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A Grisly Subject, a Serious Filmmaker

'Dahmer's' writer-director went his own way in what could be a case study for indie production today

June 23, 2002|RICHARD NATALE

So you want to make a serious movie about one of the nation's most infamous serial killers that charts the psychological terrain leading to his rampage but avoids grisly exploitation? And release it in the midst of a blockbuster summer?

The making--and selling--of "Dahmer," which debuted in Los Angeles on Friday, is virtually a how-to of independent filmmaking today, in both the obstacles it presented and how they were overcome.

In 1998, writer-director David Jacobson read Lionel Dahmer's "A Father's Story," which explored his relationship with his son, Jeffrey, who was convicted of the torture and murder of 17 young men in Milwaukee, most of them Asian or African American. Dahmer's trail of murders extended through the 1980s until his capture in the early '90s. He was convicted of 17 murders in 1991 and sentenced to 957 years. In 1994, he was murdered by another inmate. "I was familiar with who Jeffrey Dahmer was," says the 40-year-old Jacobson, whose only previous credit was the 1994 black-and-white film "Criminal," which was well-received at film festivals and subsequently released on video. "I always figured his story wasn't that different from any other serial killer. But I became fascinated by his father's approach."

Like "Criminal," which charts the exploits of a balding, 40-year-old man who acts out his midlife crisis through criminal behavior, a serious dramatization of Dahmer's life had little appeal to producers and financiers.

"I can still hear their reactions," Jacobson says, laughing. " 'Oh my God, why would you make a film about that?' "

Had he taken the low (exploitation) road, he says, there might have been some interest, because Dahmer's crimes included dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism. (By comparison, Hannibal Lecter seems like a Noel Coward character.) But Jacobson's script was a character study. "In a peculiar way, if I'd made a gory film, that would have been more distancing [from the audience]. I was after something more emotional and more involving."

Almost no one wanted to be involved with that approach. Jacobson decided to finance the movie himself, shooting it in suburban L.A., including his childhood home, over four weeks, mostly with unknowns. The only "name" in the cast is Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Davison, who portrays Lionel Dahmer. Some exteriors were shot in Dahmer's hometown of Milwaukee.

The original budget was well below $1 million (it wound up at about $1 million)and with the help of independent producer Larry Rattner, Jacobson was able to secure some cost-efficient equipment and post-production deals. "At the time we were shooting the film last summer," Rattner says, "the threat of a strike had slowed production down so much that we were able to negotiate very favorable terms."

Jacobson was adamant about shooting on film, rather than the less expensive digital video, which has become the rage in independent filmmaking in the past few years. "I like some of the films I've seen on digital, but I didn't think it would work well cinematically for this subject," he says. "The story itself is so gritty, I wanted to give people some pleasure in watching the film."

With the film's director of photography, American Film Institute graduate Chris Manley, Jacobson alternated two distinct film stocks, using a smoother, more lush grain for flashback sequences dealing with Dahmer's adolescence and a more high-contrast stock for the intense later years, using a combination of sets and industrial locations. After principal photography was completed, Rattner shopped a rough cut of the movie. The initial response was predictable, but once distributors viewed the film, the reaction was largely favorable. Still, there were few offers.

Most of the interested parties wanted Jacobson to push the more exploitative aspects of the movie, says the director. Then came an offer from DEJ Productions, or "my Medicis," as Jacobson calls them.

"DEJ was looking for quality films of this nature," Rattner said. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Blockbuster Home Video, which since 1999 has buoyed the independent film arena, releasing about 270 titles on video and DVD, according to Dean Wilson, executive vice president of content for Blockbuster. "Dahmer" was a perfect fit for Blockbuster because it downplayed the gore elements and was able to secure an R-rating. The chain doesn't carry NC-17 titles.

The video deal also included further funding to enhance the film's post-production budget. Along with foreign sales, that covered most of the film's expenses, Rattner says.

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