American Animals is Bart Layton’s second feature-film and follow-up to award-winning film The Imposter. It is his first voyage beyond documentary cinema and tells the true story of four college-aged men who, on a whim, decide to commit an art heist. In a packed out theatre cinephiles gathered for a screening of the film at the Sydney Film Festival, great anticipation could be felt as the screening was to be followed by a Q&A session with Layton himself. The below interview consists of the audience and moderator questions and although it does not tread spoiler territory, it would be best read after watching the film due to a number of behind the scenes anecdotes. Even if you have yet to catch American Animals, Layton has some fantastic advice for aspiring filmmakers and some interesting thoughts on the transition from low-budget documentary filmmaking to creating a highly regulated and unionized docudrama. Check it out below:
How did you come across this story? How did you hear about it and why and how did you decide to develop it into the film that we have here today?
Sure, so I read a news article, I was on a flight. In my memory, I was coming back from Sundance after showing my last film The Imposter, and I serendipitously found this article about this story in a magazine on the plane and it sounded like a fun story. I didn’t know that it was anything more than that, but I was intrigued by the fact that it was this deeply misguided heist conducted by a group of very unusual subjects. You know, they were well educated, college-aged young men, [from] supposedly good families and they squandered all of these opportunities on this thing, which the more I read about it the more it could never have been anything other than a clusterfuck basically.
Coming from documentaries you just tend to go to the horse’s mouth for the answers to those things so we began writing to them and they were deep into their prison sentence at that point. I just wanted to know why I was like “can you just try and explain more of what the thinking was?” and, I think, they hadn’t talked to their parents about it, so suddenly they had all of this time on their hands and there was this person that was writing and interested and I guess they didn’t know me. It was the things they wrote in their letters which took it from a fun story about a mishappened caper to something which, to me, felt like a more relevant story. Because a lot of the things they talked about, like Spencer talking about wanting to become an artist and feeling like he was never gonna have an experience in life worth making art about, and Warren talking about a search for this so-called “special life” that he was promised, and that idea of looking for a way being remarkable and leaving a mark on the world, even if it wasn’t necessarily a good mark, felt like a timely preoccupation in a way. So I thought it’s a great page-turner, but maybe it’s also a conversation about this increasing pressure to be somebody.
How did you come up with the bold ideas and decisions of integrating the real-life characters into a dramatization of the story?
I think it was because I felt like if you fictionalized it, probably you wouldn’t believe half of it anyway, but also you’d probably think “oh, well you just made those guys seem naïve and charismatic and sympathetic and all the rest of it.” Also, because it was their voice and their honesty, even though they’ve done this deeply stupid thing and paid the price of it, there was something about including them in the film which felt that I think without them, it would be a more disposable story.
I think if you watch a documentary in a theatre with an audience it does this amazing thing. If someone pulled out a gun in a documentary that is heart-stopping if there’s blood on the floor of a documentary- and I’ve made those documentaries- the audience is like [he dropped his jaw] because you’re not suspending disbelief, it’s the same world we live in. So my thought was: is there a way of telling a true story in a different way, where you get some of that thing that a documentary can do, which gives you skin in the game. You’re constantly reminded [that] this really happened and so you’re going “where is this gonna end?” and you’re in it, you get to play along in a different way. So that was the thinking.
I wrote the script based on their letters, and when they finally came out of prison and shot those interviews and then they didn’t say half of those things that I had expected them to say, so then I had to go back to the script and rewrite around that. We shot the drama based on this, we put the documentary aside and I planned these transitions that would get us in and out of it.
As a dramatist, you can either choose one version, which is the cool version and if you’re a producer it’s really easy, you chose the cheap version rather than dramatizing all the rest of it. In this case, I was like maybe we invite the audience into the process of how these stories get misremembered because memory is terribly unreliable. We think it’s this great document of all the things we’ve seen and done, but really it’s not that reliable at all. The idea was to lean into that and pull the curtain back on the whole process. You go to the movies and you know Natalie Portman isn’t Jackie Kennedy but we’re all willing to play along, and I thought “well if you’re willing to play along with that we’ll take it a step further, do something a bit different.”
What was it like getting the guys onboard with the film? Were they and their families receptive initially to the idea or not? And further, after watching the film how did they feel about the way they were represented in the film?
They were all quite keen to share memories in their letters, I think they found that cathartic and helpful, but when we talked about the movie they were all like “ugh, okay,” it wasn’t something they were deeply proud of. They were reticent about the idea of retelling the story, and it was devastating for the family. Within this community, it’s a small town, quite an affluent community as well, it was like there was something rotten in Pleasantville. Good white boys from good white families doing this?
Initially, when I started writing there was a big Hollywood producer that bought the rights to the Vanity Fair article and we didn’t even have the ability to tell the story, but we kept this correspondence going for years, and then they came out and said “we want to do the story with you.” BJ, the librarian, she was also super reticent because she didn’t know what we were [going to do], you know, was it going to be glamorizing it? Eventually, they all came around and understood what I was planning to do, although, they were never shown the script, they were never involved with anything to do with shooting on it except for that day they came to set. I showed it to all of them before we premiered at Sundance, there’s a lot in it they’re deeply ashamed of but they all said they felt it was very truthful, it was very accurate.
I showed it to BJ, and that was the only person I probably would have made editorial changes for. If she felt misrepresented or if it was not quite the right portrayal of her I probably would have changed it until she was happy. But we went to her house in Lexington and she got slowly hammered on Cosmopolitans, her husband fell asleep in about the first 20 minutes, he obviously wasn’t feeling it, and I sat with about four of her cats on me and I sweated through it, and then she started tapping her feet to the music, asking me what the songs were. She was hammered by the end of it and loved it. She turned to me as said “you know what, for the first time I can begin to forgive these guys,” it wasn’t until then that she realized that they were basically idiots rather than masterminds. She was interviewed for a local newspaper and there’s an article talking about how this has allowed her to close the door on it, which is great in a way. She also felt it was an accurate portrayal of her experience. Plus she was a huge fan of Ann Dowd, so that was helpful as well.
Was there a particular scene that went through numerous versions, one that you had a lot of trouble finally saying “that’s it, it’s done”?
It wasn’t so much a scene, it was more the screenplay. I wrote and rewrote that script. Coming from docs and not having written a script before, I just shook it and shook it. It was more like every scene, but more at the script stage. The final movie is amazingly close to the script, surprisingly so.
The fantasy heist, the single shot which is like the Ocean’s 11 riff, that was originally supposed to be like a cinematic drum solo. It was going to be hundreds of shots rather than one shot, and on the day my first AD said I can give you four hours to shoot that, and the way I’d planned it was like two days. So that was one where we had to basically abandon all of the plans I had and then choreograph that scene that was all gonna be done in one take and it took us 16 takes. I think the cam guy fell over, someone dropped something, I thought this is just never gonna happen and we finally got it, so that was really gratifying.
When you have things you’ve written and you don’t know whether they’re gonna work in the way you imagined them to it’s really tempting when you’re running out of time to throw those away. My advice to any filmmakers is those are the things you must hold onto, because nine times out of ten they work, and they work better than you might have thought they could.
Was this film received differently by audiences in American as opposed to anywhere else?
The thing in the States is, I’ve always found, people react so unexpectedly. The laughs land really loud, but they also laugh at things you’re not intending to be funny. It’s really interesting, the whole heist scene in the States plays out with a lot of laughs when she hits the deck, and I’m like “well that’s not supposed to be funny.” I guess there’s a bit of nervous laughter, and then there are the spectacles get stamped on and they’re like “woah,” and then she pees herself then there’s deadly silence. But up till that point, they’re having a lot of fun in a way that I was not intending them to.
I remember when I screened The Imposter there it was the same deal. We were in this huge premiere at Sundance and I was looking at my producer going none of this is supposed to be funny, but they loved it. American’s go out on a Saturday night to have a really good night and nothings gonna stand in their way.
Coming from documentary moving to a feature like this, scale-wise, was that a challenge for you?
Yeah, it was terrifying, it really was. I’m used to having a gang and getting in a minivan, with this, because if you shoot in the States once you’re above a certain level you’re unionized which means you are forced to have minimum crew numbers. So I showed up on the first day of the shoot there are 140 people waiting to see what we’re doing and I was really well prepared, but it slows you down in a way that you cannot believe. Setting a shopping cart on fire, you’ve got the fire brigade, you’ve got the streets closed off. I would’ve fucking just set a shopping cart on fire and filmed it!
That scene where they come to New York, and I thought “well I’ve done that my whole career,” we’ve just piled in a car and shoot out the window, we go through Chinatown, go through Brooklyn, find the Hasidic Jews, you know go through all of this and find that colour, which if you come from Lexington you’ve never seen anything like that before and it’s like a moviescape. All of those people that you see on the streets in New York are extras, no word of a lie, I had to cast them. That was just a mindfuck to me. If you shoot graffiti on the wall, that graffiti is someone’s intellectual property, even if they’ve done it illegally on someone else’s wall. So that I found tough.
But there are things you can do with a crew. If you have the money and you have the imagination you can create what’s in your head and put it up on that screen, you know, if you have a good enough team. And that’s the other magical thing.