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In cold blood
The violent life and death of the Florida prostitute Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in 2002 for a string of murders, is the subject matter of the debut film feature monster by Patty Jenkins. Craig Fitzsimons talks to the writer-director about the controversial, Oscar-winning movie
Craig Fitzsimons, 30 Mar 2004
Widely acclaimed, controversial and gripping, Monster – the debut film feature for writer-director Patty Jenkins – provides a dramatic account of the violent life and death of the Florida prostitute Aileen Wuornos.
Executed in 2002 for a string of murders committed ten years previously, Wuornos was a greatly-troubled soul whose hatred of the male species, however acquired, found its ultimate expression in a series of twisted killings. It’s suggested that at least some of her victims were paying customers – ‘johns’ in the vernacular – and Monster’s sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of the killer has drawn some criticism for appearing to less than completely condemn the murders.
Whatever the validity of such criticism, Monster stands up very well as a thoroughly exciting, stylishly filmed lovers-on-the-run road movie in the great American tradition of Badlands and Bonnie & Clyde, films director Jenkins has cited as seminal influences. Monster invites considerable sympathy for the harsh realities of Wuornos’ loveless existence, and puts her descent into bloodlust in the true context of someone hideously beaten down by life, someone dealt the worst possible hand at every stage.
Wuornos’ inner turmoil is made flesh by a revelatory central performance from Charlize Theron, a Hollywood blonde bombshell previously unassociated with heavyweight films of any kind. The extent of Theron’s astounding physical and psychic transformation for the role can best be gleaned from the fact that she’s just won an Oscar for it, a triumph about which Jenkins is still ecstatic.
“Oh yeah, it’s just been amazing. I was in LA for the ceremony, which was beyond anything I’d ever dreamed of,” she enthuses. “If you’d told me two years ago that we would get an Oscar for my first film, I never would have believed it. But by the time I’d seen her performance, I knew she’d be the favourite to win.”
What was the main thing that drew Jenkins to the story?
“Well, you know initially I’d never been convinced that this was the best idea for a first film. It was a combination of things – I’d always been interested in her story, since the news broke back in 1990 or whenever, and in the years since then I’d become a film-maker, and I started thinking more and more about the character films I’d grown up watching – Bonnie & Clyde, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, Badlands and the like. And then two years ago there was an overwhelming opportunity to do the film – there had been a flood of serial-killer films, and I saw it as a way to get the film made, even though I was more interested in making a character film than a serial-killer film.”
How did Jenkins approach the research?
“I just read everything I could, I went through all the legal documents, I talked to everybody I could and then sat down and actually wrote to Aileen. She was still alive at the time, and we had no idea that she was about to be executed. We corresponded for some time with each other, all sort of leading up to eventually meeting. Then when the film was scheduled, she was going to be executed that same month. I just sort of abandoned that aspect of the research, but the night before she was executed, without my knowledge, she just decided to open up this archive of every personal letter she’d ever written. It was a pretty generous thing for someone to do on their last night, and there’s no way the film could have been what it was otherwise. I was able to go back over the script.”
Do you think she wanted to be executed?
“Yes, she did, there’s no doubt about that. It was the hardest thing to accept, and there’s so many ways of looking at the death penalty and so many issues with it, but the truth is that she had had such a horrible life, I think she suffered a tremendous amount of guilt, and she was really going insane after 12 years on Death Row. And more than anything, she wanted to be executed, which is why I think she changed her story about the murders towards the end of her life, and told everyone that all the killings were completely in cold blood. She had an agenda to accelerate her execution, and sabotage any possibility of clemency.”
Did her death give you greater freedom in making the film?
“Well, I don’t think I would have made the film any differently, but getting access to the letters changed everything, and I don’t think she could have done that herself. Even alive, I think she always would have been very guarded with us, and the only reason she was able to open up so much was because it was her last chance. And before I even contacted her, I was always completely wary that I knew I could never win her trust. And I knew that no matter what I did with the film, if I made the most beautiful picture in the history of humankind, she would always be unhappy with it.”
What was it about Charlize Theron’s previous work that convinced you she was the one for this role? Were any other actresses considered?
“I considered other people, but only because I never thought I’d get Charlize. The thing about Charlize is that there are very few actresses who are that strong but simultaneously vulnerable. I saw a lot of women who I thought would be softer, and a lot of women who I thought would be tougher, but Charlize had something no-one else did, and was so committed. I’d watched The Devil’s Advocate before with my boyfriend, and we’d talked about how amazing she was, then I woke up in the middle of the night once when The Devil’s Advocate was on, and watching it, I just felt sure ‘this is the person who can do it. We still didn’t think there was any hope cause it was like a one- or two-million dollar movie, and normally people like that don’t even read those scripts. But she read the script and she really, really wanted to do it, and it was very clear what kind of film I was making, so I didn’t have to sell her on it.”
Has there been any adverse reaction from the relatives of Wuornos’ victims?
“No, well not yet. I was very concerned about the victims’ families, but to be honest I hope that they don’t see the film, even though there’s no way without them seeing it for anyone to understand that I’m not sympathising with her actions, I’m not saying that these were horrible men and they deserved what they got. If people assume that, there’s nothing I can do about it.
“And this isn’t the victims’ story, I tried to keep the victims as generic as I could, it’s Aileen’s side of the story. And beyond the first john, who very clearly had brutalised her, I tried to be as clear as possible that none of them had committed any crime apart from picking up a prostitute.”
Monster is on general release now