It’s a grandiose setting for an interview, something that’s not lost on American Animals director Bart Layton (pictured above left, with a heavily disguised Barry Keoghan). The film had its UK premiere when it closed Summer Screen at Somerset House, a building strongly associated with literature and art. More imposing, certainly, than the library of Transylvania University which features in the film, but its literary and artistic displays would certainly have caught the attention of the characters in the film.
American Animals tells a true story, about four friends who carried out a daring heist at the university library, stealing its rarest and most valuable books. Layton, best known until now for his previous film, The Imposter, is emphatic about drawing a distinction between a film being based on a true story and one that is actually true. “So many movies start with ‘this is based on a true story,’” he explains. “But you never know how much of it is, and it’s those words, ‘based on’, that seem to give a massive amount of artistic license to the writers and the film makers to wildly exaggerate and embellish. What we were doing here was to stay close to true events. This is true and I wanted to wake people up to that. I wanted this to be a new way of telling a true story.”
And that meant drawing on his documentary background. While part of the film is a dramatic re-telling of events, it’s cleverly combined with interviews with the actual perpetrators of the heist. Layton used their versions of the story as the foundation of the script, which he also wrote. “I wrote it around letters they had sent us from prison, so the whole thing was based on what had already told me. When they finally came out of prison, I shot the interviews and a lot of what they said in the interviews was similar to what they’d said in the letters and that I’d put in the script already. But a lot of things were different, so I went back into the script, wrote what they really said into it and then went and shot the drama.”
Initially, the four were hesitant about their involvement, especially when it came to being in front of the camera, something which Layton completely understood. “There’s a lot of things in the movie that they’re deeply ashamed of so they weren’t over the moon to re-visit it. It was devastating for their parents too. But I think they understood over time what kind of a story I was trying to tell and that it was going to be a cautionary tale. Even though they weren’t going to come out of it looking good, they would at least be allowed to appear as human beings. I guess they came round to the vision I had for the film.
“Getting the real people involved was going to change the audience’s emotional connection to the film. They’re not going to be in a movie world where everything’s safe and the consequences don’t affect them. They’re constantly reminded that this is real, what these guys did was real and so the consequences are going to be real as well.”
Layton and his team also managed to secure the involvement of the real Betty Jean Gooch, the librarian who became caught up in the heist and plays a crucial role in the story. But, initially, she was also reluctant to take part. “She didn’t want to relive the experience,” he explains. “But, over time, she got to know us and understood what I was trying to do and what themes were going to be explored and she thought they were valuable. In the end, she wanted to do it and now she’s so grateful for it. It’s helped her to move forward and she’s found it a hugely positive step.”
She’s played in the movie by Ann Dowd, an actor Layton had long admired. “I’ve just wanted to work with Ann Dowd forever. I would put her up there with Meryl Streep – she’s just a phenomenal actor. I first saw in her Compliance and I was so astonished. So I wrote to her and said this is just a small role, I don’t expect you to want to do it but I have to offer it to you because there’s no-one I want to work with more. And she understood how pivotal the role was to the film.” The result is a seamless re-creation of the solitary librarian who is less than sympathetic towards the bungling robbers.
While essentially a heist story, Layton was attracted to making American Animals because of its other themes. “It’s not just a ripping yarn, it’s a story about the culture we inhabit. On the poster, the strapline is ‘nobody wants to be ordinary’ and that’s at the heart of a growing culture of individualism, the idea that you have to leave a mark on the world and that being average is not OK. It was also about exploring the idea of trying to find your own identity. It’s kind of a coming of age story as well as a heist movie and it’s also about that need to be important and special.”
Bart Layton was talking to Freda Cooper.
American Animals is released in cinemas on Friday, 7 September.