Even those folks who are not true crime junkies know who Jeffrey Dahmer is. The serial killing cannibal made waves when his long laundry list of victims emerged soon after his arrest, only to have his name back in the news when he was killed in prison by a fellow inmate. The graphic novel My Friend Dahmer is a firsthand account from one of his former friends; a document of what Dahmer was like back in the day. The film adaptation of this book played at Fantasia International Film Festival, and I sat down with the director to discuss the process of adapting nonfiction and how to remain neutral when giving a real monster so much screen time.
The film My Friend Dahmer is an adaptation of a graphic novel that is an account of Jeffrey Dahmer’s teenage years. How did you start to develop a film that is an adaptation of someone’s observations? Were you worried that things could get lost in the layers of translation?
I had this idea of “The Portrait of a Serial Killer as a Young Boy” as a concept. When I found the book I felt like it fell right into a concept I was already looking to do. This was better than any fictional version. I didn’t really have any further concept - I just used the book as my bible.
I honestly don’t think of it any other way than I was trying to adapt specifically that book. Trusting that the author, who was originally a journalist by trade, wasn’t the kind of person who was going to fictionalize his own memories. I knew what he was giving in the book was based on fact, memory, conversations with his friends, and what was public record from the FBI. Using all of that, as deeply-researched text that he then used to express himself through his chosen medium, which was a graphic novel. I first and foremost tried to adapt his book.
I then looked at the first draft [of the script] and I had to push myself out of my own habits, on what type of story I tend to tell. This had to have more genre-like elements. Also, to move the focus more to Dahmer, because I think that’s what the audience would be most fascinated with. It became immediately clear that the prose he [Derf Backderf] had, looking back from the modern era, is very “Stand By Me,” and had to go. It’s not my taste to do anything with voice over, and we needed to keep this film completely submerged in 1977 and 1978. I didn’t use any of that voiceover, or his exposition, and refocused entirely on Jeff.
It sounds you were wholly indebted to adapting the graphic novel, and not necessarily telling Dahmer’s story.
Well they are one in the same. [Derf] is a guy who is going to be honest, as an author, about his friend Jeff. He was only concerned about the friendship they had, and the time they spent together in high school, because that was the only guy he knew. That was Jeff Dahmer. It was later in his life that he called himself Jeffrey and he fell off the edge mentally. There was another identity going on. But Derf only knew the high school kid, so I only knew high school kid. And I stayed within the boundaries that were guided. I do know, as we all know, of the man he will become. There are a few hints, and nods, to that in the dialogue.
The audience definitely responded to those lines. Especially, “We eat our mistakes,” at the dinner table.
That is probably one of the most explicit nods to a future cannibal. It’s a little bit of an inside joke, but it is also something I’ve heard said around a dinner table once. It’s not only being used because Jeff is at the table. It is something that someone could just say to their children.
Did you decide early in the process not to do any independent Dahmer research? Were you tempted to go and do your own investigation?
I trusted that so much of the research had already been digested for the book. What I did use was more things I learned from Derf that he couldn’t put in the book, based on the limitations of page count, or a few incidents that he learned about after he delivered the book to the publisher. There is so much to explore there, but there was already enough in the book that you can’t even include all of that into a movie.
Derf didn’t really witness the inner-workings of a family and marriage falling apart. I related, having my parents divorced just as I came out of high school, so the timeline was similar. I remembered what high school was like, so I could fill out the “nurture” aspect. The book couldn’t really explore that, because Derf was being loyal to the memory that he has so there was room there for me to take some artistic license to develop that part that the film needed. I wanted to refocus the film on Jeff and his home experience.
One thing I did is look at was a bunch of other teen films. One example I found was Welcome to the Dollhouse. Where Todd Solondz shows that what happens to her in high school, she then uses that teasing on her younger sister. That was the bridge that connected her home life and her school life. She’s getting made fun of in high school, and then making fun of her sister at home using the same abuses. In its own way, I took that lead. The advice that Jeff is getting at home from his dad, he is then perverting in the way he executes it in school. Like “Why don’t you join some more clubs?” or “Make some friends,” or “Try performing in front of people.” This is me trying to demonstrate what motivated him to try those in the first place.
You talked a little bit about getting to tell the same story through a different medium. What specific tools or techniques did you utilize to make a graphic novel cinematic?
After I extracted information from the book into a first draft, and re-outlined it with my producing partners Adam Goldworm and Jody Girgenti, we talked about what it should be. Then I put the book aside. Now I’ve got the information, I needed to focus on how to best make it a movie. That’s where developing the home life came from. Knowing with independent film you need to be prepared with story boards well in advance, I storyboarded the whole thing as soon as the script landed on the Black List. During the story boarding I revisited the book, to remind myself of what scenes were loyal to the book and which ones I had created. When the script overlapped I extracted panels from the book and pasted them into the storyboard. It was like collaging them together. At that time I was aware that there was a wider fan base of the book, and they might want to see some aspects of the graphic novel executed in the film. I wanted to honor that. And Derf’s panels are so amazing, and cinematic. I started making them more cinematic; drawing arrows to show camera movement. Most obviously, how I used the jogger. That was essentially extracted from the book.
Jeff is framed in the center of the shot so often in the film. There is action happening all around him, but he is just passing through each scene.
It is a quality that is in both the book and the script. He is invisible in that school, in the first act, to everything around him. People don’t really see him as a person, so he can hide. It allows him to do things like steal a fetal pig. No one will say, “That was probably Jeff.”
It is interesting to share this film at Fantasia. I understand that the film is in the genre community, and I felt like I was paying with genre elements, but I felt like this film is more horrifying than horror. It is horrifying in broad daylight.
It’s real, it’s true.
That, I feel, is way more horrifying than exploiting something for shock.
A lot of the conversations we were having leaving the theater was that everyone had that one kid in high school that you would not be surprised to find out they turned into a serial killer.
In the book, when Derf learned that someone he went to high school with had been arrested as a serial killer, his first guess was not Jeff. I also met some people along the way, that heard we were filming, who were on the tennis team with him, or they remembered him from school. One of the extras on set had a mother who went to school with him, and she wanted to connect with me. She wanted to thank us for making this movie. She felt horrible about everything he became, but she also wanted to remark that he wasn’t the weirdest guy in the group. I think that was powerful to keep in mind as I was filming. I’m not showing the monster, he’s one of the friends.
You mentioned earlier the built-in fan base for the book. Right now there is a huge surge in true crime fandom and “murderinos.” Are you yourself a fan of true crime?
This book has changed me a lot. My fascination with all this stuff was there, but I’m not someone who gets obsessive. I only get obsessive when something begins influencing something I want to create. I guess we are all always fascinated by true crime. Making a Murderer. S-Town. The first season of Serial. These are things I just devour, but I don’t identify myself as someone who is obsessed with true crime.
I think it is the fascination that we all have with the darker parts of our own psyche. Knowing that there is some part of us that is smart enough to not allow us to go that bad. Once in a while we all have thoughts that are askew or mean, and we just have the reigns to not act on it.
Also, in terms of evolutionary psychology, we all watch the car crash on the side of the road. You aren’t necessarily a dark person, but your impulse is to look so that you can learn how to survive.
It’s funny you should mention that, because I found myself explaining the movie like that. Why do we all slow down for a car accident? We hope that everyone is ok, but we also want to see what the damage its. Why do people go to the Indy 500? They want to see a hero, but they also maybe want to see a big wreck. There is this weird duality that we all deal with, that we almost don’t want to admit about ourselves. But the reality is that it causes huge traffic jams, because everyone is fascinated by the morbid or macabre.
At last night’s Q&A there were some questions about being respectful to Dahmer’s victims and the possible issues with portraying him as a sympathetic character. Do those questions surprise you, or have you anticipated that reaction?
I’m prepared for those questions, but honestly that was only the second time in about ten Q&As that I’ve done. This was probably the earliest it has come up during the questions following the screening. I try to answer it as best I could.
My story, just like the book is only concerned with this human being’s time in high school. To somehow also bridge that to be about the victims is a delicate balance. If I did that, it could also then get misinterpreted as to what the actual movie is about. I want people to experience the film first, and then from that use the experience to widen their own view of what a troubled teen may go through.
Only by looking back at history—as I use in dialogue in the film—can we learn where we are headed. If there is a troubled kid in their own neighborhood, don’t ostracize them. Maybe ask them if they are ok and if they need to talk about it. That caring and empathy wasn’t around in the '70s in the same way, and that’s part of what created this person, in some way. Unfortunately it continues to be the case that there are troubled young teens that go out and do horrible things.