BY LAURA EMERICK
CHAMPAIGN-URBANA -- The storm that has drenched the Midwest the last two days also rained on the parade of the 15th annual Ebertfest, held in the hometown of the late Sun-Times film critic.
Several filmmakers scheduled to appear had to bow out after severe weather disrupted their travel plans. Jack Black, the star of Richard Linklater's "Bernie" (2011), which closed the second night of Ebertfest programming, couldn't get to the Virginia Theatre, site of the annual event, as scheduled. Instead, he joined Linklater and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker by phone for a post-screening Q&A session. "I feel like a soft Hollywood schmoe for not getting my butt out there," Black said. "Next time, I'm getting out there, I promise."
Linklater, however, managed to arrive after several flight delays and reroutes. "It's such an honor to be here again," he said. "I was here a few years ago [in 2011, with his film "Me & Orson Welles"] and I couldn't wait to get back. But most of all, I'm here for Roger."
Though this is the first festival without its founder, he remained in the audience's collective memory. "I can feel Roger's spirit," said Chaz Ebert, Roger's widow, festival producer and host, before introducing the first film Thursday. "The Virginia Theatre is like a temple for me. Yesterday [the festival's opening night] was bittersweet. When I woke up today and saw the rain, I thought the heavens must be crying for Roger."
PHOTO: Jack Black in "Bernie"
Others expressed similar thoughts. "Roger's presence will be with us until the last person in this room is still breathing and most likely after that," said Barker during the "Bernie" discussion.
"I feel so lucky that I got to know Roger," said Linklater, who mentioned that Ebert's support for his works went back to his first film, "Slacker" (1991), after he saw it at the Sundance Film Festival. "He was such a real guy. We met at the point of enthusiasm for the movies. He shared his passion [for film] with us, and that's the best that anyone can do."
Ebert was also unabashed in his support of "Bernie," based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth about an actual murder case. "It's all very real," said Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Hollandsworth. "It really happened, and it was just like I was taking dictation" during the film's production.
Set in the east Texas outpost of Carthage, "Bernie" chronicles the saga of funeral director/church chorister/civic leader Bernie Tiede, who's driven to murder his wealthy patron, Marjorie Nugent, the town's richest and apparently most hated resident. Though he eventually confessed to his crime, his fellow Carthage citizens mostly refused to condemn him and believe his sentence of life imprisonment is too harsh.
So do Linklater and Black, who plays Bernie in the film. "I was profoundly moved by meeting the real Bernie," Black said. "He's just a really sweet guy. And no one in Carthage could believe how the sweetest guy in town could do such a thing. Until you meet him, you don't understand the complexity of the character. When I visited him in prison, he was in the craft shop, working on delicate crochets and still doing the Lord's work."
In making such a dark comedy like "Bernie," Linklater said "there's a tonal concern. You just have to let natural circumstances carry the word, basically, just play it straight." Like Black, he's hopeful that the real Bernie could come up for parole sooner than expected. He added that Tiede had not seen the film yet: "But it meant a lot to Bernie when he met Jack and realized how much he cares."
Black characterized the Tiede/Nugent bond as "the classic abusive relationship. There was this co-dependency there, but he couldn't walk away from it because of his intense need to be loved."
Linklater had hoped to make "Bernie" beginning in the late '90s, but the project finally came together after Black signed on, after the two made "School of Rock" (2003) together. The director always had Shirley MacLaine in mind for Marjorie, however. "But one good thing about the delay in making this film is that she and Jack grew into their roles. They were both too young a decade ago."
Besides, he added, "Shirley likes playing crazy bitches." Referring to the actress' notorious belief in reincarnation, Black said, "Shirley channels the character like she does her past lives."
Ebertfest contines through Sunday, with Oscar winner Tilda Swinton scheduled to appear Friday night with "Julia" (2008). Many festival events, such as panels and Q&A sessions, are being streamed live. For details, go to ebertfest.com.