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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2004

Getting under the skin of a serial killer


After "Hannibal" et al., seeing another serial killer flick was about as pleasant a prospect as being buried alive. It was a nice surprise, then, to find that director Patty Jenkins had made an intelligent, genre-defying film grounded in reality. Jenkins, who also wrote the screenplay, has been riding a high ever since her debut feature earned Charlize Theron the Oscar for Best Actress. (It must be doubly satisfying since Jenkins says she was initially "ridiculed" for her casting decision.) In Tokyo to promote her film, Jenkins discussed the problems inherent to depicting a larger-than-life killer.

News photo
Director Patty Jenkins in Tokyo YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

How long did you work on the script?

I wrote the script in June, two years ago. I originally thought of the idea about six years ago. I'd seen the story and followed it when it broke in 1990. Later I realized how Aileen's story was related to all these '60s and '70s films I'd been watching, like "Badlands" or "Bonnie & Clyde." It [shows] how someone ends up going down that road. Because she wasn't Ted Bundy, she wasn't just sexually perverse. But it seemed like such a bad, hard idea to start your career with, I never pursued it.

It wasn't until two years ago when I met my manager and he said, "Oh, they're making all these serial killer films." And I said, "Really, I always thought of making Aileen Wuornos' story." And he said, "You should do it; you won't get anything else made." So I initially thought, "OK, seems like a terrible idea, but let me just see if I can make the kind of movie I'd be comfortable with." And I just got sucked in completely. I realized quite quickly that I couldn't take the chance of it being an exploitation film, so I [decided] to write it on my own.

I may be off-base, but certain aspects of the film reminded me a lot of "Boys Don't Cry." Did the success of that film make it any easier to get this one made?

The success of "Boys Don't Cry" was way beyond anything I ever expected for us, particularly because "Boys Don't Cry" was about a sympathetic character. I was making a film where the main character, who you were sympathetic to at times, was also murdering innocent people! So I really didn't know how it would go over. But definitely, the success of indie films like that, about true things, probably opened the door for us.

But a sympathetic main character is almost mandatory these days. How did you manage to keep that balance, between showing some sympathy for Aileen and pulling back from it?

It was a really interesting process. I think that, for whatever reason, we've gotten to a place where, particularly in Hollywood, things have to be very pat. Like "I'm a good guy. I'm a bad guy." When I watched Aileen's story I couldn't figure out why I felt something so specific that other people didn't feel. I would listen to people, and feminist groups would say, "Oh, she's innocent, it was all self-defense." I thought that was not true, but at the same time I felt sympathy as well, for the life she lived.

I didn't know whether other people would feel the same way or not until the first time I screened the film. They asked the test audience. "How many of you think Aileen Wuornos is a monster?" Almost all of the audience raised their hands. Then they asked, "How many of you feel sympathy for Aileen?" Almost all of them raised their hands. That's unbelievable unbelievable that we could have gotten that complex an emotion across!

Has anyone thought your portrayal of Aileen is too sympathetic?

The film is about tracking a person's evolution into being that kind of killer. That's what was interesting to me. People would say it's too sympathetic, but to me, it's not. All I'm acknowledging is that normal people can turn into these killers. I'm saying that they're being motivated and driven by the same emotions that drive us.

JT: As a New Yorker, how did you get a feel for Florida, where Aileen's story takes place?

Well, I'd spent summers growing up in Mississippi, so I had an idea of what the South is like. But the subtleties of society are very important to telling the story. It's not palm trees and neon signs in Florida; it's strip malls, highways, hot sun beating down on you. It's a very lower-class world she's in, where being a lesbian or a homeless person is a very particular thing. It's already a task to get people to walk in her shoes, so I needed to make her world as specific and believable as possible for people to overcome their own prejudice to understanding her.

The locations you shot on certainly seemed real. That bar she hangs out in: was that a location shoot or a set?

That's the real bar, and those are her real friends. It was the real place she was caught, shot in exactly the same steps. Her friend Al, who she talks to at the bar, that was her real friend, all the bikers were.

How did they feel about being in a movie?

It was a funny evolution, because at first they were not interested. Just "Yeah, yeah ... " Tons of people had come down before me, asking about Aileen. I started getting friendly with them, but then when I started going down there with Charlize, they just thought it was hilarious that she was going to play Aileen. They just ripped into her at every chance, gave her such a hard time. But the day she walked into the set in full make-up, I've never seen so many people just go dead-white. They just backed up and were silent, very uncomfortable. Afterward, a number of them came up to me, shaking, and said, "I thought she'd just walked into the room."

Having seen "Monster," I can say that Charlize Theron is an incredibly talented actress, but to be honest, I haven't seen her in any roles that let her show that before. What convinced you that she was right for this part?

It's almost impossible to answer, because I don't know! For some reason, I decided in the most gut way that she was the person to play the role. I was working on the script and Aileen had become a person who was this amount strong, this amount vulnerable, and this amount terrifying. So instead of looking for an actress who looked like Aileen, I was looking for someone who could play all those different sides. I was afraid of having a woman who was too soft, or too hard. Charlize, I thought, had that perfect balance. And every role I've seen her do, whether I'm interested in it or not, she's completely dedicated and present.

Did she take much convincing, or was she up for it?

She took convincing, like "Why do you want me for this role?" She was really taken aback. I think her fears had been that it would be exploitational, but that went away when she read the script. I wasn't interested in doing too much convincing. Because I didn't want her to do it unless she wanted to do it. I didn't want to convince her of anything and have her fall apart later. So I said, "It's going to be tough, horrible. We're not playing around. And I think you're the one who can do it." And, thank God, she said yes.

You must have had a lot of faith in your makeup department. Did you do tests?

Yeah. But it's weird, for all the attention the transformation has gotten now, I didn't think it would be what it was. But I have a pet peeve about character contradictions. You tell me that a woman is homeless and has no money and is helpless, but she's drop-dead gorgeous? That's just not the way the world works. Any beautiful woman can get people to help her like that. They'll throw money at her. So I didn't want to contradict the story. I just wanted her to look like a homeless person who drank a lot, had weather damage and that's it. But before our very eyes, she turned into someone who looked a lot like Aileen, and I was very surprised.

For you, what was the aspect you related to most in Aileen's character, if any?

We're different people, but there was a lot of "There but for the grace of God go I." Definitely her loneliness, her hope for love. Almost every single one of us has felt "I'll never find that." Rage at being misunderstood, rage at being unfairly treated. All of those things I have felt in myself. And that was the challenge: To find myself in her was to hopefully find most people in her. Instead of just saying, "I don't know."



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