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Confronting a monster: “My friend Dahmer”

By Phoebe M. Brannock '18 February 12, 2018
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Photo courtesy of FilmRise

We’ve chosen movie-going as a standby activity for a first date and other awkward encounters because we know what we’re supposed to do: stand in line for tickets, popcorn and a Coca-Cola before we walk into a dim room illuminated by lights better suited to an airplane runway and plop down on cheap red tweed. We crane our necks at the screen as the speakers crackle. 

Imagine the screen flashing to the blank stare of one of the most infamous killers, Jeffrey Dahmer. The feeling of familiarity instantly shatters, and for the better part of two hours, you grapple with the questions that surround him. 

On Feb. 16, viewers at the William & Mary Global Film Festival will have the opportunity to experience this sensation for themselves. Milan Chakraborty ’00, a producer of “My Friend Dahmer,” will introduce and discuss the film.

“‘My Friend Dahmer’ is the story of how such a terrible person came to be,” says Chakraborty. “We have a unique opportunity with film of telling stories that sometimes other people may not know or maybe haven't seen, and we make people think about how they or how we can do things differently.”

Chakraborty, however, never imagined that he’d introduce audiences to these stories. After graduating with a degree in accounting, Chakraborty describes his next move as “the typical trek from William & Mary to Northern Virginia” for his first job with one of the Big Five accounting firms. Two years after he landed his first job, the Enron scandal broke over the accounting world, and Chakraborty numbered among the 27,000 individuals who lost their jobs as collateral damage. AOL-Time Warner scooped Chakraborty out of the mess. Eventually, Chakraborty opted to transfer to one of their offices in Los Angeles where he crunched numbers for the production of films like “Batman Begins” and “Superman Returns.” In 2008, he jokes that he “went rogue” and began producing independently. 

Since 2008, the man who took only one drama class at William & Mary has brought indie films that have become household names, such as “Where Hope Grows” and “Alter Egos,” to the silver screen. He’s also had two films in the prestigious Sundance Film Festival: “The Lifeguard,” starring Kristen Bell, in 2013, and most recently, “Assassination Nation” at the 2018 fest in January. Chakraborty compares his role in production to a general contractor: a coordinating force behind teams creating a story. Chakraborty has a unique charisma that coalesces talent — from writers to music supervisors — and helps channel energy into art.

His desire to create stems from the uncertainty that characterized the years that immediately followed his graduation. In 2001, Chakraborty lost close friends and fellow alumni Alysia Burton Basmajian ’00 and Jim Reilly ’98 to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Chakraborty wanted to constructively cope with the loss. 

 “Tomorrow’s not guaranteed. We’re lucky to be here,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure being here is some honor and do my part to keep the memories of those we’ve lost alive.”

Chakraborty stands by this commitment that he made to his classmates who are no longer with him. For each film he’s produced, he’s worked with at least one other William & Mary alumnus. The production of “My Friend Dahmer” especially honored the friends Chakraborty has lost since graduation. He collaborated with two William & Mary alumni and undergraduate friends, John Novogratz ’96 and Jon Leahy ’00. Their efforts culminated when “Dahmer” premiered at the Tribecca Film Festival in New York City.

“Dahmer” has now played at domestic film festivals and in Canada as well as those in places as far flung as Portugal, Germany and Australia. Dahmer had a successful theatrical run in 2017 and was released on iTunes on February 6, 2018.

Chakraborty explains that the interest in the film fits well with the rise in popularity of true crime television shows. 

“I hope we take a look at some of those people in our lives or in school today who operate in the shadows and are pushed along or ignored. If we could shine a light on this or maybe try to more effectively communicate and include, maybe we have a chance…” he trails off. “Do I think looking at all those things would have prevented Jeffrey Dahmer from killing people? No, but do I think if we did a better job with inclusion and talking about mental health that we could prevent at least some future kills? That’s possible. That’s why it’s important to become a part of this because this does not sensationalize or glamorize Jeffrey Dahmer but instead, shows that even in serial killers there’s still humanity. Let’s explore that.” 

Actor Ross Lynch breaks from his sugar-coated Disney star origins as he shuffles across the screen with hunched shoulders and averted eyes in his first serious role. The music pays homage to Cleveland’s incubation of punk music in the late ’70s. The crew traveled to the ranch-style house in which Dahmer grew up and the high school that he attended to shoot the film. As they ran scenes, people who had grown up with Dahmer dropped by to watch the process. As they saw Lynch lounge around the house and pace across the linoleum tiles of the school halls, they experienced an eerie and uncanny sense of deja vu. 

William & Mary students thrive on depth and accuracy, and they carry those qualities into their lives as alumni. Chakraborty met both Novogratz, an influential financier of the project, and Leahy, the music supervisor, during his undergraduate years. Chakraborty and Novogratz reconnect each year at the Green & Gold Homecoming tailgate, which Novogratz and his wife, Tina Estes Novogratz ’98, founded after returning from a stint in London 10 years ago with their family. He has now attended 15 of the 17 Homecomings since his graduation, and the Green & Gold tailgate has become one of the largest gatherings on campus. Chakraborty and Leahy roomed together during Chakraborty’s stint as an RA their junior year. You can imagine them back in their room in Yates’ basement listening to rising talent late into the night.

Strengthening these alumni ties through work on “Dahmer” has been a rewarding part of the project. Chakraborty’s phone has been ringing to the tune of support from fellow alumni across the country. Eighteen screenings in Virginia alone reveal that alumni are turning out to wrestle with the legacy of Dahmer and supporting their fellow Tribe alumni. They’re walking into theaters, into a familiar experience, to confront a disconcerting subject in a way in which they never have before. 

“The William & Mary community,” Chakraborty said, “has not only been involved financially, musically, etc., on every project but their support and occasional couch/room make it all possible. Tribe Pride!”