Interview: Director Bart Layton – American Animals

Director and writer Bart Layton film Imposter was one of the most interesting films of 2012. Six years later, he’s back telling another true story about four young men attempting one of the craziest heist in American Animals. Bart sat own to talk about what fascinates him about true crime, what he learned, and what fictional characters would be on his heist team.

What is it about true crime stories that fascinate you so much?

Bart Layton: I don’t know if it’s true crime specifically. I think true crime where the perpetrators of the crimes are true criminals is less interesting to me. There’s something about watching ordinary people make terrible decisions and the spiraling storm that ensues. I’m more interested in people, the decisions they make, and where that takes them. The starting point is always having a killer story, but that killer story has to be a way into something a little meatier. In this case, the story of a group of very lost, quite privileged, young men who were searching for an identity – something that would define them and make the interesting and special. This story was a way into talking about this lost generation who has been promised that their lives would be amazing and special, and as they get into adulthood start to think, “Maybe not”. Now, we live in a culture where being ordinary isn’t really acceptable. It’s not good to be mediocre, and there’s a measurement for it. How many Instagram followers do you have? How many on Snapchat? How many FaceBook likes? When you think about it that adds to the pressure to be remarkable in some way and that’s not a realistic expectation. Part of what was driving this crime was the need to do something amazing and leave a mark on the world. The crime started as a joke and sort of a fantasy. One of the guys described it to me as sort of like Fight Club. They had this secret project that nobody knew about that made them different from everyone else. The problem was it went too far. It started as, ‘Could we plan the perfect robbery?’ Then it got to the point of ‘Yeah we could do this and get away with it’.  Then, ‘What would life look like if we really did this?’ If you don’t do it, then you know what life looks like, you’re already living it.

The most interesting part of this film is having interviews with the actual guys embedded in this dramatization of their crime. How did you get them involved?

BL: It was a long process of corresponding. When I first found the story, they were in prison. We would write letters back and forth and some of the things in the letters were really surprising. They weren’t the letters of hardened criminals. I was interested in understanding a bit more of their motivations. I’m not saying what they did was anything but stupid and criminal, but they’re motivations were human and relatable. I thought if there’s a way of making the movie with them in the film, the audience’s investment would be different. You’re completely hooked in a way that reminds you this is true and it really happened.

There’s a moment at the end where the film questions if there was ever a dealer willing to purchase the books.

BL: I don’t want anyone going into the movie thinking about that. But I think they were so lost in the fantasy, maybe Warren made some things up in order to keep it all moving forward.

If there’s no dealer, that’s the roadblock.

BL: Exactly. He makes those roadblocks disappear. Does he do that truthfully or untruthfully? That’s one of the questions and you’re invited to think about that.

Did you have a favorite scene?

BL: I really enjoyed writing the scene in the car where Chas explodes. It felt like the fantasy was over. There’s no way to pretend you’re in a movie anymore. I enjoyed writing and the performance of it. My favorite scene is the heist because it’s pretty suspenseful.

Did you learn anything new about the guys while you were making the film?

BL: It all felt new. I liked them all a lot more than I was expecting to. I thought Spencer was an amazing artist. They were more remorseful than anyone really knew and they got to express that.

You’re pulling off a heist and you have to pick 3 fictional characters. Who’s on your heist team?

BL: If I’m Danny Ocean, I’ll need a really technical genius….Raymond from Rain Man. You’d have to have a driver…Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. You’d want those two and a muscle guy.

Your muscle can’t draw attention…

BL: So you’d have Bruce Lee.

It’s you, Rain Man, Steve McQueen, and Bruce Lee inconspicuously going into a library to steal books.

BL: When you put it like that, probably not [laughs]