Author John “Derf” Backderf and filmmaker Marc Meyers discuss the upcoming movie adaptation depicting a certain serial killer’s high school years.
“Actually,” John Backderf says after the longest pause he’s taken in our conversation, “The arrest report and the confession are a mess, which is usually the case with those things. You’ve got some cop just writing something down as fast as he can, he mishears things, he throws stuff in there. There’s a lot of errors in both. The same thing is true of early news accounts because when a story breaks, a big story, they’re full of mistakes. The story sharpens over time. The disturbing thing was those mistakes became codified and they’re repeated to this day. That’s one of the things I was very careful about when I put the book together. I didn’t want to repeat those.”
Some would maintain that the disturbing thing is actually the 17 murders over 12 years, which began two weeks after Backderf’s classmate and friend Jeffrey Dahmer graduated from Revere High School in Northern Ohio. However, the book Backderf mentions, a 24-page graphic memoir entitled My Friend Dahmer he self-published in 2002 before adding 200 pages for a more traditional publication a decade later, stops just short of all that—the cannibalism, the necrophilia, a hole drilled into the skull in which hydrochloric acid was poured before the victim woke to complain of a headache. Instead, he focuses on the halcyon days when the misfit Dahmer infiltrated Backderf’s nerdy high school clique.
“My degree is in journalism,” Backderf explains, “And I worked at newspapers for many years so I know how to report a story. And I know how to research a story. I used those skills to do it, absolutely.” When asked what he was drawing upon to recall events some forty years on, no matter how indelible, he replies, “You can’t rely on memory. That’s well documented. And I was aware of that, so what I looked for was corroboration. If I had a memory, I went out to find a way to factually back it up, either through memories of others or factual information either in newspaper accounts or the FBI files.”
It’s here that I interrupt, letting Backderf know I wasn’t necessarily asking how he processed learning that his high school chum was a serial killer on a professional level, but rather what it felt like personally. “How I felt personally about it?” he repeats, a tad incredulous. “Off the top of my head, I can’t recall. There was a lot of information coming in from a lot of different directions and that was a long time ago, too, so I really…I was stumbling around for months in kind of a fog, so I guess that would be the best description of it.”
“I think it was really strange for him at first,” says filmmaker Marc Meyers, who adapted Backderf’s graphic memoir into a film script he then directed, “To know that we were coming to town to make a movie that was based on a book that was based on his life that was based on such an infamous friendship, but I think after we’d been in the community through pre-production and had already filmed for about a week, he then dropped by for a day to say hello. He autographed a couple books, met the actors and next thing you know, he kept coming back through the rest of production every couple days and would hang out for the entire day, have lunch with us. He was kind of this celebrity on set. He just hung around and would say stuff like, ‘Yeah, this is how it was,’ and it was almost like he was making it all kosher.”
“I wasn’t on the set a lot,” Backderf says, “I didn’t want to get underfoot. And, you know, I had some other stuff going on too. I was pretty busy that summer. And also, frankly, watching movies getting made is pretty boring. It’s a lot of people standing around and shooting the same scene fourteen times and then more standing around, so it was kind of dull. I liked visiting the sets, that was interesting, and the producers and the actors were great. They enjoyed talking, but I wasn’t around a lot so it wasn’t really a problem.”
I tell Backderf that Alex Wolff, younger sibling to “Fault in Our Stars” actor Nat Wolff, must have had a running list of questions about playing the author’s younger self. “The first time I talked to Alex,” Backderf remembers, “He wanted to know about music, mostly. He wanted to know what Replacements album was my favorite. Alex comes across as a little cooler than I was in high school, but that’s not a high bar. And he does wonderfully capture that smart-ass, subversive thing I had going, and the growing unease with Dahmer. Those are the two important things, so he nailed that pretty good.”
He goes onto explain that Wolff didn’t actually want to meet him when he was constructing the character, but he’s more than okay with that: as a creator himself, he respects the artistic process. “He studied the book,” Backderf says, “Which is fine, that’s what he should have studied.” Disney Channel vet Ross Lynch, who plays the young Dahmer, was a different story entirely. “I talked more to Ross than I did to Alex,” Backderf says. “We had lunch early on and he asked me about Dahmer’s physical nature, like whether Jeff made eye contact with anybody. And I was like, Holy shit, no he didn’t! Why didn’t I think of that? I would have put that in the book. So that was actually pretty impressive.”
“I was really very loyal to the book as the source material,” Meyers agrees, “Because it was nonfiction, so I wanted to take as much of what I could get from the book and dramatize it as much as possible. Once I had done that, then it became clear in various revisions how else you need to adapt it for the new medium. But I really just used the
book. Graphic novels as a space have told a lot of subversive stories that are out of the box. And it’s a visual medium itself, so you can easily see if it’s something you might connect with, but then when I got to adapting it and it was time to storyboard, I did take my script and compare it to the original book. Whenever my story overlapped with the original text, I used his panels like a collage in my storyboards.”
“And then I did some more research by just hanging out with Derf,” Meyers remembers, “I stayed at his house for a couple days and he took me from Cleveland, where he lives, down to Akron, which is about forty-five minutes south and showed me around. I got the lay of the land. I saw the high school he went to. The terrain very much resembled where I grew up north of New York City. I knew what it was like to be a teenager driving around those roads with a bunch of friends. I kind of got it. And we also went to Jeffrey Dahmer’s house… Once I saw the house it just felt like there’s no reason to not aim for filming there. It also helped me in the rewrites to orient myself in the characters, because I understood and could write the actual details now myself.”
Meyers also wanted to shoot at Backderf and Dahmer’s alma mater Revere High, but it was not to be. “That was Marc’s idea,” Backderf says. “He went before the school board and made a pitch. They said no, as I told him they would. But I thought he had a lot of cojones for doing that. Still, I don’t think it would have worked out that well because the school’s been remodeled so many times it doesn’t look like an old school. They found one that did look like an old school, so that was probably a better fit.”
Asked about his own relationship with his alma mater, Backderf replies, “I don’t really have one. They put me in their hall of fame about twenty years ago. Actually, when I was on the set one day somebody said something, and I thought, you know what, I’m going to stop by the school and see if my picture is still up. I wonder if they tore it down and threw it in the garbage? But they didn’t, it was still there.”
But their most infamous alumni? “Oh, I’m sure they would like to forget it,” Backderf says, “But it’s a political issue as much as anything. It’s an issue of reputation. The school is actually very well thought of as a public school. It’s one of the highest-ranking schools now, I don’t know how the hell that happened. It wasn’t when I went there, but it is now. They just don’t want anything to do with it and that’s understandable.” That’s not to say the erasure is trickling down to the student body. “Among the students,” Backderf says, “It’s widely called Dahmer High. They’re well aware of the history. It’s a great ghost story and you know how teenagers are with that kind of thing.”
And that one teenager in particular? Backderf posits the question before I can. “Could Jeff have been saved?” he asks. “It’s a question. I don’t pretend to have any answers. I’m not a psychologist and I never pretend to be, but if one adult had just stepped up forcefully and said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something seriously wrong with this kid,’ maybe someone would have interceded. Maybe he could have gotten some professional help. That’s the question. I can’t say it would have saved him, but it sure would have been nice if somebody had tried.”