Serial killers have been a staple of horror films ever since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Unfortunately, most films use the serial killer as a generic madman and we rarely get character driven stories that explore the genesis of someone with an abnormal psychological make-up. Recently, there have been more attempts to tell more realistic, and yet no less harrowing, tales of people afflicted with madness such as David Fincher’s Netflix series Mind Hunter. Another of these current films is the restrained, thoughtful My Friend Dahmer by director Marc Meyers. Myers was able to take some time to speak to us about his film, the challenges in adapting a successful graphic novel, his phenomenal cast, and what it was like peering into the dark soul of Jeffery Dahmer.
Horror News Network: How did you first become involved with bringing My Friend Dahmer to the screen?
Marc Meyers: My producing partner and I were looking for new projects and we were interested in something along the lines of a a younger version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a seed for a film. I ended up getting an advance copy of Derf Backderf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer and it just happened to work out in terms of the synergy of the concept. The idea changed from creating a fictional, adolescent serial killer to using an infamous historical figure for the film.
HNN: Did you consult with Backderf much as you prepared for the film?
Meyers: Yes, he actually invited me out to Cleveland and we then went to where he grew up in Akron, Ohio and I stayed at his home for 2-3 days. He basically gave me a “tour” of his book and we visited the roads, houses, high school; a real lay of the land, and of course, Dahmer’s boyhood home, which we used in the film when we shot it.
HNN: Your film resembles the graphic novel, but it also has a look and feel of its own. How did you strike this balance?
Meyers: We spent a little more time on his home life in the film. We also compressed the timeline into his high school years and we tried to follow the template for a high school film and reduced the story down to the core elements of the book. We also developed Dahmer’s home life more and tried hard to find a way to link it to his school life. In both situations, Dahmer received suggestions of advice, but he would always pervert the advice in a way that didn’t end up helping him.
HNN: You work with an excellent cast in the film, with a real combination of new stars and veteran talent. Can you tell us about casting former Disney-star Ross Lynch as your lead in the film?
Meyers: We met with a lot of people for the project and Lynch ended up being a pure joy to work with. He obviously came in with a lot of experience from his years with Disney, not only in acting, but also signing and dancing, so his background in performing was strong. He actually has a striking resemblance to a young Jeff Dahmer and he was able to carry his likeness out in the film. We got to see him grow into the role and he was able to capture Dahmer’s walk, gait, and sleepy eyes in a convincing way.
HNN: You also worked with Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) as Derf Backderf.
Meyers: Alex is so talented. We auditioned everyone for the roles and he really stood out. He made the scenes more interesting and he has great instincts as an actor.
HNN: In addition to the young talent in the film, you also had the opportunity to work with two accomplished, veteran actors in Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts as Dahmer’s parents.
Meyers: Those two really loved working together, especially when it came to scenes where they were arguing and fighting! Anne came in during the second half of the production and joined a crew that already had a real rhythm going, but she stepped into it seamlessly. I explained to Anne that her character was like a force of nature, like an unpredictable weather front, and the family never knew what they were going to experience. They never knew what kind of a mom that they were going to get on any given day. She was an essential part of the story and she was such a generous actor and made the scenes that she was in stand out.
Dallas is an incredible New York actor and we hit it off immediately. He is totally unassuming and one of the best character actors working today.
HNN: There are moments of tension in the film that are established without any typical elements of a horror film. How did you make these scenes tension-filled and yet avoided standard techniques to elicit them?
Meyers: In the story, we know where the character is going and everything that he does contributes to the eventual disaster that his life will become. Because of this knowledge, when we see the character on screen, we are always fearing the worst, even when he is involved with his mundane, day-to-day existence. We know that we are watching this “future Boogeyman” and we see him pick up the road kill and creep around the neighborhood as he continually watches the jogger, so we quickly see these repeated patterns and behavior in the film.
I learned a lot while making this film, about what you show, but also what you don’t show. I wanted to give the film a haunting look and I used a lot of camera drifts and subliminal zooms to give the film that atmosphere.
HNN: My Friend Dahmer seems to authentically capture the look and feel of the actual 1970’s instead of the idealized version on the 70’s. How did you approach the setting of the film?
Meyers: We actually used an old high school that had been re-purposed into a junior high. A lot of those old schools still look the same with the drab colors and muted tones. I told the costume designer that I wanted the clothes to resemble the “real 70’s” and I didn’t want it to look like the kids would be going to a disco after they got out of school.
HNN: Your previous work has focused on the role of family and how family members can impact an individual’s life. How did you approach this aspect in My Friend Dahmer?
Meyers: I came into it with the understanding that Dahmer was wired all wrong. In terms of his early life, all the doors that could have opened for him, slammed in his face, and instead he walked through doors that lead to his dark habits. I focused more on all of the forces playing around him, not just his family, and his family was certainly not to blame, but there were many contributing factors to his sanity slipping away. For everyone that knew him, it was a case of missing the signs in an era where people were not as versed in identifying these signs. After high school, the last bits of his sanity seemed to slip away once he was removed from that environment after graduation.
One of the things Derf told me was that he never felt in danger when he was around Dahmer. He never foresaw that it was possible for him to do things he did. In fact, when his wife called him to tell him that someone from his high school was arrested for the crimes, Derf guessed that it was someone else that he went to school with.
HNN: Are there any projects that you are currently working on?
Meyers: I am looking at making another genre film and I am also working on a script for my personal take on a zombie story.
My Friend Dahmer is currently available for digital download and will also be released on dvd/blu-ray on April 10.