Bart Layton: In their minds it’s Ocean’s Eleven and in reality it’s Dog Day Afternoon

October 9, 2018
Following on from the huge festival success of his earlier documentary, The Imposter, filmmaker Bart Layton blurs the line between factual and fictional cinema with American Animals.

Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson star as would-be robbers Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk, who also appear in the film, narrating the events and commenting on their youthful misadventure.

We managed to steal a few minutes with Layton while he was in town for the Sydney Film Festival.

You first read about the attempted robbery in an article, and the four subjects were still in prison when you first embarked on making the film. What was it that appealed to you in their story, and how did you go about speaking with them?

Well, I think it was the fact that they were such unusual criminals. They’d done this thing that just didn’t seem like it could ever have been imagined that it was going to end well. They were well educated and privileged and had plenty of opportunities, and yet they’d done this incredibly self-destructive thing, and that was the thing that I was intrigued by – trying to understand the why of it, because it seemed improbable that it could be anything other than a cluster-fuck, basically.

I just made contact with them while they were in prison and then we started this strange pen pal correspondence, and I was surprised by some of the reasons they gave for motivations for what they did. I thought it spoke to something in the culture about these lost young men desperately searching for this special interesting life that they felt they’d been promised somewhere along the way. That’s what made me think it was a good caper, a good yarn, but also it gets us into a bigger story about the culture and the need for experience.

There are documentary elements here, but also stylised elements that draw on heist films, crime stories, and the wider thriller genre. How did you land on this formal approach?

I just thought ‘is there a new way to tell a true story that we haven’t seen before?’ And also, because it was about four young guys who are almost trying to live inside a movie, they were choosing to try to inhabit a movie fantasy instead of real life, I was looking for a form of the film that could reflect that – that journey and that increasing detachment from reality. As they get deeper into the plotting, the fantasy, we as an audience get deeper into the movie – less of the non-fiction elements and closer to the tropes of slick heist movies. And then when they do cross the line, we are crashed back into reality.

That would be the sequence during the robbery in which they attack the librarian (Betty Jean Gooch, played by Ann Dowd) – a very traumatic moment in the film.

That was always the intention – in their minds it’s Ocean’s Eleven and in reality it’s Dog Day Afternoon. It’s become this thing where it’s really messy. What would it be like if you or I or someone who is totally ill-equipped for a criminal act suddenly finds themselves perpetrating one? The idea is that we become a little bit complicit in it, and then we realise – oh shit! – we thought it was going to be a victimless thing. They’ve created this idea of how it was all going to play out, and the reality is very different.

Have the four men seen the film? And what did they think of it?

They were all complimentary. There’s a lot of stuff in the movie that they are deeply ashamed of and they always knew that they weren’t going to be portrayed as anything other than misguided young men – but, there is a human element to it. Some people may think that they shouldn’t be humanised but they are human beings and they made a mistake and they really paid for it. I think they acknowledge that it’s honest and truthful to their experience.

You present conflicting viewpoints in the film, where different players recall events differently. How did you choose which versions to foreground, and what guided you in those decisions?

There are a couple of places where the guys remembered things completely differently – the same encounter in a completely different way. I didn’t choose one version, I actually dramatised both versions with a view to allowing the audience to collaborate on the game.

We all go to the cinema and we enter into that contract where we know that Natalie Portman’s not Jackie Kennedy, but we’re happy to play along because that’s the game, right? So, with this, it was really about saying to the audience that they’re unreliable narrators, memory’s unreliable, do we ever really know the truth of any of this stuff? And also, just to allow it to become a more honest contract with the audience where we say, ‘look, we all know what the game is here, so let’s be open about it’ – which I think is something you don’t see very often in true stories. And the effect is a greater emotional investment in and connection to the characters, because the real guys are there – you’re not just off in movie world where it’s completely safe. With this you can play along in quite a visceral way – you’re invited along as part of the gang, in a way.

American Animals is in cinemas now.

Read our American Animals review.


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