'American Animals' Writer/Director Bart Layton Talks About His Heist Film, The Fluidity Of Memory, And More [Interview]

American Animals, the new heist movie from The Orchard, spends a lot of its runtime on the fun aspects of planning a heist: costumes, the getaway car, and generally getting sucked into the idea that these amateur thieves might actually be able to pull it off. But then it delivers a harsh dose of reality, providing a narrative whiplash that makes you stop and reconsider everything you've seen up until that point.

What really sets this film apart from its contemporaries, though, is the fact that while they're played by a bunch of up-and-coming Hollywood actors, we also get to watch the actual thieves themselves in interviews in which they reckon with their actions. It's a fascinating piece of storytelling, and though it's based on a true story, the film is the brainchild of writer/director Bart Layton, who directed the compelling 2012 documentary The Imposter. I spoke with Layton about navigating that tricky tonal shift, bridging the gap between documentary and traditional filmmaking, his characters' sense of entitlement, the fluidity of memory, and more.

Read our full Bart Layton American Animals interview below.

I saw American Animals at Sundance (read my review here) and I caught up with Layton on the phone in early April to talk about the making of his new movie. One thing to note: at one point in the interview, I mention watching Becoming Alexander, which is a Discovery Channel special that Layton co-directed about Colin Farrell training to star in Oliver Stone's 2004 film Alexander. As someone with an appreciation for behind-the-scenes documentaries, I found it to be an interesting trip back to a time when studios would devote considerable resources into capturing the making of a movie. Layton was genuinely shocked when I brought it up, so I just wanted to give you some context for that section of the interview. Without further adieu, here's our chat with Bart Layton about American Animals.

Intercutting the interviews of the real guys with the action seems like a natural next step for you as a filmmaker. Can you talk about bridging that gap between documentary and more traditional narrative filmmaking?

Sure, yeah. I hadn't necessarily intended that that would be the approach. I suppose after The Imposter, I got offered a lot of "movie movies," you guys call them narratives. I would argue that most documentaries, unless they're completely without story or structure are narrative as well. I had this itch to scratch, and that was this idea that there might be a new way to tell a true story that hadn't quite been done before. When I came across this story, which was, to begin with, it felt like it was a fun story. I was intrigued enough by the fact that it was a crime committed by a group of young men who really shouldn't be caught within a million miles of a crime scene, if you know what I mean.

So that was intriguing, and then there was something about the letters. I started exchanging letters with them, and at that point, they were a long way into a prison sentence. I guess it was the letters they sent which felt to me like it was more than just a fun yarn about a robbery. That there might be something more interesting about this idea of these rather lost young men who were in search of an identity and in search of finding some meaning in their lives and some purpose, and doing so through very ill-advised means. And because of their honesty about the motivations about what they'd done – particularly Spencer, the Barry Keoghan character – he wrote to me in his letters about dreaming of becoming an artist and feeling that the one thing that was going to prevent him from becoming an artist of any great value was the fact that he'd never had any life experience worth a damn, in his mind anyway. That idea of having a central character whose main problem is that he doesn't have a problem felt like a brilliant starting point.

Despite what they'd done, I fell in love with that honesty. I thought, 'Is there a way to include them in the film in a way that it definitely isn't in any shape or form a documentary, but it also isn't just that classic thing that we've all seen a million times?' Which is, you see the caption 'based on a true story' at the front, and then at the end, you see a bunch of photographs of the real people. It's such a cop out. The other thing was, it's such a good story that it didn't need much Hollywood embellishment. There are lots of different ways of telling it. You could have told the FBI story, it could have had a more Catch Me If You Can-type structure. But for me, it was all about these guys crossing a line they should never have crossed. Because also it's sort of a movie about these young guys falling in love with a movie, almost trying to live inside a movie rather than their own reality. It felt like it presented an opportunity to have a form which reflected that idea of falling into a movie, if you know what I mean.

Colin Farrell Alexander

I watched Becoming Alexander in preparation for our discussion, and there's a moment when Oliver Stone talks about how Alexander the Great was probably filled with ideas about his destiny from a young age. That's an idea that pops up in American Animals, too. What it is about the concept of entitlement –

I cannot believe you watched that. Where the fuck did you find that?

(Laughs) I found it on YouTube.

Oh my God. Well, that was something I had to rescue. God Almighty, I had no idea that that was sort of in the...geez.

Well I've seen The Imposter, and I wanted to go back and just check out some of the other work you did to see if there were any connecting themes that I could find. One of the things that I noticed was this concept of entitlement and destiny popped up in that special. So I was just wondering, what is it about the idea of entitlement that interests you as a storyteller?

Leaving the Becoming Alexander thing aside, because I'm not entirely to blame for that. That was a sort of rescue job as a favor. I'm really, really impressed that you dug it out. My God. I'll tell you what it is that I think interests me. It's the idea that – without getting too...what's the word? Intellectual. Wanky, as we might say in the UK – there's a whole theme about Darwin in the film. That's why it's called American Animals. This idea that we've kind of evolved beyond the point of being able to survive in the kind of Darwinian sense. We're now sort of just consumers, right? We don't understand what it means to have to worry about fear of not eating – most of us, and particularly these guys in this community. So definitely there's something about this thought that...are you familiar with the hierarchy of needs? Maslow and all of that stuff?

No, I'm not.

If you Google it, there's a triangle. These are things you worry about. First I guess it's food, then it's shelter. All of this stuff, right? And your question about entitlement, why it's interesting, is because with entitlement and privilege comes choice, and massive amounts of opportunity. The problem is that with these guys, they then begin to worry about other things, which is this sort of existential need to be special. To be interesting. To be important. That entitlement, that idea that you're entitled to be special, to lead a really interesting life, to be a person of value, and now we live in this culture where all of that can kind of be measured. The fact that you have more Twitter followers than me, does that mean you're more interesting or more important? You know what I mean? So these were the ideas I was really interested in, that felt like they were partly motivations for these privileged, entitled young men doing this crime. Because they'd been brought up with this expectation that they were going to amount to something great. That slow, dawning reality that most of us experience of well, we might not be remarkable. We might not be different. We might not leave a mark on the world. I think it's that idea that I felt was worth talking about.

In today's conversation, one could argue, 'Well, why the fuck would you make a film about privileged white guys?' But it's part of the same conversation, because these privileged white guys, they're not thinking about how to make the world a more balanced, equal place. They're thinking, 'Am I going to be famous? Am I going to be more successful than my dad?' That kind of stuff. Do you know what I mean? I don't know whether that's interesting.

Yeah, totally. That's what I was looking for. At one point, the characters go to Blockbuster and rent a bunch of heist movies.

(Laughs) Yeah.

Is that something that happened in real life? Because most heist movies don't end well – you'd think they'd be put off of the idea after watching all of those.

(Laughs) Yeah, that's a great observation. A) Yes that absolutely did really happen. They didn't really know where to start, and if you're not a professional criminal, you look at all of the heist movies that have ever been made and you look for inspiration. There's even a line, I don't know if you remember, where Spencer says to Warren, 'Didn't they all die at the end of that movie?' Which is sort of supposed to be a slightly foreshadowing moment. But yes, you're absolutely right. If they'd been clever they would have realized that.

I think there is a line in the film as well where Spencer says to Warren, 'The bad guys don't get to walk off into the sunset with the loot.' And he's like, 'How would we be the bad guys?' And Spencer's like, 'Well, we'd be the robbers, Warren.' They just didn't, in their minds, that wasn't how it was. In their minds, it was a victimless crime. I don't know what you felt, but I don't know if they ever really imagined they were going to go through with it.

Right, I definitely got that sense.

I think they fell in love with the fantasy and they wanted to live in it. One of them described it to me in a letter from prison, I think it was Eric who said, 'For us, it was like our version of Fight Club. This secret we had that set us apart from everyone else.'

American Animals trailer

The film features a long continuous shot that makes the heist look like the easiest thing in the world. Tell me about the origins and execution of that shot.

Yeah, sure. Originally, I had planned to shoot that in, instead of one takes, in like 150 different shots. Like a drum solo. It was going to be this super percussive, incredibly fast-moving, whiz-bang, kind of thing. Loads of different cuts and this incredibly slick sequence. When we got around to the schedule, the first AD said to me, 'You know, at best I can give you like three hours for that sequence.' I was like, 'What?' To shoot it the way I'd originally imagined and storyboarded, it was going to take at least a day or two.

So then I was like, 'Well, maybe the way to do this is to do it just in one shot, so all the choreography becomes, like the slick movement of it becomes the magic of the shot. It's this very balletic thing.' Because I really didn't have much help. Instead of shooting it for that whole three hours, what we did was rehearsed it for two and a half hours and shot it for half an hour. I was blocking it out and doing all the movements, and it was a really great feeling because everyone was contributing: the actors, me, Ann Dowd, all of the people. I was looking at it and said it was kind of fun but doesn't look great, so then I was like, 'Let's put the camera up and make the camera dance around as well so it's constantly moving.'

We had this great Steadicam guy called John Lehman, and when we started looking at the whole sequence through the monitor, it was like, 'Oh yeah, this is really going to work. It's going to be great.' The problem is, if you do a long one-shot like that where you've got four different people and they all have to hit like a perfect beat, something always goes wrong. I think it was on the 16th take we got it, and everyone in the whole place erupted in this huge cheer, so that was very satisfying.

Things are largely fun and breezy for a while, but without giving too much away, the film takes a turn that's pretty gut-wrenching. Can you talk about navigating that tonal shift?

Yes. That was always something that was very rigidly written into the script. The idea was that the sort of grammar and tone of the film would reflect the protagonists' descent into the movie fantasy. As they become progressively more detached from reality, then we do as well. You'll notice in the film that all of those non-fiction elements disappear. That single-shot you mentioned is more Ocean's Eleven than Dog Day Afternoon. So there was this very clear point where when they cross the line and the reality crushes into the fantasy in this head-on collision, that we pull the rug out from not just the characters, but also the audience to a certain extent.

We are suddenly thrust into a much more difficult to watch, much more visceral, documentary-like, much more raw and real and violent [style]. That idea was that you as an audience are suddenly reminded like, 'Oh shit, I was kind of going along with this. I was rooting for them as well. I also needed them to do this ridiculously ill-advised thing because I also want to know what happens on the other side of that line.' Then when you cross it, you realize you can't really cross back. Does that make sense?

Totally. Should I let you go? I'm not sure if I have time for another question.

Go for it. I've got to get off in one minute, but I think I was late calling you, so go ahead.

One of the things the movie touches on is the fluid nature of memory. As a filmmaker coming from a documentary background, I imagine that's an idea you've grappled with a lot.

Yeah. That's something that's a constant source of fascination and slight concern in how unreliable memory can be. We trust that the things that we remember are versions of things that have actually happened to us. But the truth is, it's not like an instant replay. It's a very subjective thing with all of your emotions and all the things you want it to be.

That was a very big factor of The Imposter. This idea of creating the truth or believing the truth that suits us rather than the truths that maybe are truest. With this, what I wanted to do with this movie was to say to the audience, 'We all understand how this works, right? We're all familiar with the game of fictionalizing our true stories.' I don't know what percentage of films these days start with that caption card – 'this is based on a true story' – and then you watch Natalie Portman play Jackie Kennedy or whatever it is. But you know, and you go along with it.

I wanted to say to the audience, 'Look, let's be really open about this whole thing, about what is true and what is not and what is fiction and what is a kind of version of the truth that we can't ever know 100% is true.' When you're faced with two conflicting versions of the same thing, as a dramatist, you either choose one and say, 'I prefer this version because it's more cinematic,' or what I ended up choosing to do was basically dramatizing both versions and explore the fact that it's hard to be 100% on what the truth of that situation is, when two people remember it differently. So that's where that idea of dramatizing one conversation across two locations came from. That's a very long-winded answer.

No, that's great. I think it came across really well in the movie. Congratulations on the film, and thanks for speaking with me. I appreciate your time.

Likewise, Ben. Take care, man.


American Animals is in theaters now.