Filmmaker Marc Meyers has made a number of smaller independents that didn’t get a lot of attention or traction, but there are a few reasons why his new movie My Friend Dahmer has deservedly been getting more attention since it premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The first reason is obvious, because there’s a growing interest in murders and serial killers thanks to shows like HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, but also because Jeffrey Dahmer is still one of America’s more renowned killers and also more recent than others.
Meyers’ movie is based on the graphic novel of the same name by John “Derf” Backderf, who in fact was friends with Jeffrey Dahmer in high school before his murderous streak began, but who saw first-hand the transformation of his strange introverted classmate into something much scarier.
In the movie, Dahmer is played by Ross Lynch from Disney’s Teen Beach Movie and its sequel, while Derf is played by Alex Wolff (The Naked Brothers Band) and Dahmer’s dysfunctional parents are played by Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts.
The Tracking Board spoke on the phone with Myers a few weeks back and learned a lot of things about his movie, including the fact he was able to shoot the movie in Jeffrey Dahmer’s actual childhood home. You can’t get much more authentic than that.
I first saw My Friend Dahmer at the Tribeca Film Festival — not the premiere, just a press screening — but I missed it at Fantasia, because I think your movie screened the day after I left.
Fantasia was fun. That was actually my first genre festival.
Yeah, so that was great to meet that crowd, especially the other filmmakers and see them again at Fantastic Fest, so it’s been a fun journey with the movie.
I haven’t seen your other movies unfortunately, but I assume this was your first genre movie or did you not really consider it a genre movie while making it, and it just fit in the category due to the subject matter?
It’s almost like a character drama for the genre community. The way they may look at it. They don’t get as scared as the other people do with that genre, but they still enjoy it. (laughs) If that makes sense.
Did you get to see Super Dark Times either at Tribeca or Fantasia? That’s a similar coming of age killer film.
You know, I worked with Amy Hargreaves who plays the mom in that movie — she was the lead in my previous film, so I was very aware of Super Dark Times from her telling me about it. Then also I had met with those two lead actors through the process of casting this film, so I’ve been very aware, although I haven’t seen it yet.
Other than the title My Friend Dahmer, which makes you assume it’s about Jeffrey Dahmer, I knew nothing about the movie in advance, including Derf’s graphic novel. I never knew about that even though I’m generally a comic book guy. How did you find Derf’s graphic novel and what led you into wanting to adapt it?
My business partner and I, after we finished this film Harvest, we were thinking, “What are some of the other movie ideas could we do?” One thing that struck us and really stuck with us was the idea of the portrait of a serial killer as a young boy. And I was gonna do something like take the portrait of the artist as a young man, as a roadmap structurally to try and create some fictional story about a guy who would one day become a serial killer. We were also looking at the graphic novel “Space”… I’m not a long time reader of graphic novels and comics, but I knew that in the last couple years that they’re in their golden age right now and that there’s a lot of very subversive interesting stories that are being told there that would be great source material.
Then when I went to the New York Comic-Con, I came across a meeting a lot of the publishers and looking for exactly some interesting books. They weren’t public yet with this new book that was going to come out the next year, and someone gave me a very early advanced copy of My Friend Dahmer. The merging of those two ideas in our head, naturalistic graphic novel and this other concept, but now I realized I was dead-set on making this film; which was going to be based on a real person from history. Then I used the book as my source material, and sort of like my Bible. Since it’s a nonfiction book from a first person account, and he’s a journalist originally by trade, the book is just full of facts, so I could just stay loyal to the book to tell the story.
So you had the graphic noel for a basis, but did you meet with Derf and actually spend time with him while researching for the screenplay?
After I read the first draft, he then happened to invite me over to stay with him and I went to Cleveland and I stayed at his house for a couple days. He grew up in Akron, 45 minutes south, so every day we woke up and we drove down to Akron, and we went around and he almost gave me a tour of the book and showed me the streets that he drew, the houses where him and his friends grew up. We went to the high school and walked down the halls, and he showed me what part of the cafeteria they sat at and gave me a tour of the book.
I was videotaping and recording audio of our conversations in the car and all along the way to just get more information as he pontificated and recalled the source material and other details that sort of provided for what ended up in the book. He also took me to Jeffrey Dahmer’s actual childhood home. We got connected to the owner of the home, who I’m now friends with myself, and we walked around that property. That’s when I had a full lay of the land, which helped me not only with rewrites, but then I became determined that we were gonna make the film in Ohio and shoot the actual Dahmer house.
I had been wondering if you were tempted to shoot in that area or if it was too sensitive a subject matter?
No, that’s his house. That’s the house, the bedroom, the living room, the driveway. That’s where Jeffrey Dahmer actually lived, and we actually rebuilt the hut on the same location where the original hut once stood. Derf and I, as we were walking around, he wasn’t sure where the hut was. But we, from the tenet who was living at the house at the time, he had indicated that there was an old shed in a certain part of the property underneath a whole pile of branches that was clearly from a whole other era, and that was the spot where the hut once stood. So, our production design team when we got the set, they cleared the area and they rebuilt the hut on the same spot.
How did you convince the house owner to do all that stuff there? I figure they wouldn’t want any attention about the fact it was Dahmer’s house.
No, the opposite. The house is infamous for its publicity, but it’s a beautiful home and it’s part of the meaning of the story that he grew up in house that’s serene, perched on a hill within the trees with a beautiful view of nature. And it’s not what someone would think of Jeff Dahmer, but that’s how he grew up. So, the owner, he bought the house aware of its history, but it’s also a beautiful small home. And, when I explained to him my intention, he thought it was cool and he was there currently. He moved back from New York. He’s originally a punk musician, a musician from the Akron area. Been living for most of his career in, New York, but he relocated back to Akron. He was the lead singer of a band called The Waitresses, his name’s Chis Butler and that’s his house. So, he was there. We kinda moved him out for filming, but he lived there before and since.
So Derf had drawn lots of pictures of Jeffrey back in high school, which I assume you had for reference, but did you have any actual pictures of him as a teenager?
Well, the author has a huge collection of all his illustrated journal entries and other sort of art from high school that he saved and held onto. He has a huge archive of his own work from the very beginning and so he was able to look back at all of that work and some of it has been shared online, in the original book, and you can see his original drawings. He has made a lot of that public in his blog posts since the book was published, but he no longer could draw like a high school kid so we had to get a young high school artist to replicate his original drawings, and then do other drawings in the spirit of his drawings for the movie.
What were you looking for in an actor to play Jeffrey Dahmer? Was this a pretty extensive search?
Yeah, I met with easily a hundred actors either in person in New York and L.A. or via Skype if they were working somewhere else around the country. A lot of them you knew didn’t have the likeness for Jeff who certainly you know from history, so you have to find someone that, in part, has his likeness, but I met with a lot of them, because I was also looking for actors for the rest of the Dahmer Fan Club, his crew of friends.
You narrow it down to a small pool of potential actors to play Jeff, but when I met Ross in New York, I immediately sort of locked into him and really felt like, not only because of all of his talent that I felt like also as a dancer that he could sort of really inhabit the gate and the posture and the look of Jeff, but also his face had a strong resemblance to a young Jeff Dahmer, that’s even stronger with wardrobe and hair and the glasses.
We also just auditioned lots of actors, and Ross self-taped originally and then came back through New York. By that time I was pretty certain he was the right guy for the role, and we got to spend a couple hours in a rehearsal space messing around with the material, and I could sort of see how versatile he is as an actor and could really reinterpret the scene and the tone the way I wanted to just adjust it and change it to see how versatile he was. That recorded audition added to everybody’s faith that he was the right guy for the role.
I read the graphic novel after seeing the movie and I was impressed with how faithful the movie was, so was there anything you wanted to add or change but didn’t because you wanted to remain faithful to the source material?
I think you can take something like a visual graphic novel, and it might be a little harder with just a novel, but since there’s a visual quality there, there’s a lot of cinematic quality already there to inspire. I had to just find the dramatic devises within the spirit of his book, and it partially was like what to exclude was really part of the bigger challenges, and how to sort of find all the sort of dramatic techniques that are essential to structure something for a film screenplay.
That kind of pushed out other things you just can’t include it all. From there, you respond to what had been extracted to find a way to reinterpret it. The big one was sort of compressing the timeline to one school year or a little bit more than one school year, which is pretty much how most high school movies need to be, and the book is a lot more of an epic chronology of their entire high school and junior high experience together as friends. The other big one is that as I develop this with my producing partners, we knew we had to further develop the home life that was suggested in the book, to really sort of accentuate the nurture vs. nature aspects of the story.
In that case, you have Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts playing his parents, so how did you arrive at them to play those roles?
Well, you know the script circulates to a certain point, so you start meeting with a bunch of actors. I had very early on felt that having seen … Certain actors, they cross your path through the work that you’ve seen of theirs and they stay with you and I had felt very early on that Dallas would be a great Lionel. And got the script to him and met and had a beer with him and we connected, had a good time hanging out. For the following year I just always was steadfast committed to the idea that Dallas would make a great Lionel, and I’m so glad that that worked out.
And then Anne got the script at some point and wanted to meet cause she could really relate to the character of Joyce and like the overall story. Whe we met in L.A. and sat down, we just totally hit it off. The way I described the movie and the role made sense to her as well, and I knew that she would bring so much enthusiasm and power and gravitas to Joyce. I’m glad that worked out, too. It’s almost like a script sometimes is a letter to an actor’s sensibility, and so you hope when you send that letter out that those people see themselves in it, so it just worked out well.
You mentioned having formatted the structure around the high school year. I wondered if anyone might go in to see this movie without knowing who Jeffrey Dahmer was and just see this as a strange high school coming of age film.
Well, you know, we’re at a point in the journey where everyone’s getting educated through the marketing and other publicity who the real Jeffrey Dahmer was, because it’s shared that way, so I knew that that would happen. I didn’t need to educate the viewer at the top, but I will say, when I started meeting with a lot of young actors, what was really interesting–and even some of the younger agents that I met with in the journey that were under 25–this guy wasn’t someone they were aware of. There were a bunch of young actors that wanted to meet, that read the script and weren’t aware that it was based on a real person, including Ross. When I met with him, he hadn’t learned that Dahmer was a real character because he died a year before Ross was actually born. And that’s the same for a lot of young actors I met. There was even a couple guys where in person while I was meeting with them they wanted to meet, they read the script, they wanted to talk about the role. Even in meeting with them, while we were sitting there, I told them it was based on a real person and it was a surprise to them.
That was interesting to us to realize that someone that’s over forty how there’s a whole generation of people that just this is just one of those people from history they just were not aware of. But now, because of the movie, I think a lot of people are now digging a little bit into Wikipedia and there’s a huge, you know, ground swell with fascination with true crime stories that his name is really circulating out there a lot.
What are some of the challenges or concerns when you make a movie about a movie where real people’s lives were affected? Obviously, Jeffrey’s father and brother is still alive but also the families of his victims. What were some of your concerns about making a movie with that in mind?
Well, fortunately there’s a book that preceded this, so you could test the waters with the book that it was already out there in the world, so that was a temperature gauge on what kind of response may be out there. That said, the book is based on fact. It’s a nonfiction thing and the author’s originally a journalist, so what’s in there are things that he could verify through either his own personal experience or public record from F.B.I. conversations they had with Jeff. So it’s based on fact, and on that point, I was telling a story before he did a crime, and it’s a cautionary tale that needs to be told. If there is pushback from the victims’ families, I hope that they do look at it because it is a cautionary tale of how someone falls through the cracks. How their friends, their neighbors, the community, their family misses the sign of a troubled teenager and how that then could have horrible effects later on in their life.
My Friend Dahmer is now playing in select cities across the country.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor