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?”
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.
AMERICAN ANIMALS IS IN CINEMAS FROM 7 SEPTEMBER
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.