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In the aftermath of the revelation of scandalous and controversial crimes, the media and public often revel in the shocking details of the case that make the offenses so scandalous. After the arrest of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee for his decade-and-a-half killing spree, the American public became fascinated with learning about the assailant’s vicious murders. While filmmakers have made several movies over the past two decades that chronicle Dahmer’s motivations to kill, writer-director-producer Chris James Thompson decided to make a unique documentary about the case, ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Files.’ The film, which will be released theatrically on Friday at Manhattan's IFC Center, showcases how murders alter the lives of those who knew the killer.
‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Files’ chronicles how in the summer of 1991, Dahmer was arrested in Milwaukee and sentenced to 957 years in prison for killing 17 people and dismembering their bodies. The film explores the effects the murders had on the city by interviewing those who were associated with Dahmer during and after his killing spree. Recollections from Milwaukee Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, who performed autopsies on Dahmer’s victims; Police Detective Patrick Kennedy, to whom the killer confessed his crimes; and one of his neighbors in his apartment building, Pamela Bass, are interwoven with archival footage and everyday scenes from Dahmer's life. The interviews and news clips work collectively to disassemble the facade of an ordinary man leading an extraordinary existence.
Thompson generously took the time to talk about ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Files’ over the phone recently. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how living in Milwaukee during the time of Dahmer’s arrest influenced his decision to make the documentary; how people’s preconceived notions having another movie about Dahmer changed once they saw the finished film; and how excited he was when he found out the movie was accepted to have its world premiere at SXSW.
Question (Q): You co-wrote, produced, edited and directed ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Files,’ a documentary about the arrest of the serial killer in 1991 in Milwaukee. Why did you decide to make a documentary about Dahmer, as opposed to an actual feature film?
Chris James Thompson (CJT): That’s a good question. I lived in Milwaukee for 10 years, and I actually grew in Madison, which is another city in Wisconsin. At the time, in 1991, my parents were going through a divorce, and my dad was moving to Milwaukee. I was taking a bus back and forth between the two cities.
I remember people talking about the case in the two cities. In Milwaukee, people talked about it like a disaster, almost like a hurricane. They talked about it like a dark subject matter, because they had seen the effects that it had on the people around them.
Whereas when people talked about it in Madison, they were more excited, like it was a new movie that was coming out. They didn’t have the close knowledge of what the people were going through. So I think that always stuck with me whenever people talked about the case. So it interested me to go back and examine the sense of proximity has in a case like this, where the whole world was watching. But at the same time, when the worldwide media is gone, the people in this case are still there. They still have to deal with the lasting effects this has on them and the people around them. So I think I was interested in exploring how the long-term effects pertained to people’s lives who were living in Milwaukee, where I was living at the time.
Q: How much knowledge did you have of the case before you began working on the film? What kind of research did you do before you began shooting, and how closely did you work with Patrick as you were filming?
CJT: Well, I was pretty young-I was only 10-years old. My parents were shielding a lot of it from me, as many parents were shielding it from their kids. But that being said, it was everywhere; it was on TV and it surrounded you. So I remember hearing how people were talking about it. So in that sense, I was always curious about the people who had to live it, especially after I moved to Milwaukie, I learned that people were still dealing with it. It wasn’t just a thing that happened, and then disappeared forever. When the international media was gone, people were still dealing with it.
Q: Did you do any research before you began filming the movie, and conduct any interviews you didn’t feature in the movie?
CJT: Yeah, we started doing research by going to various places that hold records in Milwaukee, like the court house and the medical examiner’s office. We looked at the stuff that was available to the public, like the confession, and we went through people’s accounts at the time. We were trying to gather as much information as we could, and educate ourselves about the case.
Then when we started shooting interviews with people, they became our sources of information. So we started telling stories about them, like Pam, the next-door neighbor; Pat, the homicide detective who took the confession: and Dr. Jeffrey Jentze, the medical examiner, who collected the evidence.
The story after that was, how do we tell the story through their perspective? We only included information about Dahmer that affected their daily lives at that time.
Q: Like you mentioned, ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Files’ features interviews with Dr. Jentze, Patrick and Pamela. Why did you decide to feature the three of them in the movie, and what was the process of getting them involved with the project?
CJT: Well, we shot the first interview with Dr. Jentze, as he was the first person to agree. I had been trying to get interviews with various people in Milwaukee. What I realized was what was really interesting to me was how people dealt with this in such close proximity. How do you deal with severed heads and bodies, when you have kids at home? How do you deal with that on a personal level?
Dr. Jentze was the first person willing to give an interview. That was part of the story we were interested in. Understandably so, they weren’t interested in discussing the private aspects of their lives, and explaining what it was like for them. So we had to find people who were interested in telling their side of it, in the sense of how it changed their lives.
As I was editing in footage from the interviews, the film was getting stronger. But it didn’t feel whole yet, in the sense the story wasn’t complete. It wasn’t fulfilling as a viewer, so we added another perspective, from Pam. She lived in the apartment building he lived in, and she’s African-American. There was a lot of poverty and drugs in the neighborhood. So she gave a perspective that the other two interviews didn’t offer.
The story started to feel really full and whole. So the style of filmmaking we were doing was very organic over four years, and we continued to add things until we felt the story was complete.
It wasn’t until after Pam’s interview that we felt the story was whole. I think we sat with her for about five or six hours, until she told us her whole story. It was one of those things where she was saying, I’m not ready to tell this on camera. It was a lot of that-getting to know people, and gaining their trust, and explaining as clearly as you could what your idea for the film was. The film we have today features the incredible paths of Patrick, Pam and Dr. Jentze.
Q: Did you receive any objections from people involved in the case while you were filming who didn’t want the movie to be made?
CJT: Yeah. The interesting thing when you’re explaining to people that you’re making a film about Jeffrey Dahmer, you get a very specific reaction. When I told my mom for the first time, she almost started crying. I understand that people had a perception of what a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer would be like and how it would feel.
I think what I realized early on was that once people watched it, they realized that it was completely different from what they expected. The actual story is told from the actual people around Jeffrey Dahmer. You actually learn about these people, and can put yourself in their shoes. It’s not the same story about the knife Jeffrey Dahmer used or the cannibalism or what was wrong with his brain; it’s actually about the people around him, including the people who worked on the case and the people in his building, and how it affected and changed their lives forever.
Once people saw the film, all of those hesitations and pre-conceived ideas that I shouldn’t have made the film went out the window. They realized the film is very sensitive and honest and true. It’s told by people from Milwaukee who lived the case. This story’s been a million times by people who come from outside, and just want to talk about the knife or the sensationalism. It’s really rare for anyone to let them open up and talk about how it changed their lives, which was what I was trying to do.
Q: Besides featuring the interviews, ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Files’ also features archival news footage and everyday scenes from Dahmer's life. How did you decide which clips to feature in the movie?
Q: That’s a good question. I don’t really have an answer on how we decided. In a way, the filmmaking style was very open-ended. We didn’t have a date on when we were going to be finished. It was always what we were working on, because we love making movies. Our friends and other filmmakers from Milwaukee would come and watch, and tell us what they thought.
We would try to find the balance of what would do the most justice. Sometimes we would have too much archived footage, so we were learning. It was like making a recipe, and inviting people over and serving them dinner. Then you would get feedback on what they liked and didn’t like about your dinner, and then change your recipe.
In the end, I couldn’t tell you how we arrived at that balance. It was that constant experimentation, and asking other artists what they thought about the film.
Q: ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Files’ is an independent movie, and is set to be released by IFC Films. Did having a smaller budget influence the way you could shoot the film, or what you could include in it?
CJT: That’s my favorite question. I shot the film myself, and it was a labor of love. We shot it for three-and-a-half years in Milwaukee with every dollar I could find. I raised money through Kickstarter. Every credit card I could get my hands on, I maxed out. I invested everything I had emotionally and intellectually and financially over the course of three-and-a-half years.
After it premiered at SXSW, IFC showed interest, and it was a dream come true. It felt like I was going crazy. To have them show interest, and see a lot of the good feedback it was getting from critics, it felt as though it legitimized my adventure. It was so wonderful to get that kind of treatment.
Some of my friends, and other people in Milwaukee, never got paid, and they just believed and wanted to be a part of it. They though it was a fun storytelling adventure. It wasn’t fun, in the sense that a lot of people’s lives were turned upside down. But knowing that we did the story justice, and that it was an incredibly complicated and difficult process creatively, and we fought through it for three-and-a-half years, that provided a really good and fulfilling feeling.
I owe endless people endless thanks for the help they gave me, having never been paid. Independent filmmaking is a dreary place, financially speaking.
Q: ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Files’ played at several film festivals last year, including having its world premiere at SXSW. What was your reaction when you found out the movie would be playing at the festivals?
CJT: I remember when I found out, I read an email that Jim Kolmar, who at the time was in charge of the program documentary section at SXSW. He and Janet Pierson had sent me an email, saying they loved the film and wanted to play it in the competition. It was the craziest day of my life. It was like growing up your whole life in New York, and wanting to play for the Yankees, and you get your first at bat.
To have an email from Janet Pierson, saying she loved your film and she wanted to play it, was unbelievable. Playing SXSW was a huge honor, and it was a lot of fun. The crowd there was incredible.
Then to get the feedback from critics, and seeing that a lot of people were connecting with the film, it was a very different style of storytelling. It was unique in the fact that it blended a lot of aspects of fictional storytelling and documentary filmmaking and historical fiction documentary filmmaking. To have people understand it and connect with it was a humbling feeling. It was incredible, and a huge honor
Q: Do you have any upcoming films lined up, whether writing or directing, that you can discuss?
Q: That’s a good question. I’m writing a few films, and a lot of them are in the writing and research stage. I have to figure out what the stories are. It’s difficult; I’ve had four years to make this one. A lot of it had to do with not having money and not knowing what I was doing. But in hindsight, it took me four years to learn the story. I want to learn how to become more efficient in learning how to tell a story as I move forward.
The one that I’m specifically working on that I can talk about is a book I optioned, called ‘The Guantanamo Lawyer.’ It was written by two lawyers who represented two detainees at Guantanamo. The idea is for them to have their day in court, and explain their situation in front of people, instead of not having any resources, or a way to tell their story. It’s an incredible book, and I’m trying to figure out how to adapt it, either in a documentary, or maybe a hybrid documentary. That’s where all my time and energy is going at the moment.