“All the doors that could have helped him were shut in his face and all the doors to darkness were left wide open” - Director Marc Meyers talks about putting serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer on screen
The story of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has been put on screen a number of times before. There’s been a quickly produced TV film, an in-depth documentary and a full biopic starring a young Jeremy Renner, but none of them has the depth or insight of new take My Friend Dahmer.
The movie is an adaptation of John Backderf’s graphic novel of the same name. Backderf, better known simply as Derf, was a school friend of Dahmer’s who put down his memories of him in high school into the novel. The novel showed a different Dahmer, a troubled, but occasionally charismatic young man, not simply the skulking psychopath and tabloid monster.
The novel traces Dahmer’s high school days, his troubled relationship with his parents, his fascination with killing animals and the origins of his crimes, showing you the formation of the man who would go on to commit the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 men and boys from 1978 to 1991 before his eventual conviction in 1992.
Rising star Ross Lynch, best known for his role as Austin Moon on the Disney Channel’ hit series Austin & Ally, plays Dahmer, with Anne Heche, Vincent Kartheiser and Alex Wolff co-starring, working to a script and direction from Marc Meyers.
As the film comes to DVD shelves (it's out on Monday 30th July), we spoke to Meyers about why he took on this project and how telling Dahmer’s story came to change his view of the killer...
How did you first get involved in the project?
“After I finished my last movie, I remarked to my producing partner that I’d like to do a movie about a serial killer as a young boy, I wanted to use James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a kind of template. At the same time, we were both keen to look towards graphic novels for source material, not your fantasy graphic novels, but the more naturalistic novels, the ones set in our everyday worlds. Those stories are often quite subversive and work well in film. Then I was given an advance copy of My Friend Dahmer.”
Those two things came together...
“It wasn’t on the shelves yet and I read it that day. It was perfect synergy, these two things that were on our minds. I reached out to the author straight away and we got the option within a couple of weeks and started developing the screenplay. I’m not an expert on serial killers or true crime, not by any means, but I knew this story was above and beyond the ideas that had brought me here, it was anchored by a real person.”
How did you go about adapting the graphic novel? Were you keen to be faithful?
“I started out being very, very faithful, especially in the first draft, but as things went I did change a few things. I condensed the timeline of the book, there are a lot of episodes throughout their high school years and I wanted to put it over more than one school year. I also wanted to look deeper in the home life, to try and bring up the nature vs nurture concept that’s explored in the film and to refocus the perspective of the film. I didn’t any voiceover from the author, I wanted to focus on Jeffrey Dahmer.”
Where did you find Ross Lynch? Getting your Jeffrey Dahmer must have been a long process...
“The script ended up getting on the blacklist, which won me quite a lot of attention and a lot of meetings with young actors. From those meetings, I had a list of a handful of guys, but when I met Ross, I just thought he was so interesting. He was ending his spell on the Disney Channel and he was looking for something different. He’s a dancer and a performer and I knew he could inhabit the posture and the persona of the real Dahmer. We had a couple of hours in rehearsal together, I knew then he was right for the role. Even then though, I had no idea who much he looked like Dahmer, when he got into the costume, it was ‘Just wow!’, he looked so much like him.”
What about Alex Wolff? That’s a strange role because he’s playing the book’s author as a young man…
“Alex came in to audition and I immediately locked onto him. He makes every scene really interesting and I knew he had to be part of the film. He was the perfect choice for Derf. It’s weird, I didn’t know any of these guys beforehand, but they were the ones I responded to.”
How involved in the production was Derf?
“The best thing I got from Derf, aside from the book, was he invited me to stay with him in Cleveland and he took me to Akron, where he grew up. He showed me his high school, the woods they hung out in and he took me to Dahmer’s childhood home. He gave me a tour of the pages of his book and a much deeper insight. That gave me a lot of detail for my rewrite and it hugely informed how the film went forward.”
Was he on set at all?
“He knew that it wasn’t his artform and he trusted me. During filming, he came to visit set and he ended up hanging around for a week, just enjoying the recreation of his childhood. Actually, the real Mike and the real Neil (Dahmer's high school friends) came and hung out too. They ended up being extras at the prom scene.”
You shot the film in Ohio, very close to where the events really happened...
“I was steadfast about filming at the Dahmer childhood home, that’s in a suburb of Akron and because we were determined to use that, it made sense to shoot the movie in the surrounding area. I chased all the real locations, we found a local high school that strongly resemble where he went and that’s Dahmer’s home up on screen.”
How were the local residents about that?
“You have to remember this is history. Our story happens in the 70’s and he wasn’t on trial until the 90’s. What ended up happening was we got a huge amount of support from the community. People donated their collector vehicles from the 70s to be used as cars in the movie, some of the extras who are in the high school, their parents had gone to school with Jeffrey Dahmer, they knew his story really well, what a tragic tale it was and appreciated us telling the story in this way. We didn’t get a backlash, it was the opposite. The girls also loved that Ross Lynch was there too…”
Has your opinion of Jeffrey Dahmer changed over the course of making this film?
“Before the book, I had the same opinion of him as everybody else, the monster, the Milwaukee cannibal. I knew the crimes in basic broad strokes. But the book is a very unique window into his childhood, only this author could tell that story. It makes you think, how does a troubled kid with nowhere to turn and no-one to talk to, slip through the cracks. How did his friends, teachers, parents, how did they all miss the fact he was wired wrong?"
"It’s a cautionary tale about what can happen to a troubled kid. All the doors that could have helped him were shut in his face and all the doors to darkness were left wide open. I hope people see other troubled kids on the news, even the ones who do heinous things, and see that they aren’t just monsters and how you can prevent all this harm…”