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Evan Peters in American Animals
Evan Peters in American Animals

The art heist movie that blurs the line between fact and fiction

Speaking to Bart Layton, director of the 2012 hit The Imposter, about his surprising new docu-thriller American Animals

A certain type of biopic is plaguing our cinema screens. You know the kind. They begin with “This is a true story”, involve two hours of plodding drama, and only pique your interest in the final moments: the 20 seconds, during the closing credits, when the actors meet the genuine people they’re playing.

Bart Layton, like all of us, has had enough of this formula. “That does piss me off,” the British filmmaker complains. “After you see ‘Inspired by real events’, you have this sneaky suspicion everything is a wild exaggeration. And then you go out googling, ‘Did Molly from Molly’s Game really sound like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network?’”

In response, Layton’s new movie, American Animals, opens with two warnings: “This is not based on a true story”, which segues into “This is a true story”. On one hand, the writer-director has dramatised an actual event – a botched multimillion art heist from 2003 – with an all-star cast of Blake Jenner, Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters and Jared Abrahamson. But it’s executed with a postmodern twist: the real counterparts, now 15 years older, interrupt the action to cast doubt on what you’re watching. “It’s another version of a true story we haven’t seen before,” Layton explains. “It’s definitely not a documentary. It’s a movie movie, but not a straight fictionalisation.”

It’s the day of the UK premiere, and we’re in a fancy, heist-worthy room upstairs at Covent Garden Hotel. The docu-thriller hybrid (Layton also isn’t sure what to call it) was swiftly snapped up at Sundance for an obvious reason: the incident appears ready-made for the big-screen treatment. Four white, middle-class men in their early 20s, each with supportive families and bright futures, attempted to steal rare, valuable books – for extra irony, one is Darwin’s Origin of the Species – from Transylvania University’s library. The master plan involved disguising themselves in old man masks (think Tilda Swinton in Suspiria), tasering the woman on duty (played here by Ann Dowd), and treating Reservoir Dogs as a step-by-step guide. Basically, they were criminally stupid.

As soon as Layton discovered the case in a magazine, he knew it had movie potential. The four men were still in prison at the time, so they became pen pals. “Spencer, who’s played by Barry in the film, said things in letters he’d never said to anyone,” Layton recalls. “He fantasised about having something traumatic happen, so that he could have what all great artists have: some suffering, some tragedy that would define him, and help him find his voice. I just thought, ‘God, a central character whose main problem is that he doesn’t have a problem – that’s such a modern idea.’” 

Of course, it doesn’t get more modern than a movie fretting about fake news. The talking heads contradict each other, and the disagreements multiply into a Rashomon jigsaw puzzle. At one point, Spencer wonders if Peters’ character, Warren, has even actually found a millionaire buyer for their stolen goods. “I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it,” the real Warren responds to the camera. Plus, there’s the disparity between Keoghan’s youthful lust for larceny, and seconds later, the cut to the real Spencer solemnly wondering what the hell he was thinking.

“There’s a lot about the story that they’re deeply ashamed of,” Layton adds. “I found them to be likeable and honest. They made a big mistake and paid a big price – the best part of their 20s was in prison. But without their voices, it becomes a more disposable story. It’s a crime motivated not by the usual things, like the loot; it was to do with the pressure to be somebody, to leave a mark on the world, even if it’s not a good mark.”

In preparation, the four would-be robbers rented every heist movie from Blockbuster and sifted through the likes of Rififi and Dog Day Afternoon – and presumably skipped the tragic third acts. It brings to mind the debate over whether video games like Grand Theft Auto encourage copycat behaviour. Surely American Animals proves that young viewers are susceptible? Layton doesn’t entirely agree. “I think it’s more like that Daniel Johnston song ‘Life in Vain’. There’s this line where he says, ‘If we were all in the movies, maybe we wouldn't be so bored’. That’s the thing: they became addicted to the fantasy, and there wasn’t one of them who wanted to pull the ripcord.”

To my surprise, Layton forbid the actors from meeting their real-life versions. Instead, they were tasked with creating their own characters based on the script. “I wanted Blake to play Chad, the one with the most conventional good looks. Other than that, it was finding people who didn’t look like movie stars. Barry, to me, is like someone you’d see on the wrong side of the tracks. And Evan is probably one of the best actors, if not the best, of his generation.”

“Nobody wants to be ordinary. It’s not about the robbery, so much as doing something that makes you a somebody, even if it’s not necessarily a good thing” – Bart Layton

It’s worth mentioning that Layton previously flirted with the grey area between fact and fiction in his 2012 hit The Imposter. In that movie, speculative re-enactments of a genuine “catfish” incident are interspersed with archive footage and interviews with the affected people. Like American Animals, it isn’t quite a documentary. But then again, all documentaries are shaped into narratives through editing and presentation. Is Layton’s approach simply more honest?

“There’s a longer conversation about how truthful a documentary is,” he says. “But I think documentaries have a greater responsibility towards the truth. Ultimately, it all comes down to what contract you’re making with the audience. If you’re setting up that it’s a documentary, they’re going to believe everything they see and hear.

“With American Animals, I wanted to make it pretty clear early on what kind of experience this was going to be. It isn’t based on a true story, it is a true story. But at the same time, it’s a true story based on the testimony of some unreliable narrators. And as we all know, memory is pretty unreliable.”

The conversation brings to mind Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You, who earlier this year tweeted a takedown of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a biopic of a black policeman who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. However, Lee altered a few facts, seemingly to make it, in Riley’s words, a “made-up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression”. 

“Boots is a friend of mine, actually,” Layton says. “It’s interesting, but I think it comes down to what you’re asking the audience. There are situations when the audience not knowing where they stand can be a great experience for an audience. It gets complicated when there are real people. If they’re alive, you have a responsibility not to misrepresent them.

“Most people watch The Crown and think all of that shit happened. It’s wild fictionalising, and yet those are real people. Hopefully, people are smart enough to realise there’s a huge amount of artistic license taken there. But if it’s a historical fact, and you’re telling people this is a representation of it, then you have to be as close to the very essence of that as you can be. And particularly with my film, there was a victim of the crime. It was important to me that she didn’t feel in any way misrepresented.”

As our interview draws to an end, I mention a concern about American Animals. Namely, it’s whether I can identify with four 20-somethings who attempt an outrageous crime just for the sheer infamy. Worryingly, I think I can. The thing is, I’m too cowardly and fond of bright clothing to ever participate in a robbery. Did I instead take the safer path of journalism? And is that why Layton entered filmmaking?

“Nobody wants to be ordinary,” he says. “It’s not about the robbery, so much as doing something that makes you a somebody, even if it’s not necessarily a good thing. I certainly think we’re increasingly in a culture where there’s a huge pressure to be a somebody. Being average is not acceptable anymore.”

American Animals is out on VOD on 31 December 2018, and on DVD/Blu-Ray on 14 January 2019