By PETER CALDER



It has been a big year for director Patty Jenkins. A big three years, come to think of it. Look at it this way: in late 2001, the Kansas native and former arts school student who had just graduated from the prestigious American Film Institute's directors programme, made a couple of well-regarded short films, Just Drive and Velocity Rules (the latter earned her a special production grant from Warner Bros).



Fast forward - just a little, mind - to this month. Jenkins' first feature film, Monster, has racked up $53 million in box office receipts against a budget of $7 million - and it's been released only in the US, Spain and Mexico. Its star, Charlize Theron, a South African who beefed up by 12kg and had her features rendered unrecognisable by the most astonishing makeup job since John Hurt in The Elephant Man, has picked up the Oscar and Golden Globe for best actress, along with a dozen other acting awards including one bestowed by her peers in the Screen Actors Guild. Influential critic Roger Ebert hailed Theron's work as "one of the great performances in the history of film".



Just last month Jenkins sat as an equal on a jury at the Santa Barbara Film Festival alongside heavyweight peers Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain) and Jim Sheridan (In America). It's enough to put you in mind of Dorothy's great line to her little dog Toto in The Wizard of Oz: "I don't think we're in Kansas any more."

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It is one hell of a debut for the thirtysomething film-maker, particularly since the subject matter is as dark and downbeat as may be imagined: it's the story of Aileen Wuornos, who robbed and killed seven men she had flagged down while trawling for tricks on the Florida freeways.



"It's been wilder than anything I ever could have guessed," says Jenkins, on the phone from Hollywood. "I was expecting something much less - a smaller cast, smaller budget, certainly smaller impact. I never expected a movie about a subject so dark to be such a success. The whole thing has been a very big surprise."



The road to this point has been anything but straight. Jenkins says investors initially lined up to finance the project about a woman the tabloid newspapers had dubbed "America's first female serial killer".



"They saw it as a movie about a lesbian serial killer, and then when they heard Charlize was going to be in it they thought it was going be a hot lesbian film. They were interested, but always for the wrong reasons. But getting finance to make it as the kind of movie we wanted to make was very, very difficult. People never understood why that would be successful.



"I guess I didn't expect it to be as successful as it has been but I just knew that what I wanted to make had more potential than a small film for an overseas video market."



Wuornos' story had already been committed to film. The prolific British documentary maker Nick Broomfield made two movies about the case: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, in 1992, which focused on the attempts of her lawyer, her mother and the police to sell her story to the highest bidder; and, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which will screen in next month's Showcase mini-festivals, delves deeper into her abusive childhood and tracks her up to her 2002 execution by lethal injection.



The film Jenkins wrote and directed is plainly dramatic rather than documentary, but she makes the point that it is not a fanciful piece of work.



"A lot of people who have seen stuff in this film that they didn't know about have assumed we changed stuff. But we [she resorts to the plural pronoun throughout to underline the fact that she regards the finished film as a collaboration with Theron] had access to more information than anyone in history about Aileen's case. Just before she was executed, Aileen gave us around 7000 of her personal letters - including all the letters between her and her girlfriend. Charlize and I were the first to read all those."

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Jenkins did change the names of the victims and of Wuornos' lesbian lover, Tyria (sometimes Tyra) Moore, who becomes Selby Wall in the movie and, unlike Theron's Aileen, bears little physical resemblance to her real-life counterpart. She says she did so deliberately because Moore and the victim's families are still alive. But the decision was driven less by sensitivity than by the stringent legal process she had to follow.



"To get the film made I had to prove - to a panel of lawyers whose job is to stop you getting insurance - that every single conversation Aileen and Selby had about anything to do with their murders and everything that happened between them came straight out of their own depositions.



"If a film is based on a true story and you don't use anyone's name, you can do what you like. But we were using Wuornos' name and the real events and that exposes you to the risk of lawsuits."



Although she corresponded with Aileen for six months, Jenkins never met her. She was meant to visit in October 2002, when Texas Governor Jeb (brother of George W.) Bush, on the eve of a state election, suddenly signed the prisoner's death warrant and "it didn't feel appropriate at that time for me to rush down and see her".



Neither did she meet with any of the victims' families, although they have sharply criticised her failure to do so.



"I thought long and hard about that. They were upset, but I really looked into my heart and I don't think it would have been appropriate.



"The main issue that most of them wanted to put forward was that they 'knew' that their husbands or loved ones weren't johns. The truth is all but one of them were found with their clothing off and rubbers on and it's just uncomfortable territory. I understand that they feel better believing what they believe, and that's not my business."



She is sensitive, too, to the suggestion that the film fails to distance itself from - even glorifies - the deeds of its subject.



"I think that people who think it's too sympathetic towards her should read about her life. And it's interesting that no one says that about Bonnie and Clyde, or [Travis Bickle, the character in Martin Scorsese's] Taxi Driver. People are okay when it's a man, but they are extremely uncomfortable about feeling sympathy towards a woman when she does these sorts of things.



"I think a lot of people assumed that, if it wasn't going to be a slasher movie, it was going to be extremely sympathetic in a feminist-rage sort of way. But it was plain to me that this was a sad, bad human being who had lived a horrific life.



"I was never in any doubt that she had killed those people - at least some of them in cold blood. The challenge of the film is that I don't deny anything. That's why the film has the ironic title that it does. You call her a monster? You're right. Everything you think about her is true. Now, here's the other information. There's your monster. That's what your monster is."


On Screen



* Who: Patty Jenkins, director of Monster



* When and where: Opens today, Village SkyCity, Rialto, Bridgeway