Serial Stories: Nick Broomfield on “Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer”
by Nick Poppy
Nick Broomfield is perhaps best known for his pushy muckraking expeditions
into the darker side of American culture, such as his exhumations of dead rockers and
rappers (“Kurt & Courtney,” “Biggie & Tupac”) and his investigative
pieces on high-end prostitutes (“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”). If the transplanted
Brit’s signature style has become something easily mocked — the aggressive, ambush-style
interviews of seedy characters, his insistent queries of “Why won’t you talk to me?” to the
non-cooperative — it’s only because it has yielded such entertaining and insightful results.
Broomfield’s first person investigations are occasionally distracting, often funny, and
sometimes, as in his latest film “Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” deeply disturbing.
Aileen Wuornos killed seven men in Florida in the early 1990s, and was convicted of murder
and sentenced to die in 1992. She is famous for being that rara avis, a female serial killer,
and is the subject of multiple films, including the Charlize Theron Oscar-grab, “Monster.”
Wuornos is this year’s Brandon Teena — the strange and pathetic media darling (as Teena was in the late
’90s with “Boys Don’t Cry” and “The Brandon Teena Story”) whose scarred life and grisly death,
like that of transgendered Teena, is a source of eerie fascination. “Aileen: The Life and Death of a
Serial Killer” grew out of Broomfield’s 1992 film on the mishandling of Wuornos’s case, “Aileen Wuornos:
The Selling of a Serial Killer.” In this update on Aileen’s story, shot in 2002, Broomfield travels
from an appeals hearing on her execution, for which he testifies as a witness, to Wuornos’s childhood
home in Michigan. As Aileen’s execution date creeps closer, Broomfield seeks out those who knew her,
including her family and childhood friends, to understand how one person’s life could go so horribly
wrong. He also meets with Wuornos herself, whose hold on reality grows ever more tenuous. Was she fit
for execution? Is anybody? In a mode revenant of the somber proceedings, Broomfield documents the last
days of Wuornos’s tragic life and shows how she never had a chance.
indieWIRE contributor Nick Poppy spoke with Nick Broomfield about the American justice system,
social change, and Broomfield’s inimitable style.
IndieWIRE: How did this movie come about?
Nick Broomfield: I originally made a film in ’91, “The Selling of a Serial Killer.”
I shot it in ’91, it came out in ’92. And Aileen and I always had this curious affinity, which I
think was caused in part by the fact that just prior to the first interview I did with her, we, the
film crew managed to get arrested in the prison for a security infraction. And we were searched and
our vehicle was stripped down, and I guess the rumor of this spread around the prison. So we were
sort of closer to the prisoners than most media people. Aileen also had this fantasy that we were
actually a rock band that was coming to perform in the prison that night. We were dropping in to do
an interview on the way, but that’s really why we were there. And then she had this fantasy that
we’d be out partying and having a great time, so it was all the things she wanted to do. There was
always that sort of funny thing, even though we assured her that we were there to interview her.
So there was that affinity, and we kept in touch over the years. I tried to get her a different.
That didn’t work out, but we wrote to each other, and I kept in touch with her through Dawn, her
friend. And then, when she was going through this appeal process, they have a final appeal before
execution, I was then subpoenaed as a witness. And a number of her childhood friends from Detroit
came down as well. I had always had this mistaken belief that she wouldn’t be executed, that she
would get off death row. When I got down there, I realized that the rules of the appeal process are
so narrow, you can’t actually start introducing new evidence. It’s very hard to get a retrial, even
if the lawyer is a total drug addict and complete incompetent, it wasn’t going to make much difference.
And then Aileen, who originally said she had acted in self-defense, suddenly announced she’d killed
in cold blood, and wanted to die. And Jeb Bush immediately said, “Oh fine, I’ll make sure that happens
quickly.” And I really started at that point making a film, partly to find out whether Aileen was
lying because she couldn’t stand death row, whether in fact that was the truth all along and she
suddenly had a change of mind and wanted to come clean, or whatever. So all those things were factors
in getting this thing done.
Also, I just felt that this is the so-called democratic leading country in the world, this is
what we regard as civilized society, and yet, this weird stuff’s going on. I felt that there should
be some kind of documentation of that. Because I think ultimately the most important thing that comes
out of all these things, whether it’s Saddam Hussein or it’s Aileen Wuornos, is really what example
we’re setting. Whether it’s just pure vengeance or whether we’re looking for justice. And I think it’s
important in a democratic country that’s talking about freedom that there’s an equality of justice,
and that due process happens. I think that’s just the mainstay of the civilized world, really, and I
think Jeb Bush and the president have no respect for the rule of law. And this is apparent in a whole
lot of things, whether it’s the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay or things like “Saddam Hussein should be
hanged.” I think the rule of law has been incredibly important, and I think with the rule of law there’s
a standard by which people behave. And when that breaks down, particularly when it breaks down in a
country like this one, which the rest of the world is looking to, then you have complete anarchy. And
I think under the Bushes, that’s kind of what’s happening all over the place. I think in a way, what
happened with Aileen Wuornos is a micro, micro story of that, which is that there’s no equality. Aileen
couldn’t afford a decent lawyer. I think if you’re rich, you don’t get on death row, you very rarely get
executed. So it’s all the poor people, it’s a lot of people with mental problems, it’s all the
unfortunates of society on death row. And those were the reasons really I felt the film was important,
and why it’s kind of an election year issue.
Proponents of the death penalty would say that justice has been served by Aileen’s execution. Well,
vengeance has been served. For example, in England, when there was the death penalty, before it was
repealed, every person automatically had two barristers and a solicitor. They had that sort of
representation. In the United States, you get a court appointed lawyer, who generally are the least
experienced, and kind of the dregs of the legal system, because they’re terribly badly paid. And they
are also up against the DA, who is a political appointee. There’s the entire machinery of the state
behind him, to support the prosecution. So I don’t think, when you see the scales of justice, that’s
what you call justice. I don’t think there’s a fairness there, and I think that’s the inherent heart
of a justice system, that you ensure, in a democratic society, that those who are less fortunate still
have equality before the law. It’s a fundamental principle.
You know, the weird thing was that there were mirrors around the gurney, so that if Aileen Wuornos
turned her head away during the execution, the witnesses could still see her face at the moment of
death. It’s that kind of vengeance. I’m not sure that’s a fantastic thing, or that that kind of
thinking is a healthy thing, or that it produces anything good in the future.
iW: A number of your films take stock of American culture and society.
Broomfield: I’ve been living here, too…
iW: So what’s the appeal of the U.S. for you?
Broomfield: I originally came here seeing the United States as the land of freedom,
the land of opportunity, the land of civil liberties, all those incredible things that happened
here during the 1960s. And also the country that the rest of the world looked up to. I think the
United States has the mantle of the torch of freedom, and the rest of world has looked to the
United States for that. And it’s important that its leaders actually embody that. And if they
don’t, obviously they need to be removed.
iW: Would it ever become so unappealing living here that you would leave?
Broomfield: If you feel something strongly, and you want to help to encourage some
kind of debate, and you want to change that, it’s probably important that you hang around.
Because if everybody who disagrees with something leaves, the situation is just going to
continue. And I think the important thing is that if everybody just does their little bit,
makes themselves heard, it has some effect. I think a lot of people are terrified to say
anything. I think a lot of people oppose what’s going on, far more than one thinks. Most of
the television shows are so pro-government, there’s very little articulated criticism.
iW: To what extent do you think documentary film can be a vehicle for social change?
Broomfield: I think it always has been. I think it’s always been able to provide an
in-depth look at those things that newspapers or the rest of the media can’t really do because
of space problems or whatever. I think you look to documentary films to explain how, the why,
to provide some understanding of the background of things. How they come about, what caused them,
to make connections between things that might be seemingly disparate but which are all joined
together. I think that’s why there’s such an interest in documentary film, because people are
searching for answers in this very confused political climate that we’re living in.
iW: You have a very distinctive style — within a few moments of watching one of your
films, it’s immediately apparent that it’s a Nick Broomfield film. How did that style come about?
Broomfield: When I was at film school, I started off being very influenced by the films of
Fred Wiseman, those kinds of more traditional, cinema verite, observational films. Then I also
read a lot of New Journalism stuff, I was quite influenced by people like Tom Wolfe. I think
with certain subjects you’re limited using a traditional interview or access-driven approach. Because
that presupposes you’ve got cooperation or access to your subjects. And often a lot of the most
interesting subjects are off limits, because people don’t want to talk. I needed to devise a style
that would enable me to look at those subjects. Obviously, something like “Kurt & Courtney,”
you couldn’t do it if you were dependent on access or cooperation. There wasn’t any. And so in a
sense, you get a subject to define itself by omission, more than by cooperation. That’s probably
how it came about.
iW: Many of your films are about process. You pay people to talk to you, and then show
the transaction, like with Darryl Gates, the L.A. police chief in “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.”
Broomfield: I think people reveal themselves through process. I think it’s just moving
back the curtain, isn’t it? It’s a bit like those snatched things that politicians say into the
microphone when they think the microphone’s off, that are generally a lot more revealing than
what they go on to say for the next two hours. It’s an attempt to get that feeling. It’s an
attempt to get the inappropriateness of paying a police chief money for an interview. You know,
he threatened to sue me for that afterwards. I said, “What are you talking about? Are you joking?
What are you going to sue me for? Are you saying it didn’t happen? What you’re really saying is
it’s inappropriate of you to have taken the money, and I agree.” And that’s why it’s in the film.
iW: It seems like you get in trouble a lot.
Broomfield: I suppose so, because I tend to have fairly little respect for rules,
because I think sometimes it’s by challenging the rules that you get a real portrait of that
institution or that place. It forces somebody or something to define itself when it’s challenged.
So I think inevitably there’s quite a lot of challenging that goes on in the making of a film.
People define themselves by their rules, don’t they? All the funny little things. Particularly
iW: Do you think there’s ever a danger that you as the first person subject will
overtake the putative subject of the film? Do you ever wrestle with that?
Broomfield: I think whether it’s me making a film, or Errol Morris making a
film, it’s our relationships and who we are that basically produces the film that’s being made.
In my films, it’s just more stated. But it’s the inherent component that makes everything the
way it is. I would say that his films or other people’s films have just as distinctive a stamp
about them. It’s their films, it’s their statements, it’s their style, it’s their way of
relating to the people. But I think in a film like “Aileen Wuornos,” it’s Aileen that you
remember at the end of the film. As much as I would like to think that I’m the most charming
and beguiling person, it’s her story, it’s her execution, it’s her mind that you’re left with.