Film interview: Director Bart Layton on heist film American Animals

The real life story of the theft of priceless books by affluent students is the jumping-off point for Bart Layton's intriguing debut film American Animals. The director talks to Alistair Harkness about making a heist movie that's also a documentary

A scene from American Animals
A scene from American Animals

I don’t think there are any rules to this stuff,” says Bart Layton. The British director, best known for his BAFTA-winning documentary The Imposter, is referring to the way true stories are tackled in movies. More specifically, he’s referring to their general reluctance to confront the tension that exists between real life and what’s portrayed on screen. Where documentaries – The Imposter among them – often use dramatic reconstructions, the opposite is much rarer: narrative films based on true stories tend to either keep the real protagonists out of the frame altogether or include photos or footage of them at the end, usually in

a specious attempt confer authenticity upon something that may well have been heavily fictionalised.

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Layton’s feature debut, American Animals, takes a different approach. Dramatising an elaborately planned heist in which four solidly middle class American college students attempted to steal millions of dollars’ worth of rare books from the special collections library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, the film smashes boldly through the fourth wall. Folding interviews with the actual perpetrators of the crime into the action, it provides eye witness accounts of a story that’s the very definition of stranger than fiction. “This was a story that was kind of bizarre and mad enough not to need fictionalising,” says Layton.

American Animals starts with a visceral, thrilling and very cinematic recreation of what we presume is going to be the heist. Homaging Heat and The Dark Knight, Layton films his cast dressed in old-man disguises as they pull up outside of the Transylvania University library, where their real-life counterparts, Warren Lipka (played by Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) attempted to steal four volumes of naturalist John James Audubon’s extremely rare book of paintings, Birds of America. It’s here that Layton starts intercutting his slick dramatisation of the planning and execution of the heist, which happened in 2004, with the documentary interviews he conducted with the real participants 12 years on. Though jarring at first, the mix of styles gradually reveals itself to be a smart way of teasing out and deepening the themes.

“A lot of [the approach] came from it being a true story about young men trying to inhabit a movie version of their lives and getting lost in the fantasy,” explains Layton, who embraces the tropes of the heist genre, shooting, for example, one dazzling sequence as if it were a set-piece in Ocean’s Eleven, and, elsewhere, recreating a famous scene from Reservoir Dogs. “These were the kind of movies they were watching and emulating so the colour palette changes and the score starts to change as they get more and more separated from reality.”

It’s one of the subtle jokes of the film that a lot of the movies we see them watching for research – Kubrick’s The Killing among them – are classics of the heist-gone-wrong genre. But American Animals isn’t content to just riff on pop culture or exploit the idiotic chutzpah of its subjects. It’s exploring a darker societal malaise. The film takes its title from a passage in Charles Darwin’s The Origins of Species, a first edition of which the guys also tried to steal – something that, ironically, has given their whole misguided endeavour a weird kind of thematic synchronicity. In Darwinian terms, these young, privileged, white men were already at the top of the food chain: their desire to carry out the heist was driven not by abject need, but by a sort of existential dread related to the way comfort had defined their lives.

“Right there is the reason I wanted to tell this story,” says Layton, who exchanged letters with the real thieves while they were still doing time (they each got seven years). “In terms of the hierarchy of needs, most of theirs have been met. When you don’t have to think about whether you’re going to have food on the table, or shelter, you start having these very privileged concerns about whether you’re going to be somebody or not. We’re now living in a culture where being average is not really acceptable; it’s almost tantamount to being a loser. And they’re not really being confronted with situations that are going to give them an adrenalised experience of life, which is I guess what they were searching for.”

This was especially so of Spencer Reinhard, our de facto entry point into the story. He wanted to be a painter but naively bought into the myth of the tortured artist. “If you pick up most screenwriting books, the first thing they say is establish the protagonist’s problem. But this is a guy whose main problem is that he doesn’t have a problem. And that to me felt like a very 21st century concern. It’s a deeply messed-up, privileged concern, but there’s something relatable about it.”

Of course there’s an argument that in making the film, Layton has given all of them the notoriety their 20-year-old selves initially craved. Did he have any conflicted feelings about this?

“Up to a point,” he says. “But I felt it would be a pretty accurate portrait of a group of young men who are searching in all the wrong places for an identity. I knew these guys weren’t going to come out looking like heroes.”

Partly that’s down to Layton’s treatment of Betty Jean Gooch, the special collections librarian who was assaulted and tied up during the robbery. She’s interviewed briefly in the film, but as played by Hereditary star Ann Dowd, her ordeal becomes a more central part of the narrative, crucial to transforming this from a caper to a catastrophe with real-life consequences.

“She’s obviously the victim in all this, but she was very pleased with her portrayal. She actually felt afterwards that it was very helpful and she could kind of move forward and feel some degree of forgiveness that she hadn’t been able to feel up until that point. It’s been a hugely positive thing for her.” n

American Animals screens at Glasgow Film Theatre on 28 August, followed by a Q&A with Bart Layton, and is on general release from 7 September