Interview with director Marc Meyers for his biographical drama about the teenage years of American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The film is based on the 2012 graphic novel by cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf, who had been friends with Dahmer in high school in the 1970s, before Dahmer began his killing spree.
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Congratulations on My Friend Dahmer, it’s an incredible film. Why did you want to tell this story?
Thank you. Well, the whole journey of the film happened organically. After a previous film that I had made, I had come to this idea with my previous partner that a movie that is a portrait of a serial killer as a young boy would be an interesting concept for a film. How someone learns that they become a serial killer. I actually thought I was going to take the structure of a tortured young artist, young man, like Joyce, as a model on the structure and the timeline. That was the idea. Then I was simultaneously looking for graphic novels as source material because the storytelling there is so subversive that it would take me out of my own habit. Then a publisher gave me an advance copy of My Friend Dahmer and it was the synergy or this concept that I had lain out there but now it was a true story. And I had a graphic novel also. So I passionately pursued the author and explained how I was the right person to adapt this into a film, and that journey started in 2012. So it was almost like I put out into the universe suggestions of what I thought might be a good idea for a film and got that, a book, better than I could have ever imagined. From there, it was adapting the source material that was based on a real character.
What was the process to finding your Jeffrey Dahmer? I imagine it was quite daunting.
It was. I mean, I was fortunate enough that screenplay landed on the Blacklist in Hollywood, which is an annual survey at the end of each year of executive’s lists of their favourite screenplays that haven’t yet gone into production. Once that happened, the script was circulating and it got on the list in 2014, then a whole swarm of young actors came forward reading the script and their agents were setting up meetings with me. So in advance of doing the traditional auditions, I’d already met over the course of that previous year well over a hundred young actors. Now many of them, I was meeting them and knowing in advance they had no likeness, physical likeness to Jeffrey Dahmer but I met with them thinking they could very well be some of the other friends in the film. But in the process, there was a handful where there was a possibility, with some glasses and some wardrobe, that I could pull off Jeffrey Dahmer. But then fortunately in my search and all of my meetings, I was introduced to Ross Lynch who was just ending his contract with Disney after doing two movies and being the star of Austin & Ally and he had an uncanny physical likeness to Jeff Dahmer – which became even more so when we put him in wardrobe, put the glasses on him, and styled his hair for the seventies. I also knew that he couldn’t make the original audition as he was busy with his band R5 at the time and so he did a taping of the audition and it was clear to me that my hunch was right. I watched his series and shows and I feel that – even though the subject matter is very different – that there’s something very talented and spontaneous about him. He’s also originally a dancer so I knew that he could get the 0four55sort of rhythm in the walk and get the physicality and the posture. I just felt that he had the body, he had the talent: put him in the lead role. Then there are other people that I’d met but I always sort of locked on to Ross, that wonderful guy. Really considerate, hard worker, and it all worked out! There was a session when he came back from New York just to sort of lock it all in, where we spent about two or three hours in a rehearsal space on a weekend, with a camera on just to record it, and I got to mess around with some of the scenes with him. I could really see how versatile he was as a performer and how he embodied the guy and there we have it! So we went off and made the movie with him.
Also, I learned that this was actually filmed in Bath, Ohio – Dahmer’s actual hometown so what did that add to the filming process for yourself and for the actors?
Well, since the house really exists and I’d gone there to do some research while it was still being written. I had always been steadfast that we were going to shoot in Ohio and use the real Dahmer’s house at home. I thought that not only would it give extra authenticity and extra purpose, it would also help the cast and the crew really feel that there was some meaning in telling the character’s story this troubled teenager, so there was a grounding. I also feel that for any of us our childhood home has a certain power and meaning in who we end up becoming. We sort of feel like we formed into the person – in part, I feel like where I grew up had something to do with it. And so I figured the same would hold true for him. It’s also striking since it still stands there how lovely it is as a piece of property. It’s tucked in the woods, he’s in nature, it’s a quiet place, so that is a stark contrast to what we might think of him as a pure monster. So all of those elements together felt like, it had to be.
Did you ever have John Backderf on set helping out? You said you worked with him and talked to him for his book, his graphic novel. Was he ever on set to help with particular moments in the film, that he would have particular memories of?
I think it was a very bizarre experience that not only did the book become a bestseller, probably beyond his original estimation, and got all these accolades, but then there was this filmmaker coming in and actually entered production with a film about his teenage year! So he didn’t at first. He lived nearby in Cleveland and we were filming forty-five minutes south in Akron. So after the first week of production, after we had been in town for three or four weeks, prepping with multiple things ahead of time. There was a lot of news that we were there so he eventually made his way out for week two of filming, he came by. And then once he came here he just wanted to hang on on set because everyone was so excited to meet him and wanted him to autograph their book! He must’ve spent five or six days hanging around as we filmed and during production. Then his other childhood friends started to come by too so the original group of friends, so Derf, Neil, and Mike. All of them, the three guys, they were all there too! Just sort of hanging out on set during a couple of days and it just added a certain level of purpose and meaning that we were dealing with some real people that weren’t famous people. With that, there were a couple of times where I might have checked in and been like “Hey, does this look like the mall scene?” and they were just “yeah it’s haunting”. There was actually a moment while we were hanging out at Dahmer’s childhood home filming and he was there sitting between takes and talking to Ross Lynch and he asked Ross to take off the Dahmer glasses because it was too exactly what the real Jeff looked like that it was creeping him out!
Oh wow! There’s such a sense of tension in the film, from the very beginning up until the very end. What was it like once the film was through the editing room and you got to see it on the big screen and all in chronological order? How was that as an experience for yourself to finally get to see it as a whole experience?
By the time it had its world premiere at a film festival, it’s almost like the first time you show it to an audience, an audience that knows “Ok, that’s a murderer”. It’s almost like the paint is still wet and they blow it dry. It’s a sad moment when it finally feels locked and done and in some part of me, I say goodbye to the movie. It’s no longer in my control. But then I still, fortunately, have this wonderful ride of it getting played all over the place. It’s thrilling because it’s the realisation of something that started out with me and my wife as a project, in that I have some faint memories sitting there in my smelly, lay-around-the-house clothes writing the screenplay. And that has risen to this place, which is the experience. Because for filmmaking a lot of it is manual labour. Being on set is a grueling place, standing in the middle of the woods and poison ivy trying to film a scene with a future serial killer is not leisurely work! So it’s enormously gratifying.
During the film, what I found very interesting was that you empathise with Jeffery in the film, and at times, especially towards the end, I started to worry about that because he is a horrifying human being at the end of the day. When did you start to realise that you had to rein it in? That yes he was a person at one point but there was a tipping point and afterward you can’t really root for him. You don’t want this person to become this monster, because I found myself worrying for him as the film went on. Because to me, Jeffery Dahmer is strangely a pop culture reference. I didn’t know much about his story going into this film but afterwards I started researching him. So where was the cut-off point that you didn’t want to make him too relatable so that audiences might see the wrong side to him?
Well, one thing that you just said that I think is important is that I knew that I was going to make a film that left room for the audience to then later do their own deep dive in Wikipedia and the internet on the gruesome crimes and the other aspects that this film isn’t about.
It’s funny you say that because I did that.
Right, and that’s quite common, because taking the lead from the book, the book and the author really only knew Jeff through graduation of high school. That was the only Jeff that he was interested in telling as it was the only Jeff he had first-hand experience of. There’s also a lot of public records, facts through FBI records that are out there after he got caught later in life and confessed, to help piece together the chronology of a couple things, like the finale of the film. But ultimately it’s from Derf’s point of view and his own memory and his friend’s memories piecing together what their high school experience was like with him in the seventies. So knowing that and knowing that the audience is going in with a certain general awareness of who he is as an infamous character, a monster in pop culture history, I could be at peace with telling the untold story of what he was like as a high school kid. With that, we were making a film about a troubled young kid who had let himself become this monster, it was the formation of a monster and it was how the doors that could’ve helped him closed at this stage, and the ones that allowed his dark proclivities to escape, how those doors opened up. How his friends, his family, the community, the teachers all missed the signs and allowed him to slip through the cracks. So, humour, and the relatability of him being an awkward teenager allows us to have some empathy and understanding of who he is. But as I got deeper into the story, both in writing it and also when I had been in the editing room and working on set too, is how his humanity slips away and the monstrous proclivities that are taking him over start to really rule him and how there’s this push and pull of him trying to still grip or hang on to any sense of his old humanity until by the end of the story there’s nothing of Jeff left and all that’s really left is this new man which is Jeffery, who does horrible things and can’t control himself.
Yes, you can definitely see that there is a definite change of character towards the final act of the film. I just have to say, Marc, I was looking up reviews for the film and this one caught my eye and I would love to know your thoughts on it. One fan of the film has described it as the “Napolean Dynamite of cannibalism” and they adored the film. It’s such a fascinating and gripping choice of words to talk about such a film and such a person in the eyes of the population. What would you say about Jeffery Dahmer as the film My Friend Dahmer?
Well, you know, who the character is is one thing. The movie that I thought I was making that included him. I looked at him from a distant, a different point of view. Never in a scene or in a movie am I really planning the end. I’m only at the present tense of ’78. The movie is never really that much smarter than who Jeff is in that moment. It’s not like we’re reminding the audience “Oh look where he’s going…!” because I know that you know where it’s going to go, right? So the movie is a time capsule from ’78. So from my point of view, I try to make what I view to be – and I think this was sort of our acronym! – an Altman-esque, Kubrickian, Charlie Brown, Jonny 17.30 sort of movie.
That is a mouthful! But it still resonates. That’s fantastic.
Right, so it’s a seventies thing with a kind of creepy undertone of what I aspire to have with a Kubrick film, mixed with Wayne, Charlie Brown, Peanuts comics, all of the point of view of the children – it’s not really from the adults’ point of view. It’s like they’re going 1800 and the kids don’t really hear what the adults are saying, mixed with the fact that you relate to all of these people who are understand who they are, which is very John Hughes I suppose on some level. I think that answers your question?
That is wonderful because it is when you said the Peanuts part I just thought Anne Heche’s mother character is saying things that don’t affect anyone. It’s very disturbing.
Anne Heche’s character, Joyce is this very unconventional mother. Joyce is unpredictable and puts everyone else in the family on edge, and likewise the audience. Her character trait that I think is strongest is her unpredictability. You don’t know what kind of mood of a mom you’re going to get.
Words – Graham Day
MY FRIEND DAHMER is at Irish cinemas from June 1st