Formative Years: Marc Meyers' 'My Friend Dahmer' glimpses the serial killer to come

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Years before the world had any dark inkling of a killer they’d call the Milwaukee Cannibal, teenage Jeffrey Dahmer was still just a clever, attractive but socially awkward high-schooler in northern Ohio. He lived with his mother and father and a younger brother. He was loved. And, as depicted in My Friend Dahmer, Marc Meyers’ unnerving feature adaptation of the eponymous graphic novel, by John “Derf” Backderf, Jeff even had friends, or at least a group of school band-mates who dubbed themselves the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club.

An eerily composed portrait, My Friend Dahmer acts as both biography and memoir—of young Dahmer, from the perspective of his former friend and classmate, Derf, responsible for starting the fan club. Through a glimpse of Dahmer at school and at home, of his parents’ fighting and of the adolescent pranking and teasing that might have seemed harmless at the time, the FilmRise release nudges the audience artfully towards the contemplation of a person who, but for different circumstances over two or three pivotal years in his life, might not have become a monster.

Or perhaps he could only become what he was—the deeply troubled son of parents whose marriage disintegrated around him, leaving him finally all alone in his family home with his demons. Hauntingly portrayed by actor-musician Ross Lynch, best known for squeaky-clean Disney fare like Teen Beach Movie and the series “Austin & Ally,” Dahmer is presented at a moment before the point of no return, when his, and implicitly the 17 lives he eventually would take, still bore so many brighter possibilities.

And yet, though the film’s narrative predates serial killer Dahmer, the pervasive mood and gravity pay respect to his victims. Outside of a scene late in the film, Meyers doesn’t extend My Friend Dahmer’s depiction of teenage Jeff far beyond high school. Rather, having brought character and dimension to the impressionable youth introduced at the start, the film trusts the audience to infer Jeff’s future trajectory, and infamy. That knowledge of the horrific acts that the strange but still innocent Jeff we’re watching will one day commit hangs dreadfully over even the most innocuous moments, like a scene of Dahmer sitting alone outside his senior prom, eating a hamburger. Or, the one explicit glimpse of Dahmer’s future in the smile of Steven Hicks, the vibrant young man, randomly encountered, who would become the serial killer’s first victim.

In an interview, the film’s award-winning writer-director-producer Meyers (How He Fell in Love, Harvest) discusses his approach to adapting Derf’s graphic novel, executing the film’s ’70s Midwestern period setting, and casting a Disney star as one of the most notorious murderers the world has ever known.

Film Journal International: Casting Ross, did you see other Disney guys?

Marc Meyers: I met with over a hundred guys. A lot of them you’re meeting because they’re talented actors, or they’re doing really interesting things at that moment in their career, but they don’t look anything like the part, so I’m meeting them anyhow thinking maybe they can be part of the Dahmer Fan Club. Maybe he’s a Derf, maybe he’s a Mike. And in there, there were a bunch that I wondered, “Could I pull off the likeness with this guy?” And I kept meeting a bunch of hopefuls. I am grateful that Ross is everything. He looks the part, he’s enormously talented. Disney makes performers extremely professional. He’s also originally a dancer, so the physicality stuff for him was something that he kind of just understood. He could watch the video of an older Dahmer in those old primetime interviews, and just get the posture that was written about in the book, that then I used in the script. So before every take, he would roll his shoulders forward—

FJI: The walk, too.

MM: The walk, the gait. It was described in the script, but it wasn’t. It was just fantastic that he could fully embody it. So the casting was a blessing. With a lot of research to get there.

FJI: As a filmmaker, this film is a departure for you, for all sorts of reasons. It’s a period piece. It’s not New York. You had to approach it as a period piece. But what about the Midwestern aspect? Where are you from?

MM: Croton, Peekskill [New York]. But after my first draft, I stayed with the author. So, before I was about to do a second draft, I was there for three days and I stayed at his house. We hung out a lot, and he took me down to where he grew up, which is Akron, Ohio, like 45 minutes south of Cleveland, where the author currently lives. I was driving around with him, thinking, “Yeah, I know this kind of place. This is like how I grew up, on these winding country roads.”

Ohio was a little more farm country than how I grew up. But you drive around these winding roads in a car with two or three friends, with nothing to do on a Saturday night. And maybe you try to find a diner where your friends are gathered. And so I knew these kids, even though they were ten years older than me. I could just totally relate to that sort of environment, where your house is tucked in the trees, and it’s quiet at night. And you might spend time walking around the woods by yourself. I totally related to Dahmer’s childhood. On so many levels, I found parallels that I realized—even though I may have had some memories that I thought would one day work their way into a story about a kid of that age—I realized, “Why am I holding those for my own Amarcord story? I’m gonna infuse those where I can into this young man.”

And so, my parents were divorcing at the exact same timeline that his were. My parents split up right after I graduated high school. I lived in a house perched on a hill with a slope of pachysandra in front of it. I knew the roads, and it felt familiar to me. So I just totally related to him as a high-school kid with a bunch of oddball friends.

FJI: So you understood the location. Where did you shoot the movie?

MM: I shot the movie at Jeffrey Dahmer’s actual childhood house. That’s the house that Jeffrey Dahmer actually grew up in.

FJI: Who lives there now?

MM: A wonderful man who’s a musician, and he had a band called The Waitresses.

FJI: “I Know What Boys Like”?

MM: Yes. The Waitresses. He knew it was a beautiful piece of property, and at some point in his life, over a decade ago—Chris Butler is his name—he decided, as I understand, what’s more important is the piece of property than its history. That’s the house he wanted.

FJI: Is he raising a family in that house?

MM: No, he’s a little older, so he has a lovely girlfriend, and they live there. But when I first went there, he still had a tenant there. He has since, in the last year and a half, moved back there to, I guess, now live back near the kind of environment that he grew up in. Over a decade ago, he bought the house as a sort of a weekend home, and he had tenants living there. So that’s Jeffrey Dahmer’s actual childhood bedroom.

FJI: Were they, or were the tenants aware…?

MM: Everyone’s aware.

FJI: What about the period? How old were you in ’77-’78?

MM: I was six, seven years old. I remember the ’70s through photographs. I have a really good memory. I remind my parents of things I did as a kid. That’s just how I am. Then there’s lots of source photography that I pulled off the Internet, archival collections of Midwestern ’70s photography. I had a lot of supporting material that I could disseminate to the production department. But then on top of it, the production designer was from the Cleveland area, so she was almost rebuilding, remaking, her own childhood. So she could totally infuse her own memories. So was the costume designer. And the one thing I remember—so, the saying is “This is not the cartoon version of the ’70s. This is the real ’70s.” This is not, everyone’s dressed for the disco ’70s. This is how we actually lived.

I was trying forever to be as accurate as possible. The cars were fun to pursue. And part of that is just getting so enthusiastic about these things, that everyone working in these departments is having fun themselves hunting down things from that era, and gathering up their own memories from the ’70s, and making it their own. I loved doing a period piece. I would love to dive again into another period altogether. It’s just another level of detail that’s fun to express yourself in—

FJI: Like the handheld water games they play in the movie. I haven’t thought about those in years.

MM: And then it hits! It’s a funny thing, in a movie you can do one or two of those things, and you don’t need to do twelve of them, to let the audience know that you remember the ’70s, that this is period-accurate. I didn’t need him to play it in five scenes. He just had to do it once. You don’t need to show a cat eight times in the house, for everyone to know: Oh, they’ve got a pet. You just need to do it once, and I learned that on another movie.

FJI: On a different note, but in that same vein of what you don’t need to show a lot, it’s only that last shot of his mother Joyce [portrayed by Anne Heche] that we see her seeing her son. You linger on her…

MM: Which was the first scene she filmed. She filmed the last scene first. That’s what she arrived on set to do, was that one scene. And then we worked back from there. Just proves how much of a thoroughbred Anne is.

FJI: Also, it proves how the mind works, that because of what I had interpreted Joyce’s life to be up to that moment, that the look on her face captured: “Oh, she’s finally seeing him, and worried. And in a way that she hasn’t been paying attention this whole time.” Basically everything that happens over the course of those two school years, you’re wondering: Are these the things that could have changed and made a difference? And would 17 men still be alive if the Fan Club hadn’t existed, for example?

MM: Well, someone asked me this, and it was the most recent example of me explaining this: As a dramatist, it’s not my goal to diagnose anyone. I’m not interested in showing Oedipal or Freudian reasons for why people do things. I’m just gonna show you what they do and what happens. And allow an audience member to somehow try to find a reason for the ingredients—in this case, what made this man become who he was.

What doesn’t happen is, no one pulls him aside and asks him, “How are you feeling? What’s on your mind? Do you need to talk to anyone?” And that’s a larger point that is, unfortunately, a sad reality today, too. And that was the larger comment that I got from the book, which was not only, “Where are the adults?” But just that we all are sort of self-consumed on one level, and if someone who’s disenfranchised needs a helping hand, why are we not doing that?

Now, at the same time, you have to believe that he was mis-wired from the beginning. And that’s part of it. But then, it’s a perfect storm on top of it with a family life that’s dissolving underneath his feet, friends that are just being numbskulls, or are not even fully aware of what they’re doing to him—

FJI: Being insensitive.

MM: Insensitive, but also, we are all kids that are insensitive. So it’s easier looking from another time period—when we’re much more politically correct, way more educated  about being considerate, and all those other things—to have that opinion. At the same time, I can remember in the ’80s how you’re just insensitive to other kids and you don’t mean anything by it, it’s for your own entertainment. I remember there was a kid in summer camp, we would just go, “Spaz! Spaz! Spaz!” He was a popular kid in the summer camp, and everyone enjoyed hanging out with him. But it was the label we gave him, so we could all chuckle together. And there was no real harm intended, right? He had a huge group of friends. And then there’s other kids that either are cruel to you, or you’re cruel to, and everyone’s sort of doing it. So the point was just to anthropologically remind everyone of that, if they’re an adult who’s no longer a high-school kid, “Yeah, that shit goes on, and that hasn’t stopped.”

FJI: Well, all the performances are strongly acted.

MM: Thank you. That’s always my first interest when I’m on set, and everyone responds to that lead. If I am there, first and foremost, to make sure that the behavior seems real to me, and authentic, and not trying to be emotive, but just digging towards something truthful—everyone around, I believe, starts to go, “Okay, we see what’s going on.” And then they start to participate in whatever part of filmmaking, from production design to cinematography, to sort of complement that. If I’m focused on another aspect, then the actors feel they’re excluded, they feel like they’re secondary. And then, all of a sudden, it sort of shifts.

FJI: Did you learn this from having any sort of challenges with it before?

MM: No, more that it’s always been my interest, and then I realized that, from my point of view, other crew members became grateful for that. That, all of a sudden, the actors [go]: “Oh, you don’t care about where the billiard ball is, and that I’m standing behind it. You care about me.” That other stuff doesn’t matter as much. What we’re always trying to connect with onscreen is looking into another actor’s eyes. At least in what I’m trying to do.

FJI: The actor you cast as Derf [Alex Wolff]. Does he look like Derf?

MM: Oddly, a little bit. But that wasn’t the intention going in, as much as I had latched onto Alex as an actor, and felt like he was a wonderful counterpoint to Ross. And that he’s a tremendous actor himself who has the qualities that I felt the film needed. Which is, more of an everyman, someone that we could all somehow see a little bit of ourselves in, as being just a regular dude that’s kind of low on the social caste system in the high school but at the same time clearly bright. His potential is after he graduates, not like some of the kids in high school, whose best days were high school.

FJI: So you said you don’t diagnose, but do you have to decide whether you’re making a movie about a sociopath, or a psychopath, or any of these different labels?

MM: I didn’t differentiate one way or the other. I thought of it in different terms, to be completely honest. I think that one thing that was clear from the book, and in talking to Derf, which I used as well, is just that this is a moment in time that further solidifies that Dahmer has a very, very deep, depraved fear of abandonment. And, as friends, family members and other people leave him behind, he’s left in a house all alone. That mixture, with his own mental state, creates a man who is just trying to get someone to stay there with him. Which is kind of what Steven Hicks, his unfortunate final day, was all about.

FJI: Well, he did keep people with him—but that gets into future Dahmer.

MM: Right. Future Dahmer, that story, it’s just not me. There are a couple little hints to the awareness of that period in the script. And part of that is to warm the audience up, so that we’re all there as a community for this film. So, his mother saying, “We eat our mistakes,” is a pointed line—

FJI: I wrote that one down.

MM: That also someone could say, for whole other reasons. But that also goes to the point of the character, which is the information Jeff’s getting, he’s then perverting into something else. I looked at the way that Welcome to the Dollhouse worked. And in that I remember early on reading the script and going, “Oh, what’s happening to her in school, she’s using being bullied and these abusive kinds of things on her younger sister at home.”

So there’s a connection between home life and school life dramatically, where what happens in school dominoes into the way she perverts it, one way or the other, into using it on her younger sister. So I thought, “Oh, it’s the opposite direction in this story.” Which is, the advice that he gets from his dad, and the other things that happen at home, get perverted into the way in which he uses those ideas in school. “Why don’t you find some new friends? Join some clubs.”

FJI: His dad tells him, “Friends are our connection to this world.”

MM: “Friends are our connection to this world.” And so there he goes on a pursuit for friendship. Which is something that we all desire. I think it’s at our core, as a human being. And then the advice he’s getting from Dad, even giving him the dumbbells, which are his first murder weapon, sadly enough. This is just dramatizing something, but it’s just that elements are put in his hands, like the car. There’s the car.

FJI: As soon as he gets that car, I thought of Ted Bundy.

MM: “Oh, shit,” right?

FJI: Yeah.

MM: And so, I think parents do that lot, where they mean well, but what they do may not necessarily be the best thing for their child. This is the worst extreme of that. His dad means well, so does his mom, and they’re both good people. It’s just the chemistry—

FJI: He was loved.

MM: He was loved.

FJI: There’s a moment in the film of Jeff being a good big brother, ushering his little brother, Dave, away from their parents fighting. It just adds such sadness to the whole thing that there was a lot of love in his environment.

MM: The movie, to me, is on some level always and only about love. If you’re having any kind of story about people, I’m showing environments that either have love that goes awry, or environments that are lacking in love, but then you’re aware, “Where is the love?” It’s always about love.

FJI: Even Jeffrey Dahmer?

MM: Yeah. I mean, he’s a guy that had a sibling and parents, too. And how could you not love your child?