In the history of episodic television, there are few more prolific and accomplished directors than Paris Barclay. Aside from his eight Emmy nominations and two wins, the list of high-level shows he has been a part of reads like a laundry list of prestige TV: NYPD Blue, ER, The West Wing, Huff, Law & Order, House, Lost, The Shield, Weeds, Monk, In Treatment, The Good Wife, Glee, Scandal, Empire, How To Get Away With Murder, Station 19, and several that I left out in a vain attempt at brevity.
When Barclay’s Glee collaborator Ryan Murphy asked him to take on Dahmer, Barclay was skeptical, but when he was pitched “Silence,” the episode built around Tony Hughes, one of Dahmer’s last victims, a gay, black, deaf man, Barclay was sold. So much that he directed the finale as well.
In our conversation, Barclay and I discuss the controversy around the show’s release, and the unusually victim-oriented nature of the show. Dahmer is not what you think if you haven’t seen it, and few could explain it to others better than Paris Barclay.
Awards Daily: Dahmer dropped on Netflix almost as a surprise. There wasn’t a lot of pre-release information. The debate began almost immediately about whether this show should be allowed to exist at all because of the discomfort that people have with serial killers and the idea of taking advantage of victim grief. This show found a way through that I think is amazing. Did it give you any pause to be a part of a show that you knew would come loaded with controversy like this?
Paris Barclay: Absolutely, because I was just like the people that we heard from in the beginning of it. Do we really need to look at Jeffrey Dahmer? Haven’t there been a number of movies about Jeffrey Dahmer? I lived through Jeffrey Dahmer. I don’t really want to be part of elevating his insanity. But Ryan said “I have an episode.” He didn’t sell me the show. He sold me the episode. He said, “I have an episode that I want you to do. I think you would be the right person.” And he told me the story of Tony Hughes, which I did not know. And that was proof to me that maybe the story is worth telling. Here’s a story that is true, that I didn’t know, that showed a different side, that really focused on the victim and made them the protagonist. That’s what sold me about getting involved in it. As I watched the whole series, I saw that was the turning point. It had begun with Glenda and you had a sense of that focus on the victimized, but then there were a lot of details about Jeffrey’s damage. But at episode six, the show started to turn to the impact on the people, on this particular victim, on other victims, on Konerak and his family, and on Glenda herself, and on his father, and then eventually on society and police and the things we did with Jesse Jackson. That’s to me why it was all worth doing.
Awards Daily: Jeffrey is the necessary linchpin. You can’t get away from that, obviously. A lot of times when we see serial killer product, there’s this tendency to focus on the maniacal aspects. And that’s in here, how he became who he became is part of this, but this intention to show the victims as real human beings and people who loved and cared and wanted more for their lives. I can assume that was part of the hook for you.
Paris Barclay: Yeah. That was part of the hook. Ryan mentioned that it would begin with Tony Hughes’s birth, and begin with his mother discovering that he was deaf. And I thought wow, already I’m into this story. I mean, this is a human. Every time people are shot in America, I wonder about them as babies. I wonder about how they grew up and what they meant to that particular family. And here we’re going to use that as the beginning of the story. So you can really, really relate to a mother with a new child who is deaf, and then he grows up to be this hopeful, positive person, struggling against his disability to really make it. I was all in on him, and it’s 20 minutes until Jeffrey starts to alter that course of his life. But, I think that’s a story worth telling and it became not a microscope, but a sort of reverse microscope. It became the thing that exploded the idea that this isn’t about the serial killer, this is about the people that he affected and how society allowed him to go on so long.
Awards Daily: I assumed the fact that you had worked with Ryan before, particularly on Glee, gave you a sense of trust.
Paris Barclay: I trust Ryan. Ryan is an artist who is going to push the boundaries and he’s going to find new ways to look at situations that we may have thought, as I did with Jeffrey Dahmer, were done. They’re not done when Ryan takes them on because then there’s a new perspective and there’s a new aspect of it, and he’s relating it to today. I think Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most relevant shows of our time. It shows what’s happening still to this day: the problem we have with policing in our cities, especially when it comes to black and brown people, the difficulty of believing women when they tell the truth. All those things are what I think elevated it. But in this particular episode, he also said, let’s dive into the deaf culture of these black young gay men and show it in a way that hasn’t been shown before. And I said, this is all very, very worth my time.
Awards Daily: Speaking to that in particular, that scene when there are Tony and two other gay men of color just sitting in a bar talking about their hopes and dreams. I have to tell you, it is probably my favorite scene from any television show last year. It moved me to tears. I’m a straight white man, a middle-aged white man. You know? I mean, this isn’t my world exactly. The sense of the humanity of it. Can you talk about directing that scene?
Paris Barclay: I’m glad that that worked for you because I worked so hard with Rodney Burford, and I want to say their names—Michael Anthony Spady and Jared Debusk. You have three actors who are deaf. We rehearsed a few days in advance with our sign language interpreter and masters to make sure that the signs were comfortable and correct for the time period, but also expressed the kind of subculture that this was. It’s not only gay, it’s also deaf, it’s also black. The authenticity of that was very important. I said I want the viewer to be with them. I want the viewer to have a seat at the table and experience that. So we took the camera to table height for most of it and we sat with them and we were close to them and we felt their banter and their humor. Something I really learned through this episode is that sign language is more than just spelling out words with your fingers. It’s expressing thoughts in global ways and humor and it’s idiomatic and not just some sort of recitation of what you would say if you were speaking. And so the sound goes out, and you just get to live with them for five minutes and you just get to love them. And as we lose them, you get to feel that pain. I don’t revel in taking people through the pain, but part of this story is that here are people you didn’t know, who did not deserve to die, who had lives and dreams and hopes and were thriving and then this tragedy happened to them. To me, that’s one of the rides that you can take a person on that is most valuable.
Awards Daily: Rodney as Tony is so incredibly moving and there’s a sweetness and an innocence about him, especially when he is talking about what it would take for him to get into a committed relationship when he is in that three-way conversation. It had to feel like a real gift to find somebody like Rodney for this.
Paris Barclay: Oh we were so fortunate. Our casting people, Carol Kritzer and Eric Dawson and Robert Ulrich, found him before I came on board and I was worried. I said he doesn’t have any experience in drama. I watched him on a reality show. It’s a reality show. He’s just being himself. When I met him, I felt he had a magnetism about him. What I tried to do is use him to be Tony Hughes and not for him to pretend to be someone else, but to let Rodney come out through that character, because he is really a very likable, lovable, hopeful guy. So we had to figure out ways without teaching him how to act to allow him to be. I’ve said this a few times, and I’ll say it again for you, Evan Peters was critical in that. Everyone thinks Evan is buried in his own process of method man. But Evan was so loving to this actor. He knew that Rodney’s experience was beyond limited, very slight, and he knew that he would have to be a partner and to help him, and he did.
He was kind, and he whispered things to him and advised him, and he helped him find his marks without looking, which is a skill that actors have to gain over time. Those simple things that made him feel not only comfortable but loved by the production and allowed him to have the space to become the lovable Tony Hughes that he was. I have to say I did manipulate him slightly, but that’s what directors do. Most of my manipulation was with the camera. You see a lot of them (Hughes and Dahmer) in two shots. 50/50, they’re equal. This story is about a villain and a protagonist, and it doesn’t favor one or the other. If I was going to favor anyone, I was going to favor Tony, and that’s what we did. Sometimes I would cut off Evan Peters’ / Jeffrey Dahmer’s head in a scene like when he was preparing dinner in the end. I didn’t show you his face. I don’t really care what Dahmer’s going through. I’m just seeing what he’s doing. In the bar when he first meets Tony, I don’t show you Dahmer’s point of view. I only show you Tony’s point of view of Dahmer. It’s those things that we can do with the camera that also switch the audience’s allegiance to where we want them to be.
Awards Daily: Since you brought up Evan, that’s sweet to hear that he was so gracious. He makes a fascinating choice to me in the way he plays Dahmer as sort of a dull blade. He’s not charismatic, he’s not fascinating. He’s not even particularly smart. He is someone who gets away with a lot of criminality because of privilege. There’s no mustache twirling whatsoever. Were you sort of fascinated by that? Because I certainly was.
Paris Barclay: I was. I talked to Evan before we started shooting for about an hour and a half on Zoom, because it was in the height of Covid. His preparation for the part was surprising. He did immerse himself in Jeffrey Dahmer, and what he discovered is there is no solution. There is no answer. This man is psychotic and his brain has been warped in such a way that he is not processing good and evil in the way that a person with a normal set of values would. In order to play that, he took on Jeffrey’s largely blank affect instead of this deliberate I’m a murderer and I’m going to do this Ted Bundy kind of thing.
I think he may have gotten closer to the real deal because of that, because of the fact that Jeffrey Dahmer couldn’t explain to himself, or to anyone else, what was going on in his brain, because he did not know. It was all twisted. I think Evan’s choice was brilliant. Every once in a while he would lose a little bit of perspective and we would be sitting there talking about a reason for something that Jeffrey’s doing, but it’s really beside the point and impossible to know. In the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, it’s unlikely that his choices came from reason. I think his choices came from insanity and impulse. And therefore you don’t have to provide the usual actors’ what do I want, why do I want this? He just wanted to not be alone. Maybe that was it and that became the twisted thing.
Awards Daily: That’s what it felt like to me, that he didn’t want to be alone. He had this fear of abandonment. He was gay at a point in time where it wasn’t very easy, not that it’s particularly easy now, but particularly not easy then. Something cracked him at some point, but you almost wonder if he had been allowed to be himself, maybe he would have been less of a danger. It speaks to a larger point that a lot of people aren’t allowed to be themselves. And if they could, it might be easier to be the best person you can be.
Paris Barclay: I think that part of the story really comes out with his relationship with his father that Richard Jenkins played. You have to look at whether the father’s lack of acceptance, understanding, or comprehension of the issues around Jeffrey’s sexuality become part of the closet that became a cage? It’s unknowable, but is that one of the reasons? Is Jeffrey victimizing, in a way, his father by all these horrendous murders? But is his father Victor also victimizing Jeffrey by never really dealing with the reality of who this was? All of his impulses and the treatment that he could have possibly had might have just taken some of the edge off.
Awards Daily: To speak back on the privilege aspect, there are multiple points in the series where this could have all ended before more damage was done. It’s absolutely stunning. You think about him driving home with body parts in trash bags or particularly the scene with the underaged boy where the cops give the boy back to Dahmer, even though he is bleeding and he’s in his underwear on the street in the middle of the night. That had to speak to you, as a person of color, of not being paid attention to.
Paris Barclay: Absolutely. I have to say that was probably the most heartbreaking moment, even beyond all the things that happened in “Silence” when he actually was allowed to take Konerak back, and Glenda tried to convince the authorities. That is an experience that I have had so many different times in my life where I’m just not believed. I’ve been assaulted in beautiful West Hollywood, and I’ve gone to the police and I’ve had a struggle to get them to actually deal with it—in West Hollywood—in a way that satisfied me. And I’m kind of a fancy guy. You’d think they would pay attention to me. They don’t. They just don’t. \
So I did relate to that and I was furious. Every time I even think about that, it makes my blood boil. But that’s part of what the story that we wanted to tell is about. You have to look at this. The police are not doing their jobs. There’s not fairness and equity in policing. They’re not listening to a woman in the same way they might listen to a man. There’s that scene where Shirley Hughes, Tony’s mother, tries to report him missing and the guy’s asking her if he was a gang banger, if he was on drugs–all these humiliating questions that just lead her to believe they’ll never do anything, and they never did. This is the life we live today and here in Dahmer, we’re using the story from a few years ago to shine a light on what’s happening now.
Awards Daily: The interesting thing that happens once Dahmer is captured in the show is that Niecy Nash as Glenda, who is a victim in her own way having to live next to this terrifying human being and having no one listen to her, those last couple of episodes allow her to come forward. Talk about directing her in the final episode.
Paris Barclay: Well, I’ve known Niecy for a long time, but I don’t think I’d ever had a chance to actually direct her. I’ve known her, as many people have, as a comedic actor. What I discovered is the depth of her emotional access, as I call it. It is awe-inspiring. When we did the scene in the church where she searches for how to deal with forgiveness for Jeffrey Dahmer and she talks to her minister about what that could be, I couldn’t take shooting it over and over again. I think maybe we did three takes. She was going through those emotions of dealing, struggling with God, the shame of not being able to be effective in getting help for this young man that we’ve talked about. And I have to say I was just kind of blown away by what she could produce. In my case, my directing of her was a lot of getting out of the way. Sometimes you just have to leave people alone, put the camera in the right place and watch them do what they do. And Niecy is one of those people. She just kept bringing it over and over again. I was very privileged to work with her, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Awards Daily: Maybe I have an unhealthy mind, but I really love movies and shows about failure, about the honest attempt to try to accomplish something, to try to do the right thing and still somehow not be heard, not be listened to, and not succeed. I think what you did for Niecy’s character is take note of the honorable failure that someone should have been heard and maybe the honorable part repeats itself, but the failure part hopefully does not.
Paris Barclay: I’m finishing up a feature documentary of Billy Preston, and I had to deal with that story yet again, which is someone who didn’t get through the closet, didn’t actually become his authentic self, but we’re hoping that by telling the story again, we’re also saying there is a way. Today, there is a way. Today you don’t have to experience that. I’m hoping that they will have policemen and other people who have to interview people of color, and may not be of color themselves, watch Dahmer. They should look at it because they will start to feel what the other side is feeling when this ignorance happens, this lack of sensitivity to the possibilities of what someone is saying just because of their color or gender. I’m hoping that’s the case. I’m hoping that there will be a bit of education and awareness that’ll be brought by Dahmer.
Awards Daily: What I really loved too, in the final episode, is when you show Dahmer’s murder within the prison. It stays in character with the rest of the show where it’s not excessive. It’s not spectacular. It’s once again just this sort of thing that happens. I think that was a fascinating choice to say harsh shit just happens and it isn’t always colorful, even when it’s made for film or television.
Paris Barclay: I totally agree with that. I mean, we talked for many, many, many hours about exactly how to position and create the death of Jeffrey Dahmer. I was frankly on the side of let’s make it as brutal as possible. He deserves it. But I think that might have been the black gay man in me seeking vengeance. But in terms of the character of Christopher, the one who actually murders him, and the situation itself, Dahmer seems to have thought he’s found a release in his faith. And Christopher’s faith is the thing that drives him to kill Dahmer. I thought the collision of those two beliefs of God made that very interesting. Whose God is the God, or are they both just the God for different people? That became the interesting question, which is why when I was thinking about framing, I put them both up against those windows and I then let Christopher tower over Dahmer. Finally he’s met his match, and brutality ensues with a bloody pipe. It was just tasteful.
Awards Daily: There is something that happened with this show. If you just look at Rotten Tomatoes, when the first show was first released, the reviews were not that great. But I think as people actually saw it, the reviews started to pick up and they realized it was about something else, that it wasn’t just about this exploitative serial killer show. That would’ve been easy to tell and to get eyeballs on. This show went a different way. Considering the polarizing nature of this show, having been a part of it and seeing how it’s come out, and how the spectrum has changed or at least moved on this show from where it first was when first released, how does that feel to you?
Paris Barclay: I think if people have actually watched the entire series, they have a very different impression. I know you have, and I know I’ve spoken to other critics and people, because the beginning of it is rough. After the first victim actually gets out and we see the end of the story, the next few episodes are pretty rough with Jeffrey’s upbringing and his first murders and things like that. That’s the design of the series. It sets up this villain, but then at episode six, right after the middle, we take that turn with Tony Hughes. Then we start to really tell the story we wanted to tell, but lots of people didn’t get to episode six. Lots of people didn’t get to that linchpin, which actually takes you to the new direction of the series. And I’m sorry for that.
Maybe there’s a better way we could have designed it, but it does sort of change the greater purpose of the show. And the greater purpose was always to take the victims and shine a light on them. The victims like Glenda, like his father, all of the mothers and the fathers of these people who died and who did not get justice and have not yet gotten that park that they wanted to replace Dahmer’s apartment building—that’s the story that we were going for. But it was a cumulative story and it took you till the very end of the movie to experience that. Unlike a movie where you’re probably going to stay till the end, until your popcorn runs out, I think the 10 hours becomes tough. I think if people go back to it, and if they have the time and really experience the whole thing, they would see the structure and the story and the heart that we really wanted to expose.
Awards Daily: When the series had been out for a little while and I actually sat with it and watched it, I felt so bothered by the obvious factor that some people who were complaining about the existence of the show clearly didn’t watch. It reminded me, of all things, of The Last Temptation of Christ from a different perspective. You’re like oh, this shouldn’t exist because it offends me, but you haven’t actually seen it yet. I remember when I was in my college newspaper covering The Last Temptation of Christ and walking out and saying to the people who were holding picket signs, did you actually watch it? The answer was always no. I swear to you, Paris, you can look through some of these reviews and it’s clear people either didn’t watch it or didn’t finish it because they did not even have the plot points or even the specifics of what happened during this series. I think you’re absolutely right that if you actually give yourself over to it and you are ready to bite down and really dive into it, you’ll find that there’s something here that is pretty extraordinary and unexpected.
Paris Barclay: Yeah. I do think though, because of the performances of Niecy and of Evan and the attention they’ve been getting, and also Richard Jenkins and obviously Rodney and lots of people who are doing great work, they’re bringing some attention back to it. I think a lot of people have gone to episode six and just watched that, because I’ve heard a lot of individual responses because of the spotlight that some critics have put on that episode. I’m just hoping that they’ll then go back and experience what the whole ride was. I think the whole ride is the thing that gives you the power of the story that we wanted to tell. These people were real people. They deserve to have their stories told. They deserve to be elevated. They deserve to be remembered. The many lives like this deserve to be respected. We were never trying to put Jeffrey Dahmer on a pedestal. We were trying to say society needs to take a hard look at itself, and especially how it treats the victims of criminals like this.