Interview: Director Bart Layton talks about his new film American Animals

Earlier this year while he was here for Sydney Film Festival – and not long after I had the chance to see the film at SXSW – I sat down with director Bart Layton to talk about his new film American Animals, which is in cinemas next Thursday. Based on a true story that happened at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, the film follows four young men mistake their own lives for a movie and attempt the most audacious heist in U.S history. Starring Evan Peters, Ann Dowd and Barry Keoghan, American Animals has been noted as a film you won’t be able to stop talking about.

Welcome back to Australia. This isn’t your first time here is it?

It’s not, but I haven’t been here for about 15 years. I’ve got a lot of family here, half my family’s here, and half in the UK.

So, what brought you here 15 years ago?

Oh, just mucking about. Surfing, visiting family. Just such a great town. You forget [Sydney’s] one of the most beautiful big cities I think you can live in for sure.

Were you based in Sydney when you lived here?

Yeah, yeah. Up the coast, and family kind of around Byron and places like that.

At that point 15 years ago, did you know that this was what you wanted to do? That you wanted to make films?

Yeah, I was already working in documentary. And that was definitely big. I studied languages [and] I always was into travel. I was always kind nosy so if you’re like that, than documentaries are the best job that there is because you get to put your nose in other people’s business and end up in places that your normal life would never have brought you in contact with. I guess with the Imposter there was a lot of drama elements in there and I felt like I was kind of running out of road with documentary. Probably the last thing that you need to worry about is the craft of it. Really your main objective is the truth. And I guess I’ve always been very visually motivated. Just slowly found myself drifting towards narrative or fiction and with this movie, it seemed like there was an opportunity to find a new way of telling a true story that you hadn’t really seen before. It’s not a document by any stretch, but it’s also not a complete straight fictionalisation of it.

At what point did you know that you wanted to put the original people on the screen? I mean, if you had met them and it had been weird, or if there had been a certain aspect where you thought “I don’t know if I want to put them on the screen”, did you always think that this was how you were going to achieve this film? 

Yeah, I think very much from the start it was the way they talked about their motivations for what they did and the fact that they were as articulate and honest as they were, even though they’d done a deeply misguided thing. It was a story about these young guys getting lost in a movie fantasy.

I really like that aspect that you grabbed onto early with them which was this idea of seeing what happens on the other side of crime. I know that they say it in the film a couple of times, where things are going to be different after and what that will all mean. The way they are not happy with how they are now and recognising that they might be worse of after [the crime]. Yet it’s still more interesting than what their life is now. 

Completely. Yeah, I think that’s really what it was about. Not for all of them, but at least for some of them. They needed to kind of play Russian Roulette with their life. Whether it was gonna be a complete disaster, or whether it was gonna be like the perfect robbery. You know, I don’t think they ever thought they were going to be riding off into the sunset with the loot, but I think it became a kind of existential question. If we do this thing, the one thing that’s guaranteed, than nothing is ever going to be the same again. And how far would you be willing to go for that? That was one of the questions at the heart of the movie. Would you be willing to risk your family, your freedom? I don’t think they really realised what they were gambling with but they needed to know the answer so badly that they allowed it to go too far.

Is this a story that exists elsewhere? In your research did you find any other similar sort of stories?

Well it’s interesting. Most people you speak to are like “oh my god, I heard a story when I was at school, or college, or whatever” and people have got comparable stories, but in most cases [those stories] didn’t cross the line. They remember getting very close to crossing the line, but not crossing it. So I think it’s quite relatable because I think people sort of feel like, “Oh those people are not a million miles off someone I know”. I think people are able to relate to this even though most of us aren’t stupid enough, or daring enough, to go through with something as outlandish as this.

We did go through something as outlandish as this, just fictionally in a film.

Yes. You mean making a movie?

Yes. You get to live it out in other ways.

This is true. Setting up to making movies, is pretty foolhardy. At times you think “wow, this is a big undertaking” and you really just hope it’s going to go the way you think it is.

We had this saying on set that in their heads it was like Oceans 11 and in reality it was Dog Day Afternoon. They had planned it so well that they thought it was going to be this seamless military operation. The truth was that as soon as they crossed the line, they were deeply unprepared for how you perform a criminal act. Especially if there’s another person involved who you’re going to have to restrain in some way, or you’re going to have to take hostage. You know, most of us are not equipped for that. So in a way, this is kind of the anti-heist movie.

That scene with Ann Dowd was an incredible sequence. I want talk a little bit about casting Ann Dowd because she is an incredible actress to have in the film. What was it like working with her? 

Well she’s just unbelievable on every level. She’s in Sydney at the moment and you could track her down. She’s shooting something here. She is the real deal. I would put her up there with the Meryl Streep’s of this world. I’d seen her in a few things. Compliance, have you seen Compliance?

I don’t think so.

Yeah, she is the movie really. It’s just an unbelievable performance. I’d always wanted to do something with her so I just wrote to her and said, “You know it’s a small part, but to be honest, there just isn’t anyone I would want more for it.” We met and she committed straight away and she came down and kind of raised everyone’s game. She’s just superb but also she’s an incredible human being as well. She mothers everyone around her and she’s just a magical force of nature.

They were some pretty intense scenes though I imagine. Was it a pretty intense day of filming?

Yeah, it was. It was a few day actually, and she spent most of the time bound, gagged, face down on the floor in tears and she didn’t complain once. She wrote to me afterwards saying it was one of her most memorable filming experiences and I was like, “Wow, you just spent the whole time trussed up.” But yeah, she was awesome.

You say [Ann Dowd] kind of upped the game for everyone. Does that include yourself as a filmmaker?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, if you get to work with tremendous actors… actually, all of the guys in the film are amazing actors. Sometimes you just need to get out of the way and just let them do what they do best and sometimes you need to just make sure that they’re on the right track and that they don’t overdo it. You keep an eye on the whole movie rather than just the scene. You don’t want every scene at the same level of intensity. You want to make sure that it’s well balanced and calibrated throughout. But yeah, someone like Ann turns up and everyone raises their game because of what she brings. Evan Peters is an equally impressive actor. Super well prepared. And then Barry [Keoghan] has a completely different approach. He doesn’t really prepare, just fields it and is in the moment. You don’t know how he does what he does but when he does it, it’s really mesmerising.

The whole cast are phenomenal in the film and there’s a real sense of camaraderie in every scene that they’re in. Was there a natural camaraderie that built up with them over the course of the film?

I mean none of them had ever met before the start of production. Evan and Barry met in New York because I brought them there to do a kind of chemistry test but no, they hadn’t known each other. So we did a week of rehearsal and I made sure that they all lived together in the same house [which] was hugely valuable because they had a shortcut to getting to know each other really quickly. Then they just sort of became more and more bonded throughout the whole thing. Then they were like a gang and they were inseparable. Like a family really. Even if one of them wasn’t in a scene [they] would still come to the scene and be part of it, and be there for the brotherhood. It was sort of amazing seeing how they all kind of felt that connection to each other. All of them said it was pretty much the best experience they’d had on a film set.

From here, where do you go as a filmmaker now? 

I’m doing a movie which is not a true story, it’s a work of fiction based on a book. It could be a true story [because] it’s no more outrageous or outlandish than either the Imposter of American Animals. It’s somewhere between Fargo and Funny Games in terms of the tone. Yeah, I think I’m done with the hybrid thing and I feel like I’ve got that out of my system now.

Well you can’t do that every time, otherwise that just becomes your shtick.

Yeah exactly and you know, it felt like an experiment that I really needed to kind of get out of my system because of that nagging feeling that maybe there is a way of telling a true story that we haven’t seen. That isn’t where you see based on a true story and then you get a handful of photographs of the real people and then you’ve got Google. You know, what was Molly like from Molly’s Game, or whatever it was. That feeling of can you have your cake and eat it? Can you have both of these things sitting side by side in the same movie? Actually they’re both adaptive, rather than one thing being completely separate it actually creates a much deeper connection.

Finally, if there’s one thing you hope people take away from the film what is it? 

Well I think for me the most satisfying experiences of cinema is when you don’t leave it. When the credits roll. We’ve all watched movies where you’re not going to think about it five seconds beyond the credits whereas actually what you really want is to come out of the movies and really have a conversation about it and arguments about it and discussions. To go to the pub and chew it over. Certainly when the Imposter came out I remember being in all kinds of random places and hearing people talking about it and debating it and chatting about it. That was really [great] and with [American Animals] there’s a bit of that.

I hope that people come away thinking about more than just that it’s not just about the plot of the crime. It’s about this other thing, these other themes which are about where we are as a culture. Like what is important. If being average is no longer acceptable, what does that mean? What are we all gonna be? We all have status anxiety and that drives everything. All the decisions you make in your life, about your career, where you live, how you live and all of that. A lot of that is what was hopefully embedded in the themes of the film.

Can you imagine if they did the crime today? Everyone would be posting about it on social media.

Someone would have had footage of it, yeah.

Leaving a trail of crumbs via Instagram.

Yeah, someone in the library would have pulled out their phone and shot video of it.

Well thank you very much for your time. It’s great to see you again and congratulations on the film.

And you. Thanks brother. Cheers.

American Animals hits cinemas today.

This interview was conducted during Sydney Film Festival. You can watch our interviews with the stars of the film HERE, and read our review of the film HERE.