People like to obsess and fantasize about serial killers and their personal narrative. Or they like to dissect away how the same situation can be avoided without inflating the notoriety of the character in question. Rarely though, do they embark on a quest on finding out what exactly went wrong, opening the door to the daunting possibility that we, too, might have failed them. Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer revives the ghost of Jeffrey Dahmer, stripping its teen psychosis to a humane portrait, one more complicated than the age-old nature versus nurture debate. We joined the director to discuss the psychology of his rendition of one of America’s most notorious serious killers, the pitfalls of adolescence and the ethics of such a complex representation.
This is quite a personal project for the author of the book. How did you convince the author to entrust you with the film?
I explained to him my perspective and how much I wanted to tell the story for passionate reasons that were based on the characters and not simply exploiting the Dahmer name for horror. The more you rewrite the film, the more you move from being a loyal transcriber of what the book is into moving into something dramatic. Even though I found dramatic devices to turn the comic book into a film that veers away from the original source material I still encapsulated its original spirit. I believe I did. It was clear that audiences are first and foremost interested in Dahmer – the author is our guide into this character. The biggest thing to expand beyond the book was perhaps looking a little deeper in detail into his home life. The passages from Derf’s point-of-view as an author would have been too much of a Stand by Me-like voiceover. I’m not someone who believes in voiceover in my own stories – at least not at this point. I just wanted to create a film that was completely entrenched in 1977-1978. And by doing that, I managed to focus mostly on Jeff.
When writing the script, how did you manage to tap into the consciousness of a serial killer to be and negotiate additions to the graphic novel?
Dramatically it was yet again looking at all the different forces in his private life. I just used the book as a bible of inspiration that continued to suggest how all the forces at play in his life were all coming at him at the same time when privately he couldn’t tell anyone what was going on about in his life. On some level, he is a silent character in a movie of sound. He can’t talk about what on he’s mind so he’s a highly unusual psychotic person that is in the middle of an everyday world – one mixed with cruel teenagers doing insensitive things, parents that are self-consumed mixed with his own private screwed up proclivities.
Still, what made the film terrifying to me was this interest in showing the humanity of the killer. If the community had not failed him maybe we’d be faced with a different reality.
There’s a lot of different avenues that these troubled kids could have gone down if the doors that were helpful and full of love would have opened up to them. And that’s why the movie is a cautionary tale. And by seeing that, it might affect how people view others in their communities.
Is the film compassionate at times because the author, or the world, is feeling apologetic?
It’s easier to say that in retrospect but the other fact is that teenagers then, maybe even more so than now, were forming their own personalities and in the process they don’t realise that they’re being insensitive to other teenagers. And that’s the struggle of adolescence and what I was capturing. You hope that adolescence in the future will be a time when they are not as cruel to other people. I can’t control that. With Derf [the author], there was a story that fell in his lap that was personal. So there was a level of catharsis but there was also a level of responsibility. That it’s a cautionary tale that he can put out to other people.
Is there any hint that if he could express his sexuality freely maybe he would have turned out different?
I think the repression is a big thing. And as it continues to be repressed it becomes toxic and perverts itself into other impulses.
Do you think context played a part in creating the space for Jeff? That post-counterculture era where people still felt like they were free to act out against conformity.
I think that’s always something we’re doing. There’s always a part of our population: there’s conformists and there’s non-conformists. There’s action and a re-action. I do think he’s manufactured by that era. It’s an era where he doesn’t have any resources to find like-minded people, people that are feeling like he does. This reclusion mixed with all these desires and all the other forces going sent him out to the world unleashed in a way that’s kind of cruel.
I guess many people will find it interesting that a former beloved Disney star has his next acting venture as one of America’s most notorious serial killers. How did you direct him to transform him into Jeffrey Dahmer?
The young actors coming out of Disney are very professional – they worked really hard before they even reached the age of 20. I was just trying to find the guy that could best be the man that would carry that role. It just happens that Ross has an unbelieavable chameleon-like ability to transform through his hair and glasses, posture and his gait into this haunting character. It worked out really well.
Talk to me about the role of the mother. I’m assuming that the author of the novel didn’t really have that much insight into what she was like either. What did you base the family relationship on?
The author suggests what is known to be public about her from both the way both Jeff spoke about it in the FBI records and what those friends remember of her. Using all that information I was able to sketch out a character that was unpredictable and dealing with her own battles. I used to describe her as a bird with clipped wings. She wants to fly away but she can’t. She’s a different weather front coming through the house every single time. And then it was my job to allow the audience to be able to connect the dots between the calm and stormy to suggest this erratic character.
I found it interesting that you chose the original house as a location. How did that enhance the project?
In the pursuit of authenticity it was grounding for the actors. Who could walk through the same driveway, lay down in the same bedrooms. It gave them a place of meaning and they realized they were saying a story about someone real.