Flashback – Interview: Patty Jenkins on “Monster”

Given this week’s release of the Charlize Theron’s “Young Adult,” I had already been planning to rerun this feature on the last film that won her such acclaim, though to my surprise and many others, the film’s director Patty Jenkins dropped out of the film that would be her follow-up “Thor 2.” Eight years after making her directorial debut, Jenkins has directed episodes of “Arrested Development,” “Entourage” and the much-lauded pilot for “The Killing,” but it should be considered criminal that she’s yet to take on another feature (and deserving of something better than the second installment of a franchise). Below in this interview originally published in The Daily Texan on February 4, 2004, she talks about how she became a filmmaker, the experience of making “Monster” and working with Theron.

As far as titles go, few are as loaded with meaning as “Monster.”

Only a month ago it was a reference to serial killer Aileen Wuornos and the society that too often refused to help her. Now it’s a reference to everything the film about her life has become.

Since Charlize Theron’s performance as Wuornos was anointed by no less a film critic than Roger Ebert as “one of the great performances in the history of film,” “Monster” has become an unlikely success, both critically and commercially. But while Theron scored her first Oscar nomination for best actress, the film’s writer/director has, for the most part, stood away from the spotlight.

It’s telling that Patty Jenkins, who at one point saw Wuornos’ story as the type of quickie Blockbuster Video exclusive that would serve as a launching pad for her career, sat on a panel Saturday at the Santa Barbara Film Festival with Anthony Minghella (“Cold Mountain”) and Jim Sheridan (“In America”) as an equal. It’s also telling that Jenkins worked without a net in the form of a studio deal once she realized the humanity of her main character, or the fact she insists on talking about Christina Ricci when most would prefer to talk about Theron.

Still, in the midst of the talk about Theron’s transformation, Jenkins is the Midwestern girl who loves Journey and wanted to paint. Now, after two short films and stints at the prestigious Cooper Union and AFI Film School, Jenkins is finally working on a canvas worthy of her talent and ambition.

Someone said on National Public Radio that people seem to be responding to Charlize Theron the way people would respond to Cindy Crawford doing Hamlet.

I know! And I’ve even read some really mean things where they’re like … “little known model Charlize Theron,” and my boyfriend said, and I thought it was so interesting, “I don’t understand what’s up with the revisionist history. Like everyone has always known she’s been an actor and she was in the fuckin’ ‘Italian Job’ last year for godsakes! Like she’s a huge actress, what are people talking about?”

When did you feel confident with the tone of the movie?

Charlize has the answer to something which is kind of appropriate to this, which is that, we never knew. We kind of had to walk into the uncomfortable position of not knowing how this would affect people tonally. What I decided to do was to see Aileen Wuornos’ story this way. The way the movie is. That was how I saw it. I saw that she had killed seven people, and I knew that she had done it, and that she had ruined peoples’ lives, and there was no inching away from that. I also felt heartbroken of the life that she had to live leading up to that, and I saw this kind of simple struggle that led to all of this. So tonally, I just stay true to my own heart.

I never … I fought, and we all did, never to be swayed by anybody else’s opinion of the circumstances, because I was the one taking on telling this person’s life morally, and I was the one whose name was going to be on it and had to live with it, so down to the nuance, I just had to stay true to what I believed the truth was. So there was no room for conversations like “We’d like to make her more sympathetic or not.” That was out of the question for me.

The voiceover plays a huge role in dictating the tone. Was that in the original script?

That was always a huge part of the storytelling tool to me, because someone like Aileen Wuornos, very damaged people, do not have a very good ability to explain the context of where they’re coming from.

By the time they’re 31, which is how old Aileen was, they’ve become so guarded and reactionary that the way you end up discovering who they are is by the accidental information that slips out in other stories that they tell. So that to me was an incredible tool, and it really served the juxtaposition of how she would compartmentalize things in her mind. This was really important to me.

MonsterCharlizeTheron2And you had a relationship with Wuornos as well before shooting.

I was writing to her, and we were writing to each other, and it was the six months leading up to what ended up being her execution, which we didn’t know was going to happen. And it was all kind of meetings that were hopefully leading up to us sitting down and interviewing her, but out of nowhere, her execution was scheduled, and we never saw it coming, and it just became distasteful to pursue, and she ended up doing that last interview with [documentarian] Nick Broomfield, which was the much better thing to do, because he’s making a documentary, so that footage was actually useful.

You’ve said you wanted a Roger Corman experience — i.e. a low budget film to get into the film business — with this movie.

No, initially, I stepped into it, because if I thought a movie about Aileen Wuornos was going to turn into what it turned into, I would’ve never thought that.

I knew that people were making these really low-budget genre serial killer-type films and I’ve said Roger Corman in the context that a lot of people have gotten their start that way and here, I’m just going to approach this as an opportunity to make a character film because the people making those films don’t really care what you give them. They’re aiming so much lower that they don’t really care. They don’t tell you that the film has to be this or the film has to be that. It just has to be about Aileen Wuornos. And as soon I stepped into it, I realized I wasn’t willing to take any deal to write the script because I just became overwhelmed with the moral promises I was making to the story and I couldn’t take a chance with producers signed on who didn’t agree with me, and so I did it all on my own, and I assumed it would lead us back, and then it took off.

PattyJenkinsWas filmmaking something that came to you in college?

It came to me the minute I realized that you could do that. It was everything I wanted to do. I had lived in Kansas when I was in junior high, and at the beginning of high school, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do anything besides some sort of the arts. And in the Midwest it was just kind of like you could be a graphic artist or a fine artist. And so I thought, I guess I’ll be a fine artist, so I became consumed with getting into Cooper Union, where I ended up going for painting. But the minute I got there, I took an experimental film course, and realized that all of my loves, because I actually think music is my first love, but not something I play, came together in one medium.

Do you know when you’ll be able to step back from all this and breathe and realize that this is more than just a movie?

I realize that all the time, and I always have, but it’s been so nonstop, that I can’t quite believe it. And I think the weirdest, saddest realization about all of it is that that moment never really comes. They come in many different little moments, but the moment where you raise the glass and take time off and realize it all worked out, that’s not really the great moment. And sadly, that’s the moment we’re all always chasing, but I think the moment where we’re all on three hours of sleep where the magic moments happen on set — that’s it. That’s the moment where it’s incredible and from there, it becomes contingent on so many outside forces, it’s never quite the same.

Every day, I can’t believe what this has become and so many people have asked me, “How will you let go?” And I don’t think that I will. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave this film and this story behind. I think it’s going to be a part of me forever.

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