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Interview: Bart Layton
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Bart Layton's American Animals does not claim to be based on a true story. It claims to be a true story. Layton's previous movie, the excellent documentary The Imposter, asked pointed questions about perception, acceptance, and truth, and he continues with those themes here, albeit in a more crowd-pleasing way. Friends Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) discover priceless copies of a Darwin edition and Audebon's Birds of America from the rare book room at Transylvania University in Kentucky. They friends begin to entertain a "what if" idea of stealing the books, which, over time, turns more and more into an actual plan, complete with plans and charts and disguises. They enlist two others, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner), and a date is set. Despite their fantasies of how the heist is going to go — fueled by a well-studied stack of heist movies — the actual day comes off quite differently. The movie is narrated by the actual participants and brilliantly edited, bringing fascinating layers to the proceedings. I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Layton at the Galleria Park Hotel during the 2018 San Francisco Film Festival. Following is an edited transcription of our conversation.
CC: The Imposter always reminded me of a movie called Compliance, which featured Ann Dowd, and now she's in your movie!
BL: Actually, that's where I first discovered Ann. Both The Imposter and Compliance were in Sundance at the same time. I remember seeing Compliance and I thought it was brilliant and that she was jaw-droppingly good. I wanted to find a way to work with her.
CC: American Animals really captures the weight of committing a crime. After the deed is done, it weighs very heavily on these guys. Even if it's just a book, just the fact that they hurt somebody and did something wrong, they feel it. There's a consequence.
BL: The whole thing, I suppose, is kind of about crossing a line that should never be crossed. They're not real criminals. I think they fell in love with the fantasy of it, more than the actual crime. I'm not sure they ever seriously believed they'd get away with it, and if they did, what would that look like? Millions of dollars... how would they hide it? How would they spend it? I think it was like their version of Fight Club or something. It was this secret they had. They couldn't let it go, because it gave them this other thing. Everyone else is not in on it. Like a secret identity. That's what they were searching for, not the millions of dollars. An identity. It was really important to dramatize the point at which the fantasy goes too far. They've crossed a line and they can't cross back. And in that moment you somehow become a bad person. It's like: 'what have I done?' And the only way to be redeemed is to be punished. It's like Crime and Punishment.
CC: The music in this is very inspired. I was not familiar with "I'm Alive" by Johnny Thunder, and the use of the remix of Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation" during the imaginary heist is just brilliant.
BL: That one was hard because it was the first track that we put to that. It's an obvious one because it's been used in the kinds of movies that they are trying to emulate. But after we put that to the sequence it was impossible to find something else. It was sort of, "let's see how that feels." And I was reluctant to use it because it had been used, but since it's about people trying to live in a movie, it makes sense.
CC: I love the stack of heist movies, and then you were smart enough to show a clip from perhaps the best of them all, Kubrick's The Killing. Did you have any trouble getting the rights for that?
BL: That was relatively straightforward. When I was re-watching various heist movies, that's always one I came back to because it's so perfect in so many ways, isn't it?
CC: Yes it is. We could probably talk about The Killing for a half hour. What really sets your film apart is the incredible use of the actual guys, including a sequence in which one of the real guys is dropped into the fictional scene.
BL: Narrators are unreliable and memory is unreliable. You know, often in documentaries you get people remembering things differently. My wife and I witnessed a car accident not long ago and we had to go around the corner and we had to give a statement. And I was like, 'it was a black and silver car,' and my wife was like, 'no, it was a blue and white car." These are things that you rely on. So as a filmmaker you're left with a choice. Do you choose the version that is most convenient, or that is set in the location that feels the most cinematic, or do you go: 'hang on, why don't we make a virtue of this idea that they are both remembering the exact same incident differently?' I like the idea of trying to shoot this conversation over two locations, and then there's this moment where you have the real guy inside the moment from his memory, questioning it. Audiences are so sophisticated now in terms of the way we understand how movies work. We're so familiar with that thing, "based on a true story." We see that at the beginning, but we know that Michelle Williams isn't really Marilyn Monroe, but we're gonna go with it, and it's gonna be fine. But what I thought is: there's gotta be another way of telling a true story that we haven't seen before. And you feel you're way deeper in it because of that.
CC: Based on true story movies often feel the same. There's now a formula, even though it's supposed to be truth.
BL: That "based on" gives you a tremendous amount of artistic license. It gives you the goodwill of the audience. But 90% of the time, people are just fictionalizing it outrageously.
CC: You were bold enough to scribble out "based on" and make the claim "this IS a true story." Did you start filming the real guys, and did the fiction film grow out of that?
BL: It was a complicated process. There wasn't really a template for how you do a movie like this. I wanted to incorporate the real guys, but at the time they were deep into long prison sentences. So I started writing a script based on letters they sent to me and my co-producer Poppy [Dixon], from prison. They were these very honest, long letters, describing all sorts of things and so I started to write the script, and occasionally if I got stuck, I'd send them a letter: "hey, I'm a little stuck. Tell me a little more about this." And they would send a whole load of stream-of-consciousness and I would use that. I wrote their voices into the non-fiction part of the film. But it was quite difficult because one thing is what's written on paper from a letter from them in prison. Another thing is, when they eventually did come out of prison and I was able to sit down and film with them, a lot of what they said was really different from what was in the screenplay. So I had to go back and I had to say to the financiers, "you need to give me some time. I need to press pause and go back and look at the material and re-insert it, based not on what I had written that I expected them to say based on the letters, but what they actually said."
CC: That must have been discouraging.
BL: It was and it wasn't. A lot of what came out of the process of interviewing them, was a lot of stuff they hadn't said in their letters. It was deeper and darker and more emotional and more interesting. It ended up elevating it. But I had to stop the process and go back into the script.
CC: There's another scene that I love, where Warren and Spencer are talking, and the conversation takes place, cross-cut, at a party and at a car. In one shot, they are at the party and Spencer says, "pull in here," as if they're in the car. It's this bizarre, almost dream thing. Their memories are melding in this smooshy, interesting way.
BL: Again, when you're shooting it, you have an idea and you don't always know that it's going to work in that way. But most times it does. It's very tempting when you're on set and you've got something that's really far out, but when you're running out of time, it's very easy to go: that's the thing where I don't know if it's going to work, and just scrap it. Barry just kept laughing. He kept doing it and he just couldn't keep a straight face.
CC: Most times when you see a movie about four dudes, you're going to get four model-looking guys with square jaws and abs and little fuzzy beards. But these guys are so great, with such great, different personalities and they go so well together.
BL: When we were casting, it was really important that we didn't have those guys that you described, because it's set in reality. The real guys actually are handsome, but they're also authentic.
CC: And Udo Kier is such a great character actor. How was he to work with?
BL: He's extraordinary. Before he showed up, we were chatting on the phone, and he had all these crazy ideas for things he was going to do. I was like, "Udo, that's not in the script." He said (imitating Udo): "I'm going to get up at a certain point and I'm just going to start rummaging through some drawers." And I was like, "It's set in a bar in Amsterdam! There are no drawers to rummage through!" And then he said, "Yeah. And then I'm going to sit down and I'm going say to him, 'do you know Faust'?" What are you talking about? But anyway, he was brilliant. As soon as you put the camera on him, you're like... Wow. And the scene he's in, you're invited to question whether that really happened or not, and it felt important that he should be like a character from a movie.
CC: I believe there's a reference to the title in the film, but I wanted to ask you what the title means to you?
BL: I wish I had a really succinct answer to this, but basically it has to do with the Darwin book that was stolen. He talks about the effect of domestication on animals and this idea that, how most domestic animals have droopy ears. He argues that, over time, they lose their need for alertness. They're fed, and they don't need to hunt or survive. The theme is, what these guys are doing is that they're searching for an experience of life that feels real and fearful and authentic.
CC: The Birds of America books are beautiful. I can't imagine you had the real ones.
BL: They were very detailed and incredibly expensive reproductions. For the books, we only printed two or three of the pages. But the prop master was obsessive, and of course they get badly manhandled. We had to cut pages out because they were so heavy. She just couldn't bear it. She was so distressed!
April 9, 2018