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American Animals x Everyman Exclusive Interview

We caught up with Director Bart Layton to discuss his inspiration behind the heist thriller American Animals, here’s what he told Everyman exclusively…

Q: For the unversed, American Animals based on a true story, can you explain how you tracked down the original heist members?

After reading about the story of this bizarre and audacious art heist, I was intrigued enough to want to understand more of the individuals’ motivation for the crime. They weren’t the kind of perpetrators one would expect to find mixed up in a crime of this scale — they were well-educated students from seemingly good homes — and it seemed strange that they would risk squandering that privilege on a misguided escapade. We found out that they were residing in US federal penitentiaries and wrote asking if they could shed some light on their motivations for the crime. What they wrote back was unexpected and somehow prescient, and would become the basis of the script I began to write.

Q: How did you decide which scenes they would appear in and the nature of their roles?

The real people were unusual and I immediately felt their voices needed to be in the film in some form. Much of what they talked about seemed deeply relevant to a culture which places increasing importance on the need to be special, to be a somebody — to leave a mark on the world. I shot interviews with them after they came out of prison and wove those into the screenplay. There are moments in the film where the real people appear alongside the actors in scenes from their own memories, but I’d prefer to leave that for audiences to discover themselves.

Q: Did you allow the actors to spend much time with each of the members they were reflecting on screen, beforehand?

Although the actors understandably wanted to spend time with their real-life counterparts, I didn’t want this to happen. The real guys were by now over ten years older and most of that time had been spent in prison so they were very different people. I wanted the actors to have the freedom to create their own versions of these characters and pour themselves into them without any sense of obligation to the real people. The last thing I wanted was for them to try to imitate the real guys in some way or feel that they couldn’t make their own creative choices.

Q: Your roots are in documentary-making, what was it like making the jump to film-making?

Because of the unconventional nature of the film, my background in documentaries was obviously helpful but that’s also why I wanted to combine fiction and non-fiction in this way in the first place. However, shooting a big movie in the US with a large cast and crew is very different from making a documentary. There are pluses and minuses: you don’t have the ability to pile your entire crew in the back of minivan and be spontaneous in your approach, stealing shots here and there. Instead, it’s a big machine and at times it feels like you’re driving a tanker, the number of trucks, trailers and police blockades blew my mind on the first day of shooting.

Q: Do you feel a responsibility as a filmmaker, to the original people you based the story of your film around?

Any time someone allows you to tell their story, I think you have a responsibility to tell it faithfully. This story was extraordinary enough not to need to embellish it or exaggerate it wildly, so I tried to remain as close to the facts as humanly possible. The only person who I wanted to make absolutely sure was happy with the film and her portrayal in it was the librarian — the victim of the crime played by the incredible Ann Dowd. Fortunately she felt the film was extremely accurate and even said it had a very positive effect, helping to finally put an extremely traumatic experience behind her.

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