Jared Abrahamson, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Barry Keoghan (Photo by © Paul Davidson, courtesy of Fons PR)

On Moral Ambiguity and Misremembering in Film: Interview with Director Bart Layton

There are movies that you watch and movies that you experience. American Animals asks viewers to be present and believe what they see, as Layton pulls back the curtain on how stories are fictionalised and misremembered.

American Animals
Bart Layton
Film4 Productions
1 Jun 2018

Following the critically acclaimed documentary, Imposter (2012), and long running TV series and specials including: The Trouble with Black Men (2004), 16 for a Day (2006), Banged Up Abroad (2007-2013), Breakout (2010) and Paranormal Witness (2011-12), American Animals (2018) is filmmaker Bart Layton’s narrative feature debut.

The film tells the true story of four university students who attempt to execute an audacious art heist of some of the world’s most valuable books. What starts out as a simple plan between art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and his closest friend Warren (Evan Peters), soon sees them recruiting the help of accounting major Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and fitness fanatic Chas (Blake Jenner). Incorporating the real-life characters talking direct to camera and recalling the events, Layton evolves the suspenseful drama into an exploration of truth compromised through the context of point of view and the unreliability of memory.

In conversation with PopMatters, Layton discusses the visceral impression imparted on him by Claude Berri and his inclination towards crafting a journey his audience can share. He also reflects on film as a means to explore our curiosities and his aspiration of finding an originality in transferring a true story to the screen.

Fedor Steer, Udo Kier (Photo by © Paul Davidson, courtesy of Fons PR)

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

In terms of formative moments, I used to live in Brixton, which when I was growing up it was not the most — how should I put it — most desirable part of London. But there was an art house cinema called Ritzy that used to show foreign language films, and as a ten-year-old, my mom used to take me to these weird French movies. When you are that age you only want to go and see The Goonies (1985) or something.

I remember her taking me to see a movie called Jean de Florette (1986), and just feeling almost everything the Depardieu character went through. But it wasn’t just the performance, it was everything about it; the cinematography, and I don’t know if you remember, but the sound design, it’s like everything crackles with the dryness of this drought, and the central character’s desperation for water. I came out of the cinema feeling thirsty and I remember thinking it was just this incredibly immersive and very powerful experience. I don’t know whether that was a formative moment: I have to make movies, but just in terms of the ability to be transported and to go on a journey, to feel it in a very deep way, that definitely sticks in my mind for sure.

There are scenes in American Animals where that influence is evident in the aesthetic or sensory feelings they evoke. Do you perceive that sense of immersion you experienced to have shaped your approach to filmmaking?

My main thing is probably to do with that question of immersion. There are certain movies that you watch, and there are other movies that you experience. So I guess hugely crucial for me is this question of point of view; how much do you want to put the audience in the place of the characters?

There are filmmakers that I admire massively, but I don’t necessarily relate to the characters; I don’t necessarily feel like I’m going on that journey with them in a very visceral way. This is super important to me in my filmmaking, that you are able to — even against your better judgement — because a lot of these characters are morally a little ambiguous, shall we say. Or morally a little confused, and so perhaps on paper, you shouldn’t be able to relate to them. But I guess it might be my job then that you do, and you do so quite deeply.

If we consider C.G Jung’s idea that dreams are a means for us to understand the problems we cannot solve in our waking state, then cinema, by helping us to understand ourselves and our world, functions on a dream logic. Film often seems like a playground in which we get to shed our morality and experience and indulge more impulsive side of ourselves. So, picking up on your point about the morally dubious characters in American Animals, does cinema allow us to access what Jung would term the shadow complex? And is this integral to cinema?

Yes, I think you are absolutely right. It’s that and it’s also what the Greeks talked about with drama and catharsis.

There’s a lot of sorting out and most of us will not do the things that these characters do. Most elements of stories are about crossing a line that you should never cross, and they’re also about this existential question that’s like playing Russian Roulette with your life, of knowing that this line shouldn’t be crossed. But the desperate desire to understand what happens if you should cross that line is something I think we can all relate to.

The difference is that most of us, to your point, have very clear moral lines in the sand and we will not do those things. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not equally curious to understand what it looks and feels like on the other side. That’s why we sort of root for these guys to do this thing; even knowing that it probably isn’t going to end well, and even knowing that they shouldn’t do it. But it allows us to go there and to have that vicarious experience of living this thing that is more daring or idiotic than anything we would do.

I love your analogy of the dream state, which is something that I often think about. Dreams are these distorted versions of reality, and memory is also not quite as reliable as we would like to believe it is. The scene in the film in which one of the real guys appears briefly inside one of the friend’s memories and they both question the accuracy of that memory, I think that’s also something that’s touching upon this idea of films being a little dreamlike.

There’s a deceptive and manipulative practice to storytelling onscreen, structured around the inner space of the film, the realm of the storyteller and the characters, and the broader space that is open to the audience. As a storyteller, you can deceive both your characters and spectators, and even implicate the characters in this act. This relationship is one that underpins the experience of American Animals.

With this, I was interested in trying to find a new way of telling a true story that we haven’t quite seen before because I feel like we’ve seen a lot of those films. The first thing you will see is ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by real events’, and then you have this feeling they have taken a lot of artistic licence in fictionalising it. I felt this story was bizarre and extraordinary enough not to need to be wildly exaggerated or reinvented, and so I wanted you to be constantly reminded that this is true, and what happened really happened.

Photo of Bart Layton by ©Paul Davidson (courtesy of Fons PR)

There’s a lot in this film where you are, in a sense, being told that you don’t need to suspend disbelief, which is what we all do in this. You need to just be present and believe what you are being shown. I’m constantly inviting the audience into the process of how stories get told, of how stories get fictionalised and misremembered. I guess part of the thing I’m trying to do is invite the audience or viewer into the process a little bit and say: Look, we all know how this works. We all know what’s going on here, let’s all put our cards on the table. Because of that, you get a very different emotional experience with this film. Your investment in them as characters, your emotional engagement in the consequences and how it all plays out is much more, and that comes back to this thing of participating, rather than watching.

A couple of people have commented after screenings that they found it almost too suspenseful and I think part of the reason for that is because having met the real people through the course of the movie. You’re not allowed to go off into a safe movie world in which the consequences don’t really effect us. We’re so used to these fictional worlds where we are at one degree removed from it, and with [American Animals‘ you’re constantly brought back into it. That’s my intention and to also pull the curtain back a little bit on the process, so that we are all sort of: Ah okay, and the audience hopefully feels that they are treated with quite a lot of respect.

Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer of ownership?

A lot depends on why you’re telling the story, what your process is and how much a filmmaker is thinking about the audience. I think there are a lot of filmmakers for whom the act of creative expression is everything, and the audience is secondary. For me, I’m telling stories because I want the audience reaction, I want their participation.

When I now watch the movie, I certainly don’t look at the lines that are being spoken as the lines that I’ve written. I recognise them as the true dialogue between these characters, and that’s something very bizarre. This is the magical thing actors do; they breathe life into these characters that we create, and they give it something it hasn’t had up until that point. As a documentary maker, it’s a very different process making a fiction film. Making documentaries, you’re just trying to capture truth and with a narrative film’ you’re trying to manufacture it in some way.

Everyone is going to bring their experience and their understanding of the world when they watch the movie, and my reaction to it will be different from yours. You might relate to different characters than I would relate to, and some people will not be able to relate to them at all. What you want to create, or certainly what I want to create in a film, is something that leaves people with quite a lot to think about afterward, so that the story and the movie continue to have a life. The best experiences that you have in the cinema are when you come out and you want to go to the pub and get into it; to chew it over.

There are a lot of filmmakers for whom, as I say, the audience is much less important. For me, [I want to make] sure that they really go on a journey and that they experience something because that’s the magic of cinema in the way that you have just been transported. You feel like you have lived through something, you shared feelings and tensions, sadness and laughter with these characters whom you have never met before, but suddenly you have had something close to the experience they’ve had. So that’s something I will always look at when I am thinking about how a scene works, where to put the camera, or how to edit. It always comes back to this question of point of view and having a very clear sense of who you want the audience to relate and respond to at any given moment.