Although serial killers have become a staple of pop culture, it's surprising how impenetrable the mind of a psychopath remains to the masses. Decades may have passed since psychologists first began to probe these twisted psyches for answers, but few have gained any real, concrete insight into how these monsters are created.
However, a rare window into the development of a budding serial killer was recently brought to life in 2012 by artist John "Derf" Backderf. In his graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer, Backderf chronicled his teenage friendship with the boy who would grow up to become Jeffrey Dahmer. The book is a brutally honest portrayal of isolation and regret, humanizing the face of evil in ways that remain all too familiar, even today.
In deciding to adapt My Friend Dahmer for the big screen, indie filmmaker Marc Meyers took on the dual challenge of doing justice to this real-life story while also paying respect to the source material. Fortunately, Meyers surpassed all expectations here, playing around with genre conventions to create an entirely unique portrait of evil that excels on multiple fronts. From his eerie use of cinematography to the award-worthy performance he inspires in Ross Lynch, Meyers has crafted an indie success story that defies expectation.
Movie Pilot were fortunate enough to speak with Marc Meyers about all things 'Dahmer,' discussing everything from the film's troubling relevance today and Ross Lynch's behavior on set to talk of how a possible sequel could play out in the future.
The Wonder Years
After devouring Derf's graphic novel, Meyers visited the author in order to gain firsthand knowledge of Dahmer's teen years beyond what was depicted in the book. Together, the pair ventured down to Akron, Ohio to see where Dahmer grew up. This decision ultimately made a huge impact on Meyer's developing screenplay and eventually became the prime location spot for shooting:
"I wanted to look further into the walls of the home life to see how that was contributing to his own teenage experience... We shot everything in Akron where these kids grew up, including Dahmer's actual childhood house. That's the house which you see in the film... We even rebuilt the hut on the exact same spot where Jeff originally had his hut up in the woods on the property... Then we found a high school in the area that still resembled the '70s, one that hadn't really changed, and the woods hadn't changed either... The vehicles and the costumes were the biggest obstacle in bringing it back to '78."
This search for authenticity immediately throws the audience back to a time where the idea of a troubled young man being overlooked by society is sadly believable. Instead of demonising Dahmer, Meyers portrays Lynch's character in a surprisingly rounded way, dropping hints at the monster that he will become, rather than peddling his grotesqueries for all to see.
Those who wish to see a fully fledged serial killer should look elsewhere. In fact, people longing to see a condemnation of Dahmer's early years may even be offended by Meyer's more sympathetic approach, which prompted us to ask the director ever worried that he may have humanized his subject too much:
"Well, the book that precedes me does talk honestly about what [Dahmer's and Derf's] lives were like as friends in high school, so I started out from a very truthful place. On top of that, I was just trying to fill out that character. I can relate to those circumstances, having a bunch of friends, trying to pass the time in a small town by doing some oddball hijinks and other things that were very common as a teenager... but that's also the point, that [Dahmer] rode a school bus, that he had homework, he had arguing parents, he had friends. He had all the things that remind us he wasn't a monster living in a cage. That he was originally just a kid who was somebody's next-door neighbor."
From Disney To Dahmer
Even though Dahmer was just "somebody's next-door neighbor" at first, it's still hard to imagine the toll that wearing his skin must take on a person. Enter #RossLynch, a young pop star and actor who had just finished working on the teen show Austin & Ally for Disney. Much has been made of Lynch's transition from teen idol to teen killer, but as Meyers pointed out to us, the Disney community is full of talented performers who are looking to move on from whatever show they grew up working on.
Meyers met a number of young men interested in taking on the role of Dahmer at first. However, when Lynch arrived to audition, his likeness to the killer was immediately apparent, and the fact that he could also dance became surprisingly important during the casting process too:
"Lynch also originally a dancer, so I knew that he could faithfully get into the posture and gait of Dahmer that's archived in Youtube videos. These are things that are known, so I knew that he could inhabit the role physically as well."
Make-up and hair can transform people in a visual sense, but Meyers needed someone who could also embody Dahmer's peculiar physicality too. Throughout the film, Lynch's hunched shoulders and shuffling walk help to isolate Dahmer from his peers far beyond his own social lacking. Even in the many club photographs that Dahmer secretly poses for, his unnerving presence can still be felt, and that's a huge credit to Lynch as a performer.
Following their initial meeting, Meyers and his future lead hung out one-on-one, providing Lynch with another chance to prove that he was ready for this bold new step in his career:
"We messed around with the material in a rehearsal space and I saw how deep [Lynch] could go into the role, act drunk, and all the other notes of the character. He was already a charming guy, so I just felt that he had the full package... When we got on set and put the glasses on and got the hair done and put on the 70s clothes, we realised that he could really do this."
Meyers referred to each actor on set by their character's names to help everyone immerse themselves in the imaginary world that they were creating for the movie. Lynch took this approach to heart, staying in character for most of the shoot:
"[Lynch] came to set already dressed as Jeff every day with his hair done in a '70s style, wearing the clothes... It was only when we wrapped the film and had a party that [Lynch] had his hat on backwards and his ripped jeans back on. And I was like 'Oh right, that's the real Ross.'... He was pretty much in character or stayed quiet whenever I was around him while working... So it was only at the end that I've got to know the real Ross. I do think that it took him a couple of days to shed the role and the dark kind of places that he might have to go to."
Devouring The Competition
Rather than caricature Dahmer as the monster that the media depicted him to be, My Friend Dahmer is all the more unsettling precisely because of Meyer's naturalist approach. While writing the screenplay for My Friend Dahmer, Meyers began to identify with aspects of Jeffrey's life growing up, an uneasy realisation that others will undoubtedly share upon watching the film:
"[My Friend Dahmer] has a mixture of humour in it, and it's also horrifying at the same time. There's a deep level that people experience.... and there's emotions the audiences experience that are new to them. There's a weird realm where they're becoming to understand this person before he becomes a monster."
Aside from the graphic novel and his own experiences growing up, Meyers also drew upon a wide range of cinematic influences while writing and shooting My Friend Dahmer:
"I had created a mood reel before I made the film that included all kinds of movies in there, from The Faculty to River's Edge, along with a bunch of other '70s movies too... My influences weren't just blatantly teenage films though... I also looked at P.T. Anderson and the way he uses a steadicam at times, keeping the camera moving."
Despite regularly focusing on the banter shared by Jeffrey and members of the Dahmer Fan Club, Meyers avoided the sentimentality of typical teen movies by refusing to include a voice-over that could embody the narration used in the book. Tropes usually associated with slasher movies and gay coming-of-age films were also threaded together throughout this adaptation, subverting what audiences may expect from a biopic starring Jeffrey Dahmer:
"I was aware that people would come in preconceived ideas because of the word 'Dahmer.' They expect it to be exploited and that's exactly what made the book unique, how honest it was... I wasn't exploiting the name just to create a slasher film, because that's not what it is. One of the things I'm most proud of is the way that [My Friend Dahmer] has played at prestige film festivals and genre film festivals... the LGBT community, lovers of comic books and that book, people who like true crime, they're all coming at it with a fascination towards the story from their own personal point of view and knowledge of who Dahmer became."
Just like elements of both nature and nurture combined to set Jeffrey on his shocking path, Meyers also pulled from a variety of sources to construct a whole new perspective on Dahmer's formative years.
Who Should Be Blamed?
Ultimately though, the question still remains: What drove Jeffrey Dahmer to kidnap young men and murder them, drilling holes into their skulls before eating their remains? Had the authority figures in his life intervened sooner, could Dahmer have been saved somehow, or was Jeffrey innately evil from the day he was born? Meyers is reluctant to cite one particular reason for Dahmer's behavior, explaining to us that:
"I do believe that [Dahmer] was wired wrong... However, mixed within those deeply depraved proclivities, he also was living in an era where he was slipping through the cracks. The parents were not paying attention. The friends were insensitive... He had friendships and camaraderie which may be cruel at times, but also had fun moments mixed in with it... I think that's what makes him very interesting to people. Just not giving a singular reason why, but showing all of the elements playing upon him at that time allows the audience to try and make their own understanding or try and make a conclusion about what he was. Perhaps under different circumstances, the doors that led to him becoming a monster may not have opened up to him so freely."
My Friend Dahmer ends just before Jeffrey finally gives in to his murderous impulses for the first time, but in reality, his story didn't end there. Before he was arrested in 1991, Dahmer was responsible for the deaths of 17 young men in the 13 years that followed the events depicted in Meyers' adaptation. Although films of this nature rarely spawn sequels, we were curious nonetheless to learn whether Meyers would ever return to the story of Dahmer again in the future:
"Like with any story, if it feels like it's a unique take on something, I guess I would. 'Never say never' is my answer, but I didn't go into it thinking that My Friend Dahmer would be a trilogy, although there are other parts of his story that are untold... He did go to college and then the army for a little while before he eventually ended up in Milwaukee where his crimes are most known for."
While there's a chance that Myers and Lynch may return to the subject of Dahmer one day, let's just hope in the meantime that this film's message can help prevent Jeffrey's story from repeating again in real life. After all, #MyFriendDahmer may be set in the late '70s, but the idea that troubled young teenagers can lash out at the world around them is something that still rocks supposedly 'safe' communities on a far too regular basis. Meyers champions the the lesson that Dahmer's tragic story can teach others, explaining to us that:
"[My Friend Dahmer] is a cautionary tale, and unfortunately, the circumstances of a troubled young teenage slipping through the cracks are still as relevant today. By looking back at a situation like this from the '70s, this may make us have a better understanding of the world in which a troubled teenager slips through the cracks in modern life. And hopefully, that changes the way in which we deal with that as a problem. Unfortunately, there are situations that keep coming up where a troubled, often white teenager does some hurtful harmful things to his community. I won't give those names any ink, but the fact that it's a cautionary tale is what makes this story relevant today."
More people may count someone like Dahmer among their friends than we realize, and if so, we must do everything we can to prevent them from slipping through the cracks too.
How do you feel about the way that Dahmer is portrayed in the film? And what do you think drove him to murder in the first place? Let us know what you thought of 'My Friend Dahmer' in the comments section below!