Monster’s director Patty Jenkins talks to OutSmart about telling the story of a serial killer and working with award-winning star Charlize Theron
by Olivia Flores Alvarez
“Lesbian Serial Killer.” “Real-Life Thelma & Louise.” Newspapers were filled with sensational headlines after Aileen Wournos, Florida’s first female serial killer, was captured in 1991.
Monster, the film by first-time filmmaker Patty Jenkins and starring Golden Globe best actress–winner Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci, is a look behind the headlines.
After a tumultuous childhood in Michigan that reportedly included having sex with her brother and several neighborhood boys before she was even a teenager, Wournos moved to Florida where she worked as a prostitute. Often homeless, Wournos bounced from boyfriend to boyfriend with occasional arrests for robbery and grand larceny.
In 1989, at age 33, Wournos began her first lesbian affair.
She also murdered several men during a yearlong killing spree.
When she was arrested and charged with seven murders in 1991, Wournos claimed that she killed each of the men in self-defense. Nicknamed the “Damsel of Death” by the media, Wournos eventually confessed to killing a total of 12 men and later admitted that except for her first victim, 51-year-old Richard Mallory, who had raped and tortured her, the men had not attacked her.
Monster, which portrays the actual events with only minor changes, moves from tender to terrifying and back again. Part thriller, part biopic, part docudrama, the film is difficult to categorize.
“I, actually, in my mind, think it’s a love story,” said writer/director Patty Jenkins, who spoke to OutSmart from her office in California after a Canadian press tour. “More than anything, I think it’s a character film like Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver, films with traditional storytelling that have conflicted characters. But still it’s a love story to me.”
Jenkins had contact with Wournos while she was on death row. The two women exchanged letters and spoke through intermediaries but did not meet face to face. Her script is based, in part, on thousands of letters Wournos wrote while in prison. In small, neat handwriting, Wournos wrote as many as four letters a day to longtime friend Dawn Botkins; she also wrote journal-like letters to God, discussing her life and crimes.
Monster doesn’t try to excuse or justify Wournos, only to understand her. “I just knew that there’s a space for understanding who people are without denying what they did,” Jenkins said. “The point to me was that I always felt like I could never change the greater truth, but I did think the story needed filling in. Everybody in the country heard ‘lesbian serial killer.’ What they didn’t hear was the rest of the story, so my point was to say, ‘Yes, you’re right—here’s your monster. Now come and watch how she got there.’
“I was very, very firm from day one that the rape-torture during the first killing be shown the way that it was, because I think it’s important for understanding her story.”
Jenkins was also committed to showing the last murder as the cold-blooded killing it was. “I didn’t try to show that last murder as being sympathetic, because you have to accept that that’s where she went to.”
“I’ve had no contact with [the victims’ families]. When you set out to write something like this, you have to make a decision about whose story it is that you’re telling. What was important to me was to have it really clear that the horror [the victims] went through and the fact that, with the exception of the first man [who raped and beat her], the men she killed were anywhere from just a kind of sleazy guy who picked up a prostitute to completely innocent. That was the only gesture I could offer the victims’ families.”
Casting of the 5-foot-10 blonde beauty Charlize Theron to play the scruffy 5-foot-3 Wournos was seen as a gimmick by some industry insiders, but Jenkins knew Theron was the right actress for the role.
“Because I could see Aileen so well, I knew that this character rested entirely on somebody’s ability to show both sides of her, to show her volatility, her anger, and still show her humanity,” she says.
“We made a deal right off the bat. We said, ‘Look, we’re not going to do this halfway, we’re going to take on this person’s life and we’re going to love her. We’re going to walk this walk for her. We’re not going to just look at it from the outside.’ And we didn’t.”
Theron underwent a significant physical transformation for the role. Easily one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, Theron wore special makeup to make her own flawless skin look like Wournos’s blotchy, bloated face. She also gained weight and damaged her hair. “Charlize is just incredible,” Jenkins said. “She really is a brave and strong actress. The bravery was not from looking like Aileen and gaining 30 pounds. The bravery comes from Charlize putting Aileen in her heart and going through these horrible events.”
Theron also signed on as one of the film’s producers, a title Jenkins says wasn’t just a vanity credit. “When she signed on as producer, people were saying, ‘Well, Charlize has never been taken seriously, so she’s developing this project to showcase her talent.’ That was not how it went. And I always thought that was kind of demeaning to her, like she’s making a movie for everybody to see how great she is.
“The movie was already green-lit and we had a shoot date when she signed on as an actor. I cast her because she was the right person. She signed on as a producer later to protect the film. As an A-list star, she knows the kind of power she has, and as a producer she was able to get involved and fight for things that we believed in.”
Wournos’s claim that she killed her first victim in self-defense unfortunately mirrors an event in Theron’s life. Her mother shot and killed her father while defending herself and Theron when he came home in a drunken rage. Theron was a teenager at the time and had not, until recently, discussed the incident publicly.
Jenkins acknowledged that the media-fueled public examination of that tragedy in Theron’s life has been difficult to witness. “I think the saddest thing, particularly in her case, is that the media approach people with so little sensitivity,” she says. “You wouldn’t go up to someone at a dinner party and just bark at them, ‘So, your dad died, huh?’ That’s what’s been so hard to witness.
“Everybody wants such overt explanations for things, and I wish that people would start looking deeper than that. The truth is she’s an incredibly talented actor and this is an incredibly sad story and she didn’t have to be raped or kill someone to understand that.”
Christina Ricci plays Aileen’s girlfriend in Monster. The role is based on Wournos’s real-life lover Tyria Moore, who testified against Wournos and helped to secure her conviction.
Jenkins says the media’s focus on Theron’s performance has unfairly over-shadowed Christina Ricci’s contribution to the film.
“That’s been the only heartbreak for me; it’s been really hard watching that. I think that it’s really too bad after being on set and being so blown away by Christina, to see her not get the credit she deserves,” Jenkins said.
“Even more than that is Christina’s bravery in taking this role. It’s almost the bravest thing that happened in the whole film, because it’s not the glory role, it’s not an attractive role, but it’s crucial to the story. And it’s the hardest thing for me now, when people don’t get the enormity of her performance. Christina is unbelievable in the movie.”
When asked about Annie Corley, who plays a small, supporting role as Selby’s fundamentalist Christian cousin, Jenkins answers enthusiastically, “Isn’t she amazing? I’m so glad you bring her up, because so few people do, and she’s just incredible.”
The song “Don’t Stop Believing” plays over the film’s closing credits, a seemingly odd choice. “When I put it in, I knew it was going to be cheesy to some people, but I was absolutely serious. That was one of Aileen’s favorite songs. The film ends with her walking out into the light to her own execution, but with the song we get a sense of the hope she still has. You know, there was no more going back to ‘She’s innocent, she didn’t do it, she didn’t deserve it.’ But that didn’t mean she didn’t have some sense of hope.
“I don’t think she ever stopped believing. As testament to that, and it makes me tear up just to think about it, the night before she was executed, in one of the last conversations she ever had, she gave her blessing to open up every letter she had ever written to us. She was really skeptical about me, about the film, about anyone telling her story. And the night before she was executed, after never believing me, after thinking that the film wouldn’t happen, or that I wanted to take advantage of her, she decides to trust us with her letters.”
Wournos was executed on October 9, 2002, after the Florida Supreme Court upheld her request to suspend her death penalty’s automatic appeals. It’s a day that Jenkins remembers vividly.
“It was one of the most horrible 24 hours of my entire life. We were just about to start shooting when she was executed. It was so crazy and then tortuous, because I knew she wanted to be executed. People were trying to stop her execution, and she was devastated by that. I found myself having to support her being executed, because that was what she wanted.
“We were on the front page of all the [trade newspapers], with headlines saying ‘Aileen’s not five minutes in her grave and Charlize Theron’s signed on to make a movie about her.’ That was so cruel, so untrue.
“To make it worse, right after she was executed, which was a very somber moment for me, my phone started ringing off the hook with people saying ‘Congratulations!’ It was horrible,” Jenkins said.
“We had to put all that aside and go to work on the film that we wanted to make, which was about the truth about Aileen’s life, not the hype and the media frenzy that had been surrounding this story since the news about her and what she had done first broke.
“But that was going to be the tone of this whole experience. No one would believe it, nor could I spend my time trying to convince them what our true aims were in making this film. We just had to believe ourselves.”
That belief seems to have paid off. Even before the film had opened in wide release, Charlize Theron received a Golden Globe Award best actress nomination for her performance. She went on to win at the January 25 award ceremony. During her acceptance speech, she thanked Jenkins, saying, “I wouldn’t be up here if it wasn’t for one person who took a chance on me, and that is the writer and director of this film, Patty Jenkins. There’s only so much you can do, but if somebody doesn’t give you the chance, there’s nothing you can do, and you [turning to Jenkins] gave it to me. And you made me a promise when we started out. You said, ‘No matter what anybody says, we’ll stick together,’ and you never broke that promise. And I am sharing this with you.’”
Jenkins says, “We didn’t make this film to win awards, we made it to tell the truth about Aileen. And there’s so much focus on winning, I find [the awards] all a little distasteful.
“Still, I do think Charlize deserves recognition, and the awards are homage to the work that she put into the film. That’s what I’d like to see it as.
“I also think they’re homage to Aileen. I don’t mean homage to what she did in killing those men, but to what she did after that. In the courage it took to tell her own story, which even she understood was really pretty horrible.
“One of the details about Aileen that never got into the film was that on top of everything else, she never had a birthday. She was born on Leap Year, on February 29, so her birthday came only once every four years, and no one ever celebrated it. This year the Oscars land on her birthday. So the mere idea that a clip from her story might be shown at the Academy Awards for the whole world to see, that is so beautiful for me. Not because we should praise what she did, but because we should honor the telling of truth.”
Olivia Flores Alvarez is an arts and entertainment writer. She contributes often to OutSmart magazine and other Texas publications.