CalArts Student Film Reveals Intriguing Aspect to the Jeffrey Dahmer Story

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‘Jeffrey’, written and directed by Cheyne Taylor Bush (MFA 2015), centers on the deep need that people have for achieving a sense of control and how it manifested in the life of one of the most notorious serial killers.

“I wanted to make a film about a tormented, young man yearning for perhaps the deepest need people have—a sense of control."

When he began working on his thesis film for California Institute of the Arts, MFA candidate Cheyne Taylor Bush originally thought about making a personal film dealing with some of his own life experiences; a “coming-of-age” piece of sorts.

“I decided to step outside my comfort zone and do a narrative film,” Bush tells us, “rather than the more experimental work I had been producing. It was a bit of a risk, I suppose, but I was eager to apply the abstract cinematic techniques I had developed to the story I wanted to tell.”

While developing the treatment for his thesis, however, Bush was drawn in the direction of another subject. “I never imagined I would be doing a film about someone else; let alone someone so different from me,” he recalls. He instead chose a man with very real problems who faced an inconceivable struggle as his destiny began to unfold, and to which he inevitably surrendered.

His story is about a young man becoming a serial killer. A young man named Jeffrey.

Why would anyone want to make this film? “So many films have already explored this dark subject,” acknowledges Bush who both wrote and directed Jeffrey. “It’s one we often associate with horror—a genre rife with problematic and one-dimensional characters, with monsters and gore—where the common goal is for every last cast member to be murdered in increasingly grotesque ways.”

But this young filmmaker is very clear when he says, “That is not the film I set out to make.”

“I wanted to make a film about his development,” he explains. “An inverse coming-of-age story of a tormented, young man yearning for perhaps the deepest need people have—a sense of control. This man struggled with unspeakable fantasies and night terrors, which manifested from this sense of losing all control.”

The storyline was largely influenced by the Stone Philips interview with Jeffrey Dahmer, the basis and namesake for the character.

In the interview, Dahmer spoke in great detail about his first and subsequent murders. He also revealed much about his childhood, family and early adult life. “It was during his teen years that he began dealing with issues that he felt were out of his control,” Bush points out, “his parents’ relationship that ended in divorce; his mother’s mental illness; realizing his homosexuality; and the loneliness he experienced, a result in part from his antisocial behavior. This is what most interested me.”

Artistically speaking, Bush approached the film with a sense of nostalgia, yet without revealing a specific time period. He used expired 16mm film to instill a slightly grainy, almost homemade image quality. “Much like Jeffrey, I wanted to experience a ‘loss of control’ in the filmmaking process. The use of expired film, in camera editing, and nighttime shooting, while somewhat risky, added an element to the viewer’s perception and understanding of what Jeffrey was feeling.”

Strangely, after committing his first murder Jeffrey didn’t kill again for nearly a decade, which is unprecedented in the case of nearly all known serial killers.

Moreover, his indecision about how to deal with his fantasies and desires to, as he puts it, “take control” over someone, was equally compelling to Bush. “Often serial killers and other types of psychopaths create reasons and justifications for their crimes. Dahmer didn’t. He admitted to his crimes and accepted responsibility for them.”

In a curious way, Bush says he can relate to this character as someone struggling to understand the need to feel in control and the self-assurance that a sense of control brings. “It is odd to me that what many people seem to find interesting about serial killers is how they killed,” remarks Cheyne. “But I have no interest in that, which is why my film ends shortly after the first murder. Jeffrey, having resolved his issue of control in this unacceptable manner, is moralistically lost.”

Unlike his film’s protagonist, Cheyne Taylor Bush seems to have realized a greater sense of control over his own destiny as a filmmaker of narrative films. “I have many more stories to tell.”

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William K. Bush
Gramercy Partners, Inc.
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