Nick Broomfield's documentaries are characterized by fearlessness, social satire, dark humor, boundless chutzpah, and unforgettably creepy characters living in the margins of society. But mostly, they're distinguished by Broomfield's deadpan voice, faux-naïve persona, and ubiquitous microphone. The British director has been making documentaries for 30 years, but he's best known in the U.S. for a series of films exploring often-tawdry subject matter in ways that push the filmmaking process to the forefront. Typical of Broomfield's approach, 1992's Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer takes a bleakly funny look at the parasitic characters attached to the case of recently executed convict Aileen Wuornos, a luckless prostitute widely considered America's first female serial killer (and the subject of the feature film Monster, which stars Charlize Theron as Wuornos). Broomfield's sequel to Selling Of A Serial Killer, Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, was released late in 2003, and between those two films, Broomfield explored subjects including former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (Tracking Down Maggie), bondage and domination (Fetishes), notorious madam-to-the-stars Heidi Fleiss (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam), the relationship between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love (Kurt & Courtney), and the unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. (2002's Biggie & Tupac). Broomfield's filmography also includes a poorly received narrative fiction film (1989's Dark Obsession, a.k.a. Diamond Skulls) and the film adaptation of a Spalding Gray one-man show (Monster In A Box). In connection with the release of Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, The Onion A.V. Club spoke with Broomfield about Wuornos, his past subjects, and his unique filmmaking style.
The Onion: You're a presence in your own films more than just about any documentarian this side of Michael Moore. Does that make your films easier to sell, since people know you and your voice and style?
Nick Broomfield: Funnily enough, I wasn't really interested in working in this style at all, until I had a very bad experience making a film with Lily Tomlin in the '80s, about her making her show The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe. It was a very straightforward documentary about her preparing for the show and doing rehearsals, honing down the characters and stuff. A lot of the really interesting stuff that happened, which was in a way more revealing about Lily Tomlin and the experience of making the film, wasn't in the film because we were making it in a very traditional, cinéma vérité sort of way. I always felt quite disappointed with the film. I felt that certain films lend themselves to cinéma vérité or interview form, and other subjects don't. If I hadn't been a witness and it hadn't had so much to do with the old film, it would have been possible to make this Aileen Wuornos film without appearing in it. If you look at a film like Biggie & Tupac or Kurt & Courtney, there really wouldn't have been a film if it wasn't about the making of the film as well, and the way that certain subjects define themselves by the obstacles they put in your way. With Kurt & Courtney, I wouldn't have had anything at all, as there was no cooperation and it was completely off limits. Really, it just depends on the stories you're telling, rather than some overwhelming need to be in the film. I also always loved the work of Ross McElwee, who did Sherman's March. He's somebody who has moved back the perimeters. I suppose it's also like some of those Tom Wolfe stories where he goes off to do an interview, and the process of doing the interview is more revealing than the interview he actually does. The circumstances behind the event are sometimes more revealing than the event itself. For me, that's what documentaries are so brilliant at. That's what, for me, differentiates them from the sort of set-up, stagnant way of making a feature film.
O: How did the second Aileen Wuornos film come about?
NB: I really hadn't intended to do it. I was filming Biggie & Tupac when I was subpoenaed to go [testify in Wuornos' appeal], and while we were in transit from Los Angeles to New York, we had the equipment with us. I think it was really when Aileen Wuornos changed her testimony and said she wanted to die, and maybe hearing some of those childhood witnesses saying stuff I was sort of distantly aware of [regarding Wuornos' sexual abuse and prostitution from a young age]. I hadn't really realized the full extent of the horrors of her childhood. I saw that there was a follow-up film to be made, because it just seemed so extraordinary, and because I had so many unanswered questions, I suppose.
O: What were those questions?
NB: One was that I had always believed that there was something quite honest about Aileen. Out of all the people attached to the case, whether it be the police or her lawyer or her [adoptive] born-again Christian mother, Aileen had always struck me as being somebody who basically always said something true. It always came from a position of speaking the truth. So I was surprised when she completely changed her testimony and said suddenly that she'd been killing everyone in cold blood. Because I was a witness, and because I had gone there hoping to get Aileen off death row, it mattered on a personal level to me what was real and what wasn't. It mattered on a personal level whether I was a witness helping someone who was acting in self-defense, or whether I was representing someone who had really killed in cold blood. Then I just had feelings following on from that, and from Aileen's total obsession with corrupt cops–that cops had somehow enabled her to become a serial killer, and so on–which was just the extent of her insanity. I had the strong feeling that someone who was psychotic, who really couldn't distinguish life-threatening behavior from somebody having a minor disagreement with her, was about to be executed. Following on from that, with Jeb Bush being the governor, the whole philosophy of both him and George W. Bush was a very vengeful view of justice, of what the justice system is about, and a real disregard, I feel, for due process and people's equality before the law. They obviously had a complete disregard for the principle that there's equality before the law.
O: What was it like interviewing Suge Knight in prison for Biggie & Tupac?
NB: I think the anticipation of it was worse than the reality of it. With a lot of filming, you're very anxious, because you never know if you're going to get to the guy. Particularly since he hadn't agreed to the interview, and we were just there on the off chance of finding him. A lot of the skittishness was, "Are we ever going to get this guy?" When I actually met him, I think he was actually more frightened of us than we were of him, which was a surprise. I think that was the reality. This is a guy who normally has bodyguards around him all the time, who's normally totally in control of his environment, and he's suddenly got a film crew in his cell. So he was more shocked than we were at that point. Sometimes I think things are just meant to happen in film, and that was kind of a miracle that did happen.
O: Before you made Biggie & Tupac, did you immerse yourself in the culture at all? Did you think that was important, to sort of know the history of the music?
NB: I was much more aware of Tupac's music, and grew to really like Biggie's music, maybe even more than Tupac's, during the making of the film. The reason I made the film was because it wasn't going to be a hip-hop movie–that it was going to have to do with, in a sense, the politics of Los Angeles, which is a city that I've lived in for a very long time. And I'd always wanted to do something about the LAPD. It came more out of the Ramparts scandal [a large-scale Los Angeles police-corruption investigation], and also living in a city that was completely racially divided. That was, in essence, what the story was about: these two unsolved murders of very high-profile black entertainers that weren't solved because they were regarded as gangsters. That's what pulled me in. It wasn't that I thought I had a great musical insight to make.
O: How do your films generally come about?
NB: I don't know. In a completely haphazard way. The Heidi Fleiss film came about because my son was writing a story for his school about that particular subject, and three months after I'd helped him do some of the research, I thought it might make an interesting story. The original Aileen Wuornos film came about from being offered a series about serial killers which I didn't want to do, and then on the off chance, I called Steve ["Dr. Legal" Glazer, the colorful musician/lawyer who initially represented Wuornos]. He immediately wanted $25,000 for the interview, and I thought, "This is a story about people selling a story." So they often come about more through accidents than anything else.
O: How did Kurt & Courtney happen?
NB: A friend of mine who's in the music business suggested that it was a good time to do something on Kurt Cobain. That there was an interesting relationship between him and Courtney Love that I should get into. That's about as much information as I had. I remember reading an amusing article in High Times.
O: When you started working on the film, did you think the murder theory would be at the center of it, or just their relationship?
NB: I thought it would be about their relationship. In a sense, I thought that Courtney was going to turn out to be another Heidi Fleiss–someone who had been vilified, but who would redeem herself. That's what I imagined when I started the film. Of course, it went in the opposite direction, which was kind of horrific, actually.
O: When something like that happens, do you think, "This might be a setback, but it'll be riveting drama"?
NB: I wish I was thinking as clearly as that. It was more like, "Fuck! This film's going to take ages. My budget's gone. How can I continue to pay everyone at the end of the week?" I just realized that the film was going to go on a lot longer than I had imagined. You know, these films are made on a small budget from the BBC or Channel Four, so I was already extending the shoots enormously. Normally, they assume you'll shoot them in three or four weeks, and Kurt & Courtney took me something like 14 weeks to shoot. So I was worried about that kind of thing, and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was get up on a stage at the ACLU. [Kurt & Courtney depicts Broomfield at a freedom-of-speech awards show, publicly protesting Love's attempt to suppress his film. –ed.]
O: Why do you think Courtney Love made such an enormous effort to keep Kurt & Courtney from being seen?
NB: I think she's used to being in control, and she has no sense of proportion. She has no sense of boundaries, of what she can really do and what she can't do, which obviously she displays time and time again. I was just at the receiving end. She tried to buy the film from the BBC, which had put the money up. She tried everything possible.
O: You've said you're attracted to bullies. Why do you think that is?
NB: I think bullies are funny, because they tend to have no sense of humor about themselves. So whether it's Margaret Thatcher or Courtney Love or all these kind of little monsters, they're funny because they're so caught up in their own self-image, and they have very little awareness of what they throw out.
O: When you film somebody, are they generally familiar with the work you've done up until that point?
NB: It's certainly not the first question I ask them. I'm rather relieved if there's a clean slate and it's just two people talking, rather than there being a lot of preconceptions. There have always been people I interview who've chosen to see a film or two, or people who've chosen to help me in making the film because they've liked something I did before. When I was making Kurt & Courtney, some of the people in Seattle had seen my first Aileen Wuornos film and really liked it, and on the basis of that, they kind of helped me on that film. If you're making a movie about people like Biggie and Tupac, most of the people in that situation don't watch documentaries. It's not part of their thing. It varies, but I wouldn't say it's been a big problem.
O: You stepped away from documentaries briefly to make a movie called Dark Obsession. Were you happy with it?
NB: No, I thought it was a disaster! It was really unfortunate, in that I had great actors and I was making it for a great company, Working Title. I just totally fucked up. I shouldn't have gone on the script. I think as a director, you have to take responsibility for things not going right. It's obviously a different way of working. That was a traditional feature film where a certain number of pages were done in a day, and you worked on a very tight schedule. There was no improvisation. I thought I was going to get around some of the things that I thought didn't quite work in the script by changing things on the set. You can't do that on a low-budget feature, because you don't have the time, and the script is really the bible you work from, and I came from a discipline that was all about spontaneity and capturing the moment. It was just a bad marriage.
O: In Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, Wuornos contradicts herself, and contradicts much of what she said in the first film. Was that frustrating?
NB: I think it's part of having spent 12 years on death row by yourself, 24/7. Probably, you just eat your entrails up, for a start. I think conditions on death row were so bad and so inhuman that all she could think of was a way to end it. I think that by volunteering to die, she was able to achieve that. She was just so determined to die that it was only when she thought we weren't filming that she said again, "I did it in self-defense," which I think is what she really thought. Even on the last interview, she says, "You know, I don't think that I did anything wrong. I was helping to clean the streets." I think she believed that these were bad guys. She never showed any remorse, so I think it was more sort of an expedient thing, saying those things. Can you imagine what it would be like being on death row all that time, and not really talking to anyone? She wrote that 22-page letter naming guards and incidents that had happened to her on death row, and I'm sure there's a basis of truth in that.
O: It's kind of ironic that Aileen Wuornos' life is now the basis of a big, star-making performance for a glamorous movie star.
NB: I think Charlize has had problems in her life, too. Hopefully, her film and my film will have some influence in getting people to look behind the "man-hating lesbian serial killer" label which was on Aileen, and actually look for a deeper understanding. I think the Jeb Bush/George Bush line is, "She's pure evil. She should be executed." Hopefully, the films will cause people to think: "Maybe there's some need to understand what made this person." What were the circumstances? What situations in her upbringing could have been changed, or should be changed? Or is there some kind of responsibility for her immediate surroundings that society should accept? Like, why was there no supervision from the schools? Why were there no social workers looking into what was clearly a lot of incest and abuse in the family? And so on.
O: One of the most striking scenes in the new film is when you come back in contact with Steven Glazer, and his first words are, "Fuck you and fuck your documentary." At the same time, you talk about liking him as a person. Is that difficult, liking people but at the same time showing them in what may be an unflattering way?
NB: The way I presented him in the film was accurate, and I don't think that Steve was a bad person. I say it in the film: I don't think he did it to get rich or for money. I think Steve wanted to be an entertainer. I think he's quite a good musician. In a sense, when his musical career didn't really pan out–you know, he backed Leon Redbone, and things like that–he became a lawyer. And I think he liked the publicity and the circus of law in representing Aileen. But I have a problem with that, because I actually trained for law at one point, and it's like being a doctor: You need to do the best thing for your patient. Even if your patient asks to die, you don't inject them and put them out of their misery; you do what you believe is the right thing to do. Although Steve will say that he was just doing what Aileen wanted him to do, it was clear from the psychiatric reports and other stuff that that was just an irresponsible thing to do. I think maybe Steve believes it. That's part of the human thing, isn't it? People convince themselves to believe what is convenient to believe. So it's hard to take a hard line on Steve and condemn the guy. I think these films, more than anything, are about gray areas, and about the weird, different things humanity gets itself into. I hope they're not incredibly judgmental, because life is often a lot more complicated than that. Steve is just one of those contradictory characters. The first film is a lot funnier than the second film, because of the specter of the Bushes. And also, the world was a much different place when I made the first film in 1991: America was in a much more lenient phase than it is now. Now, one has to take a stronger stand than then. The Christian Right is so well-organized.
O: What do you think is a documentarian's responsibility to a subject?
NB: There are a lot of different people in a film, and there are some people whom you might not like, whom you would disagree with, and then there are people whom you have your major relationship with. Probably the most important thing is to not make any kind of representations that are untrue–that you don't make statements that clearly have no basis. The most important thing is to not make false representations, or indicate that you're going to do things that you then don't do.
O: So it's important to be essentially honest?
NB: Essentially honest. Obviously, it's better to give less information. You can't quite give your innermost thoughts on everything, partly because those might change, and you don't really know what your final statement is going to be until you've finished editing the film and have time to go over everything in some detail. But I would say that it needs to be an essentially honest relationship, as well.
O: Do you remain emotionally invested in the people you film after a movie is over?
NB: I'm in touch with people from the very first film I made in 1970. One of the interesting things about making films is that you have quite long relationships with people you otherwise wouldn't know. I value those friendships. I'm very close with people like Heidi, or Biggie's mom, people who organized the rent strike, who were the subject of a film I made while I was in film school, or even people in South Africa when I was filming there. They're also a wonderful source of information on what's happening in worlds very far removed from one's own.