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Joan Churchill, Documentary Filmmaker
Joan Churchill
Documentary Filmmaker
Joan Churchill has been a documentary filmmaker for four decades. Her latest documentary Aileen: Life and Death Of A Serial Killer is the story of Aileen Wournos, who the movie "Monster" is based on. Her career has crossed over to television success with docs such as Lily Tomlin. Joan is one of the most the most personable filmmakers that I have interviewed since the start of this website. I would like to thank her for taking the time to answer my questions on a laid back Memorial Day.
-Jayson Floyd
Q & A with Joan Churchill
Film Addiction:As a filmmaker on Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial  Killer", how much interaction did you have with Aileen?

Joan Churchill:We met Aileen Wuornos three times to interview her.  The first time we were in Ocala, Florida, for her final appeal.  She had been transferred to the local jail to attend the trial and the sheriff gave us permission to speak with her for as long as we required.  There were two guards in the room with us.  In this interview she told us that she had been lying in her original testimony and that she had killed in cold blood and that she wanted to die. 

 During this time in Ocala, we spent each day in the courtroom with her and there was much interaction, although as the film shows, no touching.

Nick Broomfield, when he was finished with his testimony, tried to shake hands with her, and was prevented.  He was there to testify as to the incompetence of Aileens initial trial lawyer, Dr. Legal, and a scene from Nicks earlier film about Aileen (Aileen: the Selling of a Serial Killer 1992) was shown in the courtroom.  It showed Aileens lawyer smoking a joint as he drove to see her in prison the seven joint ride it was called.  (It was a long journey).  Aileen was amused to see the clip as she had never been able to see the film.

 We then received permission from Broward Prison (?) to shoot another interview with her.   For this interview, we were alone with Aileen and given an hour to speak with her.  It was in this interview, when she thought that the camera wasnt rolling, that she admitted that she had not killed in cold blood, but that it was in self defense, but that since she couldnt tolerate doing life inside prison she had decided she wanted to die.

 The third interview took place the day before her execution.  She was allowed one final interview and she requested that it be us, a request we couldnt refuse.  We felt she would want, finally, to tell the truth about what did happen.  We were wrong.  It was in this final interview that it became clear that the state of Florida was executing a woman who was insane. 


FA: Will "Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer" be included in the "Monster" DVD when it is released? If not, is it slated for its own release?

JC:The home video/DVD release will be a double release with both documentaries packaged together:  Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer & Aileen: the Selling of a Serial Killer.


FA:Do you shoot strictly Docs? What do you like about filming documentary films?

JC:I only shoot documentaries or films &/or commercials that are meant to look like documentaries.  I have no desire to shoot dramatic films.  In fact, every time I walk on a set, I get bored.  There is nothing like the magic of capturing a reality over which I have no control, and somehow recreating that reality for an audience so that they experience more or less the same thing I do while following a subject. 


FA: How much research do you put into a doc. or are you more concerned with the filming process?

JC:Research is an important part of the process.  It enables one to figure out what the film will be about an important step in raising money to make the film and also it allows the people involved to become familiar with the filmmaker which makes for a better film in the end.  If you know your subjects & they know you, you can make that work for you in many ways.

  In the case of this film, however, we had no time to do anything.  It was a film that came calling, as it were.  We were in the middle of shooting another film, Biggie & Tupac, when early one morning Nick was served with a supoena to appear in Florida.  Since we were in shooting mode & got permission from the judge to shoot in his courtroom, we just started.  It was the testimony of some of her friends revealing unspeakable abuse in Aileens youth that compelled us to continue with the filming and look into her past.

  In response to your question about being concerned with the filming process:  I try very hard to minimize the technical aspects of shooting.  I am there as a person first.  I try to make the camera seem incidental to the process.  I never light or ask people to do things for the camera because I missed something.  All that makes nonactors quite self conscious.  I try to become part of the subculture that I am shooting.

FA:As a cinematographer, do you prescribe to any type of style to capture an image? Are there techniques that you have used throughout your career?
JC: I act as a person first and foremost, not as a technician. I try to minimize the technical aspect of shooting. It makes the subjects more at ease. I have the camera with me if we are shooting or not.
FA: How has technology advanced the documentary filmmaking?
JC: Mini DV has revolutionized the field by making the subjects feel more at ease, without having a lot of film equipment around.
FA: Do you have a subject or project in mind and research it or do you let the story unfold throughout the filming?
JC: It depends. On "Aileen" the whole scenerio was already set up. Nick Bloomfield had already completed one documentary on Aileen and the most recent one was her in court. Nick got a subpeona to appear in court and he asked the judge if he could bring cameras into the court room. To his suprise the judge let him capture the court events on camera.
Lily Tomlin, for example, took months of research before the shoot began.
FA: How did you come about having Lily Tomlin as a subject?
JC: I met her at an 85th birthday party for artist Beatrice Wood. The theme for the Da-da and Lily came dressed as Dahlia Pardon. She was the keynote speaker at the party. She was so funny that I knew she would make a great subject. I got hold of her through her doctor, which we share. At first, she was not interested at all. Then, she allowed me to go on shows with her all around the country. Eventually it got to the point that I had been with her so long it was hard for her to turn me down.
FA:What is your latest project?
JC: Ugh, I can't tell you.
FA:  Just give us a hint?
JC: OK, it is a spoof on reality TV. Oh, it has a really big star in it!
FA: Good enough
FA: Are you shooting this one with Nick Broomfield?
JC: No, my husband and I are doing this project toghether. I will keep you informed.
FA: Fair enough.
*Portions of this interview were paraphrased from a phone conversation in May, 2004.