Interview with "The Jeffrey Dahmer Files" Director Chris Thompson

Photo Credit: Chris Thompson
February 15th, 2013

Chris James Thompson is the director of the new film The Jeffrey Dahmer Files which comes out February 15th, and I recently had a chance to talk with this great filmmaker about his new movie.

Nick from Movie Room Reviews- Hi Chris how are you doing?

Chris- Good Nick, how are you doing?

MRR- Great thanks.

Chris- Thanks a lot for taking the time.

MRR- No problem.  Thanks a lot for making a movie!

Chris- Haha. Did you get to see it?

MRR- Yeah I got a screener last week and I watched it.

Chris- Cool. Was it a date movie?  I have been telling a lot of people to take their significant other.  It’s a really bright uplifting movie (laughs).

MRR- Actually for me, I get to watch it at work.

Chris- Wow that’s an awesome job!

MRR- Yeah I know, and I get to talk to guys like you so it’s pretty cool.

Chris- Oh that part doesn’t sound as fun.

MRR- So what are you up to today?

Chris- I’ve been making the rounds with Pat (Kennedy), and you know he’s the real hero in the sense that people want to hear his story.  So, it’s a lot of just smiling, and nodding, and shaking hands as they ask him the million questions that I was dying to ask him when we shot the interviews. 

MRR- The new film The Jeffrey Dahmer Files comes out February 15th at the IFC Center in New York.  The film has already been at festivals including 2012‘s South by Southwest.  You are the Director / Writer / Producer / Editor on this film so, needless to say you spent a little time working on this. Can you tell our audience what this is all about?

Chris- The Jeffrey Dahmer Files is, I guess you would call it, a hybrid documentary in the sense that it has fictional elements, but the story is driven by three interviews. The first of which is with Pat Kennedy who’s the homicide detective that took the confession from Jeffrey Dahmer over the course of six weeks. The second is with Pam Bass who was Jeffrey Dahmer’s next door neighbor, and lived directly across the hall, and was drinking buddies with him, and they used to have beers and trade stories about their work days in the halls of their building.  The third interview is with Jeffrey Jentzen who’s the medical examiner in Milwaukee and was responsible for leading the team that extracted all of the evidence and remains that were in the apartment, and tried to make sense of all of it to try to help the case against Jeffrey Dahmer.  So, the story is really driven by those three explaining what it was like for them in 1991 to be involved with one of the most infamous serial killer cases in the country; if not the world.  Jeffrey Dahmer was eventually found guilty for killing and eating 16 or 17 people, and the whole world was watching while these three people kind of had to sit in the middle of it.  The movie is really talking about what it was like for them and how the lasting effects have played out over the last 20 plus years; now that they get the chance to look back on what it was like for them to actually live that time.

MRR- It’s pretty intense to watch and to live that moment again. Why did you decide to do a documentary/remake style of film?  Why not just do complete interpretation remake, or a normal style documentary?

Chris- That’s a good question. I think what happened was I had actually won the Milwaukee film festival in 2007 and they gave me a bunch of film and a camera and asked me to shoot my first feature.  I had no idea what to do.  I was really scared and intimidated and there is another filmmaker in Milwaukee named Frankie Latina who makes these incredible exploitation films, and his last film was called Modus Operandi.  I was hanging out with him a lot at the time and he recommended that I make a Jeffrey Dahmer slasher film; which sounded like a horrible idea and I wanted nothing to do with that.  I had always made social issue documentaries.  But what he did is that he kept bringing me articles, and movies, and newspapers about Jeffrey Dahmer. I would read them reluctantly, and I started to notice that they all kind of told the same story that was very sensational and it always involved outsiders.  People outside of Milwaukee coming in and interviewing people just trying to collect the most sensational sort of knee-jerk story selling aspects to the story, and very few people got into the details of what it was actually like for the citizens of Milwaukee. The people that actually lived the case, and lived in that building, and that neighborhood.  I think I saw a space for a documentary or sort of combined hybrid documentary film.  So, we just went from there trying to fill that space of telling that story that had never been told by someone from Milwaukee by people that lived it in Milwaukee. 

People also ask “Why 20 years later?” You have to realize that at the time if I would have asked Pat Kennedy for an interview a year after it happened, first of all I would have been twelve years old, but second of all he wouldn’t of been able to talk, he’s a police officer.  He’s under gag order there’s a lot of politics involved with the case.  Pam was getting asked to do interviews every single day.  She would do small interviews, but she wasn’t going to be able to explain what it was like personally and how it changed her life to find out that she was living next door to someone that had killed all those people.  It took time for these people to realize, to really fully reflect on what it was like to have this happen to them, and 20 years looking back they were able to convey all the emotions that were going through them then, and how they’ve persisted over that time.  Pam talks about still thinking about it every single week, and sometimes it keeps her up at night; 20 plus years later.  So that helps you really realize and understand the impact of what this guy did in this community.

MRR- I was going to ask you that about Pamela and Pat and I wanted to know how much it still effects them; obviously it still does.

Chris- Yeah.  It’s interesting because Pam is like a hero of mine now after making this film.  She has become a close friend, and she was so trusting, and sharing her story, and we’ve become close since then.  After the interview she took this huge deep breath and sort of stood up and said that it felt like a huge weight had been taken of her shoulders.  I think she said “A load of bricks had been taken off my shoulders”.  She gave me this huge hug and I almost started crying.  It was really powerful to realize this story has been inside of her for 20 years.  She’s told fragments in the way that other people have wanted her to tell fragments, for their news stories, but no one has ever sat down and said “OK tell me what it was like for you.  Tell me what it was like for you and your husband.  Tell me what it was like for you and your kids.  Tell me what it was like for you, and your apartment, and the the people that lived in your building.”  And just allowed her to vent.  She almost explained it as therapeutic in a way to be able to fully open up and reflect on what was significant to her as opposed to what was significant to what other people wanted from her.  

MRR- I think some people may wonder why you made a film about him because he did such evil things.  Why is it important to make films about these people?

Chris- I don’t want to say that it is important in the sense that we should be doing left and right and that everyone should be doing it.  What I thought was important was trying to get really to the core of the story as it effected the people that lived in Milwaukee.  We watched the Jeremy Renner fictional version called Dahmer, and it was apparent that the film was shot in studios in LA and that they shot a couple establishing shots in Milwaukee.  The reason that I felt that it was important to make The Jeffrey Dahmer Files was it gave the city itself, and the people living in that city, the opportunity to tell their side of it; which had never really been done before.  It was nice to be able to give a voice to the people that actually lived it, and actually have their lives still really messed up for years after the world wide media had left and lost interest in the story.  So in my mind that’s why it was important in this case.  Is it important in every case? No. In a weird way I don’t like horror films. I don’t like serial killer movies.  It would take me a lot to go to a movie like this, but that’s what I love about it.  It’s very different than what people think.  It has played in festivals, and it’s funny because people will come up afterwards to say thank you or shake my hand, or shake Pat’s hand, or whoever else is there.  Lots of times it’s like the moms and the grandmothers that will say “I was really hesitant to come to this movie, but it’s so powerful, and I feel like I know these people, and thank you so much for making it”.  So that’s always the biggest compliment. People who don’t necessarily know a whole lot about movies, but took a chance and realized it’s very different than what they had expected when walking into the theater. That’s always the best compliment I can get from people, and that’s what I liked about making it.

MRR- Nice.  An interesting thing that I noticed in the film was that you never saw the reenacted Jeffrey Dahmer, played by Andrew Swant, you never really saw him really be evil.  You mainly saw the shy, nerdy side of Jeff. Was this intentional?

Chris- It was was intentional. I think the part that was interesting about all of the stuff we had read between the confession, a lot of the court documents, and just people’s accounts of what had happened in the case was that everyone always said that he seemed like such a normal guy just a little weird.  A very normal dude that you might ride the bus to work next to, or you might sell a six pack to if you worked at a liquor store.  He was someone you wouldn’t think anything of.  Just a normal, strange, quiet guy. We kind of talked about how that was the most interesting part to us.  People always talk about what did he do in the apartment? And what did he do to these people? How did he kill them?  That stuff has all been talked about, and that stuff isnt that interesting to me because I can’t relate to that. I have no idea why he did what he did.  I have no idea what’s wrong with his head.  But, what I could relate to was the idea of riding the bus next to this guy and then in hindsight being like “Holy s#*&! I rode the bus next to that guy to work every day for a year, he seemed so normal”.  That’s what we always wanted to tap into on the fictional stuff, just how normal and mundane his life was if you were looking at it from the outside.

MRR- That was an interesting way to go with the film, I liked that about it.

Chris- Well thanks I appreciate that.  Those are kind words.

MRR- If Jeff was still alive, do you think you would want to interview him for the film?

Chris- Would I? That’s a good question.  I’ve never been asked that before.  To be honest I don’t think I would because in a way that part didn’t interest me.  In a way, I don’t care what was wrong with him or what was going on in his brain because I can’t relate to it.  It’s so foreign.  It would be like talking about aliens or something to me.  It’s so far fetched to try and make sense of it.  So I don’t think I would want to go talk to him.  People always ask Pat that question.  He had the ability to go talk to him in prison if he wanted to, and he said he never wanted to go talk to him again after. 

I think I would have been to scared.  I wanted to talk to people that I could relate to like the doctor, the detective, the neighbor and see what they had to say about it, and how it effected their lives.  I could really relate to those people.  I could put myself in their shoes.  I could never put myself in Jeffrey Dahmer’s shoes.  Would you want to go talk to him?

MRR- No way.

Chris- It’d be scary right? It’d be terrifying.

MRR- I think the most terrifying thing would be how normal he would be as you talked to him and knowing what he was capable of doing in the past.  That would be terrifying to me.

Chris- Yeah.  It’s interesting Jeffrey Jentzen the medical examiner, he told me, that after he had finished his part in the case, which was preparing all the evidence for the court, they’d given him  a summons or a subpoena that said you might need to testify and explain what some of the evidence is, and what he had done.  He just told me that instead of going, as you would sometimes do and just wait at the court for your time to talk, he actively said “I am not going to the court until you absolutely need me and it’s clear that I am going to be called to talk.  At that that time I’ll show up, but I don’t want to be around it anymore than I have to be around it.” And this is a guy that is digging through dead bodies all day everyday, and even he was saying I didn’t want to have anything to do with it more than what I had to do professionally.  “I didn’t want to know him. I didn’t want to know anything about him. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to talk to him. I wanted to keep my space.” So that gives you an idea of how complicated and touchy his whole aura, or persona, was after the fact.  Where as a week before that Jeffrey Jentzen may have shook his hand had he met him at the store.

MRR- The film comes out February 15th and it seems like audiences have been reacting pretty positive towards it.

Chris-  Yeah, I’ve been getting a lot of positive reviews.  It’s great reading all that stuff.  To be honest the most important part for me was that the three subjects liked it.  I don’t want to say I was tailoring the story I wanted them to like, but that they liked it in the sense that even when they are talking about their personal shortcomings, or some of their own flaws as human beings, they’re still coming across as genuine, and you sympathize with them, and you really connect to them.  I think that’s what a lot of the critics that have written about the film seem to respond to is that they started to feel that they knew these people, and they actually had the opportunity to put themselves in their shoes, and see what it would have been like to live during this time.  Whereas a lot of the other stuff that had been made about Jeffrey Dahmer in the past was just about slashing bodies open and gore stuff, which is hard to sit in front of for 70 or 80 minutes.  We had to come up with a different approach and I think the unusual style is what’s interesting people and getting people to see this as very different than anything that’s been done before. 

MRR- Well thank you so much Chris for your time.  The film comes out on February 15th and our audience can go to  Thank you so much.

Chris- Absolutely Nick, thank you sir.