If Derf Backderf hasn’t already attracted a massive cult following with his graphic novel My Friend Dahmer, he is sure to score a big hit with Marc Meyers’ screen adaptation of the source material. A film with all the familiar trappings of Richard Linklater, spliced with the realist edge of Joyce Carols’ semi-fictional account of the cannibal killer zombie, and the socio-political bent of Dennis Cooper make this speculative cinematic biography a genre defying post-modern gallimaufry of pop cultural infamy, lost souls, teen friendships, budding psychopathy and social isolation.
Jeffrey Dahmer murdered, tortured, dismembered and succumbed to cannibalism and necrophilia with 20 African American, Asian and Hispanic boys from the years 1978 to 1990.
“This is the story before that story…”
Meyers coming-of-rage transition from graphic novel to screen expands upon the text with a hyper focus on Dahmer’s family dynamic and his descent into mutilating small animals and building a shrine to their bones. A trio of friends in high school indoctrinate Dahmer into a fan club wherein he’d fake seizures and drink alcohol excessively while plotting to kill a jogger. Ross Lynch as Dahmer disturbingly conveys the teenager’s loneliness and isolation which begs the question: could Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes have been prevented?
Below we discuss Jeffrey as a young man, whether he could have been stopped had there been an intervention, staying in the killer’s childhood home and why it was important not to offer viewers a sensationally rendered characterization.
Alan Kelly: What was your primary motivation in adapting Derf Backderf’s graphic novel of the same name?
Marc Meyers: It’s a great, singular story. And it holds some very relevant themes. I initially was focused on the idea of doing a film that was a portrait of a serial killer as a young man, and imagined it as a fictional story inspired by things we know about some of these infamous figures. But then I came upon this book, and it was a true story. Author Derf Backderf knew Jeffrey Dahmer from elementary to high school, but it was over a decade after graduation when news broke that he was arrested and confessed to murdering seventeen young men, plus acts of cannibalism, necrophilia, and other ghastly proclivities. And thus, Derf’s whole high school experience and fair weather friendship with Jeff Dahmer in high school took on a whole new meaning. His graphic novel is an amazing piece of non-fiction. And his unique, firsthand account of their friendship and Jeff’s behaviour in high school is robust with so many emotions and relevant issues … that once I discovered the book, I became immediately devoted to making it a movie. The story raises so many important ideas about how we treat our teenagers, how we tend to look the other way when there’s a troubled kid, how we sometimes push them away, or let them slip through the cracks; and all this unfortunately risks that a troubled, disturbed teenager will go on to do harm to himself and other people.
I was also excited to create a film that is completely set in the late-seventies, knowing that our modern perspective looking back at this character, before he became an infamous serial killer, would place the viewers in a unique headspace. And I was eager to create a film that dabbled with genre. Ultimately, it’s a horrifying coming-of-age story. And about a real person. And all of that was something together I had never seen before as a movie.
AK: What was the most difficult part of the transition from graphic novel to screen for you?
MM: It was actually easy in many ways because the source material is so rich with detail and wisdom. But the most difficult part was figuring out how to simply dramatize all the details into one cohesive story, and deciding what parts of the book had to be left out of the film simply because you can’t include everything. Also, the book is separated into chapters and chronicles a wider span of time, starting with some anecdotes from Jeff Dahmer in junior high school. Figuring out a way to meld all the critical parts of the book into a story that spans slightly longer than one school year was critical. In developing the script, we also knew we needed to balance the school life with Jeff’s home life, and further develop story points and ideas mentioned in the book as relates to the family. Another element was further building on the intensifying sense of Dahmer’s sanity slipping away and using that for key moments of suspense in the film.
AK: Serial killers are reliable staples in true crime and predominantly genre-centric media (i.e., horror, TV shows, Lifetime movies). You’ve sidestepped depicting Dahmer as a monstrous pop cultural archetype. That must have been hard work…
MM: Going in I was well aware like everyone else that he’s an infamous, monstrous figure known in pop culture, for sure. But that actually made it easy to just set that mainly aside and focus on all the details that were far less known about Jeffrey Dahmer from his childhood. It’s the story before “that” story we all know. Thinking of him as the misunderstood, troubled, lonely teenager was the honest way to look at this ‘origin’ story. As the one entrusted with Derf’s book, the one thing my producing partner and I were very dedicated to doing was – to not exploit Dahmer, or forget the real victims and their families affected by this person. There’s an obvious knee-jerk allure to take Dahmer and use him as a vehicle for a high school horror film filled with jump-scares and other horror tropes. But that’s not the real story.
AK: Did you interview (Derf obviously) people/family who knew Jeffrey Dahmer, and did you learn anything that genuinely surprised you about him?
MM: Actually, after I wrote my first draft, I stayed with Derf at his house in Cleveland for several days. He took me south to where he and his friends grew up in Bath & Richfield, Ohio, which is a very bucolic suburb of Akron. And that was genuinely important – to just see firsthand how everyday and familiar Jeffrey’s childhood would appear, at least from the outside. What’s most striking is how beautiful and serene it was. And to consider all the torment and evil that came from one person who started their life in such a peaceful setting. During that visit, I recorded the whole trip on audio & handheld video cameras. Derf essentially gave me a tour of the book, panel by panel, showing me all the real places that he wrote about & illustrated.
We walked through his high school, peeked in classrooms and stopped by the cafeteria and the actual table near the window where he and his buddies would sit everyday for lunch. We wandered through the woods, took me to other local landmarks like Whitey’s – a burger joint – and I met with another childhood friend of Dahmer. They reminisced about those days in high school. What was reinforced by all those conversations was just how none of them as teenagers would have ever anticipated Jeff’s future evil path. There were odder and more threatening kids roaming the high school hallways. They recalled all the teenage antics that included Jeff, but it all felt like innocent hijinks to them, at the time.
And, ultimately, we also visited Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home. We walked around the entire property. This gave me a whole lay of the land. You could see how Jeff and his brother shared a small bedroom, how their parents slept in a master bedroom just a few feet away. It’s striking how crammed together they were in two adjacent bedrooms, and to imagine the kind of torment that Jeff might’ve been going through as a disturbed teenager and how his family might’ve missed all those signs at the same time is very striking.
Walking on the ground, we also discovered the actual location where Jeff’s original shed once stood – and almost four decades later the decayed roof was still there under a pile of fallen branches. Before that visit Derf himself had always thought the shed was tucked deeper into the woods, but right then we both could better understand how he could hang around his shed and just a few strides away could conveniently hide among the bushes to watch that neighborhood jogger routinely run past his home. And actually, for the film, we rebuilt Jeff’s shed on that same spot.
The whole visit just gave me a great, very specific understanding of how Jeff lived. I could imagine what it was like for him to walk around his home, and that just helped me plan out the rewrites and vision of the film with very specific details.
AK: A large chunk of the film was shot in Dahmer’s home. Was it eerie?
MM: Not really. Not for me. Maybe for some of the crew and cast on the first visit, but I had been to the home several times during pre-production. It’s also a beautiful piece of property. It’s quite serene.
Surely, during production, there may have been moments when Ross Lynch was walking around the property at night in costume between set ups and you could easily imagine the real person in the same spot — that might’ve given some of the crew some chills, but also the location became a work environment. Some crew members did tell me that when we were wrapping out the house, they thought they saw the real Dahmer ghost on the property. And there was an episode when the power went out. But this might all be crew members playing tricks in their heads.
More importantly, by shooting on the actual spot, it gave all of us a deeper sense of purpose. We felt like we were going after something honest, and there’s nothing more honest than filming at the actual home.
AK: With an historical basis for Dahmer’s crimes and it being only relatively recent history, didn’t you worry there could be a backlash?
MM: We anticipated some knee-jerk backlash. But that’s not a reason to stop me from telling this story. No part of our film deals with the victims and sensationalizes his crimes. It’s the story before ‘that’ story. And like the book, my interest was solely in the making of the monster. So the backlash I’ve come to accept — in part because it doesn’t consider the value to help understand where evil comes from. He didn’t grow up in a cave. Or in a violent or depressed place. He had friends and rode a school bus to school. On the surface, he reminds any of us of someone strange we knew growing up. That’s fascinating. That goes beyond labels. And Derf already blazed a path with his best selling book, and entrusted me with the material because he knew my producing partner Jody Girgenti and I wouldn’t exploit the Dahmer name to make a blatant horror film. I believe anyone should be able to tell a story about anything. I love the ones that lead me to look at the world around me or some moment in history in a new way.
I felt I was making a movie that is about one teenager slipping through the cracks and how he was simultaneously developing a deep fear of abandonment. And because of this… he’ll gone on as an adult to do horrible things to prevent his loneliness & isolation. I’m not a criminologist or a psychologist, but as a storyteller I understand that Jeff killed in part to keep these victims from leaving. Just to add — Jeff Dahmer was a human being too, he grew up in Ohio, he tried to hold onto his sanity but couldn’t. To look directly at this struggle (and to place him right in the center of the frame too) is to look at ourselves. How we in our community sometimes look away or discard those who need help. No part of my film excuses or blames the family or friends or others. It goes to show the environment Jeff was growing up in, and how his own family unknowingly abandoned him too. Nature v nurture is definitely an important dialogue here, especially given the depth of Jeffrey Dahmer’s depravity.
AK: How many auditions did you see before Ross Lynch was offered the role?
MM: Basically, two auditions. Beforehand, he and I had an initial meeting in New York. Then, he couldn’t make the standard, scheduled auditions in New York or Los Angeles, so he sent in a taped audition. He was on the road with his band R5 at the time. He did the same audition sides as everyone else. He was already on the top of my list, but I still wanted to work with him in person to feel out our potential collaboration. When he came back through New York with R5, the morning after their concert we met at a rehearsal space to mess around with the script. We chose a few new scenes to play around with. I like to see how versatile and fluid an actor can be. I also asked him to just be Jeff Dahmer alone for about five minutes, so I could watch Ross just be him. And I tossed out various dark thoughts and actions, and he went there. After that, my producing partners Jody Girgenti and Adam Goldworm, our casting director Stephanie Holbrook, and I were all in — it was all about trying to figure out how our production schedule and his could line up.
AK: Any other infamous characters you’d like to tackle in future projects?
MM: Yes, there are a few infamous characters I’m interested in. I really, really loved working with an actor who is inhabiting the psyche of an outlier. I found it to be a thrilling place to work creatively. But I can’t say who, just yet. Likewise, there’s an inspiring tale about an ordinary guy who accomplishes something extraordinary… so I’m not only looking into the darkness.
Jeff Dahmer (Disney Channel’s Ross Lynch) is an awkward teenager struggling to make it through high school with a family life in ruins. He collects roadkill, fixates on a neighborhood jogger (Vincent Kartheiser, “Mad Men”), and copes with his unstable mother (Anne Heche) and well-intentioned father (Dallas Roberts). He begins to act out at school, and his goofball antics win over a group of band-nerds who form The Dahmer Fan Club, headed by Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff, “Patriots Day”). But this camaraderie can’t mask his growing depravity. Approaching graduation, Jeff spirals further out of control, inching ever closer to madness.