Nick Broomfield hasn’t yet seen the movie Monster when we meet for coffee in mid December, and looking a bit spent though Morrissey-dandy in his rainy-day black suit, he claims to look forward to his friend Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, the subject of his 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, and recent follow-up, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Broomfield met Wuornos—a roadside prostitute executed after admitting she killed seven men—during her initial trial, when he became fascinated with what he calls “the commercial exploitation of the notion of a serial killer.”
With his trademark faux-naïf patrician bumble, the ever curious Brit nosed around Ocala, Florida, playing low-rent Mike Wallace to a cast of yapping peripherals, uncovering attempts by police, Wuornos’s lawyer, and her adoptive mother to parlay her story into a movie deal. Throughout Broomfield’s ascent to gadfly notoriety with celebrity docs like Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac, he and Wuornos kept in touch. In 2002, when called to testify in her appeal, Broomfield brought his camera. “I wanted more than anything,” he says, “to try and understand the way she perceived reality, to understand what had formed Aileen Wuornos.”
Broomfield credits Wuornos’s former schoolmates in Troy, Michigan, with fleshing out the gruesome picture of past abuse. “Those childhood friends came to the witness stand and blew my mind away,” he says. “It was realizing that Aileen really was kind of like an animal or an outcast living in the woods—and was having to sort of sexually service the community in order to have a roof over her head. You think, this is really unbelievable—this untouchable who has to do blowjobs and hand out sexual favors just to stay alive.” In the film, the increasingly rattled director visits Troy, where a Wuornos friend elaborates on the incest and beatings. “I think people were aware,” says Broomfield, “but there was this kind of ‘It’s got nothing to do with me.’ It doesn’t seem there were any social agencies dealing with the case—schools reporting that she’s never in school, or following up on the fact that she’s coming to school with bruises.”
Though in the first film Broomfield milked Jerry Springer humor out of Wuornos’s pothead attorney, he now conveys shock at the lack of resources available to Wuornos. He laments, “The death penalty is so horrendous because it introduces violence into our whole vocabulary of being. When I was there for the execution, there was such an incredible sense of failure. There were these seven terrible murders, this tragic life of Aileen Wuornos’s, and the only thing it culminated in was this vengeful killing.”
As usual, his latest film finds Broomfield revealing his own process. When I contrast his boom-mic-in-the-frame protagonism to Errol Morris’s discreet gizmo that allows interviewees to respond to the camera itself, instead of having to look at the filmmaker, Broomfield insists that “whether Errol uses the gizmo or doesn’t use the gizmo, it’s to do with the trust that exists between him and the people he’s talking to.” But, he adds, “I’m working in the New Journalism way, which is to roll back parameters and acknowledge the mechanics, or the way in which one relates to people.” Does allowing things to fall apart humanize things? Broomfield says, “Often things just don’t work out. You need to find another way of telling the story, by omission almost. You define your subject by the refusals or the barriers they put in your way. This isn’t true of Aileen Wuornos—she went out of her way to arrange for us to get access.” In her case, of course, the barrier was the system itself. Broomfield slouches back ruminatively and says, “When you see the reality of Aileen, it’s almost like that film Sliding Doors, where at different points in people’s lives they could go in different directions. When Aileen says, ‘Maybe I would have become a fire department girl,’ you say, maybe if there had been the right teacher or if something else would have happened, it could have gone a different way.”
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