American Animals is a truly idiosyncratic movie.
One part of it is a documentary, featuring interviews with childhood friends Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen, who plotted to steal two of the rarest books in the world when they were students.
While the other is a crime drama in the mold of “The Killing” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” as writer and director Bart Layton brings their heist and its planning to life with cinematic panache.
These two approaches mold together beautifully, as Layton flaunts storytelling tradition to pull you closer and closer in for a riveting and hugely entertaining experience. Layton recently talked me through the production of “American Animals,” revealing that he originally stumbled upon the story by accident.
“I picked up a plane magazine years ago and just read about the story and thought it was kind of bonkers. My background is in documentaries, so I am always on the look out for something that is stranger than fiction but is a true story.”
“This was a group of seemingly well-educated, privileged young men from seemingly good families that had planned to execute one of the most audacious art thefts in American history. I just desperately wanted to understand why they would attempt something like that, and if they ever thought they would get away with it.”
“I was intrigued. But I didn’t think for a second at that moment how to make a movie about it.”
Layton’s first step was to write to those involved in the heist. “I started to write to them. It was the things they put into their letters that made me think that it was more than a good story, it was a brilliant story. And it was about something worth making a movie about. It is about lost young men looking for an identity.”
It was during these correspondences that Layton realized he had a unique opportunity to blend narrative drama with documentary. “My starting point is always what is the best particular way to tell this story.”
“I made a film a few years ago called ‘The Imposter.’ Which was probably the most incredible true story I have ever come upon. It was clear that if you fictionalized that and turned it into a straight narrative you would lose a lot of what made it so great.”
“With this it was a similarly unbelievable story, but it was about young men trying to inhabit a movie instead of reality. I thought there was the opportunity to find a new way of telling a true story that you haven’t ever seen before.”
“It wasn’t in any way a documentary. It is a proper heist movie, it is a rollercoaster ride, but at the same time there is a way of connecting the audience to the fact that it really happened, and that these guys are real, and that the consequences are real. You are effectively engaging on a deeper level with the whole thing.”
You can try and engage with “American Animals” on this deeper level when it is released on June 1st.