My Friend Dahmer
A 2017 film written and directed by Marc Meyers, My Friend Dahmer follows to-be serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer through his high school days, when he was a shy and awkward teen, before his notorious string of murders. The script is adapted from a 2012 graphic novel by cartoonist Derf Backderf, who knew Dahmer growing up in Ohio. Starring Ross Lynch as a young Dahmer, the film also features Anne Heche (Donnie Brasco) and Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) and premiered to critical acclaim at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Raised in Colorado, Ross Lynch is an LA-based actor who stars as the high-school aged Jeffrey Dahmer in the critically acclaimed film My Friend Dahmer (2017). Lynch is also known for his role in the Disney Channel series Austin & Ally (2011-16), and the Teen Beach Movie (2013, 2015) series as the frontman of popular band R5. Rolling Stones named Lynch as one of the 25 Stars Under 25 this year.
John “Derf” Backderf
Based in Cleveland, Ohio, John Backderf is a cartoonist and author of the 2012 graphic novel My Friend Dahmer. He is also well-known for his comic strip The City, which appeared in a number of alternative newspapers from 1990-2014, including The Village Voice. Backderf has won over 50 awards for his work, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and was on the news team at the Akron Beacon Journal when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.
A notorious serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer (1960-1994) murdered, raped and dismembered 17 men and boys during 1978-91. In 1992, Dahmer was tried as legally sane despite multiple personality and psychotic disorders, found guilty, and sentenced to 15 terms of life imprisonment. He was killed in prison by a fellow inmate two years later.
Writer and director Marc Meyers adapted his forthcoming film My Friend Dahmer from a 2012 graphic novel of the same name. The film premiered to critical acclaim, winning Best Picture at the Austin Fantastic Fest. Meyers is also known for Harvest (2010) and How He Fell in Love (2015), both of which he wrote and directed. Before going into production, his screenplay for My Friend Dahmer appeared on the 2014 Black List, which gathers the best unmade scripts of the year.
Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer made an indelible mark on the American psyche when he was tried in 1992 for manslaughter of 17 men and boys. The grisly murders were a shock to the system for many, including cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf, who had attended high school with Dahmer in Ohio in the 70s and briefly counted him as a friend.
Backderf’s 2012 graphic novel about this era, My Friend Dahmer, examines Dahmer’s life before the horror as a socially anxious teen with a drinking problem, showing a few morbid hints of what his future might hold. The novel inspired this year’s film of the same name, adapted and directed by Marc Meyers and featuring former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch as the detached and isolated young Dahmer. Through the film, Dahmer’s character devolves from sympathetic to unwell as he collects dead animal bones, stalks a neighborhood jogger and begins to frighten even his friends.
My Friend Dahmer was shot in Dahmer’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and features the childhood home where he committed his first murder. This chilling piece of reality melds itself into the dark underbelly of the film. Moviegoers know exactly how the story will end, while the film’s characters, including Backderf, are as yet innocent and unaware. Backderf speaks with My Friend Dahmer star Lynch about this tension, his decision to portray Dahmer and how it felt to get inside a future serial killer’s head.
Ross Lynch: I’m in Cologne, Germany. Are you in Ohio right now?
John “Derf” Backderf: Yes. Do you speak German?
RL: I wish I spoke German. Do you speak German?
JB: A little bit. Ein bisschen. I was actually in German class with Jeff [Dahmer] in high school.
RL: Oh wow. There you go.
JB: It all comes back. So how did you come to be in this film?
RL: It was Marc Meyers that got me the job, obviously, being the director and all. I met Marc maybe the year prior to filming, and we talked about Jeffrey Dahmer and the script and filming in Ohio. He wanted to go to Dahmer’s old school to see it all come together. I hadn’t heard of your graphic novel quite yet, but after reading the script I read your novel as well. I feel like I was involved pretty early on.
JB: You had to have a good Dahmer or the whole movie falls apart.
RL: That’s true.
“It took a lot of balls to take on this role. It’s a controversial part. It’s kind of a minefield if it comes out wrong, but I have a lot of respect for guys that take chances.”
— John “Derf” Backderf
JB: This movie took a crazy long time to pull together. It was five years from the time Marc first approached me until he started shooting.
RL: Didn’t it take you 20 years to publish My Friend Dahmer though?
JB: Well, yeah. That is the gold standard of ridiculous timeframes, but it’s a tough story. It’s hard to get your head around it. What attracted you to the role? It was pretty out of your wheelhouse at the time.
RL: One of the main things that was enticing was that it was out of my wheelhouse. I think all of the true artists in the world are always looking to challenge themselves and explore, and that’s what this opportunity was for me. It was a good way to do something different. I think people are being drawn to the film, the book and the whole thing because of your perspective and how you knew Jeff. The whole story is just fascinating.
JB: I can’t really take credit for it. It just dropped from the sky and fell at my feet, but it’s really unique.
RL: You almost had to write about it – it’s too good not to.
JB: It was never a question. I told you this before, but I think that, frankly, it took a lot of balls to take on this role. It’s a controversial part. It’s kind of a minefield if it comes out wrong, but I have a lot of respect for guys that take chances. I’ve done it a lot in my career too, with mixed success. I think it absolutely speaks to you as an artist that you took on this role because it’s so different than everything that you have ever done. How did you get in Jeff’s head?
RL: I used a lot of those videos and interviews after he was caught. You’ve seen them.
JB: I used those too. There’s not a lot on tape with Jeff, but those videos are gold as far as visual clues go.
RL: It was the same for me. Obviously I looked at your book a lot too, just to see how you were drawing him out and get little clues from that. But a lot of it was watching the videos. I watched one every day on set.
Stone Phillips is a television reporter and correspondent best known as the former co-anchor of Dateline, NBC (1992-). Phillips has also worked with ABC News as a correspondent for 20/20 (1978-) and World News Tonight(1953-). He is known for his straightforward, serious delivery and for notable interviews with personalities such as Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Bernhard Goetz and Jeffrey Dahmer.
JB: The one with Stone Phillips?
JB: That’s the best one. He’s a little more at ease.
RL: He’s just stating it, almost.
JB: That was spooky. I think the first video I saw of him was actually live when he was first brought to court. He had that weird gait which you nail so wonderfully. When I saw that, it was like a 2×4 to the head. It was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I had forgotten all about how he walked.
RL: Even at his young age he still had that awkward body language.
JB: He never fit in the world. His walk was a physical manifestation of what was going on in his head. It’s spooky to think about. I think the biggest thing about portraying Jeff is that you want to humanize him without making him sympathetic. Were you thinking about that at all?
RL: Yeah, because the script made me a little sad for him in the end, and I wanted to somehow put that into the performance. Marc and I tried to give him humanity at the beginning of the film and then strip it away. That was really the goal throughout the film.
JB: Believe it or not, I think that in real life he was probably even a little darker by the end than the film portrays. It was like you could smell the doom coming off him because, physically, he started to deteriorate too. We get a little of that in the film because you start to get kind of disheveled.
RL: I kept wanting to roll around in the dirt a little more.
“The story takes you right up to the edge of the abyss and that is where it ends. The great thing is that people go into it expecting one thing and when they get to the end find they’ve watched something completely different.”
— John “Derf” Backderf
JB: I really like that last scene in the movie where he wakes up in his house and shit’s all over the place, and he gets in his car to go meet his fate. It comes right out of the book, almost page for page, panel for panel. You see how it has all just fallen apart for him. You really do that wonderfully.
RL: When you say you could see that he was doomed, what really struck you about him?
JB: The big one that I remember was that wonderful scene in the movie where we’re driving to the mall and Alex [Wolff], who plays me, is looking in the rearview mirror and seeing [Dahmer] drinking, chugging down beers. He gets a look on his face that’s like, ‘Holy crap. This is not fun and games. There is something seriously wrong with this guy.’ After that, I just wanted to get as far away from Jeff as I could. It translates beautifully to the film.
RL: Marc would reference your book all the time because he wanted the frames to line up with how you drew the comics.
JB: Let’s talk about filming in Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home. What was it like? How did that affect your performance?
RL: I felt kind of comfortable in the house.
JB: You’re the only one.
RL: I might have been. When we were filming, I was in a headspace where Dahmer was just a teenager – he hasn’t killed anyone yet and was going to school and had friends. He was trying to get by. For me, the house was my character’s home. It really wasn’t a big deal, but I do know the crew felt that energy.
JB: Especially at night, it’s pretty spooky – the trees looming overhead, how dark it is. When I was on the set, there was no joking around. People were just really quiet. Some of the production people were freaking out, and I couldn’t comfort them. That house has a history, so it definitely adds something to the film.
RL: It definitely did. I love seeing people’s reactions when they find out that we filmed in Jeffrey Dahmer’s actual childhood home.
JB: That was a ballsy move. I took Marc there at the beginning, and never expected he was going to use it as a set. I just wanted him to see the house. But it does add power. That place is kind of hallowed ground. I mean, somebody died there. Not to say the other murders weren’t just as horrible, but that first murder of Steven Hicks really haunts me because he was so much like the rest of us. It could have been any of us. It is a spooky thing to spend too much time thinking about it.
RL: I can’t imagine. Was that first time you were in the house since you knew Dahmer?
JB: No. A friend of mine named Chris [Butler] owned it. He would have parties there, which was always kind of a freaky thing for me.
The important thing for this story is that you always have to be respectful and remember what Dahmer did, how many people he killed and the thousands of people who still mourn those victims. You always have to respect that. I don’t know how much that was in your head as you were making the movie…
“I always try to stay observant and stay learning.”
— Ross Lynch
RL: Marc really made a good point of that early on. He said, ‘Although this is about a guy who is going to kill 17 people, our story really takes place before any of that.’ We tried to make an effort while filming to not really think about all of that stuff. We don’t really show any violence or any of that thriller stuff. It’s all psychological. I think that’s what makes it so interesting.
JB: The story takes you right up to the edge of the abyss and that is where it ends. The great thing is that people go into it expecting one thing and when they get to the end find they’ve watched something completely different. The unexpected has such a powerful effect on people. The reviews have been terrific. It looks like you’ve got a home run. How does that make you feel?
RL: You always hope for the best, and I always do my best, but sometimes the reviews can exceed your expectations, especially in this case. People seem to really, really like it. I personally feel incredibly fortunate. I know Marc does, and I know you do. It’s really cool to be a part of this.
JB: Did you have a sense when you were working on it, like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a good film?’
RL: There were a few times when I thought I could be ruining the movie. Like you said earlier, if Dahmer is not good then the film is not good. And it’s hard not to think about those things sometimes. I still tried my best, and that’s what you see. I sometimes think the way I was feeling as an actor, a little bit more self-conscious and a little bit more afraid, possibly enhanced my performance as well.
JB: Sure, it made you uncomfortable.
RL: Yes, and sometimes I think that the character made me feel uncomfortable.
JB: I can relate. When I sat down to write the final draft of the book, I spent about a month pulling all this stuff together and just sitting down and writing. Man, that was not a lot of fun because you’re really in his head. You’re in his world.
RL: It’s draining.
JB: Yeah. And when I finished writing, I had to spend a year drawing it. But at that point, I just kind of detached emotionally. I concentrated on the nuts and bolts of drawing and stuff like that. I was able to leave the emotional stuff behind because I had to.
RL: For your mental sanity.
“Dahmer never fit in the world. His walk was a physical manifestation of what was going on in his head. It’s spooky thing to think about.”
— John “Derf” Backderf
JB: Exactly. And now I’ve been doing nothing but talking about Jeffrey Dahmer for five years. You have that to look forward to. So, as an actor what did you learn from taking on this part?
RL: I always try to stay observant and stay learning. In this particular case, I think it’s always great to be reminded to give it your all. Everyone tells you that, but it’s nice to be reminded and have that challenge. This is the first time that I’ve done something as an actor where people are like, ‘Oh, this is good,’ because my prior career was doing Disney Channel. It’s just a different demographic. No one is going to applaud you for your acting.
JB: It’s a different animal.
RL: What did you take away from your whole experience with this?
JB: It’s different for me because it’s real. You look back at your life with this brutal honesty and you think, well I wasn’t the nicest guy at this point. I could have done more at this point. I missed this sign. There’s a lot of regret. Then you have to let go of that because you realize you were just a kid and living in a small town. I had my head up my ass. I’m expecting too much from myself at age 17, but it’s a mixed bag like that. You try to learn some lessons.
I think it made me a better parent. It made me a better father, believe it or not, because I was involved with my kids’ lives, unlike Lionel [Dahmer, Jeffrey’s father]. That kind of stuff stuck with me. I may have been that way anyways, but it definitely resonated with me. But I feel really good about the film and how it came out. I’m happy for everybody.