Interview: Chris James Thompson on Digging Into “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files”

A documentary-drama hybrid may draw attention for the name in the title, but it aims to shed light on the community still haunted by the serial killer two decades...
Chris James Thompson's film Jeffrey Dahmer Files

Lest you think “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” is a relic of the early aughts when crummy exploitation flicks dramatizing the exploits of famed serial killers flooded Blockbuster Video shelves, director Chris James Thompson can sympathize.

“I told my mom that I was thinking about making a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer and she almost started crying,” Thompson says. “So there [were] definitely some reservations.”

Although fear is still very much a part of the resulting “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files,” any ones that Mrs. Thompson may have had should be alleviated by her son’s respectful treatment of his subject matter, allowing the details of the serial killer’s crimes speak their own gruesome truths about the man while reserving the spotlight for the community that still remains haunted by the 16 murders he committed from 1987 to 1991. Originally conceived as a fictional account of the days leading up to Dahmer’s capture, Thompson took a different tact once he began to wonder more about the people who encountered Dahmer before and after his crimes were revealed, ultimately leading him to Dahmer’s neighbor Pamela Bass, homicide detective Pat Kennedy and Jeffrey Jentzen, Milwaukee County’s medical examiner. Their grim testimony demystifies the legend that grew around Dahmer with pieces of information that either are mundane (the sandwiches he’d offer to Bass) or treated as such (Jentzen’s clinical recollections of how the victims’ bodies were disassembled) while speaking to the far more complicated reality of understanding the actions of someone such as Dahmer.

All in all, it’s a deeply unsettling and unusual debut from Thompson, a protege of “American Movie” director Chris Smith whose own experience of living in and around Milwaukee before and after Dahmer’s reign of terror gives the film an extra bit of authenticity. On the eve of the film’s release, Thompson explained how he turned an idea for an exploitation film into something far from it, his personal connection to the case and how his background in sound design came in handy.

You’ve said you initially resisted making a film about this subject. What changed your mind
about it?

I had won the Milwaukee Film Festival in 2007 and they gave me an award package that had some film and a camera and they asked me to shoot my first feature film. I really had no idea what to shoot. I was spending a lot of time hanging out with another filmmaker in Milwaukee named Frankie Latina, who just finished a film called “Modus Operandi” and makes these really great, sort of sensational thrasher movies with a lot of sex and violence and action. He recommended I should make a Jeffrey Dahmer exploitation film, like a slasher movie, which sounded like a horrible idea.

It was the last thing I wanted to do. But he kept bringing me newspaper articles and books and other movies that had been made. I was reluctantly looking at some of it and I just realized the story had never really been told – first of all by people from Milwaukee and second, where it allowed the people around him to talk about how it affected them. It was always about the knife that he used to kill people or the cannibalism. or something like that. That’s kind of where I felt an opening to make a film about what it was really like for the people closest to him, proximity-wise, in the city and where their lives have headed after that point.

You’re actually from the area yourself. Was it interesting to reconcile your personal memories of what had happened with the reality of the events you were discovering through your research and interviews?

Yeah. I’m pretty young – I was nine or 10 at the time, and I grew up in Madison, which is a small city about an hour away from Milwaukee. My parents actually were getting divorced at the time and my dad moved to Milwaukee, so I remember taking the bus back and forth between my mom in Madison and my dad in Milwaukee and noticed that people talked about it very differently in the two cities. In Milwaukee, people talked about it as if it were a disaster like a hurricane or a flood. Everyone knew someone that was involved or affected and in Madison, people talked about it a little bit more like it was a new movie coming out on Friday night. They were a little more excited about it.

So part of it was examining how proximity to something like this that the whole world is watching and the whole world is forming their opinions on what’s going on, what it would be like to be at the epicenter of that. Having now lived in Milwaukee for 10 years, it interested me as part of that community to try to figure out how the effects have lasting qualities and how people’s lives were changed even 20 years, 25 years later.

Do you think having that much of a remove from the murders helped?

It did and there’s a couple reasons why. First of all, put yourself in Pamela Bass’ shoes, his next door neighbor who we interviewed for the film. If I had asked her six months after the ordeal, “What was this like for you and your family?” It’d be very hard for her to reflect on it and put it together to any type of story that people could learn from. She was still processing that she lived across the hall from someone that killed and ate all those people 30 or 40 feet away from where she slept at night. These were horrific things that people had to witness. You think about any worldwide tragedy, any of these shootings that are going on now, you can’t go into those communities and ask those people a week later what it was like. They’re still trying to figure it out for themselves.

A lot of people ask, “Why are you bringing this up? Let it go.” But I think when you hear Pam’s story or Pat’s story, especially, they have this wisdom about them that the 20-plus years has allowed to really look back with 20/20 hindsight and see how it changed their lives, how it made them the people that they are today and how it’s still affecting them. To me, that part was really fascinating.

The second part is Pat legally probably couldn’t have talked about it a year after it happened. He was still working for the police department and it was a very sensitive issue politically in the city, so a lot of these stories, it wasn’t possible to tell them.

Sound is a particular skill set of yours and that seems like a key to creating how eerie of an experience this is. Was fine-tuning that difficult?

So few people really understand and appreciate the power of sound in filmmaking. I have this argument with people all the time. It’s the hardest thing to explain to people that if you went to the movie theater and you had to choose, do you watch the film with just the pictures or do you watch the film with just the sound, but you can’t have both, which would you choose? The old adage they teach you in film school is 99 percent of the people are going to choose the pictures and they’re going to have a less enjoyable experience than the one percent that choose the sound and they won’t realize it until they all will have left the theater.

Rob Danielson, my sound design teacher, always forced us to play our movies with no picture. If it wasn’t enjoyable then that meant it wasn’t done. So we were constantly adding Foley stuff or new songs or music or heartbeats or you had a car rumble of an engine underneath a scene – just these little things, whatever you could do to add to the story and help evoke a little bit more of that emotion out of the viewer. Ian Stynes, the sound mixer from a place here in New York called Great City Productions, helped me mix a lot of it and Robert Mulrennan was the one who helped me write a lot of the score. We would just sit in his studio for hours and he’d just hold his guitar, we’d watch rough cuts and he’d just create little rumbles or strums, just really tiny subliminal things that we were constantly adding in.

Has the meaning of the film changed for you since you started to develop it?

Absolutely. I have three new very close friends in Pat, Pam and Dr. Jensen. These people will be friends for the rest of my life, so the meaning of the story has changed from something that I read about in the newspaper to something that my three friends lived. It’s impossible to say that it didn’t change me or my views haven’t changed. To be honest, that’s the most fun part of making documentary films is getting to learn those stories and really taking the time to understand for yourself what’s compelling about the storytelling and why you love participating in storytelling. It’s one of the most core basic human activities. You can get people to do incredible things by telling a good story. I feel like I learned a lot during those four years and who knows? Looking back, I’ll probably see nothing but flaws in this movie, but there’s no way I could make another one that would be any good without having gone through those four years making this one.

“The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” opens at the IFC Center on February 15th and is available nationally on VOD, iTunes, Xbox and Sundance Now.

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