In his 2012 documentary “The Imposter,” filmmaker Bart Layton added reenactments to support the interviews he conducted with the film’s real-life subjects to tell the story of a French con artist who impersonated a missing boy from San Antonio in the late 90s. He flips the format with “American Animals,” the first feature narrative of his career, by enhancing the film with documentary elements.
“American Animals” follows four college students who plan a heist to steal an assortment of rare books and manuscripts from inside their university’s library.
I caught up with Layton last week to talk about his new film, the legwork it took earn the trust of the main players and why he decided to tell this story in a way no one has ever really tried to tell a true-life story before.
How did you come across this story in the first place?
Initially, I read about it in a magazine. I was intrigued by the story. It was extraordinary and already sounded like it was a movie instead of reality. The more I read about it, the more bizarre it became. The perpetrators weren’t the usual suspects. They were fairly well educated, smart young men from good families.
How did you connect with the young men to see if they’d be interested in having a film made about what they did?
I wrote to them while they were in prison trying to understand more about their motivation for doing it. I already thought it was a great story, but I wasn’t sure it was a story that warranted being turned into a film or something that I wanted to spend a couple of years of my life doing. But when I received letters back from them and they talked about their motivation and their misguided search for answers, I realized that it was a more personal story.
Were you surprised that you received responses from them?
I was confident that we would get to them and that they would respond favorably. At that point, we were just making conversation. I began this very unusual pen pal relationship with all four of them. I knew they had all done very stupid and self-destructive things, but I was really surprised by the people I met through these letters.
Why did you decide to include documentary elements in the film? Was there precedent for a narrative like this?
No, there really wasn’t a precedent. That’s why it was so exciting to me. There’s not a template for something like this. The reason I wanted to do it like this was because it was an extraordinary true story, but if you turn it into a narrative, it becomes a more disposable story. You have that suspicion that everything has been adapted with a very healthy dose of artistic license. With [“American Animals”], I wanted people to be constantly reminded that it is a true story with real people. When you invest in them and the story, you engage in a slightly different way. I think it was important to see who you are dealing with – the real people. Most of us come out of the cinema after seeing “I, Tonya” or “Molly’s Game” and immediately we start Googling the real people wondering, “What do they really look like?” and “What do they really sound like?” With [“American Animals”], the intention was to make sure you felt like you really connected to the characters.
Do you think it takes away from a film that is based on true events when you find out the characters aren’t like the people in real life and that more artistic license was taken in those aspects?
In my opinion, it really does. If you’re watching something that is supposed to be a true story and you’ve invested in it for that reason and then you realize you’ve been given a Hollywoodized version of it, it certainly takes away from it. Don’t you think?
Yeah, I think certain aspects of a story can definitely be overdone by studios. Did you find yourself having to make those kinds of decisions with “American Animals?” Is anything Hollywoodized?
That’s what was the amazing thing about the story. You really didn’t need a whole lot of exaggeration or embellishment. Of course, I wrote it and in doing so you have to condense a couple of years into two hours, but I was very keen to the accuracy of [the story].
I agree with you on the overall outcome of the film. I think the most Hollywoodized part of it was done on purpose where the guys fantasize about what a perfect heist would look like. Was it fun shooting your own short “Ocean’s 11” movie for that scene?
It was absolutely great fun. That was exactly the idea of it. At that point, they’ve gotten so far into the movie, they’ve become unattached to reality. That was one way to illustrate that.
Do you think your documentary “The Imposter” could’ve been shot in the same style as “American Animals” or do you think that the film’s main character was just too bizarre to not have him on screen for most of the film?
Yeah, I think you’re right. I also think that [“The Imposter”] was so preposterous of a story and so unbelievable on so many levels. When that film came out, there was a bidding war for the remake rights. Of course, no one has figured out how to do it as a fictional version because it’s so hard to believe. So much of it is about ambiguity and what people believe. A lot of it is about self-perception.
As you move forward in your career, do you think these stranger-than-fiction type narratives are going to continue to be the ones that resonate with you the most or would you like to branch out into something else?
I think probably, but the next thing I’m doing is not a true story. It does exist in a similar space. There is this sense of moral confusion with the central character. For me, I want to find a story that is a real page-turner that you desperately have to know what happens next. At the same time and more importantly, I want something that takes you to an interesting conversation about the culture and how we live. [“American Animals”] is a story about how we have to leave a mark on the world and how we have to be special and do something remarkable or you may as well not exist.