Heist movie American Animals is one of the most unique, gripping and fascinating films you will see this year.
Telling the true story of four young men who attempted an audacious heist at Transylvania University’s library, the film features both interviews with the real people as well as dramatised events performed by actors.
UNILAD spoke to the film’s writer and director Bart Layton, the man behind the 2012 award-winning documentary The Imposter, about heist movies, unreliable narration and his original approach to filmmaking.
UNILAD: We loved the film and it is a fascinating story. What about it drew you in?
Bart: I read about it in a magazine and so many elements of it didn’t quite add up. Like who the perpetrators were; they were privileged and educated young men from seemingly decent homes. That part was intriguing enough to make me want to find out more.
I didn’t read the story thinking ‘I need to make a film about this’. It was more just thinking that there was a lot of unanswered questions. My background is in documentaries so my natural next step is to find the real guys and ask them and so that is how it started. They were serving these long prison sentences so we began this unlikely correspondence which formed the basis of the script.
UNILAD: So you wrote to them while they were in prison. What was their reaction when you got in touch?
Bart: I think there is a lot about the story that they are not over the moon about revisiting, there were things they wanted to put behind them. With this it was never going to be a documentary but I still needed their involvement. So initially they were a bit reluctant but gradually got a sense of each other and I told them they weren’t going to come out of it looking heroic in any way.
I always wanted it to be honest, warts and all. So over time they saw what it was I was trying to do. It was a way into a story which felt quite timely and relevant, you know the idea of these young men who are a little lost and trying to figure out who they are. They have been brought up with this expectation that their lives are going to be interesting and they will end up being interesting and important but, as what happens to a lot of us, they enter early adulthood and realise they will probably be average. We currently live in a culture where being average isn’t okay and that’s not realistic.
UNILAD: So you said the film was never going to be a straight documentary. Why did you decide to blend it with drama?
Bart: I always wanted to know whether there was a way to tell a true story we hadn’t quite seen before and I felt that because this story was about guys falling in love with a movie fantasy and taking it too far, maybe there was a way to create a form for the movie to take that would mirror that.
UNILAD: Well it works brilliantly! So we see the guys watching heist movies in preparation for the crime. Did any heist films inspire you?
Bart: So there were a lot of heist movie references in the film. For inspiration, I guess there were all the ones we think of like Ocean’s 11. One of the ones which was a big reference for me and a movie I come back to again and again and made all of the cast watch was Dog Day Afternoon.
UNILAD: When it came to casting, did you know who you wanted to cast?
Bart: I didn’t really want to cast super recognisable faces. There was a point where when the script took off, we had the pick of the Hollywood bright young stars and in a way that was great and exciting. But at the same time, I wanted young men who had a real sense of authenticity about them.
UNILAD: So one of my favourite themes in the film is the unreliable narration, people also remembering things differently. This also comes up in your previous film The Imposter so it is a common theme in your work?
Bart: I suppose it is partly a reaction to the idea we are presented with these movies that start with ‘based on a true story’ and then you see photos of the real people at the end. You don’t really know what it means. How close are the conversations, the scenes, to what actually happened?
So I wanted to invite the audience into the process, make it transparent. Not only do we have these unreliable narrators here, but memory is also unreliable. People constantly remember things differently. Not everything is quite as it seems, even the real guys were unsure what was real or fantasy.
UNILAD: So when you met the real guys, you had, of course, received letters from them telling the story, but when you interviewed them in person, did anything strike you as different?
Bart: I think I was surprised by how much it was still affecting them, the consequences of their actions were still having an impact.
They had let this bad idea go too far and it changed their lives. I mean they wanted it to change their lives, that was their motivation, but they crossed a line they almost instantly wished they hadn’t crossed.
Seeing how they were still regretful and haven’t quite processed it, and they are not even the victims, so I am not sympathetic but the way they were shells of their former selves did shock me.
UNILAD: So there are moments in the film where the real people interact with the actors. It only happens once or twice. Did you want to do more of that or do you think making it less regular made more of an impact?
Bart: I don’t know what you think…
UNILAD: I think it did…
Bart: Yeah, I think less is more. During the process of telling the true story, you have the actor who is playing the real person asking them whether it happened the way we are portraying it. So I thought, why not let him ask it and work it into the film.
It is kind of like drawing the curtain back and there is an honesty about it. And Spencer seeing the ghost of Christmas future in a way, is it a good omen or is it a bad omen? It all comes out in a very organic way.
UNILAD: So talking about the balance between documentary and drama, how much did it change between script and editing?
Bart: Not that much actually. I would say the final version is surprisingly close to the script. Anytime you experiment with something new, you are just hoping and praying it will work. And not everything you have on paper works well on screen, we were lucky and my documentary experience gave me a good sense this would work out. It is always a gamble though.
UNILAD: I imagine it was a risk but heist films, in general, are very appealing. Our screens are filled with them, which is good because I love them.
Bart: I agree with you, I love them too. There is a kind of thrill to them. I think they work so well as they lend themselves to a neat structure of storytelling as you set up a question right at the beginning, will they pull it off, and everything that follows is connected to that so you are hooked. You plan a job, establish a target, assemble a team, there is a conflict between them and it gets increasingly real. We enjoy all the planning and rehearsing as we kind of know where we are going as it will lead to the answer.
UNILAD: So Betty Jean Gooch also makes an appearance, the librarian who was attacked during the heist. We first see her during the heist scene, a quick glimpse which I just love! Was it difficult encouraging her to take part in the film, as it was of course a traumatic experience for her?
Bart: So she wasn’t initially enthusiastic, she was quite reluctant as you can imagine. We visited her and explained what the whole idea was and why we wanted to make it. We emphasised it wasn’t going to glamourise it. She agreed it was a relevant story and she liked the themes we wanted to explore. She is now really happy she did it.
UNILAD: I think what she says about the guys really adds to the film and helps conclude it at the end. It is easy to connect with the guys, everyone wants to be special and especially at university.
UNILAD: So your first film The Imposter was such a big hit. Did you feel any pressure then with this film?
Bart: Yes I did, it was a nice problem to have though. After the first film there were plenty of nice and exciting big offers from Hollywood but it never quite felt like they were stories I needed to tell. They were movies I would enjoy watching on a plane. I had an itch to scratch of whether there was another way to tell a true story and this film is the result. The experiment was exciting but I did feel a degree of pressure.
— Katherine Butler (@KathfromRaw) September 7, 2018
UNILAD: So this is your first drama-documentary feature-length film. Would you ever consider making a drama? What have you got planned next?
Bart: So I wouldn’t describe this as a drama-documentary actually, I would call it a movie. So you don’t describe Argo or Jackie as a drama-documentary? It is a movie which has these non-fictional elements which give you a connection to the story. I don’t worry too much about finding a name or category for these things. But the next thing I am going to do is almost certainly going to be a total work of fiction. I can’t really say too much about it but it is a darkly comic thriller.
UNILAD: Oh I will be excited to see that. Thanks for chatting to me today Bart!
Bart: Was a real pleasure. Cheers!
American Animals is out in UK cinemas now