Tackling a subject like the high school days of Jeffrey Dahmer is inevitably going to attract some controversy – were you worried about a backlash?
At the time, I was initially worried about a little bit of a backlash. But, I have to be honest, there’s already a book that did it which the movie is based on. It’s not like I was putting out a film on this unique perspective on his life without anything that preceded it. The book has already been out in bookstores for a couple of years. I wasn’t terribly worried, but I was concerned that on some level it would be misinterpreted.
There’s nothing about the film that’s exploitative. I think anyone that sees the movie understands that I’m not in any way sensationalising or celebrating a serial killer. I’m rather just trying to show what really helped create the character of who he is, and how this kid slipped through the cracks – it’s a cautionary tale. I find now that it’s coming to theatres in the UK, and it’s already opened in the US as well, I think I’m personally beyond the concern of any backlash. But it’s a controversial movie, and that’s also good too.
As a director, you don’t really have much control over how viewers will react to your film.
As a director – at least for me as I’m concerned – I’m making a movie or a piece of entertainment that’s meant for an audience. It’s meant to be shared with strangers. So I’m structuring and designing a film meant to entertain and meant for that venue; it’s not a book. I’m concerned with how it’s perceived by people, but that doesn’t keep me away from wanting to tell something that could be perceived as controversial.
I was also trying to be as authentic and honest about the story as possible – that was the biggest task. That even goes for the fact that I filmed at his house, his real actual childhood home. I was always intending to be as honest as possible with the story.
I think anyone that sees the movie understands that I’m not in any way sensationalising or celebrating a serial killer - it’s a cautionary tale.
After watching the film, I had a few discussions with people about the weirdos at their school, or being the school weirdo. Do you relate personally to the more “normal” issues Dahmer was going through, and do you think people who have been bullied or isolated at school experience the film and his character differently?
I think there’s a little bit of a weirdo in all of us – I think that’s what it means to be a teenager. Some may be ostracised in their school for being a weirdo. They may find a group of friends that know they are the oddball in their school. It’s just very odd to be a teenager.
What I’ve found is that everybody, not just oddballs, relates to these kids. Because a lot of it, they’re just joking around as friends, and most groups of friends – even the smartest, brightest, honorous students of a high school class are still numbskulls on some level. They still do stupid things and say stupid, insensitive things to their friends because that is part of being a teenager.
I wasn’t as weird as Jeffrey Dahmer, but in telling the story for sure I had to find ways to relate to him and all the other characters. I empathise with who they are, so I can write the screenplay and ultimately then direct the actors.
I felt really sad and conflicted after watching the film, trying to reconcile feeling pity for someone who went on to do such horrific things. Was it hard drawing a line between Dahmer being this troubled teenager and class clown, and a monster capable of murder, necrophilia and cannibalism?
Well I made a movie that isn’t – it’s of him becoming a monster and not as a monster. I always knew in making the movie that the audience is aware of where it’s headed. That’s part of the experience. But I was only concerned, like the author, of what he was like in high school.
What is haunting is that on many levels he’s not that much different than other people. That in many ways is one of the points of the film. It’s a reminder that someone who became a monster didn’t grow up in a cave. He could have very well grown up just like this guy – in a sweet, lovely college neighbourhood. He had homework, rode the school bus, had friends that were mean to him, he was misunderstood like most teenagers. It’s the mundane and the familiar that makes it more horrifying.
One of the things that’s mixed in here is the fact that he was wired wrong. He was losing his sanity, but friends, family, teachers and neighbours all missed the signs. That is what it all really is about. He wasn’t a monster, it’s about him becoming one – he was still just a kid and a teenager.
I’ve just read the graphic novel the film is based on, and you’ve stayed really faithful. What were the most significant changes you made – did you discuss additions with John Backderf or did you give yourself some creative freedom?
I did a research visit, where I stayed with him for a couple of days, to get a tour of the book. He lives in Cleveland, which is just north of Akron where he grew up. He took me back to the high school, to Jeffrey Dahmer’s actual childhood home. We walked through the woods. I got a sense of the environment that very much reminded me of how I grew up. I then went off and wrote a script, and only sort of shared with him a screenplay, but it didn’t necessarily change because of that. I was letting him know where it was and what it was.
The major change might be that the book chronicles the course of all of high school, in a way that a book can do. In the movie, we needed to condense the timeline to what is ultimately a little bit more than one school year. The other thing that he didn’t do – he’s originally a journalist by trade and does graphic novels that are based in non-fiction – he wasn’t in the house so he could only suggest what home life was like. I saw that it was important, with my producing partners, to further develop what Jeffrey Dahmer must have been like at home. What his parents and their marriage was like, as it was heading towards divorce. To show the full nature versus nurture, the full experience of the making of this person.
Also, the book has exposition or prose from a present-day perspective, reflecting on high school. I thought it was a more interesting perspective to place it completely in high school, in the 70s with no narration – that would have been a little too much like “Stand by Me” and made it sentimental. We didn’t want to do that, we just wanted to place you in 1978. Our main interest is in Jeffrey Dahmer, not in the friend. It’s much more centred on Jeff himself as the main character.
He wasn’t a monster, it’s about him becoming one – he was still just a kid and a teenager.
Ross Lynch has the Dahmerisms pinned down wonderfully – it’s a fantastic part – but he also brings a lot of warmth to the role, compared to when you see Dahmer in interviews. Does it worry you that there’s probably (in the depths of the internet) people already fascinated by Jeffrey Dahmer, and that they might romanticise him more after seeing Ross and the film?
If they’re already romanticising him for their own reasons, I think all I’m doing is giving an honest look at the unique window of what he was like as a high school kid. If we find any warmth in him, it’s maybe just having a better understanding of how he was somebody’s next-door neighbour and friend. That is part of what is the point of the movie. If they’re going to be weird about fantasising about a serial killer, that preceded me and this movie!
In America, many young men with mental health problems slip through the cracks to commit murder, despite the alarm bells. You describe the film as “a cautionary tale”; do you think Dahmer could have avoided his future if he’d had the right support?
I think he was caught in a perfect storm of his own problems, that were mental, and an environment that missed the signs. It is a haunting window into how someone can slip through the cracks because of mental illness. There is the hope that maybe he could have, if adults, neighbours, teachers had maybe identified the signals and had not ignored them, not gone on unwatched for so long.
I don’t try to say that it’s anyone’s fault, except that it’s everybody’s fault – it’s the community’s and everything. Nobody gave him a hug, nobody asked him what was on his mind, no one really questioned his behaviour. The teachers and the school allowed him to drink and walk around the halls drunk. It’s a reflection on that time period too. There is the possibility that he could have, under other circumstances, found another place to put his dark proclivities. Into something like taxidermy or something else, to funnel those fascinations in a way that was civilised. The community missed the signs and that’s the haunting part of this whole thing.
That’s why I think it’s relevant today; we’re always reminded of troubled young men who go on to do harm, and how the community ignored the signs and they didn’t see them. Then they ultimately move on to do something harmful within their community. In this modern day, obviously with the frequency of high school shootings in the United States, there’s something very relevant that this echoes.
Do you feel the high school antics and humour of the film jars with the serious subject matter, particularly when it’s about a real person?
No, that’s kind of the point of the film. To remind you that he and his friends were doing things that we think are funny, because they thought it was funny. That is honestly who they were then as teenagers. There’s no part of the movie that plays the end of the movie, there’s no one that says “oh, this kid's going to be a serial killer”, that goes to the point. The comedy is just as funny as other high school kids – especially in an era of the 70s where you were still all very politically incorrect and insensitive, and teenagers have off-kilter things that they say.
As a filmmaker, I know that the humour in that first half helps the design of the movie. We’ve gone from laughing along with them, to them later being frightened from where’s he’s heading. Having once found there’s something endearing about him, it reminds us of this huge contrast between what we forgot he was going to become. It makes it such a different swirl of emotions that are going on in the audience’s mind.
The imagery and 70s high school setting are reminiscent of Charles Burns’ graphic novel “Black Hole”. Are you drawn to adapting graphic novels and if so, why?
I loved the process of adapting this graphic novel. I honestly wanted to be the filmmaker to do “Black Hole” – I love Charles Burns and I love that book! There are other graphic novels out there that I would love to turn into movies, and I’m hoping to find even more. There’s something about that visual medium that was a great jumping-off point, mixed with the fact that graphic novels tended to have a really fun, subversive sensibility that I think obviously translates well to cinema, especially when the movie’s not about superheroes.
I hope to do a whole bunch more of movies that were based on graphic novels, because it’s a great place to start from. I even used the graphic novel, his drawings – Derf’s artwork became collaged into my storyboards, that I could carry the spirit of the book with me as I was making the film. It affects me going forward with other movies I’m working on, in that when I storyboard now I want to find that kind of graphic novel composition in scenes visually. It's a good place to aim for in the movie, it’s very strong active imagery and that works really well for motivating me on set.
My Friend Dahmer shows in cinemas until Thursday 7 June