The filmmaker behind American Animals and The Imposter talks motivation, suffering artists, and the advantages of telling true stories.
An established name in television as the Creative Director of the British production company RAW, Bart Layton broke onto the film scene in a major way with his 2012 documentary feature debut The Imposter. The film, detailing conman Frédéric Bourdin’s impersonation of missing Texas boy Nicholas Barclay, went on to receive nearly universal acclaim after its Sundance premiere and ultimately earned Layton a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut.
Six years later, Layton’s sophomore feature American Animals once again tells a stranger-than-fiction true story — this time the 2004 Transylvania University book heist — but in a daringly innovative form that exists in a liminal space between documentary and narrative, mixing interviews with the real-life participants with a scripted storyline featuring a cast brimming with young talent such as Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan. “This is not based on a true story,” the opening title card boldly protests, “this is a true story.”
In preparation for American Animals’ theatrical release, I had the opportunity to chat with Layton about the making of his latest film, and why he thinks the tale of a 2004 book heist is more relevant in 2018 than ever before.
Although The Imposter is considered more of a traditional documentary and American Animals is more narrative — but with documentary elements — they maintain quite similar styles, in the sense that they remind me more of each other than anything else I’ve seen. How did the process of making the two compare?
Well, to be honest, there was a comparison in that you’ve got the real people in both, but in terms of the process, with The Imposter there was no script. There was no screenplay. There was no dialogue. There was no — I mean, there were a few actors, but it was a very different kind of process in terms of the drama. But I guess what they have in common is that they are both true stories which are, sort of, stranger than fiction. With [American Animals] I felt there was another way of doing things which was sort of an inverted version of The Imposter. The Imposter was a documentary with narrative elements and this was a narrative with, as you say, documentary elements. The thing that was exciting to me was this idea of finding a new way of telling a true story that you haven’t really seen before.
I could definitely feel that. Also, in both of them, there seems to be an interest in this question of why real people do things that to an outside observer seem completely… like, you can’t quite process why someone would do such a thing. Why [in American Animals] these young men would risk their whole futures on a heist like this. Could you talk to me a little bit more about your interest in that sort of question, maybe where it comes from?
I think it comes from exactly what you just said, which is trying to understand the motivation for why people [who] have a great deal of opportunity and who also have more privileges than most people would gamble all of that on a robbery. There were all these questions around the motivation, and that, I think, was what made me feel that it was a very timely story. As much as it was about an audacious art heist, it was about this group of quite lost young men who were struggling with questions of identity and masculinity and all of that sort of stuff. And who were motivated, in part — not all of them, but some of them — by this need to have a so-called “interesting life.” To be important, or to be remembered, or to be remarkable in some way. And I think that is the element of the story which is even more relevant now than when it happened [in 2004]. I think we’re now in a culture where there’s a huge amount of pressure to leave a mark on the world. And it almost doesn’t matter whether that’s through doing something good or doing something bad, in a way.
And there’s also this question — Spencer brings it up, but it kind of echoes throughout the film — the idea that being a great artist requires an element of suffering, or that a great artist needs to understand suffering. What’s your stance on that? Do you think there’s any truth to it?
I think it’s a really naïve idea [to think] that the only way that he is going to have anything to say is to have had some kind of traumatic life experience. But at the same time, I think there is some truth in it because to make art — or write, or whatever it is you’re going to do — you kind of have to have it come from the heart. It has to be about what you know, and if you feel like you don’t know a whole lot of anything, you probably need to go out and live a little. But that doesn’t mean do something as foolish or damaging as what they did. There are a lot of places to find inspiration — and, you know, one of those places can be just being kind of a misfit within your community. But I can sympathize with the idea of him feeling like he was never going to have anything to say, or even find his own voice, given that he was living this very nice, quiet, suburban, comfortable life — what experience was he going to have to draw on? And I think that’s something a lot of artists can relate to. But most people, you know, they move to a big Metropolitan city and find all sorts of things to inspire them. So yeah, I’m not sure I agree with [Spencer], but I can sympathize.
Going off of other interviews you’ve done, that statement came from a conversation with the real-life Spencer, is that correct?
Yeah, totally. It was something that he wrote to me in one of the early letters that we exchanged, and I think that was the thing that made me most interested in telling the story — this idea of someone who feels like they need to have something terrible happen to them in order to, kind of, have an identity. It’s such a peculiar motivation — to commit a self-destructive act in order to find out who you are. It reminded me of stories like Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild. Stories where people tried to challenge themselves. But I think the difference was, with Spencer, I don’t think he ever really intended for it to go as far as it did. I think he wanted the adventure, but he was really torn between that and knowing that, if it went too far, it would be incredibly damaging, not just for him, but for his family as well.
Considering you’re dealing with real people — and maybe dealing with people who remember different versions of the same story — do you have any sort of rules that you keep in mind to feel that you are doing right by your subjects’ stories or something along those lines? What do you think your responsibility as a filmmaker is to these real people when you’re telling their stories?
I think any time you’re dealing with real people and a true story, you have a responsibility to try to be as truthful as you can. There’s a responsibility to them, that you’re not fictionalizing the story in a way that makes them appear differently from what the reality was — and that can be for the better or for the worse. There are loads of examples of Hollywood movies that get made based on true stories where you hear about the person whose story it was feeling like it was completely invented and fictionalized. I really didn’t feel the need to exaggerate this story or fictionalize it. There was enough that was bonkers about it to not have to go and completely reimagine it. But, at the same time, I showed this film to the real guys before showing it at Sundance. I wasn’t going to give them the ability to change it, but I definitely wanted them to know what it was that we had done with their story and how we portrayed them. They all felt it was very truthful. And then, of course, I showed it to the librarian — and she was probably the only person I would have [made changes for]. If she was really not happy with something or felt that [the film] was being misrepresentative of her, then I would have wanted to change it. But she was also very pleased with how the film came out, with the way it was portrayed. She felt it was very truthful. I think they all felt it was truthful and pretty accurate to the events depicted.
But yeah, I think there is a responsibility. And I think there is a tendency, with movies that are based on true stories, when you get the card at the beginning of the film which says “This Is Based On A True Story” or “Inspired By Real Events” or whatever, then you have that nagging suspicion that there has been a huge amount of artistic license taken. You don’t know whether what you’re watching really happened or not. With [American Animals] it was really important that you know throughout that it’s real and that it’s true. Because you have this connection to the real people, your emotional investment in the movie, I think, is heightened. You’re never allowed to escape off into “movie world.” They’re in the same reality that you and I live in, where the consequences are real, so hopefully, the whole time you’re thinking, “Where the fuck is this going? Where’s it going to end? What’s going to happen?,” you know?
American Animals is in theaters June 1.