Director Marc Meyers Discusses ‘My Friend Dahmer’ and His Growth as a Filmmaker
After premiering early this year at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, My Friend Dahmer has since experienced critical success, including an overwhelmingly positive review from yours truly. Director Marc Meyers has a lot to do with the film’s accolades, providing an excellent look into the early years of infamous killer Jeffrey Dahmer. I had the opportunity to talk with the director and dive further into the film and the outlook of his career moving forward.
To dive right in, what about Jeffrey Dahmer fascinated you as a director to get involved in such a project?
Well, I came to it in a roundabout way honestly. I had thought of a concept for an independent film that was a portrait of a serial killer as a young boy; watching someone become a serial killer would be an interesting concept for a film. So I just had that in the back of my mind for awhile and simultaneously looked at graphic novels for source material because I knew some of those stories in that space were really interesting and subversive and could be a really good place to find a new story.
Then I found the book, My Friend Dahmer, which basically takes those two things that I was looking to do. I found it all in this one book! Basically, I had this portrait of a serial killer as a young boy that was nonfiction and written by someone who actually was his friend in high school. The detail and wisdom that are in that book was so rich that I immediately went after the book and did everything I could to turn it into a film.
I guess I’m into true crime the same way a lot of people are because they make for great stories, but I wasn’t someone that was like a serial killer aficionado or something like that.
So how facilitative was Derf Backderf in this process after you reached out to him for the rights to the book?
So when I first reached out to him, I explained sort of what I just told you and explained my passion for the story, having just read the book. It was even before the book was on bookshelves. It was like an advanced copy that I was given, so the timing was perfect. I had a couple conversations with him on the phone. But then after a first draft, I stayed with him in Cleveland and we went down to Akron where he grew up.
For several days, he gave me a tour of the book. He showed me all the locations that acted as the setting of the story. We went to his high school, we walked through the woods, he pointed out some of the houses that he used to hangout at that belonged to some of his friends that were part of the Dahmer Fan Club. We eventually ended at the Jeffrey Dahmer house as well. Through all that research and our conversations, I was able to have a deeper knowledge of what was behind the book.
It really helped me to do some rewrites and provide some more understanding of what was going on behind those pages in the book. It also helped get a sense for the lay of the land and to understand the Dahmer house. Now that I had been to the Dahmer house, I was writing with that place in mind. That’s why we were so steadfast in shooting at the home too. I felt like, well, it’s still there, why not use it!
You mentioned the Dahmer house, what kind of vibe did you get once you stepped inside?
I feel like I was more fascinated by it than spooked. It’s decades ago now that the Dahmers lived there and there’s been several owners since. The shape of the house and the construction was all the same so you could really feel like you could imagine what it was like in 70’s. It was even a very similar, ugly brown color from its wood siding. But, it was really more interesting because, just like any other human being, you got to see his bedroom, where his parents slept, and a living room that overlooked some trees. You really got an understanding of how the kid must have walked around the house or popped out the backdoor when he went out to meet up with some friends. It almost made the whole experience more relatable and less spooky.
Derf and I also figured out and located where the original hut where he performed experiments as a teenager once stood. The resident had pointed out that there was this pile of branches over this decaying roof from a shed in a certain spot. It was actually different from where Derf thought it would have been when he wrote the book. So when we filmed, we built a hut in that exact location. It wasn’t as eerie as one would think, at least from my point of view. It could have been eerie to everyone else when we were about to film there. But, for me, it was pretty cool.
You worked on the script for quite some time. It showed up on the Black List back in 2014, and now we’re here in 2017. Did you doubt that the film would ever get made?
Well that year I made another movie, and by the end of that year the script got on the Black List. In 2015, we started to try to get the project together. I was actually meeting with a lot of young talent because of the Black List. Through that next step I really started to feel the possibility of it being made because talent was attached that was deeply enthusiastic and wanted to be a part of the film.
I mean, at any moment you could doubt that you might not make it through like any other movie because it’s such a combination of luck, good fortune, and perseverance all at the same time. But, I don’t know if I ever recall – you know what, with every f***ing movie you’re probably freaking out that it stays on track. [laughs]
I wanted to talk a little about Ross Lynch. I’m sure other interviewers have gone crazy with the fact that he was on the Disney Channel before My Friend Dahmer, so I don’t want to burden you with that question again. But what made Lynch stand out in the casting process that made you feel confident that he was right for the role?
He self-taped his first audition because he couldn’t make the auditions in New York and L.A., but I had already met him once since I was introduced to a ton of young actors for the film. Having sat down with him in a hotal lobby for a meeting, it was clear how present he was and how sweet and grounded of a person he was as a human being. You didn’t really feel like he was this “Disney guy” with any kind of attitude. He was really conversational and approachable. He’s a really sweet guy and he’s now a good friend of mine.
So then after those self-tapes, I already had this hunch that he could be a great Dahmer based on the meeting, his likeness, watching his TV shows. The self-tape just confirmed for me, like yup! My hunch was pretty right.
At that point I was waiting around to see if he could come to New York and hangout for an hour or two to rehearse and mess around with the material, and that’s when it became obvious in an even deeper way. What I was really testing there was how versatile he could be as an actor while also remaining within that character. I could really see how versatile he was as an actor, and I knew we could do this movie together because whatever unpredictable things could come our way in figuring out a scene, I knew that he could kind of roll with it. That was really the distinguishing thing, and the extreme likeness just made it that much more creepy.
I’d say you’re pretty happy with that choice now that the film is complete.
I’m really happy he’s been getting such praise because he deserves it. My hunch was right!
There’s was a lot of choices he made in the film that were suprisingly really funny. A lot of elements in the story combined the humor with this impending darkness that obviously casts over everything. How did you make sure that these two elements had a balance without swaying to either side?
There’s this tidbit or anecdote that you picked up which is the fact that these kids, when they graduated high school, never would have anticipated what one of their friends would have become, which means that their high school experience was as off-kilter, but at the same time familiar, to them as high school would be to the rest of us – where you do and say stupid and odd things. You have friends that you drift away from and come back to. It all felt very relatable.
So with that, I felt it was authentic and accurate to have the comedy, whatever they would do, that’s stupid, dumb, numbskull behavior for kids in high school. One of them may be Jeff, but he was still doing it and it was just as common as other kids doing that were doing it. They’re all pranks; they’re all in high school. A lot of the comedy comes out of that. There’s a couple comments in the dialogue that kind of nod to the future we know. But what makes the movie also eerie is how we shot it. His performance is at the center of the frame and these kids are oblivious to what might be going on in his mind.
Most importantly, we knew that the audience was watching the movie with an understanding to where the movie is headed. It’s creepier because you’re aware of where he’s going. As for filming it, a lot of it, from the actor’s point of view, was just making a high school movie or a movie about high school kids. I felt like it would naturally balance itself for being honest.
With that balance, there was definitely an effort to make the audience almost empathize with his character. Do you think that was probably the most important element of the film that you wanted to project?
Well look, he’s just a character like in any other movie you might watch this year. Any other central character, you also empathize with. That’s kind of what movies are suppose to do. What’s happening here seems like, somewhat of a conversation of “Ohh, we have to empathize with a future serial killer.” But, no, you actually empathize with the main character, which is what you do in every movie. So my goal was to bring the audience into his world and to put them as much in his shoes as possible so that we have a better understanding of what this kid must have been going through in this point in his life before he murdered anyone. I was going for empathy, but not in any way that exploited but just because that’s what movies should do.
Did you ever fear that there might be some backlash to that part of the film through people that might not understand it the way you intended it?
So Derf allowed me to have the rights to the book, and he also entrusted me with his story, which is about him sharing a very unique perspective on someone very infamous in history. There’s a lot of other filmmakers that would have taken this book and just exploited Dahmer to use the Dahmer name to create a horror film. On some level I wasn’t worried so much about the backlash. I was just more concerned with making sure I do the spirit of the book justice. That’s more important.
If there’s backlash, it’s kind of miscalculated backlash. You can’t expect to make anything about someone named “Dahmer” without some backlash. If there wasn’t any, I think there would be something wrong with this world. [laughs]
I read in a couple of your other interviews where you said that Backderf’s writing style almost lends itself to a Stand By Me type of prose but, instead, you wanted the focus to be on Dahmer himself. Did you have any other cinematic inspirations that may have helped in your take on the source material?
If you’re looking back at another era around a bunch of kids and there’s a voice over, then it immediately reminds us of Stand By Me. On the surface, if I was loyal to the voice over, it could have fallen into that Stand By Me pocket. But, it doesn’t fit, it’s not right. It would have had the potential to make something visceral much less visceral and also didactic because it could have come across as a little preachy.
I’m personally not so much a fan of voice over so I really felt like it was more powerful that the film is from the perspective of Jeff because that’s what we’re interested in. Even the author is really only talking about his friend Jeff and how he knew him. He’s not really talking much about his personal life except for in contrast to Jeff’s. The real interest for everyone opening the book is the same as the movie; they want to learn a little more about Jeff Dahmer. Taking away the voice over and making it a period piece where you are completely submerged in ’77 and ’78 felt like the most interesting, visceral way to tell this story, knowing that the audience can put their own wisdom from either Wikipedia or what they already knew about Dahmer on top of the movie.
Welcome to the Dollhouse was a movie I looked at. It was really interesting how the movie bridged school and home life through how that main character was teased at school was the same way she teased her sister at home. I realized those two worlds could coexist if some information from one world carries over to the other. The wisdom that he (Jeff) gets from his father is to join some new clubs and make some new friends. These are the things that he perverts when he tries to do that at school. I was able to connect the two and I learned how to form that bridge.
I look at a lot of movies from the 70’s and from other high school movies and sort of watched them all. River’s Edge is one I remember. There’s a lot of stuff there. I looked at a lot of PT Anderson films and looked at how me moved the camera. My plan was to use a steady cam and I wanted to imagine when I storyboarded various ways in which I could be dynamic with a steady cam.
My Friend Dahmer is quite some time after your first film, Approaching Union Square, which came out all the way back in 2006. What do you think you’ve learned about yourself as either a person or a filmmaker that’s set you up for success moving forward?
Well I learned a lot from making this movie to be completely honest. After I finished Harvest, I had this reaction where I knew I had to make movies that were a little more provocative in one way or the other. That’s been something of interest for me since, and it was partially due to the reaction of Harvest itself which was that it was a well-told story about a family; it was moving and sweet, but it didn’t go into dangerous places. So my next film, How He Fell in Love, dealt with a marital affair, and it gets very sexy and naked at times.
And then there’s this, which was also a concept that I came up with after Harvest with the idea of a portrait of a serial killer. I think one thing I learned as a filmmaker was making a story where you create a world that’s dangerous or provocative or subversive, because why else make the movie than to make an interesting story that also puts the audience in an unfamiliar, maybe even uncomfortable place at times.
Honestly, I’ve said this before so I’m not just saying it for an interview, but, this is my fourth film, and they’re all small and through independent studios. But the more I’ve done it, I’m finding a way to express myself. Like with Approaching Union Square, we were just trying to make a movie. Now, you move beyond the stages of a film and what it takes to make it into a movie and you realize how to express yourself within each part of those steps because you’ve been through the process once or twice. I’ve learned a lot in how to be better in the edit room, how to be better as a screenwriter, things like that.
So you probably know that the current trend in Hollywood is to take successful indie directors and put them into a massive blockbuster. With that in mind, how excited are you to direct Avengers 5?
[laughs] Bring it on! You live once, and if I’m fortunate enough to do a big film, I’ll take it on with lots of joy. It would be great.
So are you working on any other projects at the moment?
I’m developing a bunch of different things. I’m just trying to find enough time to work on them but I feel like now that the movie is several weeks into release and my festival travels for the U.S. have sort of come to an end as the movie continues to expand I’m now allowed to focus daily on them, which has been good.
It’s Oscar season as you know. Are there any films or performances that you’re excited to see or have already seen that you think should be serious contenders come early March?
I’m not just saying this because it’s my own film but I really think there should be some attention paid to Ross beyond from the reviews. It’s certainly a machine for how films campaign and work to get nominations for certain people, so it’s a whole thing at play to make yourself rise to the top and be considered. Besides that, based solely on Ross’ performance, I think it’s one of the best of the year and lot of people have consistently said how strong his performance is. It’s hard to know how the mechanism works in order for him to get a nomination, and that’s a lot to ask, but I really wish that in a fair world that he is someone that everyone talks about.
There’s so many other movies that I want to see. I haven’t seen Blade Runner yet because I want to see it on a screen, not a screener. Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, Three Billboards are of course the three indies that are in theaters with us right now. We’re like the punk movie in comparison to those three. Everyone’s wearing suits and ties when they go to events for those and we’re sort of a punk film by comparison. [laughs]
I’ll see anything right now to be completely honest. [laughs]
Be sure to check out My Friend Dahmer at a theater near you and follow Marc on Twitter @marcmeyers.
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