Writer-director Patty Jenkins has hit the ground
running with her first feature, the widely acclaimed, Monster,
a riveting and dark love story detailing serial killer Aileen Wuornos’ tragic
descent into obsession and murder. Jenkins, who initially studied
painting at the Cooper Union in New York City, fell in love with
movies while attending an experimental film course between painting
classes. After graduation, she went to Los Angeles and soon earned
a union card as a first assistant camera operator.
Over the next five years Jenkins worked on
countless commercials, films and music videos for a cast of rising
Dominic Sena, Tarsem Singh, Brett Ratner and the late Ted Demme.
Itching to put her own vision on screen, Jenkins signed up for
the American Film Institute’s Directors Program, where she completed
several shorts. Her thesis film, Velocity Rules, was honored
by becoming an official selection of the AFI Fest. Jenkins recently
talked to MM about the new film, her close collaboration
with actress Charlize Theron-whom she directed to one of the most
compelling performances of the season-and how to come up with enough
coin to get your low-budget masterpiece to the screen.
Phillip Williams (MM): I saw you on Charlie Rose last
night with Charlize Theron. There seems to have been a particularly
close collaboration between you and Charlize on this picture.
It felt as though there was almost a co-authorship, in a broad
Patty Jenkins: Yes.
MM: Did it feel that way to you?
PJ: Oh yeah, we became really, really
close. I definitely wrote and directed the script and she definitely
acted it, but
a film like this is such a performance piece. That person-[the
actor]-has to take that on and take it to a level that you can’t
as a writer-director. She was great to work with.
MM: When you started to piece together this story, what
were the things you saw as indications of the sort of story you
wanted to tell and how you saw this character.
PJ: I did so much research, and the
first draft is almost exactly what we shot. I did extensive outlining
and made a lot
of decisions ahead of time. I wasn’t writing to find the story;
I was writing exactly the story I wanted to tell.
MM: How did you approach the research?
PJ: It started with reading and watching
everything available about [Aileen], taking in police reports.
That was the first layer.
The second layer was writing Aileen, which was a hard step to take,
because I knew her history with the media. And I knew no matter
what my aim was and no matter how earnest I was about that, because
she was so jaded and distrustful, [that] even if I made the most
beautiful film in the history of mankind, she was going to end
up hating me for the fact that the bag was the wrong color or something
like that. It’s impossible to see yourself in the media in that
So I was writing for her and I was planning to sit down and interview
her when her execution was suddenly scheduled from out of nowhere.
She was very distrustful right up until the end, And then, the
night before she was executed, in what ended up mirroring the film
in a heartbreaking way, she took a last leap of faith. She decided
to open up the personal archive of letters to us that she had written
over the previous two years that she was on death row. That was
incredible; just the character detail. I was able to go back over
the script and, where I had slotted in voiceover stories with hunches,
I was able to find the real stories which demonstrated those points.
MM: One of the most amazing things
about the film was that, on one level, it was a very simple,
almost innocent love
story. The way these two characters find each other and the way
their love grows existed in stark contrast to the darker reality
that was also the story. You had, on the one hand, a very dark
tapestry with this beautiful relationship growing in the middle
of it. The film seems to me-more than anything-to be a love story.
Did you see it that way?
PJ: Oh, yes. In the worst biopics, people
just give you a series of events and stay on the outside of it.
Every human life
has a classical arc. I could look at my own life from age five
until now and find some arc that would define it. And that’s what
you need to do in a good biopic; that’s what the good ones do-films
like In Cold Blood and Bonnie & Clyde. You focus
on a relationship arc or something.
The scene in Monster that made me want
to tell her story was the last scene in the courtroom. She was
crying and her girlfriend
had testified against her and I could see that there was clearly
a betrayal going on. She had killed seven people and what else
could her girlfriend do? Then, when she stood up and exploded in
the courtroom, that was what the whole nation saw and said she
was crazy. My whole goal from day one was to say, ‘What is the
story that led to that moment in the relationship?’ Then, you weave
within that information about the past.
MM: The characterization of her girlfriend
was interesting. She was likeable but also unbelievably selfish.
She keeps sending
Aileen back out [to work as a prostitute]. ‘Go and get the money!’ And
she knows exactly what Aileen has to do to get it. It’s interesting
to me that I accepted that so easily, with very little explanation.
Normally, something that outrageous would need more explanation
PJ: I have that same problem at times
with films, and the reason I usually find something implausible
is because there are
either contradictory pieces of information-or they’re not coming
out of character. [With Monster], it all came back to the
creation of complex characters. I think we do this weird thing
with scripts sometimes where we tell the audience superficial information
and then try to force contradictory superficial information on
them. You can’t work that way; there’s no root to any of it. The
problem then is that you are in danger of having so many of the
characters’ actions seeming ungrounded.
MM: I wondered, since this is really
more of a love story than a “serial killer movie,” if there
were particular films or stories in literature which in any
way were inspiring
to you as you were writing this picture?
PJ: Yes, tons of them. The movie that I think influenced
their relationship the most was Midnight Cowboy. It is essentially
a same-sex love story, not a homosexual story; it is a same-sex
love story of codependence and of damaged people. And they’re following
their own fantasy, and it’s in the reveal of the failure of the
fantasy that they grow to depend upon each other. And there were
other movies, which were not murder films, which were influential. The
Misfits is one; I read that script a lot. It does exactly what
we were just talking about. A character will tell you, in a single
sentence, something about themselves. And later in the film, six
of these characters will collide and you can watch a six-page scene
of dialogue that’s so riveting because it’s so grounded. You can
watch these people talk to each other and you know what inner torment
is going on inside them.
A second thing that was a huge influence came
from the fact that someone like Aileen had gone far beyond the
ability to see herself
as any kind of romantic female figure. So I think in order to feel
cool, and to salvage any kind of lifestyle, she attached herself
to male images. I always had in mind the font and image of a Marlboro
ad in mind for the poster. I knew that she was playing a macho
hero and that’s how she made herself feel good about herself.
MM: Charlize Theron’s body language in the picture was
amazing; she really seemed to inhabit a space completely alien
to her own. I don’t know how much you can talk about how she
PJ: I’ll tell you exactly how she got there-and it’s something
I will never forget in my future writing. Even though we had great
footage of Aileen, that was irrelevant. Because the thing that
made all of that character detail happen was that we got to know
such intimate details about her, that all of those behaviors were
grounded in a thought process. So, instead of just observing that
Aileen throws her hair back all the time, we read where she writes
that “Yes, I was homeless, but my hair never looked like that.” And
you realize that she had bad skin and she couldn’t afford make-up,
but the one thing she could do was wash her hair with bar
soap in toilets in gas stations. There is so much embarrassment
about being homeless, and it was a tool for her, this one little
thing: I have blonde, pretty hair. She would hang onto that. And
even if she couldn’t cut it she would try to feather it back and
make it look like maybe she had. Those kind of details. Once Charlize
understood all of that she just took off and became Aileen.
MM: When you set up your scenes on set, was it a matter
of first finding out where the actor wanted to go and then setting
up the camera or did you have your camera moves mapped out beforehand?
PJ: It was a little of both. I had very strong feelings
about when you wanted to be intimate and when you wanted to be
further out. But then we would block it and you would find what
those positions were. I had a grid of what kind of shots I wanted,
regardless of where they went.
MM: Is finding the shot an intuitive or intellectual
process for you?
PJ: It’s goes very much the same way as writing the script:
it all has to be for a reason. You can see movies where it’s not,
but in this case I had very strong feelings about it, because it
became part of the story. If you at some point, as some people
had suggested, used a handheld camera, it implies something: it
implies to the audience that they’re watching something documentary-like
and that therefore implies that there’s somebody [else] there.
You are talking about an incredibly paranoid, private person, who
would never behave as she did if a presence was there. So that
was out of the question for me.
MM: Along the same lines, you used
music in a very interesting way. You used songs, such as Journey’s “Faithfully,” which
were the teen dating songs of their era. And the actors played
scenes so sincerely, like the one where they found themselves
on the rollerskating floor.
PJ: That was why that was such an important
scene to me. It’s my favorite scene in the film; my favorite scene I’ve ever
done. It was such an important key in telling their story. The
point was to bring the audience in and I, as the writer, had to
find my own key in. And they actually loved rollerskating-and she
loved Journey. And the fact that that transferred just as well
to me, and not what you expect from a future lesbian serial killer,
was such a great key. Because anyone who went rollerskating from
this generation remembers seeing those couples and wishing you
could be one.
MM: Why did you become a moviemaker?
PJ: I’m a deeply romantic person and I’ve
always been interested in the arts and though the genesis of
everything I do artistically
is music, I never wanted to be a musician. Then, the minute I realized
I could become a filmmaker, I saw all those things could come together
in one art form.
MM: What’s up next for you?
PJ: I’m actually writing my next project now. I’m also
reading a lot of material, and if something else strikes my fancy
I’ll do that.
MM: Is it fair to say you might want to go in a different
direction; do something very different from Monster?
PJ: It’s going to be the same as casting Charlize: it will
look like a totally different direction to everybody else, but
it’s not really going to be. I’m just interested in human beings
and why they make the decisions they make.