When filmmaker Bart Layton first began to investigate the story of four young men who tried to steal $12 million worth of old books from the Transylvania University library, he intended to make a documentary. Then he started exchanging letters with the guys, who were – spoiler alert – sitting in prison, their crime having failed spectacularly. That's when his plan changed.
"The starting point has to be the story, and this was a story about a group of young men who are almost trying to inhabit a movie fantasy instead of their real lives," Layton says, sitting in the blinding sunlight on a balcony at the London in West Hollywood. "It was like, well, let's find a way where the form of the movie actually reflects that idea: of falling into a movie."
The film he eventually made, American Animals, which premiered at this year's Sundance (and opens in limited release on June 1st), isn't not a documentary – it is a doc, yes. But it's also a heist movie, a deconstruction of heist movies and a psychological thriller about what it's like to grow up in capitalist America. In the process of recreating the attempted crime, from its planning to its enactment to its disastrous resolution, the film makes the bold move of including the real men – Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, a decade older than they were at the time of robbery – alongside, sometimes literally, the actors he cast to play them: Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Jared Abrahamson (Fear the Walking Dead) and Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some!!).
It isn't hard to see how this could backfire spectacularly, and the fact that it doesn't – that it feels oddly natural; that it seems to actually reflect the nature of the story being told – is what elevates American Animals well above your typical rebellious-young-man Sundance fare. Rather than tell the Hollywood version of this story, Layton takes his documentary filmmaker's eye and examines why four privileged young white men would do something so colossally stupid. What's most remarkable is that, by the end of the film, you don't just get it – you kind of sympathize. Of course, for that to work, it had to be based in reality.
"Frankly, the real guys were very compelling," Layton says. "They were unusual. The letters they wrote were incredibly articulate, very philosophical. They were clearly really intelligent, and that made me think, I have to find a way to include them, because otherwise, you're going to think, 'Oh, we've made them really sympathetic, or we've fictionalized it in such a way that it doesn't really have any bearing on what really happened.'"
As a result, American Animals function as much as a meta-text as it does a conventional thriller. You have the real quartet popping up every so often to provide mature reflections on the adolescent ennui that led them to commit the crime in the first place, as well as different recollections of the same events. During the planning and recruitment stages of the heist, it feels like you're watching an undergrad version of The Italian Job – the cinematography smooth and gliding, the writing snappy and cinematic, the action intercut with fantasy sequences and familiar tropes of the genre.
But once the heist begins, at about the halfway point of the film, everything goes to hell: Layton opts for handheld cameras and seems to throw away the script in favor of the word "fuck." It's a movie-length version of the "What you think you look like” meme – except, you know, good.
"It was always intended that: This is when the movie takes a tonal shift. It's Ocean's 11 ... and then it's Dog Day Afternoon."-Evan Peters
"In my mind, there was never a question that the moment at which the line gets crossed during the heist was going to be anything other than brutally real and not glamorous – in fact, it's kind of the opposite," Layton says. "As they get more detached from reality, we as viewers are more like, 'Yeah, let's do this, let's be part of this gang, sign me up.' And then I wanted there to be a very clear moment where the line gets crossed and you're in a different fucking movie."
After the slick surfaces of the film's first half, the uninhibited emotion of the second that results from this abrupt change is shockingly poignant and brutal. Much of its success has to do with the willingness of the cast to go to the lengths required to make sure that the transition felt real, like it had shattered the characters' own conceptions of what was happening.
"Bart had always intended that, from the beginning, even in rehearsals – he was like, this is when the movie takes a tonal shift. Up to that point, it's Ocean's 11, and then it's Dog Day Afternoon," Peters says, sitting on a couch next to Jenner at the London. "It was incredibly difficult. The heist scene we shot, that was three days, so we kept having to go back to that level, which was horrific. On the third day, I was looking at Jared, and I was like, 'Fuck this ... I don't want to do push-ups anymore, I don't want to run around and scream and yell, I'm done.' Jared's like, 'Come on, one more day!' And Bart's like, ‘Let's do it guys, get into it!' 'All right, fuck.'"
"And I think everybody handled the paranoia in a different way, too – no matter what way you're delivering that emotion, that's always exhausting, your mind's always racing," Jenner adds. "So it's a pretty interesting and taxing to place to live in for a while."
One of the primary metrics based-on-a-true-story films tend to be judged on is how successful the actors are at embodying their subjects. That's hard enough when audiences can go home and cue up clips of the real guys on YouTube; it's even more intimidating when those guys were on screen just seconds before. But rather than taking what might seem to be the most straightforward approach – let the actors study and spend time with the people they were playing – Layton decided to keep the two groups apart.
"In the simplest terms, the guys were 10 years older, and for most of those years they'd been in prison," the director says. "They were different people. And if you're playing me in a film, and I did something bad, I'm [probably] sitting here going, 'Hey, listen, I wasn't like that, I didn't mean to hurt her – don't make me out to be too violent.' Because all of those guys are really likable and relatable people, I wanted them to be liberated from any sense of obligation.”
For Peters, the lack of access was frustrating, particularly after he did get to spend some time with Lipka on set during a scene they appear in together. "I wanted to talk to Warren so bad," he says, "and the little bit that I did get to hang out with him on set, I picked up on his energy. I was like, 'Fuck, I wish I could've had that when we started this, or before we started this!'" But ultimately, he understood why Layton chose to handle it the way he did – though that didn't make it any less nerve-wracking when, after the premiere at Sundance, they got to hear what their subjects thought of their performances.
"Obviously, I was nervous when they were like, ‘The guys are here.' I saw all of their heads, and they were all sitting next to each other," Jenner says. "It was daunting at first. I'd spent so much time thinking about this before, during, and after shooting, and now I'm meeting the dude I played – I hope he doesn't tell me I failed horribly. But he did really love the movie, as I think all the guys did, and they appreciated the message that it sends, especially at the end."
Which leads to the most interesting meta-narrative result of American Animals. If, when Reinhard, Lipka, Borsuk and Allen set out to steal those books, part of their motivation was to become characters in a movie, then, in a peculiar, roundabout way, their criminality, which came at the expense of an innocent, middle-aged librarian – the moment at which the film shifts – paid off. As Peters puts it, "We are, basically, that fantasy being lived out."
But in getting to know the four men, Layton thinks that, while they "did a really, really idiotic thing, and they served their time," they've made an honest effort to atone for their mistakes and have grown up accordingly. By making the movie in this unconventional manner – as an interrogation of their decision, rather than solely a recreation or recollection of it – he tried to address the damage they caused as well as intentions that caused it.
"The only person for whom I would've changed the film if they had been very unhappy, or felt that it was misrepresentative, was the librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (played by Ann Dowd)," Layton says. "The interesting thing, which was very gratifying, was at the end, she said, 'You know, I think for the first time I can begin to feel some forgiveness for them.' Because I think she realized in seeing them in those interviews that they were idiots rather than criminals."