It’s been six years since British director Bart Layton shocked audiences his documentary feature film The Imposter in 2012. Since then Layton’s been working on another film that blends documentary with fiction, truth from fantasy, and crime from wish fulfillment. American Animals is the finished result and it’s a rollicking and wild film that’s almost too good to be true – a staple of Layton’s work based on his two features. Layton sat down with The Young Folks to talk about how he’s grown as a director, finding the lines between fact and fiction, and how American Animals brings everything together.
It’s taken six years between the release of The Imposter and this. Can you explain the process of putting this movie together – I know you corresponded with the real guys at the center of this for awhile – and how it all came together?
Bart Layton: It always takes a long time to get movies up and running; the reality of how slow development, financing, and what not. It was more that I had really young kids and when you make a movie you disappear, especially if you’re shooting overseas; I live in London and I shot the movie in the U.S. That’s five months in which you’re gone, and childhood is so short and I didn’t want to have two years out of my kids’ short childhood that I wasn’t around for. That was one of the reasons why I wasn’t rushing back to do another movie. Also, another thing is I’m involved in running a production company in the U.K.; we do lots of other stuff, TV stuff.
But this project was one that we worked on for a long time because when I first came across the story and started communicating with the real guys, they were halfway through a pretty long prison sentence. So while we could communicate and exchange letters I wanted them to be in the film in a fairly unusual way, so there was a question of having to wait till they came out of prison in order for us to do that. The other thing is when we first began communicating with them someone else had the option of the story – another Hollywood producer had bought the life rights and everything. It looked like we weren’t going to be able to do it, and time went by and we were still exchanging letters. Then they had the opportunity of either renewing the option or not, and then they gave me a call and said, “If you’re still interested in doing this we’d rather do it with you than anyone else.” That kick started things up, and meanwhile I began writing a script based upon some of the things that they had written to me in their letters from prison.
What I noticed about this movie, and I’m seeing it a lot in other movies, is looking at the myth of male exceptionalism. Do you think the movie says something about that?
I think that’s a really good observation and that was very much one of the key themes I wanted to explore in the film; this idea that the pressure to live a so-called “interesting” life [and] these questions of masculinity which I think come up in the film as well. But also part of what I looked for in a story, for it to be worth telling and spending the time to turn it into a movie, is that it has to be a great story. It has to be an unbelievably gripping story. But equally important is it has to be a story that provides an entry point into a conversation about the culture or about how we live, on some level. It was about lost young men looking for an identity, and searching for it in all the wrong places. They had been brought up with this expectation that they were going to live interesting lives, and be special, and then gradually discovering that probably wasn’t going to be the case, and looking for ways to find this so-called remarkable existence that they’d been promised. I’m not sure that that’s limited to that generation or even to young men, although I think there’s certainly a pressure.
But I think now there are loads of different ways in which you can measure your value in some way. How many Twitter followers do you have? How many Instagram? How many Facebook friends? How many likes? How many retweets? There never used to be that. There never used to be a way to measure your impact, and I think that is one of the motivations for doing what they did, wanting to be noticed. You mentioned the American Dream and I think one of the things that really struck me was they all came from families which look a lot like what the American Dream is supposed to look like. They live in nice suburbs of this lovely, clean, neat suburban America with white picket fences, nice car in the driveway, nice house, good education. Yet, for them, that wasn’t enough. That was mediocre, that was average, that was ordinary. They wanted more and that felt like a story that was important to explore for me.
There’s a really good double feature between this and The Bling Ring, in terms of looking at wanting to be special, especially through financial accumulation involving teens.
I actually wanted this to be very different from a film like The Bling Ring. I wanted it to feel like it had a perspective and was more visceral. I wanted it to have more of an attitude and also be more critical. There was a point when I was writing the script and that film came out, or I heard it was coming, and I thought, “I wonder how much cross-over there is in terms of what the stories are about.” There was some but…
They’re very different in terms of approach.
They’re very different. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Bling Ring as you can probably guess. They certainly come from, in terms of the motivations for the crimes, similar places.
At one point the characters watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). What went into the decision to use that film?
It’s one of my favorite heist movies. When I talked to the real guys they talked about how they basically got the plan from every heist movie and I liked the idea that, yes, of course, they’d have been aware of Ocean’s 11 or the rest of it, but I liked the fact that they were going back into the archives. They were going, “Okay, we’re not really criminals; we don’t really know how to plan a robbery. Let’s watch all of the greatest heist movies and see if we can get any tips.” At one point we talked about whether it would be Ocean’s 11, ones that would have been influential for them. I liked that they were almost doing their history homework, if you know what I mean.
How did that come about inserting Warren and Spencer into the actual movie?
There were a couple of instances where they described the same scene, the same memory that they were both present for, but in different ways. In a film you have to decide “which version do you choose?” And I thought, “maybe the smartest thing is to make a virtue of the fact that not only are they slightly unreliable narrators, but memory is quite unreliable.” I liked this idea that there could be a moment in which you see them inside a scene from their own memory and they’re questioning whether the scene they’re in is from their memory, or is it from the other person’s memory, and which one is correct? I felt like there was the one moment I wanted to encourage the audience to question how true stories get fictionalized and be part of the process; that we all know that we’re watching a fictionalization of a true story, but we’re also being honest about that.
We’re saying, “We all know how this works. We all know when you see ‘based on a true story’ it’s not really got anything to do with a true story necessarily.” You know these famous actors aren’t the people they’re pretending to be, but we all willingly go along with that, and I wanted to do something different here, which was take that further. We all know the game, so let’s be more honest about it, pull the curtain back on it all. I think the effect of that, or I hope the effect of that, including the real guys, you have a much deeper connection to the characters because you’re not in Movie World where you suspend disbelief. You’re in the real world, and you’re reminded that it’s real and it’s true, characters are real, consequences are real.
While making American Animals did you learn anything specific you’re able to apply for your future works?
Yeah, definitely! I hadn’t directed a straight narrative drama before and I was nervous because it was a big movie, big union crew; it’s not a small, run-and-gun, guerrilla deal in the way that we make documentaries that are more pared down, stealing shit left, right, and center. When you’re in a movie this size you can’t decide, or spare a moment, to do something different. I found the process completely addictive. It was also a very ambitious film and script for a first time director. All of that was nerve-wracking, but was incredibly rewarding when you do something and you really challenge yourself. I remember showing it to a very famous British film director who I know and he was saying, “Wow, you couldn’t have picked a more fucking difficult first movie to make.” But I guess when you find something challenging you find the rewards are pretty big. Going forward the next thing I do probably won’t have any hybrid elements to it. It will be a straight narrative.
And is that a project you can share with us?
There are a couple of things, but one in particular which I can’t be too specific about is this dark, comic, crime thriller set in the Deep South.
This and The Imposter are both about questioning truth. How do you approach the idea of wish-fulfillment and the realities that come with crime?
When characters and motivations get very muddled. When people make bad decisions, but you can still recognize that they’re human beings making bad decisions and you can kind of understand why. I like where you’ve got characters who are confused about what’s right and what’s wrong and things go too far and you see that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Things are snowballing and they’re hurtling towards consequences that they probably didn’t envisage. The film is very much about a line which should never be cross and the consequences of crossing that line when perhaps you didn’t even really mean to do so.
You see very clearly in the last act of the film that they do something they wish they hadn’t done, and they wish they could take back but they can’t take it back and they’re left with the guilt, and the fear and loathing that comes with having done something you shouldn’t have done. At the same time we, as an audience, are encouraged to go along with it, to be part of the gang. We also desperately want to know what happens on the other side of that line that no one should ever cross and then you cross it and you’re like, “Oh, shit. I wish I hadn’t.” But you can relate to it and you experience it.
This movie ends with ambiguity about what’s true or not. As the director did you believe one character’s version of events more than the others?
Not really. I want to leave that for the audience. I don’t have more information than the audience does, in that respect, and there are things that are fun for the audience to discover that you don’t want to spoil. What I would say is the characters certainly fell in love with a fantasy and they didn’t really want to let that go. One of them was probably more the architect of making sure that they all stayed in the fantasy for as long as they possibly could, and arguably for too long. That’s a very bleak way of answering your question without giving too much away.
American Animals is in limited release now and goes wide June 8th.