When Ryan Murphy approached Paris Barclay about directing “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” the Emmy-winning director shot down his offer.
“I said no,” says Barclay. He changed his mind, however, when he learned more about Episode 6, titled “Silenced.” Barclay, who previously won two Emmys for directing “NYPD Blue” and garnered nominations for “Glee” and “The West Wing,” ended up receiving his latest Emmy mention for his work on the episode.
“[Murphy] started telling me the story of Tony Hughes,” he reveals. “I’d never heard of this young man, and I thought, ‘That may be a story I can get behind that’s worth telling.’”
The sixth episode spotlights Hughes, a Black, deaf victim of Jeffrey Dahmer played by actor Rodney Burford. Barclay’s hesitancy about helming any part of the Dahmer-centric project dissolved upon learning more about the man he defines as “a beautiful person that had big dreams.”
The director also made a personal connection, seeing parallels between his own beginnings in the industry with Hughes’ aspirations. “He had all these dreams, just like me when I came to New York City,” says Barclay. “I was thinking I would make it big, and Tony was that guy — Tony was me.”
The episode flashes back to Hughes’ birth and early years, including a scene in which his mother learns that he was deaf. “I was Team Tony from that moment on, because I’ve been there when he was born,” he says. “They discovered that he would never hear, which was already heartbreaking. To see him grow up and triumph over that put me even more on his side.”
As Hughes was deaf, sound — or lack thereof — was an important element in the episode. Throughout “Silenced,” viewers are met with varying audible perspectives. At times, there is sound, but at others, the audience hears a “clever sort of humming noise,” made to resemble an “approximation of what a hearing-impaired person might hear.”
“I’ve never done an episode that was so dependent on sound,” says Barclay. “The script said that certain scenes would be done in silence, and certain scenes would have the ability to hear the dialogue, dependent upon perspective.”
Throughout the production process, the “Monster” team made decisions on which scenes would or would not incorporate perceptible sound. “It’s designed like music,” Barclay explains. “I looked at it as a montage of musical sequences, some of which have the darkness of Jeffrey Dahmer and some that were brighter, representing Tony Hughes and his optimistic life.”
One of the most touching scenes in the episode comes when Hughes and his fellow deaf friends are eating at a pizza place. “We start with a little bit of the noise,” recalls Barclay. “Suddenly, you’re included in the conversation. Even though they’re deaf, you’re a part of it, and you see their friendship and love for each other.
“To me, I hadn’t seen that on television before; I hadn’t lived with Black, gay, deaf men, seeing them really have a seat at the table,” he continues. “It was a very important [moment]. That’s one of the scenes that I’m most proud of.”
As Dahmer approaches Hughes for the first time, sound seeps in, and “Jeffrey’s voice comes out. We wanted to engage the audience in a very recognizable voice that Evan Peters had produced to start the fear … There’s all that tension, and his voice was part of it.”
Hughes offers an irreverent sense of hope throughout the episode, with Barclay noting that “Monster” was Burford’s first dramatic acting role and Peters helped him to fully develop the character.
“He taught him things and gave him tips,” he says. “They would explore and try things together.” Barclay took a sincere, personalized approach to directing Burford. While Peters “treated him as if he were a very experienced actor,” Barclay, in return, “treated him as if he were Rodney.”
“The best way to get an actor without a lot of experience to play a character is to make the character into the person,” he shares. “Tony Hughes really is a lot of Rodney — he’s kind, funny, open and willing to try different things.”
“Silenced” was intended to serve as the pivot episode in the middle of the series that would aim to “shift our focus more towards the victims and what could have been done, and what wasn’t done, to stop Jeffrey Dahmer.”
One of the most troubling parts of working on the Emmy-nominated episode came in its conclusion, when Dahmer engages in cannibalism. “This is the first time that you see Jeffrey doing that, and it’s a difficult thing to present,” says Barclay. “I mean, how do you actually do cannibalism?”
Once again, sound — not dialogue — plays a critical role in the development of that scene as Dahmer exhales “some sort of comfort … as he takes that bite” in the episode’s final moments.
“The sound, again, tells the story,” Barclay explains. “The noise of the street goes away, and in that silence, he’s found some sort of resolution. But then, the screen becomes totally black, which is the darkness that shrouds him as he dives back into the psychosis that is Jeffrey Dahmer.”
The Murphy-idealized series has faced backlash from the families of Dahmer’s victims, something Barclay accepts. “I can understand why people would not want to engage with someone telling that story because they’d be afraid [the show would become] sensationalized, as so many of the Dahmer stories have,” he says.
Even with that scrutiny, Murphy’s first “Monster” installment garnered 13 Emmy nominations. Barclay knows why the episode he directed got one of those nods.
“Because it’s about love,” he says. “The love is Tony and his family. The love is Tony and his friends that were destroyed by his loss. Recognizing the love and humanity of people who may be different from you, that really makes [the episode] resonate.”
Though “Monster ” aims to elevate the victims’ stories, the vile undertone present in a Dahmer-centric project cannot be ignored. “You find yourself face to face with real evil,” says Barclay. “Slowly the themes of the darkness take over … and in this particular case, the evil wins, which is what makes it so tragic. The loss of all the love that was in [Hughes’] life is the source of the pain that we hear.”
One day before the writers strike began, the second installment of the Netflix series was announced. “Monsters: The Lyle and Erik Menendez Story” will highlight the story of the Menendez brothers, who were convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.
“I’m less scared of the Menendez brothers’ story than I am the Dahmer story,” says Barclay. “I’m interested to see the perspective that Ryan Murphy brings and what will he make it about.”
Despite being hesitant the first time around, Barclay will “probably” return to helm once again in the next installment if asked. “More likely than not, I would be on board for another ride with a ‘Monster 2,’” he says.
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