My Friend Dahmer: Interview with Director Marc Meyers

My Friend Dahmer, the latest film from Marc Meyers, delves into the difficult adolescence of infamous US serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Following its UK release, Exposed’s Anna Stopford spoke to the writer-director about what first drew him to this dark tale and the challenges posed in telling it. 

How did you first come across Dahmer, and when did you know you wanted to make a film about him?
Well, we all knew about Dahmer. I remember when it was in the news, he was known as the Milwaukee cannibal. I knew vaguely about him and the details of his murders but I wasn’t an expert. However, I thought an interesting concept for a film would be a portrait of a serial killer as a young boy; I wanted to use James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using its structure as a guideline for a fictional story. Myself and my wife, who is my producing partner, thought that naturalistic graphic novels, ones not about superheroes or fantasies, but about everyday America, would be a great place to find source material. The storytelling is often very subversive in graphic novels, which I thought would be great to base a film on. Then a publisher in New York gave me an advanced copy of John Backderf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer and I read it that day, reached out to him, and we started talking. That’s how the whole thing started.

It’s interesting that the film is inspired by a graphic novel, as they are stylistically very different mediums. How much impact did the comic have on the translation across to film?
After I had written the script, I had to start storyboarding the film. So, whenever there was overlap between my adaptation and the original text, I would collage panels from the graphic novel into my storyboards, so I knew when I was on set I was carrying the visual spirit of the book with me. That way, when I was making the film, I could try and find some of those images which were known in the book and show them in the camera angles or the visuals in the film. I knew the book has a following, and that those fans of the book wanted to see what they love on screen. It’s a different medium, so you can’t give them everything, but I tried to be respectful of the film’s origin.

As the film is based on a real serial killer, it obviously touches on a sensitive topic, and there have been some critical responses claiming the film sensationalises Jeffrey Dahmer. Were you anxious about this kind of reaction when you made the film?
You can always anticipate that there’s going to be a dialogue about it. So, I felt if I can just be as honest to the book and the real story as possible, I’ve done my job. It’s the forces within him, and around him – his friends, family and neighbours – which I wanted to capture and portray. I didn’t want the movie to give a diagnosis, because it’s not my job to make you say ‘that’s the moment he snapped’. It’s just capturing a gradual decline of a kid, who is wired wrong, losing his sanity, and the people around him missing the signs. Those are the ingredients that I was concerned with, and if I told those honestly, with respect to the story, I felt I would get a response like yours. [I had commented that I found his angle respectful, and that although I pitied Dahmer and understood that his environment was negligent, I never felt like it made excuses for him, and although I felt empathy for his isolated position, I was never really on his side].

If I had made Dahmer a hero, that would be sensationalising, but I don’t think there were any moments where you watch the film and aspire to be him. The sensationalism is almost a comment saying ‘how dare you write a story about a serial killer?’, as though we should wipe that clean from our history. Sometimes the role of art is to make us understand ourselves, which includes those edges of our psyche where Dahmer lived. I don’t think that any art should be evaluated in terms of whether this is something that should be made or not. Any art can be made and put out into the universe to see if it finds an audience. People should tell the stories that they want to tell, and you just hope they tell it well.

I was pretty comfortable because I was sharing the film in the edit room every couple of weeks with a small group of people so I was always reminded of the audience perception. I also knew what I was walking into, because the book preceded this and had already blazed that path. The one thing that we were always holding to is that we didn’t want the movie to be in any way flippant, because behind this there are seventeen families that are forever hurt by the loss of a loved one. In no way is this movie forgiving what Dahmer did, or an excuse for the violence he did later in life. It just offers a perspective on the making of that man.

I didn’t want the movie to give a diagnosis, because it’s not my job to make you say ‘that’s the moment he snapped’

What did you want audiences to get from this film?
Firstly, it was a fascinating subject matter. Secondly, it’s a cautionary tale about how a troubled young kid slips through the cracks, and his friends, family, and teachers all missed the signs. That feels like it continues to be relevant today, as troubled young, generally white, males go on to do harmful things, and everyone misses the signs and didn’t stop it. So here’s a unique window into a kid, as his sanity is slipping. I felt that was very culturally relevant and fascinating. My hope is that people watch it, and not only are they entertained, but that they come away with a more empathetic heart towards the oddballs in their high school or their neighbourhood and look at them with more empathy. No-one asked him ‘How are you doing? Do you want to talk?’ he was in his own world, until he became a monster. If he had received more love, maybe he would have found another way to put his dark proclivities into something other than violence against other human beings.

I read that you used Dahmer’s actual house to shoot in, How did that come about?
When I interviewed John Backderf, I stayed with him for three days and he gave me a tour of the town and took me to Dahmer’s house. I think, for all of us, our childhood home holds a certain meaning for who we are, and who we become. So, I thought if we can, lets shoot here. I was introduced to the owner, who was aware that it had been Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home. He was a musician from New York, and he used it as his weekend home. He was open to the idea of us filming there, so we organised the weeks we could use it and we refurnished the inside to make it a house from the seventies. It gave a lot of extra meaning to the cast and crew that we were shooting in the real place that Dahmer had grown up. I thought in the pursuit of authenticity there was no reason not to shoot there.

I thought Ross Lynch was brilliant as Jeffrey Dahmer. How did you come across him?
He was a former Disney Star; he was the lead in a show called Austin and Ally, and he was in popular Disney Channel movies. He auditioned like everyone else, I went through a long search and met over a hundred actors, but when I met Ross I immediately thought he was the guy. Not only did he resemble Jeffrey Dahmer, especially with the hair and costume, but he’s originally a dancer, so I knew he could also get the gait and the posture of Dahmer. He’s also so talented and versatile, I knew that he could fully inhabit the role. He has a good physicality, and it’s a character who the author describes as being uncomfortable in his own skin, which I think says a lot about what’s going on in his head, his closeted homosexuality, and all this other stuff going on that he can’t talk about, and it comes through in the way he held himself.

My Friend Dahmer is showing now in UK cinemas 

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