Milwaukee filmmaker Chris James Thompson’s documentary Jeff explores the unsettling effect that Jeffrey Dahmer had on those around him. The medical examiner and a detective involved in the case, as well as one of Dahmer’s neighbors, were all given time to speak. Thompson spent four years interviewing, studying and sorting through archives to piece together this enlightening film.
There are many films on Dahmer. Why do another? Inspiration comes and goes. I started reading old articles on the murders, and so much of the reporting was on the killings and the hype. I found the few personal stories of those around him much more interesting than the violent stuff reported. So the film has more to do with those around him.
Emotionally, how was producing the film? It was hard to make this film. I would take large periods of time off. That’s why it took so long. I would ask myself why I was even making this. I would wake up in the middle of the night bothered, sweating. It’s really beyond my realm of imagination to wonder what was wrong with him. I still don’t know what caused him to do those things. Listening to the locals helped a lot; it made the film more about their lives in an unimaginable situation.
How did the locals react to you? They get approached every so often for books and film. Their initial answer is, “No, I’m not interested.” They think people want to use them for money. So I would knock on their house [doors] and mail them handwritten letters—a lot of friendly pressure, really. Normally people would ask them for interviews, and would be like, “What was wrong with Dahmer?” When they finally allowed me interviews, I asked them questions about their lives. We connected.
I asked them how they felt, their experience. Then the emotions really started flooding out. One subject even said she felt like a load was taken off. It helped that I didn’t come into the interviews with a set plan.
What drives your passion for film? I really love documentaries. I like them because they offer an escape and they have a sense of activism. I like putting good movies out. I have a whole list of stuff I want to make, a growing list.