From The Vault: Wonder Woman Director Patty Jenkins On Her Directorial Debut, Monster

Patty Jenkins' one cinema feature prior to Wonder Woman was Monster, in which Charlize Theron gave an Oscar-winning performance as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. I spoke to Jenkins before the film's 2004 UK release. 

You must be proud not only of the fact that Charlize won the Oscar but also that you stuck to your guns and championed her over bigger name actresses who wanted to play Aileen Wuornos?

I definitely am. Also, it’s been such a strange journey. Ever since I saw her performance, this never seemed out of the realm of possibility as far as being deserved. But it did seem like the kind of thing we would never actually get. I’m so proud of her and the industry, who despite the money we’ve taken and the amount of time we’ve been out, actually saw it and gave her an award like this. I’m amazed.”

How hungry do you think Charlize was for a role like this? At the Berlin Film Festival in February, it appeared that this was the kind of opportunity she had been waiting for a long time.

I think that’s true, although I don’t think you would have known that. She didn’t actually initiate this at all; I went after her. She’s a tough girl, and she just looked at me and said, ‘Why me? What are you after?’ So I think she was looking for something to shake it up but never quite knew how to go about doing that, because they don’t let her try for those roles.”

Do you think her blonde bombshell looks have pigeonholed her in some people’s minds?

I have such a new perspective on this whole phenomenon now, because there’s been so much talk about her uglying herself up. But we can say the same thing about Russell Crowe, who got a lot of attention for playing someone who was mildly retarded [in A Beautiful Mind], or Robert De Niro doing Raging Bull. The more common roles that don’t display talent are those of attractive leading people, and that’s always going to be what’s the most popular thing in Hollywood, because people want to see heroes. But, generally, most of those actors get attention when they play something outside of that. So it’s not just women like Charlize who do this; men have also done these character roles.”

Did you talk to Charlize about her violent upbringing in connection with this role (her mother shot dead her alcoholic father when Charlize was 15), and did you get the feeling that it helped her to empathise with Aileen Wuornos, who also had a violent childhood?

It wasn’t discussed as literally having a relationship to the film, but it was discussed as we got to know each other. I think we both knew ahead of time what that meant, and that that was there. What was interesting to me is that I also experienced some tough stuff as a child. I grew up in Cambodia during the Vietnam war when I was very young, my father was a fighter pilot, and my mother tells me that I saw a lot more than I remember. I’m always trying to assure my mother of this, but I actually am glad that I came into this world knowing that there is this sliding scale of comfort and suffering going on.

Any number of things can teach you that, but it gives you an understanding and empathy for people’s circumstances. I’m sure Charlize also has that, and I think that is what I sensed from a distance. She grew up in South Africa and it was very tough. In addition to the things that happened in her own personal life, that absolutely shaped her ability to empathise with the situations that people live their lives in, in a way that a lot of American actresses who have never lived outside the U.S. can‘t.”

You’ve mentioned before that you watched people experiencing very hard times as you were growing up. Could you tell me a little bit more about the context of your upbringing?

I lived all over the world when I was very young, and then continued to go south every summer. I ended up in Kansas for a very long time. I never was quite an outsider, but I think because I travelled so much, I always ended up with the outsiders in Junior and High school. A lot of them were people who were from other places, or people who had horrible abuse going on in their life.

Anyway, I found myself in the heart of the mid-West when the hardcore scene was appearing. Some of the kids, like my Polish best friend, had roots outside America, and that was the difference between them and everyone else. But some of the other kids were being beaten to death. I watched kids that I became close with, from the time I was 13 years old, go down a really, really dark path, including one of them getting a gun and killing everybody in a family. There was a lot of alcoholism. A lot of heroin addicts. It was just a really eye-opening experience to know those kids, who were very young and beautiful, and watch what happened to their lives. No matter how hard they tried to fight against it, they couldn’t escape it.”

That, of course, is what we see Aileen trying to do in Monster when she attempts to gain legitimate employment. Is that something you brought to the film or was that in her letters?

Both. She didn’t talk about that so much in her letters but it’s documented in Florida. She, in her own defence, brought it up several times when they tried to make out that she just wanted kill people for the money. It was on record in Florida that she had tried everything from work in a factory to the military -- she was deaf in one ear from having being beaten so badly as a child, though, so they wouldn’t take her. It was just pathetic. There were also the things she really thought she was going to be able to pull off, like the pressure-cleaning thing, which got greatly reduced in the film. What was always such a heart-breaking angle into her, for me, was that she had a pressure-cleaning unit for cleaning carpets and it had been stolen from her by a boyfriend. So her great dream was to do these things to get enough money to buy a pressure-cleaning unit again so that she could be self employed. The idea that that was her romantic idea of being a straight citizen was always heartbreaking to me.”

To go back to what you said about your friends for a moment, the way you described their tragedies seems to be reflected in the way you and Charlize clearly empathised with Aileen.

It’s funny because all those pieces only come together in retrospect, because there has been so much talk of how this film came together, you know? Charlize and I were driving around, and she told me a story about seeing a guy in a car, like, burning to death, and someone pulled out a gun and shot him in the head, when she was five years old. That life is very educational, and no matter how much we move on, it still informs us. So the more I think about it, the more I think, ’Of course we came together.’ Whatever it was that’s subliminal and we were seeing in each other, there is a huge difference between us and other people.

That is why every single one of my friends is European, strangely. Like my best friend is Polish -- she speaks perfect English and she grew up here -- and my other best friend is French -- even though she speaks perfect English she moved here from France when she was little. I think that there’s a huge difference in people who have been so sheltered that they don’t know there are other ways of life. Deep down inside, there’s a context that’s completely different.”

Someone I was talking to recently said he never trusts anybody who hasn’t experienced or witnessed hardship in their life.

I can trust them, but I don’t expect the same things from them. I don’t believe in the school of hard knocks but, you know, I’m so glad that was the context I came from. I feel very, very sad for people who don’t know that kind of darkness is out there and go through it for the first time when they are an adult. I’d much rather have it the way that Charlize and I do, where you’re able to play in this world and yet know exactly how things are and what can happen to you. I’d rather children knew that somehow.”

I was recently talking to a Hollywood actor who said he was shocked when he came to England and saw the news from Iraq, because the things he saw were much more graphic and uncensored than in America.

That pisses me off. But not only does it disgust me that we don’t keep tabs on what we’re involved in, anyway. I was in France and the news was on, and although I don’t speak French I knew everything that was going on in the world every day, because it’s so present around you. That really does bother me here [in America]. I have been in vehement arguments with people who argue how we have to hide porno shops from children because it’s so offensive. I don’t believe in censoring the world for children in this, like, overly American, saccharine sort of way, because you’re not doing them any favours. I deal with kids who grew up this way all the time and they’re destroyed. And a lot of those kids go on to make the darkest, most abusive movies, because they’ve just discovered it and they feel a need to inflict it upon everybody else. The whole thing is very depressing.”

I’d like to know when Mel Gibson discovered the darkness.

[Laughs] Well that’s actually been another thing. I’ve had an encounter with a couple of really serious, dark filmmakers who said, ’You and Charlize just lightened it up so much [in Monster].’ Finally it got around to the point where I said, ’Look, have you guys ever experienced any tragedy in your life?’ and none of them had. They’re super-abusive, dark filmmakers, and Charlize and I, meanwhile, tried to find a way to bring humanity to the dark moments. I remember thinking to myself, ’You guys don’t know what it’s really like, but it’s just normal life.’”

You very clearly show the first murder in Monster as a reaction to rape. However, if you had followed her life to its end, would you have been so unequivocal, given that she retracts her self-defence story at one point in Nick Broomfield’s documentary, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer?

Well, I do believe that’s exactly how that murder went, as does Nick. In my opinion it was important to see that murder in order to understand the context of the rest of the murders. But there was so much abuse in her life, you could have pretty much told the end of her life and had it more informed by any number of abusive and horrible things that happened to her when she was younger. But I think when someone kills seven people it is important to understand that there was a trigger.”

John Tanner, the Florida attorney who prosecuted Aileen, went on ABC’s 20/20 recently and said Monster was a lie.

I think it’s so funny those guys would say that, because those guys are some of the least impressive prosecution and defence I have ever seen. I mean it’s funny because there is a lot of talk in Florida about the fact I never spoke with them. Well, first of all, everything that they were involved in is on public record and there’s nothing to talk to them about. I didn’t do anything about the trial. But on top of it, the trial was such a circus and so badly run, I have zero respect for those guys. They failed to bring out at her first trial that he [Richard Mallory] was a convicted rapist who had served time for attempted murder. That’s a pretty pertinent piece of information to leave out of a trial, you know? Also, he had a very old, beat-up car, so she was not going to kill a guy with no money and a bad car just out of nowhere. There had to be some trigger.”

You’ve talked before about the responsibility you felt towards the victim’s relatives so it must hurt that some of them have also attacked the film?

“The thing that I think they are most upset about is the fact I never spoke to them. You know, I had to make a decision in my own heart about what was the right thing to do. In this case I had done a lot of work to protect them by trying to hide who the victims were, in which order they were, and to never show, other than in the first murder, that any of them deserved it. It was anywhere from a john who was kind of sleazy to a complete innocent, and that’s the truth. The thing is I don’t think it’s appropriate to go speak to their families and then not represent them in any way. Do I believe that it’s worthwhile and important to make stories about people like Aileen even though there are victims? I do, and we do it all the time. Although my father was in Vietnam, that doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t tell stories about Vietnam, just because there are real people involved. I sort of knew that it would be very hard for them, and it was always the thing that I felt badly about. But in the depths of my soul I know I did the best work I could to not hurt them.”

One of the things they seem to find hard to accept is that these guys were johns.

See, that’s what I mean. That’s why I never spoke to them, because I know that there was that. And the truth is all but one of them was found with rubbers on and their clothing off. I understand that it’s very easy to have that kind of denial. But I don’t think they even need to have that kind of denial. It’s not a sin that deserves murder to see a prostitute. But it’s a hard way to lose your husband. Anyway, that’s why I decided to just keep a distance from all of that. It would also have only hurt them more if I had made them feel that they were going to be represented in the film, when I was telling Aileen‘s story.”

Did you speak to anyone who knew Aileen while researching the film, other than her best friend, Dawn Botkins?

“The entire community that lived around Aileen and all of her friends, with the exception of her girlfriend [Tyria Moore; Selby Wall in the film], were involved in the film. So all the bikers, the people who owned The Last Resort, all of the neighbours. . . Yeah, we were sort of living in that community of people that knew her at the time the film takes place.”

And how did they react to seeing Charlize as Aileen? I found it quite creepy; she was practically channelling Aileen.

It was creepy for me when she started to do it, too, because I had that feeling several times. I knew that she was hard working and she had done a lot of research, but nonetheless I was looking at her and really thinking, ’How does she know this much? I don’t quite understand.’ I had watched Aileen, obviously, very closely, and what I saw had no remnants of Charlize when she was on set.

“The best example is the biker bar, The Last Resort, where we shot. We had gone there many times and of course they were big sceptics. Then we became friends with them and they just started giving Charlize a hard time. You know, ’Okay, you’re going to have to be this or that.’ The day she walked on the set, their faces just went white. I was so busy, I didn’t get a chance to talk to them for a long time. But many of them, including Al [Bulling] who runs the place and Cannonball, who was one of her close friends, just said in very whispered tones, ‘I thought that was Aileen when she came in the room.’ Charlize is almost a foot taller than Aileen, so it’s really stunning. They all just stood there against the wall, stunned, watching her act.”

How did you feel, personally, being in those environments and knowing that these were places where she’d hung out?

It was really odd. On this movie there was such a constant intersection between life and art, and between consequence and filmmaking. It was always so on my mind that I not only had to tell Aileen’s story correctly, but also that there were victims and these were real peoples’ lives that had been lost. It was unbelievable. Talk about a levelling factor. Everybody really gave everything they had to try to do this with kindness and love.”

If I understood you right in Berlin, you seemed to be saying that you initially started out wanting to do a straight serial killer film. Is that correct?

I was never really going to do that. I was going to try and do a character film, through the funding for a serial killer film. I was going to try to make this film, but I just realised pretty early on how na├»ve I was being about it. If you have people onboard who absolutely don’t care what you write then that’s actually a benefit, because I could write a character film and no one would care, as long as I came up with the material. But when it comes to making it, the more I realised they’re never going to give me the money for another can of film for the important part that I need. They’re going to do the most commercial thing, and then they’re going to pull the plug. So I had to walk away from it. But absolutely, I think in this industry you’re constantly looking for an intersection of art and commerce. I’m not an idealistic person who thinks that they should make $50 million movies that can never make their money back. It’s like you’ve got to know you can make a profit back for people to feel confident working with that kind of money. So I always kind of benefited from the fact that it was about a lesbian serial killer, just in the fact that I could say to my financiers that even if it didn’t work, then they could sell it on this, so let’s keep on.”

Was there anything that surprised you or that was unexpected when you got access to Aileen’s letters?

Not really, but only because I knew so much already -- I had been talking to Dawn for months at that point and she had hinted at so many things in the letters. Well, okay, the one thing that was stunning was how intelligent she was, and it really came through clearly as you watched the letters progress. You know, right from when she got in prison and she hadn’t been writing an awful lot to being a beautiful writer, and then a really eloquent writer. She was writing these really gorgeous three-page letters about memories, and you could just watch this person’s mind adapt to this new thing. It was really, really interesting.”

There is quite a poetic quality to some of the voice over in the film.

Yeah, that came from her. Somebody I did an interview with, and I really liked this, said the weirdest thing about her is she’s like a real stand-up guy, someone that doesn’t stab their friend in the back and will always be straight. But at the same time, she is willing to kill people. She would never deny her love for Tyria Moore, and continued to feel that way until the day she died. In the letters, right before she was executed, wanting Tyria to be at her funeral, wanting to send messages to Tyria. It’s amazing. She had all this horrible bitterness and anger, but never would it interfere with her trying to have love and a life.”

There is an irony in the voice over at the beginning of the film where she says she wants to be a movie star, because, in a way, she has accomplished that by proxy. The other irony is that Charlize has achieved everything she wanted.

They have very similar, in the deepest, deepest level, structural reactions, which is interesting. Charlize and Aileen are people who are incredibly strong, incredibly easy to incite if you try to hurt anyone in their inner circle, but really vulnerable and romantic.”

What were you doing when Aileen was executed on October 9, 2002?

It was probably the most surreal day of my life. It was Godawful. Charlize and I went through it together. She had joined the film three weeks or so before, and we didn’t think that Aileen would be executed, because Jeb Bush was doing it for the publicity. We had kept the movie really quiet; I had been working on it for six months, and communicating with Aileen. Then, as this came along, I was writing her letters and she was writing me letters, and I was on the phone with Dawn trying to get the clothing she wanted to be executed in. It all got very, very unbelievable, you know? I was writing this person a last letter and saying ’God’s speed. This is no longer about my film. I promise you I will do my best with everything.’

The day she was executed they announced our film on the front page of the trades, and in a very cold way that news spread really quickly. There was not a whole lot of sympathy for Aileen at that point, so people were saying things like, ’Not two seconds cold in the grave and that ugly bitch is getting played by Charlize Theron.’ It was incredibly hurtful. And also incredibly bizarre. Until then it had been very private, I’m a completely unknown director, and simultaneously my phone goes crazy with people saying, ’Oh my God, Patty. Congratulations. You have Charlize Theron?’ It was very, very weird. I just checked out and tried to walk through it. The fact that she was the one who wanted to be executed was the thing that made that my behaviour. I knew that so I just had to deal with it.”

How did it make the trades at that point?

Who knows? But somebody leaked it. I was on the phone begging them not to print it, and they said, ’We are printing it.’ So we knew it was coming out.”

How did Dawn respond to the film? She attended the US premiere, didn‘t she?

Yeah. We had become so close that I actually had to sort of calm her down, because she was, like, ’I really want to like it.’ I went: ’Dawn, listen, it’s OK if you’re uncomfortable about things; it’s very difficult to watch a film about someone you’re close with when it’s not them on the screen.’ So she was loving and supportive on the night, but also confused and trying to process how she was feeling. She also had a relationship with Aileen where they didn’t talk about the murders very much, so that’s not her area of expertise.

She has since been unbelievably supportive. She wrote me a letter very shortly after from herself and Aileen, saying, ‘Thank you for what you have done.’ It meant a lot.

“Dawn‘s been the one banging this drum by herself for a long time, saying, ‘Yes, she killed seven people. But she had this horrible life.’ All of a sudden there are a lot of people seeing this film and expressing that, and I think that she is really pleased about that. So she has been amazing. She called the night of Oscars and told Charlize she was there in spirit.

The little thing no one knows, but which is a great piece of information, is that one of the things I could never get in the script was the fact that Aileen never had a birthday her whole life. She was born on a leap year. So there was this issue where she had never had a birthday cake, she never had anything. Well, this year they moved the Oscars and they were on her birthday. That was her birthday. So just over a year after she was executed, they played Aileen, in a story, at the Oscars, and she won. It’s incredibly bizarre. And the opening speech of the night was Tim Robbins saying something like, ‘If you’re somebody who has been damaged or abused, please seek help. It’s sometimes the strongest thing you can do to stop the cycle of violence.’ It was really powerful for me that that was in the tone of the message that was being sent that night.”

Was that your best memory of the night?

It’s weird because it becomes so not about the film by that point. I knew that but it’s all kinds of different things. Everybody is so tense and exhausted. Four out of five people lose, so it’s really funny if you can imagine all these people competing with each other and then celebrating all night; even the winners and the losers are like sitting side-by-side, slumped in a chair.

My best memory is the moment Charlize won. It was so odd that we had suddenly become the favourite, because three months earlier everybody said that we were unreleasable. But no matter what people put in their book a long time ago, I really believed that enough people had seen it to nominate her, but not enough people had seen it to vote. So I just couldn’t believe it had happened when they announced her name. I was wearing a diamond necklace that was loaned to me and I exploded my arms around my producer, the first person who ever took a chance on me and made this happen, and it went flying off my neck. It was a really expensive necklace. It was really exciting.”

What has this done for you?

A ton of stuff. There are all kinds of people who want to work with me and are giving me scripts and whatever. But I think the most powerful thing is that a lot of my own idols, just because of the tone of the films that I’m working in, a lot of my own idols have reached out to me in the most unbelievably touching way. Dustin Hoffman came and raised a toast to us and the kind of work we‘re doing. I talked to Warren Beatty for like an hour last night, and he said that people have been wanting to work in this genre a long time. I had actually run into him several times and said, ’Have you seen it Warren? Have you seen it Warren? Have you seen it Warren?’ and he had never seen it. Then he was, like, ’My God, I was just sort of blowing it off. . .’ and he loved it. That’s what means the most to me. The most touching thing was the reaction of those people.”

Have you anything in mind for your next project?

Yeah, I have two things that I am writing and they’re very different tones, so I am trying to figure out what one I’m going to do first. But I’m also reading a ton of scripts.”

Are these pieces you have in mind also character pieces?

Yeah, that’s all I think I will do. One of the things I have read is a comedy but, again, I grew up in that era when Warren was working with Hal Ashby, and although there was a lot of great genre work, it was always character driven. So it could be a great comedy or slapstick or whatever, but it’s still character driven. So that’s sort of my interest. And that’s why the response of those actors to the film affected me so emotionally. I just thought I was going to cry after talking to Warren Beatty. He blew my mind.”

 ©Stephen Applebaum, 2017

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