve been pretty devastated. But he jokingly said he wouldn’t have minded playing the minister in that movie.

As United Methodists, we believe that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Do you think this congregation erred a little too much in that direction?

I play the journalist on that question, and [director] Richard Linklater did, too. He said, “We’re not going to take sides. We’re going to let people walk out of the theater and make a judgment for themselves.”

I have friends who called and said, “I feel for Bernie, is there anything we can do to get him out of that life sentence?” Others said, “He’s a pure 100 percent sociopath who didn’t understand right from wrong.” I also get reactions from people who said, “You’ve really captured a phenomenon in small towns—that is, the closeted gay man.” No one really judged Bernie in Carthage, despite his mannerisms.

I think that anyone who sees the movie must wonder: How could someone who seems as nice and caring as Bernie do something so bad?

There’s even a follow-up question to that, which is asked by one of the East Texas ladies at the end of the movie: “Even if you do something so wrong, will God forgive you? And if God will forgive you, how should we treat you?” It was my way of slipping in, through humor, some of the most profound and debated questions in Christendom: How can someone so good do something so bad? And can he be forgiven for it?

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Bernie was genuinely beloved in that town. He cared for people. There’s a real sense of Christian service that he lived out his life with. He especially wanted Mrs. Nugent, the town’s meanest old widow, to feel cared for, and he did that long before money was involved.

So what happened?

That is the debate that rages in Carthage to this day. Did Bernie shoot Mrs. Nugent in a bout of temporary insanity, as he said in his confession? Did she make him so crazy that he just lost it one afternoon, and ended up shooting her? Or was it a plan to murder her?

Were you ever tempted to caricature Bernie’s faith?

No, I thought this was a rare chance for a major feature film to show what ordinary Protestant church life is like, especially in a small town.

What was interesting to me was, most of the film crew didn’t grow up in a church. The makeup artist, for example, had never gone to church. She told me, “I can’t believe you invented a song so awful, so homoerotic, about Jesus and Bernie.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “That song you wrote, ‘He Touched Me.’” It made me realize how little this world is known to certain communities.

Yet it was familiar to you?

I grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister in Wichita Falls, Texas. Although the movie is factually accurate, I did add a couple of scenes just to add flavor. There’s one with a ladies’ Sunday school class, where a fight breaks out over the miracle of Jesus turning the water into wine, and whether that wine was alcoholic or non-alcoholic, because Christians don’t drink. That came straight from my father, who had to moderate one of those debates back in the early ’70s when I was growing up.

Does Bernie still consider himself a Methodist?

There are no Methodist services at the prison where he’s at, so Bernie is actually going to the Catholic services. He spends his time in the prison’s craft room crocheting memorials for the families of Carthage people who have died. He still feels this calling to take care of those in need during a period of mourning.

There are still little old ladies in Carthage who have put in their pre-need funeral arrangements for the funeral home director to ask the prison to let Bernie out on work release to sing at their funerals. If that can’t happen, the funeral home has DVDs of Bernie singing funeral hymns, and they want to have one of them played.

There are plenty of people in Carthage who think Bernie manipulated Mrs. Nugent to use her money. But there are also people who think he’s the finest Christian they’ve ever met.


The pastor weighs in

The Rev. E.B. Beasley had served as pastor for just three weeks at First UMC of Carthage, Texas, when Bernie Tiede was arrested in 1997. Today, he’s pastor of First UMC of Humble, Texas.

While Dr. Beasley doesn’t fault the film’s dark humor, he’d like people to know another side of the story.

“For me, the real story was how the church struggled so hard and so faithfully with how to be the church in the midst of this tragedy,” he said.

The film features words from Dr. Beasley’s sermon shortly after the arrest, entitled “When Life Doesn’t Make Sense,” in which Dr. Beasley asked the congregation to pray for Bernie Tiede. However, the same sermon also called for prayers for the family of Marjorie Nugent as well as the congregation and the entire community—which wasn’t shown.

“Bernie’s sin hurt many people who had no part in his choices,” Dr. Beasley said. “I will forever be proud of the people of that church and their willingness to take the hard (and faithful) road during those days.”

—Mary Jacobs

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Loved this movie! Such an accurate picture of life in a small town and the characters depicted ~ I knew them all! I also love how it makes the viewer think, reasses his values and opinions about people with a different lifestyle, churched or not, and how we sometimes miss the obvious.

Thank you, Skip! Your writing will make a difference.

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