20 years later, local filmmakers tackle the life and times of Jeffrey Dahmer
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“Stop the car,” says Andrew Swant. “Ducks!” Chris Thompson brakes and swerves into a Walker’s Point parking lot. Thompson jumps out the front seat and grabs his camera, a vintage VHS recorder with a masking tape-fitted viewfinder, and levels it on a guardrail. Swant jumps the guardrail and starts down some railroad tracks, stumbling into frame. The ducks he spotted take flight as he approaches, and spiral past the rusted bridge ahead of him. It’s a great shot, but Thompson gets to the record button a second too late. He misses the ducks.
They don’t get what they intended, but they still get a nice scene. Swant climbs back in the car and continues hunting for good city landscapes. These shots are just fragments of Thompson’s three-year project called Jeff, a fiction-documentary hybrid film about Jeffrey Dahmer’s life in Milwaukee and the people impacted by his series of murders.
The film began shooting in 2008 as an experiment to take one of the most sensational stories in Milwaukee history and downplay it into a slow, anti-dramatic art film. There would be no horror, no violence. Jeff feeds his fish, rides the bus, goes shopping. “We didn’t want to say his name,” says Thompson. “People could watch it and not know it was about Jeffrey Dahmer.”
But the fictional story couldn’t stay separate from its real context. While shooting, Thompson and Swant would tell people what the movie was about, and often these people would tell them stories of friends or family who had had chance interactions with Dahmer. “Everywhere we went there was this connection,” says Swant. “It’s so enmeshed in this city. Even 20 years later, these people are still here.”
Someone who worked at a media company in the same building as Blue Mark Productions, where Thompson works, suggested that he include interviews with the people involved in the Dahmer case. Thompson then taped conversations with the medical examiner who headed the case, and the detective who took Dahmer’s confession.
Having read dozens of interviews with these people in his research, Thompson didn’t know if they still had anything to say on the subject. “They’d been asked the same questions over and over and over and over again, hundreds of times, but no one ever asked them for their stories before.”
Thompson cultivated narratives of people whose lives were interrupted by a force they could not possibly plan for. He’s spent the last year or so shooting more interviews and cutting them with his fictionalized footage and actual news coverage from the time of Dahmer’s crimes, transforming Jeff into a very different film. Says Thompson, “Now it’s a movie our parents could watch. It’s a much stronger movie. Before, it would have been this VHS we’d pass to all our friends and say, ‘You got to check this out. It’s so weird.’”
Now Thomson and Swant are trying something else new. Thompson found a VHS recorder in the building that houses Blue Mark, and has been using it to shoot scenes of Swant, dressed in his Dahmer wardrobe of jeans, a striped button-up, and large-lens glasses, walking down Milwaukee streets. He stops his car when he says, “There’s a good alley,” or Swant says, “There’s a good garage door.”
These scenes, intended as segues between sequences, are one of the last things to be shot for the movie. A fellowship from the Mary L. Nohl Fund and several of Thompson’s credit cards have gotten the movie this far, and now the end is nigh. He’s showing an excerpt from Jeff at the Nohl Screening Wednesday, Nov. 30 in the UWM Union Theater, the first time that length of the movie will have been shown to the public.
Thompson has also launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the film through its last expenses, including possibly another interview, color corrections, sound mix, and song licensing. Anyone interested in this humanistic and distinctly Milwaukeean cinematic experiment should attend tonight’s screening, and anyone who wants to be a part of it can chip in at the Kickstarter site.