Before he became the notorious serial killer who drugged, murdered, had sex with and ate his victims, Jeffrey Dahmer was a typical high school misfit: introverted, odd, and unnable to fit in. No one in his orbit had any inkling of what he would become, least of all John Backderf. His graphic novel My Friend Dahmer (written under the nom de plume Derf Backderf) chronicles the time they spent together as high school seniors in rural Ohio, when Dahmer was just another outsider with a drinking problem.
Backderf’s seminal work of ficiton is brought to vivid life in director Marc Meyers’ faithful adaptation, which had its world premiere recently at the Tribeca Film Festival. Meyers enlisted Ross Lynch to play the young Dahmer. Though Lynch is unknown to the indie set, he’s revered among pre-teens for his Disney Channel pedigree. We sat down with the unlikely duo for a discussion about what it was like shooting in Dhamer’s childhood home and the challenges of finding the humanity in a monster.
John was approached by a few filmmakers who wanted to adapt My Friend Dahmer. Why did he agree to let you be the one to finally do it?
MARC MEYERS: The timing was great. I had my own idea that I wanted to do a portrait of a serial killer as a young boy and then I came across the book at Comic-con, before it was on shelves. I emailed immediately, explained who I was. We got on the phone and I explained to him how passionate I would be about the story. I visited him, spent some time at his house. We went back down to where we grew up, went to Jeff’s house, went to his childhood home, went to his high school, talked to some of their other friends and started to gather information that was beyond what I could gather from the book.
What’is it like going back to that community? Does it feel like the ghost of Dahmer is still looms large?
MEYERS: No, not at all. People moved on. They know it came from that area but it’s a beautiful part of Ohio. And it reminded me a lot of the place I grew up in, north of New York City. It reminded me a lot of my own childhood, driving around in a car with three other buddies on windy roads.
These things don’t discriminate geographically. A guy like Dahmer could pop up anywhere in the country. He wasn’t a product of his environment.
MEYERS: No and his house is lovely. A serene home perched on a hill. It wasn’t a violent environment. His parents marriage may have been dissolving under his feet when he was in high school and there was a lot of screwed up things going on inside his head but he was a kid in high school hallways with friends.
How deeply did you immerse yourselves in the exploits of Dahmer as a serial killer?
MEYERS: It was interesting. I did do extensive research on what he became but also a lot of the time I was trying to forget about was going to come and focus on who he was then. Because you can kind of separate the two. I’m sure once you’ve killed someone, you are a different kind of person and this film leads up to that point.
ROSS LYNCH: Spoiler alert! You weren’t telling that side of it. And that’s the fun of it.
Ross, this role is a massive departure for someone like you, who grew up a Disney star. How did it happen?
Lynch: I met Marc before I read the script. I loved the script but then I was on tour and I did a few auditions that went well. And then I was in New York again on tour and we met for a three hour director session where we just did some scenes. It was a really cool thing; he just told me to sit there and be Dahmer. He was just calling out stuff to me. And it felt completely different from anything I’ve done before, I was so in it.
MEYERS: That meeting was to experience what I knew was possible and demonstrate how versatile Ross was as an actor. I could change my direction and he would go with it. And then on top of it, there is a similarity to his face.
Dahmer was deceptively handsome.
MEYERS: I just felt, of any of the roles in the film, that one I had to get right in likeness, so people could connect to it. Not only are we going to shoot at the house but I want you to look at this guy and say “this looks like Dahmer.” So it was everything all in one dude.
LYNCH: It was one of those things where it just all happened at the right time. Me being the right age. Noticing the script at the right time. My contract at Disney was up and I was able to do something that was a passion project. It was one of those perfect coincidences.
Was there anyone in your orbit who maybe had some trepidations about you playing a serial killer in your first real non-Disney role?
Lynch: Do you know what Marc told me? He told me, “If you do this movie, you’ve got some big balls.” And I was like “Tight, I’m gonna do it.” And there was no hesitation from anyone in my immediate crew.
Do you see Dahmer strictly as a monster, or are people more nuanced and complex than that?
MEYERS: Everyone is far more nuanced than the labels they’ve been given. Does a bad guy think he’s a bad guy? They are doing things because they believe they have to. There are so many dimensions to this role that changed my viewpoint on what kind of movies I want to do in the future. Because there is so much to pull from with this character that we both played around with. I hate to say that he’s a fascinating person because there is nothing about what he did in the future that is excusable, but that’s not the story we’re telling. To have a better understanding of the making of someone, how someone becomes who they will become, as a parent, that is not something I want to protect my children from seeing. I think for them to understand the world from a deeper way through a movie like this, I think is good.
John has said that his book is about the failure of people close to Dahmer who could have prevented him from killing if they had seen through his facade. Do you agree?
MEYERS: Yes, but he could have continued to slip through the cracks as he did, as it became the ’80s and into the ’90s. He was arrested in ’91. So he’s clearly slipping through cracks that were beyond high school. But when you’re in high school and supposedly surrounded by adults in school, at home, the community and even some friends that are stupid 16 year-olds, they are the least able to notice the signs. Everyone missed the signs. But it’s also the ‘70s and people weren’t nearly as prepared to understand mental illness and talk to someone about what’s going on in their mind. I went to school in the ‘80s and to think about how cruel that was, high school is still cruel.
Have you had any contact with the victims’ families? Do they know about this film?
MEYERS: They may know about it but there is a book that preceded this exact story. Katy Perry wrote a song with Dahmer in it. There has been rap songs about it. There are multiple other movies and documentaries that deal with this character. I’m not coming out as the first guy to highlight this person. So there is an ongoing fascination with who he is, the unique thing we have is a story from a time in his life that no-one has touched before.
How did you end up shooting in Dahmer’s childhood home?
MEYERS: I had to call the owner, which is someone the author of the book had connected me with. I had been over to his house with Derf and we walked around. I knew I had to film there. Every person, part of who they are is rooted in the house you grew up in. I am who I am, partially because of the street and the home I grew up on. I didn’t want to have some proxy house that could never be a representation of the exact place that is so serene and specific. So without question, I was determined on doing that. I think everyone fully appreciated that that is where we were.
What do you think our fascination with serial killers says about us as humans?
MEYERS: Why do we slow down on the highway to see a car accident? We want to see that someone is okay but at the same time, we can’t help see what lurks underneath.