Of the countless serial killer narratives hitting the big and small screens at the moment, none is better than David Fincher’s Mindhunter. The show focuses on the efforts of late-1970s FBI agents to establish a criminal profiling system for serial killers, with the aim of preventing future cases. It’s impressive stuff, but watching writer-director Marc Meyers’s film My Friend Dahmer, you can’t help but wonder – would Mindhunter’s protagonists have seen warning signs in the teenage Jeffrey Dahmer, who would go on to become known as one of America’s most infamous serial killers?
‘Possibly not’ is the answer Meyers implies. Adapted from a graphic novel by John ‘Derf’ Backderf, who based it on his own high-school friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, the film portrays Dahmer (Disney poster boy Ross Lynch, terrifyingly transformed) as an alienated but ostensibly normal kid secretly more interested in dissecting roadkill than making friends. As his social alienation and disturbing fantasies worsen, Dahmer is neglected by his mentally unwell mother and her divorcing husband and made a freak out of by manipulative classmates, who revel in his tendency to simulate cerebral palsy – a disturbing prank that becomes known as ‘doing a Dahmer’.
An astute reflection on societal neglect, My Friend Dahmer is chilling, difficult, and profoundly sad. The Student talked to director Marc Meyers about adapting Backderf’s cult graphic novel, recreating the 1970s Midwest setting and humanising a perceived monster.
Theo Rollason: What initially drew you to John Backderf’s graphic novel, and how did you set about adapting it?
Marc Meyers: Before I came across the book my producing partner and I thought that an interesting concept for an indie would be ‘Portrait of a Serial Killer as a Young Boy’, and so we sort of had that as an idea that we were sketching out and considering for development. Simultaneously, we were looking at naturalistic graphic novels because of their subversive storytelling as a great place to find some source material, and in those efforts a publisher in New York gave us an advanced copy of My Friend Dahmer before it actually hit the bookshelves. Immediately we knew we had to make this movie. It was the synergy of these two things that we were considering to make a movie; but now it was even better, because it was about this infamous character that’s known around the world, and now it was based in fact rather than being something else. It was sort of a long process. It took about a year on and off to develop the script, and take this graphic novel and condense it down into something that was better for the medium of film – condensing the timeline a bit, changing the perspectives to be looking straight at Jeffrey Dahmer and not having any kind of voice-over from the perspective of a friend, because I wanted to create a movie that was like a time capsule looking at 1977 and 1978, and the other kind of considerations to dramatise his book, which was a non-fiction piece of material. Those were the initial seeds of how we developed the project.
Naturally, a lot of the film’s events and dialogue closely follow the book, but of course with a graphic novel there’s also the visual element – how much did the book shape the look of the film from a directorial point of view?
What ended up happening was that for a time the script had been circulating and I was looking ahead to actually filming and getting into production, and I storyboarded out the entire film myself in three artists’ sketchbooks. In that, I used the original images, almost like I collaged my storyboards by using imagery from the graphic novel. That way, I could carry the spirit and the iconic images that are in the book with me into the film, so that I could be loyal to the book when I felt that my adaptation and his original story still crossed paths – like in the hut [in Dahmer’s garden], or how I portrayed the jogger running past the house. There were various areas where I was going to be as loyal as I could to the images that he put forward in the book. The storyboards have his actual original drawings as part, and I would draw camera movements of them, or figure out ways for the camera to find that image in the book and pass through that image, things like that.
This is your fourth film, but your first to make use of a period setting. It doesn’t feel as aesthetically heightened or idealised as something like Dazed and Confused or Almost Famous, but is still unmistakably ‘70s in look. What was it like recreating that period?
I loved it. I was just a kid in the ’70s, those memories are vague, but seeing all kinds of photography from the ’70s was great inspiration. I didn’t want to do the cartoonish version of the ’70s, but a realistic portrayal of the ’70s. You know, it’s not like everyone coming out of Studio 54 and disco and all of that, but in the Midwest kids are just kids. Everything was regional. The radio was regional, the cars were of a certain type, the clothes were manufactured in a regional way, so it was easy for the costume designer to get a lot of apparel right out of thrift stores in Ohio. Actually, one early thing for inspiration: I found a photo collection of the US National Photo Archives (that I think is hosted on Tumblr) and through that I found some imagery of high school in the Midwest in the 1970s. That was a great jumping-off point into fashion and hairstyle. From there, the costume designer, the production designer and myself, we all used that and our own recollections of the ’70s as a place to start. It’s also a dark movie. The cinematographer and I were trying to make a horrifying coming-of-age tale, so we weren’t trying to be bombastic about the ’70s but really just make a film about a bunch of kids growing up in the actual ’70s.
You’ve talked about it as a coming-of-age film, but there seems to be some interesting genre play at work in that it’s a serial killer film with no serial killing, and a coming-of-age movie in which the subject doesn’t really come of age. Do you see My Friend Dahmer as a genre film?
I never honestly considered it a genre film as much as I felt I was going to do a drive-by of genre. There were moments and opportunities to use the devices of genre in this film, but I wasn’t making something that could be so singularly categorised as genre. It’s a character study for genre people, and for people that like arthouse character-driven cinema it’s something that might edge towards more of a horror film. It kind of bridges both worlds. So, genre was a secondary concern to just being authentic to the character, to the details of the facts and the experience and the ambience.
Do you have a particular interest in serial killers or films about them?
I’ve met a lot of people through sharing this movie that are obsessed with serial killers – love reading about them – but that wasn’t me. I thought that a portrait of a serial killer as a young boy, this origin story of someone who will one day become a monster, was a fascinating idea, because I think it’s really interesting creatively and also for an actor to play someone who lives on the edges of our psyche. And so all of those things interested me. I’m not an expert in all things serial killer, but I do recognise that there’s a lot of people out there that like myself like true crime as a subject matter in their entertainment from all the movies by David Fincher to Making a Murderer and documentaries about real crimes or the Serial podcast. There’s a long history of that that I realise now I’ve always been interested in, but it wasn’t like I was an expert on serial killers. I’m really not an expert in Jeffrey Dahmer either, but I do understand the details of his childhood very well now.
You see in the film how Dahmer’s divorcing parents, his naively exploitative friends, his repressed homosexuality, his alcoholism all impact upon his life, but doesn’t simply reduce his crimes to any combination of these. Do you find it hard, when you’re making a film that is so psychological, to resist giving a diagnosis?
As a filmmaker, I’m a dramatist. I’m trying to portray the forces within and around a main character that, in this case, formed who he is and who he’s become, and knowing that this character Jeffrey Dahmer was wired wrong from the beginning, but the circumstances around him did not help. And so it’s a cautionary tale about a kid who slips through the cracks, the forces that could’ve saved him didn’t – friends, neighbours, family didn’t – and that allowed dark proclivities to get expressed in hurtful ways eventually down the road. By being a dramatist and thinking about the forces at play in his character journey, I never felt, nor should I, it was my responsibility to diagnose him, which is a different thing. If someone’s going to watch it saying, ‘I’m looking for the singular reason why he became a monster’ that’s not it. It’s this nebulous mix of things around him and within him that allowed him to become who he became. It’s not one or two breaking points. That’s way too scientific and I think not necessarily fair to human nature, to break it down into a diagnosis. We sometimes feel like we can get a résumé of what’s wrong with someone. I just felt that, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, that’s not how I was I was going to design this story, going ‘this is the moment when he snapped.’ That’s not what it was. Every moment was leading to the inevitable, and I’m going to show all those little moments that pushed him further and further down until his sanity completely disappeared and all that was left was a monster.
A recent article in The Guardian claimed that your film ‘by its very existence … can’t help but glamorise its subject’. Do you think it’s true that screen portrayals of real-life extreme individuals, like Jeffrey Dahmer, inherently contribute to a kind of pop culture myth making?
I don’t think this movie contributes to the myth-making so much as it provides a deeper understanding of where this guy came from. Too often, a disturbed teenager or young man, especially in the United States, goes on to do horrible things, and then they get plastered on the news as monsters. And then everyone gets on the news and says, ‘how did we miss the signs, he was such a nice guy, we didn’t see it coming’. Well, people saw the signs and they didn’t tell anybody. This is a reminder of how easy it is to see how someone could slip through the cracks. I’m not in any way sensationalising him, but just being honest to where this guy came from. He rode the school bus just like everybody else, he had homework, he had parents who loved him, and he had friends, and even within all of that he became a monster. So I think it’s adding a better understanding than it is in any way turning him into some kind of hero or icon.
Would you describe it as a humanising of the character?
Well look – every character is human. To humanise an alien, or to humanise a robot is one thing, but to humanise Jeffrey Dahmer just in theory is just telling the story that exists about who he was in the same way that we might tell the story of another infamous character in our history. It’s what movies do!
What was your experience with shooting in the area and the house that Jeffrey Dahmer had grown up in?
Well first and foremost I was determined to do that because I thought it was important. The house was still there, and with any person I believe your childhood home holds a certain place in your heart. You feel like somehow who you became was in the house where your youth was, and the bed that you rested your head on at the end of the day as a kid. And this house still existed. It’s a beautiful home. It’s sort of serene, and that plays into the reality that out of this serene little pocket of nature emerged this monster. I felt that it was in the pursuit of authenticity to make sure that we shot there and in the surrounding woods and on the surrounding roads, in a high school from the area that resembled what his high school was like in the ’70s. It also then was great inspiration for the crew and cast, they were like, ‘these are real people, and we’re going to treat them with respect’ – all of the friends and family, and even our main character. Creatively, I honestly really loved filming there. Anything else would have felt like a cop-out to me.
Did you or any of the crew ever feel superstitious about it?
I think it might have creeped out some of the crew members on day one or two of filming in the house, in Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood bedroom with this actor who looks exactly like him. But I think within half a day of filming there it became a creative environment, a set –and we were there to make a movie. The owner of the house was a wonderful guy thrilled to offer it up to us. Even the author came by and hung around set for several days, and at one point had to ask Ross Lynch, as they were sitting there talking, ‘can you please take off those glasses you’re freaking me out, you look too much like my friend from high school!’.
Finally, what are you working on next?
Well I have a few projects that I’m involved in right now, so I’ll wait of the producing team to announce one of them very shortly. I’m simultaneously interested in something else for the genre audience, sort of a thriller character study that’s in the genre space, and there’s an adaptation of a bestselling book for the US that I’m involved in as a director, it’s been adapted for the screen. And a bunch of other projects! I’m just eager for those titles to be announced.
My Friend Dahmer is in cinemas across the UK now, and is out today in Edinburgh at the Cameo cinema.
Images: Altitude Films