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Bernie: Interview with Designer Kari Perkins!

I was lucky enough to get the chance to ask costume designer Kari Perkins about her incredible work on Bernie. Here she talks Texas, townsfolk, and tongue-in-cheek… or not!!  Read on~

How did you become involved with the project?

I have worked with director Richard Linklater on several films and was fortunate to be invited to design this feature.

Did you have knowledge of this case before reading the script?

When I first read the script, I thought it was the most amazing/strange story, I couldn’t imagine how Richard and Skip came up with the idea. So beautifully written. A few days later, I discovered it was based on a true story. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction.

What were your initial design meetings like with R. Linklater?  What was he looking for?

Richard was looking for a very realistic portrayal of the characters in this story. The incident happened in the ‘90’s, but he wanted the costumes to be more present-day with a small town feel.

I loved the tongue-in-cheek costuming.  My GOD it was so brilliant.  Can you tell me about your vision, and Linklater’s vision, for the general, overall look of the film?

It wasn’t really meant to be “tongue-in cheek”, that’s just how they dress in East Texas. They definitely have their own sense of style out there, more influenced by Dallas than Los Angeles or New York. Ultimately we were trying to create a realistic feel for the film.

Did you have to present your ideas to a group of producers for their approval, or were you left alone in the design collaboration with Linklater?

The producers were very supportive on this film. Richard and I were able to collaborate freely.

What was your prep time and overall budget?

I believe we had a 5-week prep, 22-day shoot and a $30,000 budget. Very low budget, guerilla style filmmaking.

Where did you shoot?  What were your facilities like?

We shot on location in Bastrop and Austin, TX. Most of our costumes were loaded into our giant costume trailer.

Where did you get most of your costumes?  Rental?  Thrift?  Catalog?  Contemporary stores?  Just curious about that.

Most everything was purchased from the thrift store with some retail. I had an amazing costuming crew working with me and helping to fill the characters closets. With 72 costume changes for the Bernie character and a 22-day shoot, I rarely had time to leave the set.

How much time did you have with the actors before you shot with them?

Jack came in about a week before shooting and I was able to visit with Shirley in Santa Fe before she came to Austin, but basically we had a few days for fittings before we started shooting.

What kinds of ideas did the actors bring to the table for their characters, and how did you incorporate them?

Jack wanted to portray Bernie realistically. Shirley had many ideas along the lines of what Rick was envisioning. Ultimately we folded these ideas all together to create these wonderful characters.

I noticed the nice arc of Mrs. Nugent – from black, severe colors, blooming in color as her relationship with Bernie blossoms.  Can you tell us about how you developed that arc?

We created an arc chart of Marjorie’s transformation.

How game was Jack Black to “go for it” with this character?  I mean, pants worn way up high around his waist, printed polo shirts, etc. – it’s really a “look”!!!  It’s so fantastic.

Jack was delightful to work with. The costumes and the way they were worn helped shape the character. Early in fittings, we were trying to wear the printed polos in a more casual manner, it wasn’t until we tucked in the shirts and hiked up the pants, did the costumes start to feel right. Jack was receptive to the look and all of his changes. There were so many, it kept things moving.

McConaughey looks so different in this film – did he do something physical, like wear pads in his cheeks?  I can’t put my finger on it, but something is noticeably different with his appearance.  Did you collaborate with him to take the “Matthew McConaughey” out of this performance?  I thought it was excellent.

We did alter Matthew’s look in a few ways. He is extremely fit and we used pads to soften him up a bit.

So many different looks in this film – choir robes, jail jumpsuits, marching band costumes, little league uniforms, ballet costumes and a million funerals… how did you strategize so that you could do all this within your budget?

There are so many different looks. We thrifted, borrowed and made so many. The band costumes were found by one of my costumers in bulk from a reseller out of East Texas.

The “townspeople” characters – they were absolutely brilliant.  How did you achieve their looks?  Did you ask them to bring in their own stuff (jewelry, clothing, etc) or did you start from scratch, from the ground up?  I noticed them in other scenes of the film, so they had changes – just curious if they brought anything of their own to the table.

Most of the townspeople were shot documentary style, bringing their own clothes. I picked out the option that worked best for the set and the scene. They were all such wonderful characters!

How were those townspeople scripted?  I am just curious, because the film has a mockumentary feel to it, like Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman.  However, this was actually a real case, only dramatized.  Was their dialog word-for-word in the script (with character descriptions), or was it more improv?

Richard used an outline for the gossips and asked them questions in the documentary style. In some scenes, he did have a script that they would follow word-for-word.

Kay Epperson, townsperson

Kay Epperson, townsperson

How many of those townspeople were friends/family?  I noticed that McConaughey’s mom was in there, haha.  They were outstanding and I just fell in love with all of them, especially Kay Epperson.  O.  M.  G.  Love her.  Seriously, the audience was HOWLING whenever she opened her mouth.  Amazing.

Many of the townspeople were actually from Carthage. Some even knew Bernie and Marjorie. Matthew’s mom was a natural in her part and Kay Epperson, was wonderful. We all fell in love with her during filming. She was in quite a few scenes.

What was your collaboration with art department like?  They did a great job with the Nugent house; just curious to know what your discussions with them were like.

We had such a amazing art department. Bruce Curtis, the production designer and I have worked together on quite a few films. We have very similar ideas as to the overall look. I also will frequently refer to the art department boards and location photos as a visual guide for color and themes.

Along those lines – what were your discussions with hair/makeup?  It was a really nice, natural-feeling collaboration.

Hair/makeup was so important to the film. We worked closely together on the arc chart and Marjorie’s transformation.

Can you tell me what it’s like to work outside of the Hollywood machine?  To base your life and work from TX?  What benefits have you found?  How hard was it to get started, to get established?  What advantages do you have??

I love what I do. Austin has provided a very fertile ground for me both artistically and professionally. I started out designing community theater for many years and then landed work on my first film as a seamstress in 1987 through a theater connection. I was hooked. I have been very blessed to design some amazing productions, starting with Dazed and Confused in 1992. Since then I have worked in Los Angeles and New York and still travel some for interesting projects, but Austin is my home and I feel blessed to get to work here.

Thank you Kari, so much, for your insight.  It’s such a great film, and I hope everyone can go see it.  FANTASTIC WORK!!!

– KMB

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