On the surface, the Aileen Wuornos story may seem lurid and salacious, but two new films challenge audiences to reconsider what they think they know about the serial killer Florida executed in 2002.
In the fictional but fact-based film “Monster,” writer-director Patty Jenkins imagines what Wuornos’ life was like during the time she was committing the seven murders.
Jenkins, 31, boldly portrays the private relationship between Wuornos and her girlfriend, Tyria Moore (renamed Selby Wall, largely for legal reasons), and creates vignettes of each of the murders. Her film also features an explosive central performance by Charlize Theron.
Controversial documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s first film on Wuornos, 1992’s “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” was a biting critique of the ascendant tabloid media culture and portrayed the accused killer as the most honorable and clear-eyed person involved in her unseemly tale.
Broomfield’s latest film, “Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” finds him and his footage subpoenaed for one of Wuornos’ death-row appeals. Broomfield, 55, conducted Wuornos’ final interview the day before she died in October 2002.
Rather than jousting for any perceived “ownership” of Wuornos’ story, the films are rather complementary, one imaginary, the other factual. (“Monster” opened Dec. 26 in limited release; “Aileen” opens Friday.)
Jenkins and Broomfield (as well as his collaborator Joan Churchill) were in Los Angeles recently for screenings of “Monster” and “Aileen” at the AFI Film Festival.
So you’ve never met before?
Broomfield and Jenkins, simultaneously: No.
Jenkins: It was getting to the point that I really wanted to call you guys. I heard some rumor we were trying to get you to push back the release of your film, and I was like, wait a minute. These guys have been incredibly gracious to us from the get-go. Really kind and generous, sharing information and saying nice things when you could tell people were trying to get bad things out of them. But, no, we’ve never met, though Charlize knows you.
Patty, did you come to Aileen’s story through Nick’s first movie about her?
Jenkins: It was a combination of things. I was a huge true-crime reader when I was younger, and her story broke at that time and I paid a lot of attention to her story, though at the time I didn’t even know I would be a filmmaker. The [first] documentary was influential in the sense of I saw the documentary and learned a lot more. What ended up getting me to make the film was that a bunch of serial killer movies came out. So I went to these producers and ... I ended up not working with those people, but that was what got me to do it.
Nick’s first film was largely concerned with different people peddling Aileen’s story.
Jenkins: She can’t sell her rights, as you guys found out, because of the Son of Sam laws. I ended up not getting involved with that. I started talking to Aileen, and then, when Aileen ended up being scheduled for execution, which we didn’t know was going to happen, she was being very hesitant, back and forth on what she wanted to do, whether she trusted us or not and then she decided to trust us and told Dawn [Botkins, Wuornos’ friend and confidant] to open up the letters to us. Then we bought Dawn’s rights to all of Aileen’s letters, so sort of Aileen’s story through Dawn.
Nick, had you planned on making another film about her?
Broomfield: We were actually in the middle of shooting “Biggie and Tupac” when I was subpoenaed. I had no intention of doing it at all. We were subpoenaed, went down to this place called Ocala and it was surreal because all the witnesses were put in the same motel, and no one had a car so they were all just stuck. For me it was when Aileen said, ‘I want to die,’ and you had this weird thing where [Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush and Aileen wanted the same thing. They both wanted her execution. It was impossible not to question what was really going on.
You are known for inserting yourself into stories, and this time the story came after you.
Broomfield: In those interviews Aileen had such a strong agenda, a whole lot of things she passionately wanted to say. It was quite hard to steer the interviews, to get her to talk about things other than her obsession with the police. It’s the only film I’ve done where I felt I was more a conduit than somebody who was deciding the direction.
Patty, did you meet Aileen?
Jenkins: No. We were writing each other, talking about this film, talking about meeting, about what story I was planning on telling, and we were probably three-quarters of the way through when all of a sudden they scheduled her execution. Then it was just, I wanted to know from her anything she wanted me to know, but it was pretty clear that suddenly everything changed.
Aileen had an agenda with me as well. And I didn’t want to cover the same material as the documentaries had covered; it was a completely different period of time I was covering. I don’t know what could have come of an interview. I don’t know she would have ever trusted me in that period of time.
Were you in Florida when she was executed?
Nick, you all were outside the prison, you weren’t actually there.
Broomfield: I felt Jeb Bush had created this ghoulish circus that I didn’t want to have in my mind. I thought it was the theater of the most absurd. I think for me to have attended the execution, in a bizarre way, would have endorsed it or recognized it in a way I just couldn’t bear.
But you could have attended?
Broomfield: Yes, Dawn too. And we all decided it was something we didn’t need to do.
I’ve seen a lot of terrible things, and it was the cold-blooded way she was executed which I think was the most evil thing I have ever seen.
In your second documentary, Nick, you explicitly say you think the first murder was an act of self-defense that drove Aileen into madness. Patty, do you agree?
Jenkins: Absolutely. The fact that the other murders followed, not that it justifies them, but it’s like post-traumatic stress disorder. What was interesting to me was how hard she tried to live life with purely good intentions. She wanted love, to support someone, to give love, and how long she survived for the right reasons. Trying again. Having hope. Where the title comes from is the first thing I ever wrote about Aileen -- how many times can you call someone a monster before they become one? I liked the idea of giving the audience exactly what they want in the title and then flipping it once you’re inside.
When you initially encountered her, did you feel she had any hope that there was any end for her besides execution?
Broomfield: When she met Arlene Pralle, who was this born-again Christian woman who adopted her, I think she genuinely thought she was going to live on the horse ranch with Arlene. I think when it became apparent that was never going to happen, that even if they accepted her self-defense plea and she was convicted of manslaughter, even then she was never going to get out of an institution, I think that was why eventually she just decided she had to volunteer to die.
Arlene is such a big part of your first picture and she’s not in your second film at all.
Broomfield: She’d gone to live in Hawaii to breed horses. She wasn’t around.
Jenkins: She always seemed like a lot of people in Aileen’s life. I didn’t ever have anything to do with her, but she always seemed just sort of naive about what it really means to help somebody.
Broomfield: And [Aileen] trusts no one.
Jenkins: No one.
Broomfield: She said, ‘I’ve got nothing.’ Remember that bit? I never told Dawn, when she said, ‘I’ve got nobody, nobody means anything to me anymore,’ and I said, ‘Well, what about Dawn?’ and she just sort of laughed that off, Dawn. I suppose the love had gone out of her life. She didn’t really love anyone.
Patty, did you want to depict the Selby/Tyria character as someone in way over her head?
Jenkins: I don’t think that Tyria could ever really understand the gravity of anything that was going on.
Nick, would you say you felt the same way?
Broomfield: Yeah. Tyria, by the time I met her ... it was just like a terrible experience she had closed the door on. But I think you’re right, there was obviously a mutual love there, and actually the one feeling I did get from Tyria was that it became absolutely claustrophobic and that Tyria had a family, she had brothers and sisters, and Aileen really hated her family, resented the fact that she had this family.
The taped phone conversations between Tyria and Aileen were a big part of Aileen’s initial convictions. Did Tyria have any sense of betrayal?
Jenkins: She did. Apparently she apologized. I think she felt justified too, and in a way she was justified. I mean, what was she going to do? You can’t kill seven people.
Broomfield: I’m sure she knew [about the murders]. Aileen told her about Mallory, told her about the first murder and she must have known about the other six.
Jenkins: She says in her deposition that she knew after the first murder, that they talked about it. I know this like the back of my hand because legally it was really hard to justify every detail in the film. So it had to come straight out of their depositions, when they had what conversation about what.
Nick, what was your reaction when you heard Theron was going to play Aileen?
Broomfield: I thought, my God, how is Charlize going to end up looking like Aileen? And obviously I thought it was important for her to have Aileen’s mannerisms down, which is why I sent the film, so she could really look at Aileen, get a sense of her mannerisms, her way of talking.
Patty, how did you feel when you first saw her as Aileen?
Jenkins: Stunned. Particularly because I’d seen the incremental phases, gaining the weight, her hair getting dried out, slowly over time. And the day her eyebrows went away, we were doing a makeup test, and she put the teeth in to move her mouth out like Aileen’s and she was leaning back to put the contacts in and she turned to me and it was just, ‘Oh my God, what just happened?’
Were you concerned with people perceiving Charlize as stunt casting?
Jenkins: I believed wholeheartedly she could do it. I thought deep down inside she has a real strength of character that would make her able to have heart and still punch back. Particularly in light of what was going on with Aileen’s execution at the time we cast her, I was in a really sad but really clear situation where I felt like I had made a promise and a commitment which was much bigger than anything else. As best I could, I wanted to make a really correct film.