Bart Layton knows the questions that creep in once you leave the theater after a “based on a true story” movie. “You get out of the cinema and you’re like, ‘Well, what did Molly from Molly’s Game really look like?’ or the same question about Tonya from I, Tonya,” the director of American Animals tells Vulture. So for his story about four college boys who planned to rob their college library of rare first-edition books, he decided to flip it: What if, from the start, you met the real players in a true-crime movie, heard the real story from the people who lived it, and even had those real culprits — Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen — sharing scenes with the 20-somethings playing their younger selves?
“I felt that there might be another version of a true story that definitely was not a documentary, but actually gives you a much bigger kind of heightened engagement in the story, because you’re not allowed to go off into movie world where you suspend disbelief,” he says. American Animals lets its audience behind the curtain a little bit: You can watch Evan Peters–as–Warren Lipka do something goofy and thoughtless, and then see the real Lipka laugh at his joke or mourn his mistake. “You actually are constantly reminded that it’s real,” Layton says. “They are real people, there are real consequences.”
Somewhere in Kentucky in 2004, the foursome (first just Reinhard and Lipka, then Borsuk, and then Allen) decided to steal John James Audubon’s Birds of America from Transylvania University’s special collections library. They rent movies — Kubrick’s The Killing, the original Ocean’s 11 — and use nicknames from Reservoir Dogs. Where the first act feels like a run-of-the-mill college heist movie, the second act feels like it’s directed by boys who stayed up late studying the way Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. wore their suits, or the way Frank Sinatra sauntered like he had a secret. The music cues are Scorsese-adjacent. The theatricality of it all is knowingly overdone. It’s intentionally, in the words of director Bart Layton, “slick as fuck.” Until the ingenious plan — steal books guarded by one little librarian — turns into a cascade of snafus, and the film quickly becomes harried and claustrophobic.
With a background in documentary filmmaking, Layton planned American Animals’ fusion of narrative and nonfiction from the start. He talked to Vulture about unreliable memories, creating a new sort of cinema — and how he pulled off scenes where the actors share screen time with their real counterparts.
Take me back to the very beginning: How did you even hear about these guys and this robbery?
I was on a flight looking through a magazine, and read about this bizarre art theft perpetrated by some of the least likely criminals. I was totally intrigued by trying to understand what would lead a group of supposedly educated young men from big families with plenty of opportunities to attempt something as brazen as this. There were other questions, too: Could they have ever imagined that they would get away with it? And if they did get away with it, what were they thinking they would do with the money?
Because my background is in documentaries, the quickest route to an answer to those questions is just speak to the real people. At that point they were serving lengthy prison sentences. I just began to write to each of them in prison and ask for some more information. I explained who I was, and they were aware of a film I had made previously called The Imposter, which was fortuitous. Around that time there was a big Hollywood producer who had already optioned the rights to the magazine story and their life rights, so it didn’t look like I would even be able to make the film, but I was still kind of curious enough to keep in touch. We began this strange kind of pen-pal relationship from prison.
What were they saying in these letters?
They wrote about their different motivations, the why of it. That made me think that it went from a great story to an amazing story, and one that needed to be told. I sort of thought that it plugged into a bigger idea about lost young men searching for an identity, questions about masculinity, this idea that they were sort of searching in all the wrong places for this so-called “interesting” or “special life” that they believed that they were promised somewhere along the lines.
As you’re corresponding with these guys, when did you start to think the best way to tell this story would be to fuse their commentary with actors playing this out onscreen?
There were a couple of reasons for that. I fell in love with the story, but I also kind of fell in love with them. Their honesty. Spencer, the character played by Barry Keoghan, he talked about wanting to become an artist. He had a dream of becoming an artist and then, having read about all the great artists that ever lived, he saw that they all had suffered greatly, had to have real-life experience with tragedy. He was looking at this incredibly nice suburban Middle American life thinking, “What the fuck am I ever gonna have to make art about?” or “What story am I ever gonna have to tell?” or “How am I ever gonna find a voice?”
If you pick up any screenwriting book, the first thing it says is to establish who your character is and establish what their problem is. Here was the idea of someone whose main problem is that they don’t have a problem, but they kind of need one. It was so extraordinary and appealing. I thought, God, this is a real story about our time.
We are now in a culture where it doesn’t matter what you are remembered for, as long as you are remembered. There’s a pressure to be exceptional, to be remarkable. That was the theme I thought was really fascinating, why I felt that it was more than just a heist movie. You are going to get that element of that — hopefully it delivers on all the things you want from a kind of roller-coaster heist movie — but, at the same time, there is this other conversation about this need to be interesting.
Did you ever think about or pinpoint when that changed, culturally? When fame and infamy became indistinguishable, or equally valuable?
The thing about those kinds of things is if you belabor the point too much, the audience feels like they’re being lectured at in some way. I really felt that those ideas should come through seamlessly within the story itself, if that makes sense. For example, these guys come from nice homes, and nice families and parents, they’re really decent people. By any other definition, they are really successful. They have nice houses, nice car in the driveway, food on the table. That was the American dream, wasn’t it?
But for these young men that isn’t a definition of success. That’s mediocrity. I was working with a writer, and he said — I would love to take credit for it — but he said, “Fifty or 60 years ago, the worst thing you could be in American society was a sinner. Now the worst thing you can be is a loser.” The American dream isn’t just for a great job and kids and a family and a nice house. It is becoming more about reaching some sort of celebrity.
In the movie, there are instances where you start off with a traditional scene and then it cuts to a talking head, where one of the real men is offering commentary or a clarification. Can you talk to me about balancing those two elements?
The basic idea is like to find a new way of telling a true story. How many movies do you watch where it says “based on a true story,” and you have this nagging suspicion that they’ve just taken huge artistic license with the rest of the story? And then at the very end you get a handful of photographs of the real people. My intention was for the audience to have a lot more skin in the game, if that makes sense. You’re sort of playing along.
The balance of fiction to nonfiction was really brought about by finding a rhythm to that. As they get more lost in the fantasy and as they get more detached from reality, so do we. There’s much less of the nonfiction interruptions. We go deeper into the grammar and tropes of the types of movies they were inspired by, like Ocean’s 11. The movie gets slicker and glossier. The camera movement changes. The color palette changes. Until such a point as we are thrown by their actions — basically they cross the line, then we are thrust into a very different kind of movie.
That Ocean’s 11 sequence, where they wear dapper suits and almost twirl around the library, bagging up all the goods, was so fun to watch. It feels like these college guys are directing it themselves, like we’re watching them get taken in by the romance. Can you tell me about filming that scene?
My original idea was that it was going to be a scene made up of, instead of one single shot, hundreds of shots. It was going to be like a drum solo, if you can imagine: really percussive, with this incredibly rhythmic series of shots. It was going to be slick as fuck! One thing hands off to another, then you get this precise dynamic sequence. And then my first AD came to me and was like, “The most time I can give you to shoot this whole sequence is like three or four hours, and you’re planning dozens and dozens of shots and it’s just never gonna happen.”
So then it became about generating that same sort of slick feeling, as if they were directing their own version of it, their imagined version of it, as you so smartly point out. The solution I came up with was to just do it all in one single Steadicam shot where everything flows from one thing to the next. So instead of shooting to three-and-a-half hours, we basically blocked it and rehearsed it for three hours, and shot it for half an hour. When you do something like that, you’ve four actors that are all being choreographed in this sort of dance, plus the camera. Someone always screws something up. Something gets dropped. You hit a beat a little late, or the camera doesn’t quite keep up with the action. I think it was the 16th take that we got it. The whole crew erupted in this huge cheer.
The other sequence I really loved was the Reservoir Dogs scene. The guys are assigning the color code names from that movie, and the way the scene moves between Evan Peters and the real-life Warren and the real-life Chas — who hated that he was being assigned “Mr. Pink” — was so smart. Can you tell me about putting that together?
That was just another of those things like where I couldn’t have made it up, right? It was really important that the audience knew this wasn’t me taking a great leap and artistic license. They did do that. They did really give themselves code names based on other movies. Of course they did argue about who was Mr. Pink, and all the rest of it. Again, that’s a point where you want the audience to realize that they really did do this. I asked Warren what his reasoning was, what his rationale was for giving them each that color, and he explained that.
He really just wanted to call Chas “Mr. Pink” because he knew it’d irk him? That’s hilarious.
He knew that it would wind him up, and that’s what Warren’s like. He just likes to press people’s buttons. I love the bit where he says, “I was Mr. Yellow because I was always my mom’s sunshine.”
There are maybe one or two instances where the real guys are in the back of the shot or even in the scene with the actors. Can you tell me about that?
We bring up this idea in the movie of unreliable narrators. People remember things differently — it’s not just that the narrators are unreliable, but memory is a pretty unreliable thing. We tend to think of our memories as being very accurate documents of things that have happened to us, but the truth is they are really not. One of the things that fascinated me was how the guys would remember the same incident but in a very different way. I thought, “Do I just choose the one that is going to look coolest or feel most dramatic, or do we do both?” In one case, Spencer and Warren remembered the conversation happening in different places, so we shot it in two different places.
In another case I was like, “What if I put the real guy into a moment from his memory, or what if I put him into a scene belonging to someone else’s memory? And then asked him if this was how he remembered it?” Of course he said, “Well not really.” A lot of it has to do with inviting the audience into the process of the way in which a true story gets turned into a movie. You get to feel like you are part of it in a slightly different way, that we are almost pulling back the curtain.
Is there a memory that you have that you’ve since realized, “This happened actually in a totally different way than I remember it?”
My wife and I were driving once and we saw this car accident happen right in front of us. We parked and made sure everyone was okay, and then we were witnesses so we had to give a statement as to what happened. In my memory, I was completely convinced it was a black car and a silver car, and she was convinced that it was a black car and blue car. How can you witness something and just ten minutes later you’re completely misremembering it?
I think there are lot of things like that. I was at a dinner party and I heard one of my best mates telling a story of something that happened to him. And I was like, “That didn’t happen to you. That happened to me and I told you about it.” He had completely absorbed the story and misremembered it and kind of remembered it as happening to him. He was convinced, but I was like, “You weren’t even there!” He was like, “Oh yeah.” But in his mind he had a memory of it. He had put himself into the story, and I think that can happen a lot.
That reminds me of that supposed Sinbad movie, Shazaam. It’s some movie that people of a certain age somehow remember watching in the ’90s, but it never happened.
Yeah, how random is that?
Okay. I’m going to Google that. That’s insane.
I want to go back to something you said earlier. Do you agree with Spencer’s idea that making great art or having a meaningful voice requires the trauma of a textured life?
Ha! That’s a really good question, and amazingly not one that I’ve been asked in all of these interviews. It’s interesting. I’ve had this conversation with my little brother who is my half-brother. He’s the same age that Spencer was, and we’ve had very different childhoods. I guess I had a more, let’s say, tumultuous one than he did. He was a bit drunk one time and was sort of saying maybe I’m more creative because I had a more tumultuous childhood. I was like, “I really don’t think that is true,” but then who knows?
I think there is something truthful about the need for you to have meaningful life experiences to draw from. It’s a question for actors as well. If you’ve been a child actor all your life, and you’ve never really been exposed to anything that feels kind of real or difficult, and yet you are being asked to portray a damaged person who’s been in the care system or something, what do you have to draw upon? But I do not think that you have to do something self-destructive in order to find that voice. I think there are lots of people who, just for the sheer fact that they feel like misfits within an otherwise very conservative or uncreative environment, think that in and of itself gives them a voice, gives them something to talk about. I think it is really just about identifying the thing that you observe and feel like you want to comment on. That’s where inspiration can come from. So I’m not sure I agree with his idea, but I do think he has a point.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.