American Animals follows the true life tale of an audacious and ill-fated heist committed by four students of Transylvania University in Kentucky.
Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) devised a plan to steal a book of priceless paintings along with some rare books from the university’s library under the watchful eye of librarian Betty Jean ‘BJ’ Gooch (Ann Dowd), bungling the heist and landing in jail.
In his first dramatic feature, writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) melds the drama with talking heads footage of the real-life protagonists who prove to be somewhat unreliable witnesses with differing accounts of certain events. It’s a unusual device in a never less than compelling film.
DIY sat down with Layton for a chat about his encounters with the four former students, casting the film and quite what led four seemingly average young men to commit a felony.
When did you first hear about this story?
I basically read about it in a magazine and thought it was sort of a fun story and didn’t know that there was more than that. I didn’t know that it was more than a kind of misguided caper perpetrated by sort of fairly lost young men. Then the more I read about it I guess there was something that didn’t quite add up about it. I read the story and I thought they could never really have expected to get away with it. They had all this opportunity these young guys, was it just a prank that got out of hand or whatever? So I felt intrigued enough to want to know more and at that point they were in prison so I made contact with them. I worked with the same producer that I worked with on The Imposter called Poppy Dixon, she and I got in touch with them and I sent her down to meet with them in a prison visit and they were really interesting. They talked about things that I hadn’t expected, the motivations for the crime so it became more than just…it’s a great caper and it’s full of mishaps and all that but it also started to feel to me more like a story of our time, of that idea of searching in all the wrong places to [become a somebody]. How do you become a somebody? How do you leave a mark?
That’s what’s interesting, it’s not really about the money.
No it’s not. For one of them it definitely was but I think also it was about: “How do we shake up our fairly predictable existences?” I think that was one idea and I think also it was about leaving a mark. I think that is where, for me, culturally we’re at a place where being average is not really ok any more. Most of us are average, it’s just how it is, that’s what average means. But somehow that’s now almost tantamount to being a loser. So that was kind of what made me think: “Oh there’s a way of telling that,” getting into that idea through this fun story. And for me the thing that I’m always looking for is it has to be a cracking yarn but it has to be a way into an interesting conversation about what we’re up to [culturally].
At what point did you decide you were going to make this a drama rather than a doc?
Pretty much at the beginning. Having that slight itch to scratch of: “Is there another way of telling a true story we haven’t before?” We’ve so many: “This is based on a true story”, and then you’re like: “Okay how much have you fucked around with the truth?” And with this it didn’t need that much mucking about with it, it was so stranger than fiction already. Also because it’s about life imitating movies in a way, it felt like we could find a really interesting new form of story telling that would marry those things and the effect would be greater than the sum of its parts. You get much more emotional connection to both the characters and the story because you’ve got both.
When you spoke to the guys about adapting their story were they happy about that? Because in a weird way it’s mission accomplished for them in terms of leaving their mark to have a movie about them.
Yeah I was very aware of that. There’s a lot that is in the film and about that story that they are deeply ashamed of and I think they were circumspect about [it], it was devastating for their families and all the rest of it and their community. But I made it pretty clear that it wasn’t going to make them look great but it would make them look human, which some people find abhorrent! Like why would you humanise criminals? Well they are human beings and they made mistakes and they paid the cost. That comes from people who think they’re super liberal but actually they’re fucking conservative in that kind of [way]. They knew that there was going to be a point in the movie where they become unsympathetic and I think they were ok with it. Probably the thing that made them sign up was wanting people to have more of a sense of the ‘why’ of it: “Why did they do it?” and that they’re not bad they were just young and idiotic.
There’s a lot about people’s memories and perceptions and an important question about Warren’s versions of events, there’s an inference that he’s stretching the truth in some ways. What were your thoughts about him in that sense? Did you think he was spinning a yarn to make things more interesting? His version of the story is very much like a movie so to speak.
Yeah and actually when you see scenes that only he was present at, that only he was witness to - such as the meeting in Amsterdam and things like that - that is deliberately shot differently, like a movie. Like a movie, movie with Udo Kier! If you were Warren and you were casting the baddie, the fence, who would you cast? You’d cast fucking Udo Kier. So yes we play with that idea of not just the unreliable narrator but the memory being unreliable. I feel like Warren is a fantasist, he’s gone to film school now. I think all of them fell in love with the movie fantasy, the fantasy of planning the perfect robbery and that was the thing that was allowed to go too far. One of them said to me in a letter that it was their version of Fight Club, it was this secret they had, no one else was in on it and it made them different from everyone, better than everyone somehow.
But they didn’t necessarily think that they’d do it…
I don’t think they thought they’d do it. I actually don’t think they thought they’d go through with it and they just couldn’t let go of it. No one wanted to be the one to say: “Time’s up. Let’s let that go.”
Did anyone take persuading to do the movie?
The librarian. Definitely. Actually she loves the movie and she says it’s helped her hugely to move on and it’s helped her to feel forgiveness for them because she realises they’re just idiots, not criminals.
The one thing that Warren seems to have remorse for is what they did to her. He looked really broken.
Totally. I think all of them - particularly Warren and Eric who were in the room - are very broken by it. They did a thing that they couldn’t take back and that’s what the movie is about, crossing a line.
Let’s talk about cast. Evan Peters is quite extraordinary in it, they’re all brilliant but obviously he has the ‘showy’ role…
How were people in your screening? Were they laughing or…?
Yeah there was both. People were quiet when they needed to be and laughing when we should be.
That’s good. I think Evan can do that in a way that few actors can. He is magnetic. He’s very serious as an actor. Barry Keoghan is a laugh whereas I think Evan is almost kind of method in his approach, very much kind of in character. I wasn’t really aware of his work, I’d seen that great scene in X-Men and all the rest of it but he did a phenomenally good audition so I was like: “Okay that’s that!” and then with Barry, he did a self-tape, that’s a big thing now. And I looked at it and I was like: “This kid’s amazing but he looks about 14, that’s just not going to work,” because Evan is like 30, Barry’s 24 or 25 but he looks 16, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about him. When I really thought about who is the best actor I kept coming back to Barry. So in the end we got them together in New York, brought Barry from Dublin and Evan from L.A. and we did a chemistry test and it was great. Barry had been growing this pathetic bit of bum fluff [laughs]. The other two, Blake I had seen in Everybody Wants Some, he was the lead. I thought he was great, he looked right but I didn’t know whether he could go to this other place, so pushed him as hard as you can push anyone in an audition and he was great. And also physically he looks right, he’s got this sort of clean cut…he’s actually half Cuban but he looks like the ultimate [American]. And then Jared was someone that Avy Kaufman who’s a brilliant casting director, she found him. He was reading for the Chas role and there was something about him. I got him back to read for Eric and he’s just quietly excellent. He was working down a mine like two years ago, he’s from like the back of fucking nowhere! The other crucial thing was I wanted them all to be real. Evan’s great looking, Blake’s great looking but they don’t look like ‘movie stars’ they look like real people and that was really important.
Anne Dowd, who I’m a massive fan of…
It’s a small role but a vital one. How did you convince her to take a smaller role?
I’d seen her in Compliance and just thought she was the whole movie. I thought she was mind blowing. I would put her up there with Meryl Streep. I just wrote to her and I said: “Look, there’s this role. It’s small but it is the absolute heart and soul of the film. I would work with you on anything, you’re the only person and first person I would choose to do this. Can we meet?” I just sent her a gushing email which was all totally honest and heartfelt. We met and she said: “I promised my agent I wouldn’t say yes in the room but I can’t say no.” She wrote to me afterwards and said it was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career and I was like: “What the fuck?! You just spent the whole time bound and gagged on the floor!” She is an amazing human being. She’s phenomenal.
What are you up to next?
It’s fiction. It’s a non-true story this time. I mean it could have happened, it’s also set in the south, it’s a crime element, it’s dark. It’s kind of somewhere between Fargo and Funny Games but there’s a kind of whole Trumpian feel to it which is sort of about a charlatan that people refuse to believe is a charlatan. The character is based on a very famous evangelist.
American Animals is out in UK cinemas now.