In 2013, filmmaker Marc Meyers took a trip to Bath, Ohio, to visit the suburb where serial killer Jeffery Dahmer spent his formative years. Several months earlier, Meyers had optioned the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer – a memoir by cartoonist Derf Backderf about his brief but intense high-school friendship with the man who would become known as the Milwaukee Cannibal – and he was figuring out how to adapt it into a film. “[Derf] said, ‘You’re welcome to come by for a couple days and I’ll show you around where I grew up,'” Meyers says. “We walked around his high school, walked around the woods and he basically just relived his teenage years.”
Perhaps most importantly, Backderf took Meyers to the Dahmer home, a 1950s ranch-style structure situated near a forest. Immediately, Meyers knew he had to use it in the film. “I was steadfast – when we make this movie we have to film it at the house,” says the director. “I respond a lot to place. To understand the orientation of the home and how it sits on the property – how he must have behaved or how he walked through the space. That just helped me orient the scenes with a lot more detail.”
“We walked through the book scene-by-scene,” says Backderf, who lives in Cleveland, about a half-hour north of Bath. “I took him to the real places where it happened. I thought that was really key for him to come out and see that because it’s so much a part of the story. You know, we’re all a product of our time and our place.”
But finding the set was just a final step in what had been a long journey. For several years, Meyers and his wife and production partner, Jody Girgenti, had been discussing writing a screenplay about a serial killer growing up. “We had this idea that it would be interesting to do a movie that would be a portrait of a serial killer as a young boy – we thought that was just an interesting concept,” says Meyers. When he came across the book at Comic-Con 2011, he realized the true story was exactly what they were looking for.
Backderf had grown up near Dahmer, and they had gone to the same middle and high school. In their sophomore year, Backderf and a few friends became intrigued with the young man after he started mimicking fits – somewhere between the psychopathy of his mother and the palsy of a local interior designer – and they established the “Dahmer fan club.” This gave young Jeff a taste of normal friendships, perhaps for the only time in his life. Yet after a while, Backderf began to notice there was something dark and wrong in his new acquaintance, and their friendship faded. It wasn’t until Dahmer’s arrest in 1991 for the murder of 17 men that the cartoonist realized just how accurate his gut feeling had been.
Yet for Meyers, discovering this story was only the start; he’d still have to face the problem of translating a graphic novel – riddled with reflections on what it must have been like to constantly try and ignore his ghastly desires – into a compelling film. As it turned out, using the actual Akron suburb where Dahmer spent his teen years – and the home where he committed his first murder – was part of the solution to translating the award-winning graphic memoir to film. The other part was finding a cast who could play the story not as some true-crime prequel, but as a 1970s coming of age tale – albeit one where the main character had urges to rape, murder and cannibalize men, urges to which he eventually gave in.
“I remember getting a call from my agent and they were like, do you know who Jeffrey Dahmer is?” recalls Ross Lynch, star of the Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally and member of the sibling band R5. “I had no idea.” But his show was wrapping and he needed a project to transition into the next part of his career, so he eagerly read the script, loved it and taped an audition. “He put on some glasses and he did one of the spazzes,” remembers Meyers, who was impressed. Originally trained as a dancer, Lynch brought that physicality to the role – not to mention that he bared a striking resemblance to the serial killer himself. “When he came to New York, we spent an hour together in a rehearsal space messing around with the material,” says Meyers. “It just proved to everyone that he was the right person to have the role.”
Alex Wolff had a similar background to Lynch – he’d spent his formative years on the Nickelodeon show The Naked Brothers Band and playing music with his older brother, Nat – but he’d already had his transitional, dark role, playing Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Mark Wahlberg-helmed Patriots Day. In this script, though, he saw an opportunity to develop complicated, doomed friendship onscreen – as well as to create an honest depiction of life in high school. “We didn’t just paint Dahmer as the monster he ended up becoming, because he wasn’t at this point,” says Wolff. “At this point he was just a really disturbed kid.”
In particular, he liked the interaction between Derf – “leader of the non-conformist Seventies, arty-offbeat kids,” as Wolff describes – and Jeff, who he takes under his wing and treats in a way that he thinks is funny. “Slowly he realizes that the fun he thinks he’s having is really affecting Jeff,” says Wolff. “And it’s really disturbing to watch.” Wolff decided that he didn’t want to meet Backderf until after production had wrapped, though, since the character in the movie had evolved away from Dahmer’s real-life friend. “Derf, as a guy, is much different than Derf in the graphic novel, who is much different from Derf in the script,” says Wolff. “I think he gets warmer, a little more aggressive and a little more charming as the works developed.”
There was another person Wolff tried to stay away from: Lynch. “The very first day, we said to each other we should keep a distance,” says Wolff. “Let’s try and make it so all the scenes we’re friends, it feels like maybe we’re sort of faking being friends – there’s some painful weirdness there.” After the shoot wrapped each day, Wolf would retire to a hotel room with Tommy Nelson and Harry Holzer – who played Neil and Mike, the two other main members of the Dahmer fan club – to bond as buddies. “Basically, the whole movie, we would sleep in each other’s hotel rooms and just hang out all the time,” Wolff says. “We called each other the character names, to just to get in the rhythm so we could improvise.”
“I think that Alex, Tommy and Harry had created a social dynamic amongst themselves off-set that felt like it was mirroring the dynamic on set,” says Meyers. “Alex was playing a little more of the Alpha Male of the three.”
Lynch would sometimes hang out with Nelson and Holzer, but basically stayed away from Wolff unless they were filming together. “On set, it was really anti-social,” says Lynch. “We didn’t really talk to each other, on purpose – to give us that sort of dynamic that Dahmer and Derf had. They were more acquaintances than friends.”
For Lynch, embodying a man who would go on to kill 17 people was in many ways a welcome challenge, but also took its toll. “It definitely had its moments of being heavy,” he says. “Some days I’d go home and sit in the shower for 30 minutes. I’d watch the dye go out of my hair and that would be my way of getting out of Dahmer.”
To prepare for the role, Lynch had watched video footage of Dahmer after he’d been caught. “The main thing was just his walk,” Lynch says. “I remember him walking into the room in this particular interview, and just kind of being shocked how he moved. He’s such a big body, and he looks taller than everyone in the room, and he was, like, shuffling his feet, and his body was curled over a little bit, almost like he was insecure of his hight or himself – it just really struck me.”
It struck Backderf, too. “Ross is astounding in this role. I mean, he just absolutely nails it,” says the cartoonist. “Dahmer was never comfortable in this world. He was never at ease, and he carried himself like he didn’t fit in. And that was a physical manifestation of what was going on in his head.”
Anne Heche, who plays Dahmer’s mother Joyce, was also blown away by Lynch’s ability to turn off his natural charm and play such a complicated character. “He’s such an extraordinary actor,” she tells Rolling Stone, adding that they both came up with the same kind of physical approach to their characters. “These people are so filled it with shame and hatred for themselves that we actually constructed, through kind of that consciousness, the same body language.”
For Wolff and Lynch, the interactions carried the weight of the movie more than the location, but there was one scene outside the house that had a “haunting feeling,” as Lynch says. It’s toward the end of the movie, after Derf and Jeff have phased out their friendship. It’s a simple scene of them sitting in a car discussing their plans for the future. Derf is off to a summer arts program before college. Jeff seems less sure what he’s going to do.
“That was really the most inside Dahmer that I was probably the whole film,” Lynch reveals. “I wasn’t thinking about anything else – it was just like, that moment right there. [I was] completely in the moment.”
Wolff remembers actually being scared of the man sitting next to him. “We were sitting in the car, and we were on Jeffery Dahmer’s real property,” he remembers. “And everybody was really quiet. Everyone felt really odd. It’s like the whole movie is sort of building to that moment, where I just ask him, ‘Are you OK?'”
The intensity – Dahmer losing his edge, Derf being terrified of this almost normal person he had once befriended – is palpable. It’s as if we’re watching Dahmer give into his horrific urges before our eyes. It’s 40 years later, but in the same place; now, we’re here to witness the birth of a serial killer.