Bart Layton's American Animals, which is now in theaters, is the director's first major effort since 2012's mind-boggling documentary, The Imposter. And like that film, this one revolves around a series of questionably-reliable talking head interviews from a handful of people who had a front row seat to a baffling and daring crime.
Or, more precisely, a heist. In American Animals, Layton (working from a script he wrote) tells the story of Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, four Kentucky college students who decide they're going to alleviate the campus library of its rarest books, some of which are worth untold millions of dollars.
American Animals has received a mixed response from the BMD crew, but I found the film mostly fascinating, and - given what a gigantic fan I was of The Imposter - I was happy to sit down with Layton to hear how this particular project came together. Here's how that chat went.
Hello, Bart Layton.
Director Bart Layton: Hello!
So, I watched American Animals over the weekend, and I thought it was pretty fascinating. How did this story come your way?
I'm not sure if I was on my to Sundance or back to Sundance with The Imposter - it was a long time ago - but I read about this [case] in a magazine and just thought it was a great yarn. I was really taken with the absurdity of it, how ridiculous a lot of it seemed. I guess I was intrigued enough to want to know more about the motivations of these young men, because they seemed like the last people who should be involved in a robbery of this nature or of this scale. They're obviously very young, they were well-educated, they were supposedly from very good homes. That, I felt, was enough to want to hear it from them, and coming from documentaries, that means getting it from the horse's mouth.
So, we started this sort of correspondence - basically became penpals - via letter, and it was during that correspondence that it went from being just a fun story to something I felt was really relevant. This was a story worth telling about these lost men, kind of a lost generation, who are privileged but searching for an identity in all the wrong places.
Just so I'm clear - your first correspondence with this guys was while they were still in prison?
Oh, yeah. They had very long sentences. I think at that point they were maybe four or five years into it. And by the time I'd made contact, actually, some Hollywood producer had already paid money to option the story. At that point it wasn't even possible to make the movie, but we kept up the correspondence, and then that film didn't get made, and so when the option expired they get in touch and said, "Look, we'd really like you to make this film." So, I began writing a screenplay based on our letters, and I wrote their actual voices from those letters into the script.
And you still hadn't met them, like, in a visiting room or anything, at the prison?
Nope. I sent my co-producer, a woman named Poppy Dixon, who was also a producer with me on The Imposter, to go down there and visit them in person. She had had that in-person communication, but at that point I was still communicating with them only through letters.
Was that a conscious decision?
Eh, yes and no. As a documentary filmmaker, I'm always kinda wary of...y'know, "doing an interview accidentally". Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, that makes sense.
It happens. You have a great conversation and then you think, Jesus, I wish I'd had that on camera. The second time around, you might ask the same questions but the answer won't feel as authentic, or natural. So, that was part of the decision - to not pre-empt the interview. And the other thing was, I was writing the screenplay based on the things they wrote me in their letters, but it turned out that a lot of what they said [in the talking head interviews, shot later] was different from what they'd actually done, or said in the letters.
You're definitely playing around with the idea of the unreliable narrator here. After The Imposter, this seems to be a particularly attractive thing for you. Is that the case?
Yeah! I mean, I guess I'm drawn to stories which have ambiguous and complicated characters who are very confused, morally-speaking, and trying to justify their actions, especially when their actions are unjustifiable. And another thing is, it's not just the narrators who are unreliable - it's memory.
Memory is fundamentally unreliable, and I wanted to explore that in the film. You might have two different people with the same memory, but it takes place in two different places. As a dramatist, you can either choose the version which suits you best - you can go, "Well, that one's much more cinematic, so let's do that" - or what I chose to do, which was to explore how memories are often not the best documentation when it comes to truth. Basically, I wanted to look at how true stories get fictionalized.
Because what do you do after you've seen a movie with one of those "Based on a True Story" credits? At the end, you get a handful of photographs of the real people, and you go home and you Google them. You Google Molly from Molly's Game or the guy from 127 Hours. You wanna know how alike the real people are to the people who portrayed them, and often they're not very alike at all. I suppose I wanted a way to bring the audience into that process and say, "Look, we all know what the game is here, right?" There's something about the inclusion of the real people in the film that makes it greater than the sum of its parts to me.
One thing that's really striking about this story is how comparatively low the stakes are for these guys. No one's house is being foreclosed on, no one's trying to save an orphanage or pay for their grandmother's surgery. They're just bored and wanna see if they can get away with it.
Yeah, I know what you mean. So many of the difficulties I encountered in writing the screenplay revolved around the fact that the story just didn't conform to all the things that tend to be prerequisites in a heist story. Your main characters generally need a reason to...y'know...
Turn into thieves!
Yeah! A great example of this would be Harvey Keitel's character in Blue Collar. His daughter has been filing her teeth down because she couldn't afford dental bills or something. Danny Ocean has his wife stolen from him. You have to have something to justify the heist, but I wasn't going to try and fabricate a justification. And I suppose in this case you could say, "Oh, boo-hoo, what a poor rich idiot!", but I think there's something really truthful about that, and it's not just one of these guys who feels like they need to do this in order to not be a nobody.
When you finally did meet these guys face to face, how similar were they to the people you imagined while reading those letters?
Actually, I think they were all pretty similar. The voices that they had, that had come through in their letters - which at that point amounted to a year or two of correspondence - were there. I felt like I understood them very well by that point.
Warren's a character. That guy's real-life charisma comes through loud and clear, though I guess that's a prerequisite if you want to organize something like this heist.
Yeah, he was even more charismatic than I anticipated. He's kind of wild and invincible. I think if you spent too much time with him you might end up getting involved with something that you shouldn't.
You introduce him in the movie showing off a tattoo of a T-rex trying to turn on a ceiling fan. I'm thinking, "Yeah, I'm sold."
Well, funny enough, that's something he did the first time we met. We were all sat down together and he did that exact thing. Then, when we were filming the interviews, he left the room for a moment, and when he came back I was like, "Say, Warren, could you show Eric your tattoo?" and he did all of that without further prompting. I'd already written [something similar] into the script, knowing that would be the most economical way of introducing that guy to the audience. That's everything you need to know.
American Animals is in theaters now. Check local listings, and stay tuned for more from Bart Layton as it becomes available.