The movie. God, where to begin?
The story of My Friend Dahmer never ceases to astound me in new ways. It is, of course, my breakthrough work, the book that raised me up from a barely known alt-comix creator to a Eisner-winning, Angoulême Prize winning, international comics "star." There’s just something about this tale that’s magic. It resonates with people, deeply. That’s very rare.
The latest unexpected twist with My Friend Dahmer is the film, which was shot in my hometown over three weeks in August. Not just my hometown, but the very places I and Jeff and my high school friends once trod. Much of the film was shot in Jeff’s boyhood home and in the surrounding woods where he practiced his grisly roadkill “hobby” that I depict in the book! The power that these places still emanates is palpable.
Ross Lynch's Dahmer costume, in the woods near the Dahmer House.
I was welcomed with open arms by the cast and crew. I previously met and talked to director Marc Meyers many times. The other producers and crew members, and the cast itself, I hadn’t met. I procrastinated during the first week of shooting and stayed away. I had some work I needed to punch out, but honestly the idea of visiting a film set that’s recreating life and this very personal and troubling story was intimidating.
The first week of shooting was on the high school set, which is the part of the story that’s least creepy. That was a re-creation of the silly everyday antics of the Dahmer Fan Club. Marc actually had the chutzpah to approach my alma mater, Revere High, and ask if he could film there. The superintendent brusquely turned him down flat. Revere is a little touchy when it comes to their most famous graduate. Another area high school happily rented out their facility. I wish I’d been able to attend the shoot. I should have made more of an effort, but I was really scuffling with a project that was due. Shooting at the high school wrapped up faster than I expected. The company was really on a breakneck pace.
I finally showed up on set in Week 2. The “base camp” was at a dreary motel in my home town, out near the turnpike entrance, something of a barren wasteland of closed eateries and weed-choked parking lots, as are so many similar stretches in America. The trailers for the cast and the equipment trucks were lined up in back, hidden from view from the road and from the handful of guests at the motel. The buzz quickly spread that I was on set at last and Alex Wolff, who plays “Derf,” bounded over to greet me, as did Harry Holzer (Mike) and Tommy Nelson (Neil), the members of the Dahmer Fan Club. I stayed the afternoon. Producer Adam Goldworm asked me to sign a stack of books for various giveaways, so I pulled out my pens and started drawing dedicaces on the title pages. “Oh my God,” Alex called out to the rest of the cast. “Derf is DRAWING!” Suddenly, I had an eager audience. I enjoyed seeing these young guys clowning around with each other and was struck how similar they were to my friends and I at the same age. Their running gag to pass time between shoots was to endlessly act out favorite scenes from Nic Cage movies. Swap Cage for Monty Python and that was my friends and I 40 years ago! Even stranger, they were all calling each other by their film names, so here was someone else answering to “Derf”!
On the set for the first time, with (l-r) Harry Holzer as Mike, Alex Wolff as Derf and Tommy Nelson as Neil.
It’s not an easy thing to make a period piece. The Seventies are all so clear in my mind, but try to find those clothes, furnishings and cars four decades later. The set and costume designers did a great job, and were having a blast doing so. They interrogated me over how things looked and whether their constructions were accurate. The cars were the most problematic. It’s almost impossible to find Seventies junkers that are still running! Most are either deteriorating in junkyards or restored as show cars. It always bugs me when films show kids driving around in gleaming cars, because we all drove battered family vehicles, in my case a 1975, avocado green Chevy Vega. I was really looking forward to driving one again, especially over the same country roads I had once piloted my own Vega. You never forget your first car, because it represents freedom and that first big step to adulthood. Alas, a working model couldn’t be located, since Vegas were such crap, widely regarded as one of the worst cars ever made. So an AMC Gremlin was substituted as Derf’s car. Bummer. It was just not to be. Fittingly, the Gremlin kept breaking down during scenes. Yep, that’s pretty spot on. “How did you drive things like that?” Alex asked me. I guess to him it’s as primitive as a Model T was to me at the same age!
It’s fascinating to witness actors playing out episodes of my life, but, frankly, watching a film being shot is actually a bit boring. Take after take, lots of standing around and setting up shots for a few seconds of filming. I was more interested in seeing the sets. Of particular interest was “my house,” which I visited the following day. I got directions from the production designer. They had converted an empty house (appeared to be a foreclosure) in my hometown to use as my teenage home. Of particular interest was the set of my room. I sent the designers photos and they flipped out over the fab wall mural I drew on my walls when I was 15. They actually hired a local high school artist to recreate that mural! She did a great job. I burst out laughing when I first laid eyes on it! What makes it even funnier is that the original mural is still in my real boyhood home, just a mile or so away from this recreated home, so now there are two of them. When I first pulled up to the set my mouth dropped open. I recognized this house! It was, in fact, the teenage home of one of the lesser members of the Fan Club! In the book, the Fan Club is four friends. In reality, it was up to a dozen guys.
Next, I made the short trip over to the Dahmer House. The REAL Dahmer House, as mentioned earlier. Marc rented the actual home where Jeff grew up, and where he committed his first murder. I understand why Marc did it, and it will be especially stunning in the film and obviously be of great interest to the press, but it’s problematic for me. This is, after all, where an innocent young man lost his life, and was secretly interred (what was left of him) for 13 years. I been here several times, since a friend lives there, but it always creeps me out. And the first person I encountered when I walked in…. was “Jeff.”
I had met Ross Lynch, the young star of the film, previously, when I had lunch with him and Marc before the start of shooting, to answer any questions he had. He impressed me right away with an obvious professionalism (he’s been working since he was 8 years old!) and his enthusiasm for the role. And why not? This part will be transformational for him, vaulting him from teenage Disney heartthrob into an actor that people take seriously. The crew was raving about his performance, and from what I saw, he’s going to blow minds. When I encountered him this day, he was lounging on the porch in his Dahmer costume. He greeted me with a smile and I staggered back a little. He looked JUST like Jeff. After chatting with him for a few minutes I finally said, “Dude, you have to take off those glasses. You’re really freaking me out.” And when he flipped the switch and became Jeff when the cameras rolled, my heart was pounding. Ross nailed it. They were filming the jogger scenes, one of my favorites in the book, and certainly one of the most cinematic. It was just as I had written and drawn it and watching Ross walking like Jeff, with that odd stiff-armed gait he had, it was almost too much, especially in the driveway of that house, where I had seen the real Jeff walking that same path.
I feared my hometown would be plenty pissed at another Dahmer invasion, with bad memories of the media frenzy after Dahmer was arrested and his crimes revealed, but that proved to be anything but the case. The film crew was welcomed with open arms. The cops stopped traffic when needed, neighbors offered their driveways for parked equipment and locals stopped by to welcome everyone and offer their own recollections of the Dahmers. One of my classmates offered the use of his vintage car. Not much happens in this sleepy hamlet, so movie stars having a nosh at the local diner is a big deal. It was all a stark contrast to the slammed door at my high school. In fact, my curiosity piqued, I stopped by the school on the way home, to see if my photo was still hanging in the “Hall of Fame” inside the main entrance. I fancied the superintendent might have ordered it removed for my “crimes,” but, no, it was still there. I was actually a little disappointed. That would have made a great story!
The mall set.
A few days later, I visited the shoot again, this time the mall set, used for Dahmer’s Command Performance. This was the biggest challenge for the filmmakers. How do you recreate a Seventies mall, especially on an indie film budget? With the help of the Cleveland Film Council (my town has become a favorite with studios, with several superdude movies having been shot here) they found an abandoned mall in the burbs to represent the Summit Mall of 1978. The Summit Mall, on the outskirts of Akron, is still in operation, but it’s been remodeled a dozen times since 1978 and is thoroughly modern, so it’s unusable as a set. The Euclid Square Mall, on the other hand, went under 20 years ago, and had never undergone a remodel since being built, so it’s still period. It’s currently used as a home for a half dozen fire-and-brimstone black churches! More surrealism. Wonder what the bible-clutching old ladies thought of a film about a gay serial killer being shot there? It’s too bad the designers didn’t have a few more million in budget to throw around, because they could have gone to town in this space. Instead, the sets are small and the shots will be tight with a focus on the action and the actors. I’m interested to see how this one looks on film. A few days later, I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High. THAT’S how the mall should look! But that was period, shot back in the day, 1981 I believe, so the Fast Times filmmakers just used an actual mall, just a few years after the events in my book. Man, if you could just go back in time and grab those props! How did so much time pass so quickly? I feel like Methuselah.
At lunch break, I sat with Ross and Alex and we playfully debated which was the best Elvis Costello album. That could have been lunch in 1978, too!
I was scrambling to wrap up some work before I left on another tour of Europe, but I returned to the shoot one more time, because my old friend Mike, the real Mike, drove to town to visit the set. I’m glad I did. The shoot was at the Dahmer House again. It was the first time Mike had been here since high school, since, in fact, he dropped off Jeff in June 1978, the incredibly powerful final scene of the book! This day’s scenes were great ones, the first time Jeff meets Stan Burlman, his Mom’s interior decorator, whose cerebral palsy became the centerpiece of Jeff’s freaky schtick (and ours), and the opening scene of the book, one of the most chilling, in Jeff’s clubhouse in the woods. Again, both these scenes came straight from the book, unchanged.
They had just wrapped up that clubhouse scene when I arrived. The clubhouse had been rebuilt, on the exact spot of the original, the remains of which I had discovered when showing Marc the house and grounds on his first scouting visit to my hometown a couple years previous. I clambered up the hill to check it out. When I opened the door I went weak-knead. There it was, exactly as I had drawn it.The wooden shelves, lined with pickle jars containing rotting dead animals, the workbench where Jeff conducted his “experiments” on collected roadkill. The place smelled like death. I had to quickly leave.
That’s the moment when it really hit me what a powerful film this can be. I knew the potential was there, but filmmakers, frankly, often mess up comic book movies. The track record is not great. The Marvel and DC ones are dreadful, of course, but even a faithful adaptation, like say, Watchmen, was a disappointment. Then there’s, God forbid, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a marvelous book that was outright butchered. There’s but a handful that have been done well. Ghost World is easily the best one. That’s why I was reticent about agreeing to a film option. I’ve turned down several offers, because I simply didn’t trust the filmmakers. Marc was the first who I thought would do the book justice. But even so, naturally, I had qualms. It’s such a personal story, after all, and here I am passing it off to someone else to make his own. And this is all uncharted territory for me. But standing there, peering into the gloomy interior of Dahmer’s clubhouse, I thought, holy crap, it’s all coming together here.
Like I wrote earlier, this story is magic. It was a game changer for me. It’ll be a game changer for Ross Lynch, for Alex and the others, and for Marc. Here’s a guy with a couple films under his belt, thoughtful indie movies that have been well received on the film fest circuit, but nothing as powerfully moving as My Friend Dahmer. What I like about Marc, and what led me to give him the go-ahead, was that he coaxes wonderful performances from his actors. That’s harder than it sounds, but Marc does it consistently. Couple that talent with a story that slaps you across the face like a 2x4 and you could have a truly memorable film. It could also be a game changer for comic book movies, and open the door to any number of great books.
It was fun spending the rest of the day there with Mike. We’re still close friends, all these years later, and I think the cast and crew got a kick out of our real-life banter. We basically interact with each other as we did back in high school, which must have been a trip for them. Mike, for you trivia buffs, is also the Mike in Trashed! He was my partner on the garbage truck, after we both dropped out of college! The Mike in Trashed is a more accurate portrayal of him, even though that book is fiction, merely inspired by experience. I stripped my friends of most of their personalities in MFD, and those three guys are some of the quirkiest, most unique people I’ve ever met, because I promised to protect their identities. Mike doesn’t really care, which is why I used his real name, but it wasn’t really important that I give his character a lot of personality in the book, as I did in Trashed. Makes it tough on actor Harry Holzer, though, who to conjure up a character out of basically nothing. Harry was thrilled to meet the real deal.
To Mike, of course, I’m still the same guy he’s known since we were 12 years old. So when movie star Ann Heche walked up to me and blurted out “Oh my God, I’m SO glad to meet you” and gave me a hug, he could only stare in disbelief and laugh. After she wandered off, Mike told me “you’re still an idiot, y’know.” Nothing like old friends to keep you humble!
Ann, by the way, is intense as Joyce Dahmer, Jeff’s sad, damaged mom.
I feel bad about my depiction of her, because the timeline of the book dictates that it’s Joyce at her worst, either battling mental problems or battling her husband Lionel, as their marriage imploded. Despite her issues, she was a nice lady and forged a happy life for herself, after the end of the book. She re-married and became an AIDS counsellor, back in the “gay plague” era when that career took some guts. I regard her as a true tragic figure. She spent 20 years struggling with mental illness, then with a domineering, inflexible husband. After she freed herself from Lionel, her two sons shut her out. Jeff, in fact, didn’t speak to her for 13 years! Then after a mere decade of happiness, her life came crashing down on top of her when her son’s ghastly crimes were discovered. In addition to this unimaginable horror, she’s blamed as the genetic cause of Jeff’s madness, especially by the ex-husband she still loathes, who publicly recounts, in searing detail, her many mental problems when they were together. Then her son is brutally murdered in prison. After that, she contracts terminal cancer. Her’s was an unimaginably hard life. I wish I could have done better by her.
But I digress.
Mike and I watched in wonder as the Stan Burlman scene was filmed. I never met the real Burlman, only heard his voice on the tapes of the prank calls we made to his office. But here he was, the source of so much of our stupid teenage schtick, right in front of our eyes. It was great having Mike with me, since he’s one of a handful of people who could experience this in the same way. Our teenage mockery of this poor man was certainly not our finest hour, don’t get me wrong, and my portrayal of it in my book is brutally honest. I’ve been beaten up about that a bit, by people who don’t recall what uncaring creeps they themselves were as adolescents. Unfortunately, Marc’s screenplay makes me even more of an asshole than in the book, and elevates me to the evil mastermind of the Burlman pranks. In reality, it was Neil behind virtually all of it. Neil, in the screenplay, is described as the “most empathetic” of the group and a reluctant participant in the gags. Both Mike and I shook our heads and laughed at that. It was Neil who, at Jeff’s urging, came to the Dahmer house when Burlman was due for a visit, and hid in the coat closet to hear Stan in action. As I write in the footnotes, adult Neil carries around a great deal of regret and shame over his teenage antics. The fourth primary member of the fan club, Kent, has been written out of the script altogether, a great relief to me since the real Kent, who I also still count as a close friend, is aghast at any link at all to the Dahmer story. Kent was also a primary force in the Burlman pranks. I really didn’t participate much in those, although I certainly parroted the cerebral palsy schtick. Like I said, not our finest hour. I’m sure this is going to be quite uncomfortable for me to watch on the screen.
Between takes, I wandered about and chatted with the crew. There were an extraordinary number of producers, a number that was needed to bring this project to fruition. All of them shared an absolute enthusiasm for the story. I took care in pointing out to various members of the crew where in the house Dahmer killed his first victim, the young hitchhiker Stephen Hicks, who Jeff lured back to his house on that summer day in June 1978 with offers of weed and beer. It was more than just a ploy to make them uncomfortable. I wanted then to feel the eerie power of the house and know exactly what happened here. There’s some bad ju-ju in this place. Some in the crew felt it more than others. A few told me they were having trouble spending time there.
The following day, Neil visited the set with Mike. I had split for Europe by this point, so I missed out on this, alas. He, too, was amazed. All three of us have come to terms with our lives being sucked up into the Dahmer story. You can’t imagine what this is like for us, even after so many years, now a quarter century after Jeff’s crimes exploded in the news. We’ve all, curiously, adopted the same coping mechanism. We have TWO sets of memories. One are the ones we had before Dahmer was arrested, of our goofy high school days and hanging out, and of our silly antics with our strange friend to relieve the boredom of life in a small town. The other set are those same memories, but re-defined in a chilling way, as this emerging fiend moves through our lives, and of the realization of what he was thinking as we doing this very antics. All three if us can move back and forth between these memory sets. But it’s a whole new, very strange experience seeing those memories re-enacted in front of you. I thought, intellectually, I had prepared myself for that experience. I was wrong.
Mike described his reaction in a Facebook post. After his first day on the set, he dreamt of Jeff that night. Mike was back on the set and he looked up and there was Jeff standing on the roof of the house, pointing down at Mike and laughing.
I'm glad I don't have dreams.
I'm glad I don't have dreams.