Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Patty Jenkins

Patty Jenkins is an American writer and film director, best known for her breakthrough, critically acclaimed debut film Monster. 

Monster follows Charlize Theron through her tribulations as notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The film was a smash, garnering a Best Actress Oscar for Theron, and going on to be named the #3 best film of the decade by Roger Ebert. Jenkins has been working in television since Monster, notably on Arrested Development and Entourage.

MovieMaker sat down with Patty Jenkins to discuss the importance of director-actor relationships, the issue of money in making features, and much more.

Find the location that tells the story

There’s no underestimating the power of the detail of real locations, whether you build it or go there. The amount of subtle information that people can absorb, from anything from the quality of light to the detail in the background, has an incredibly powerful impact on performance and on the audience.

Casting couldn’t be more important

The root of what you sense in an actor is more important than what kind of work they’ve done before. Charlize may not have played a role like this before, but at the level of heart and soul, she had what was necessary: she incredibly strong, she’s incredibly romantic and incredibly heartfelt. That was more important than merely looking the part; she had the heart and soul of somebody who could play Aileen. And if someone doesn’t have those qualities, it’s almost impossible to teach them.

Looks are secondary

Looks and everything else is secondary. The qualities a person may have in common with the character are very hard to teach.

Jenkins directing Charlize Theron in Monster

Plan to make money

You have to have something that will make people money. You can talk about “should” be made or “could” be made until you are blue in the face; if you have what other people see as a commodity, and you own it, then it will get made. Insomuch as there is a massive video market, I actually benefited from exactly what we ended up not doing. But the phrase “lesbian serial killer” says you are going to make $5 million back on that in Asia on video. And once you get stars involved—Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci—playing lesbians in a serial killer movie, it sounds financially viable. It doesn’t sound like a good movie, but somebody can make money selling it. Then it’s just a matter of keeping your costs below what it can be sold for. Don’t make a $100 million character film with no catch to it. It’s just about understanding where money is made and how.

Understand the limitations of collaboration

The limits of collaboration are that somebody has to love and know what movie they are making—and it has to be one person, really. If there is a tight team and they are partners, great. But the more singular that vision the better. Because it’s like going through a jungle on a speedboat: there’s no time to think most of the time.

But understand that you need collaborators

Surrounding yourself with talented people couldn’t be more important. Your power is knowing the film you want to make. MM

Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster is available for streaming on Hulu, Amazon Video, and Google Play.

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