True-ish crime

Teenage heist movie Amer­i­can An­i­mals blurs the lines be­tween doc­u­men­tary and re­al­ity


DI­REC­TOR BART LAY­TON was sold from the start. Read­ing about an ab­surd art heist by four Ken­tucky col­lege stu­dents who didn’t know what the hell they were do­ing, he im­me­di­ately wanted to tell their tale — and im­me­di­ately wanted to start play­ing with no­tions of truth. Lay­ton has a doc­u­men­tary back­ground — his pre­vi­ous fea­ture was 2012 con­man doc­u­men­tary The Im­poster — and has long been fas­ci­nated with per­cep­tions of re­al­ity.

Cor­re­spond­ing with the cul­prits, he based much of his Amer­i­can An­i­mals screen­play on these let­ters — then de­cided to put the ac­tual guys in the film, in­ter­ject­ing along­side the drama­tised ver­sions of events, some­times even ap­pear­ing in scenes with their Hol­ly­wood coun­ter­parts. “I wanted to pull the cur­tain back on the process of how sto­ries get fic­tion­alised,” Lay­ton tells Em­pire. “I was try­ing to be re­spect­ful of the au­di­ence and invite them in on the game. In, say, Jackie,

Natalie Port­man’s play­ing Jackie Kennedy, we all know the deal. But what if there’s an­other way of telling a true story where you have more skin in the game?” His in­ten­tion was to give us view­ers more in­vest­ment. “If in a doc­u­men­tary some­one pulls out a gun, it’s heart-stop­ping shit,” he ex­plains. “Whereas in movies, that hap­pens all the time. So, can you bor­row that thing, that vis­ceral heart-jan­gling thing that a doc can do?”

Amer­i­can An­i­mals

also has fun with how we ex­pe­ri­ence films. At first it feels like a goofy col­lege drama; then, as the movie-ob­sessed kids (who watch Ocean’s Eleven and bor­row Reser­voir Dogs’ nick­names) plan the heist, it be­gins to feel like the sort of screen ca­per they’re in­flu­enced by; and as they find them­selves out of their depth, the gloss dis­solves, the tropes fall away, and things get de­cid­edly real. “The idea is that we as the au­di­ence be­come slightly com­plicit in the ca­per,” says Lay­ton. “You want to know what hap­pens when you cross that line — we want to know what it re­ally looks like.”

These young men, says Lay­ton, just wanted to feel spe­cial, im­por­tant — that very mod­ern malaise. “We now in­habit a world where be­ing av­er­age is not ac­cept­able,” he says. “That’s why I put the strapline on the poster: ‘No­body wants to be or­di­nary.’ That’s what it’s about — the in­creas­ing need to be re­mark­able. I def­i­nitely feel that it plugs into some­thing.” It’s a film full of home truths, re­ver­ber­at­ing way be­yond Ken­tucky.


Em­pire had a drink with di­rec­tor Bart Lay­ton in Lon­don on 7 June.

From top to bot­tom: Evan Peters as heist hon­cho War­ren Lipka; The gang un­der­cover; Di­rec­tor Bart Lay­ton.

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