The extraordinary and thrilling true story of four friends’ misguided attempt at achieving the American Dream.
American Animals is the true story of four young men who get lost in a fantasy of their own creation, only to discover that by the time they are thrust into reality, it’s too late — they have crossed a line into violence and criminality from which they can never return.
The extraordinary and thrilling true story of four friends living an ordinary existence who brazenly attempt to execute one of the most audacious art heists in US history. But not everything is as it seems, and as the daring theft unfolds through each of their perspectives, each of them start to question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives is simply a misguided attempt at achieving the American Dream.
Centering on unpredictable wild child Warren (Evan Peters) and aspiring artist Spencer (Barry Keoghan), two friends from the middle-class suburbs of Lexington, Kentucky, the film follows the duo through college life at separate universities, as adult pressures begin to weigh heavily on their futures. Realizing their lives may never be important, they organize the brazen theft of some valuable books from the special collections library of Spencer’s college, including Audubon’s Birds of America, valued at $10 million. Enlisting two more friends, budding accountant Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and fitness fanatic Chas (Barry Jenner), the gang meticulously plots the theft and subsequent fence of the stolen volumes, taking cues from popular heist movies.
But the thieves’ plans go awry, placing their bright futures in limbo. Unfolding from multiple perspectives, and shifting between the fictionalized central narrative and documentary-style interviews with the real-life figures on which the story is based, writer-directed Bart Layton (The Imposter) elevates the heist movie to bold and thrilling new heights.
Marking the narrative feature debut of British-born filmmaker Bart Layton, it’s the second feature for the multi-faceted auteur, whose breakout debut The Imposter, won the BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut in 2013.
Telling the story of a French conman who passes himself off as a missing Texas teenager, The Imposter was a documentary whose beguiling twists and turns revealed that the truth is often stranger than fiction. For his sophomore feature, Layton switches to a fictionalized narrative based on the true story of a botched heist in a Kentucky university town in 2004. In a feat of creative ingenuity, he intersperses the dramatization of the brazen daytime theft with post-prison testimonials from the real criminals who organized the heist.
Layton saw the crime story’s unique cinematic potential after reading about the theft of some of the world’s most valuable books from the special collections library of Transylvania University. “It sounded like the plot to an old movie,” says Layton. “What was even more surprising was the fact that the theft took place at a Kentucky university, organized by a group of students from various schools in the region.”
The more Layton learned about the heist, the stranger the story became — and the more unlikely it seemed the young men could have pulled it off. “I wanted to find out why a group of seemingly educated young men from comfortable backgrounds would go through with a crime like this in the first place,” says Layton. “My instinct coming from a documentary background was to make contact with the people involved, even though they were serving lengthy prison sentences for their crimes.”
Layton began corresponding with the young men as they served time on federal charges, including theft of cultural artifacts from a public museum and interstate transportation of stolen property. His letters to the prisoners — Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk and Charles “Chas” Allen II — ultimately formed the basis of the American Animals screenplay, which he wrote as the young men’s prison sentences wrapped up and they began resuming their lives as adults.
“Anyone could be forgiven for thinking these guys were unintelligent or uneducated,” says Layton. “On the contrary, they were erudite and full of the most unexpected ideas and references, from pieces of literature to poetry and movies.”
In the correspondence with Layton, the young men talked about their motivations for the crime, each giving strikingly different reasons for what they had done. Some claimed it wasn’t about the money; others discussed their upper-middle-class upbringing and the expectations that brought with it. Spencer in particular talked about his deep yearning to become an artist — only his “perfect” life was so devoid of experience or trauma that he felt he didn’t have anything to say in his artwork. Warren, the ringleader, and Spencer’s best friend since childhood, wrote of a need to be special, wanting to leave his mark on the world. Eric, an accounting major who wanted to pursue a career in the F.B.I., wrote about being part of something real, breaking free of the stultifying suburban treadmill. And Chas, the getaway driver, simply needed the money.
“In some ways this was a bigger, more prescient story of a lost and increasingly individualistic generation fed on a mantra that its lives would end up being interesting and remarkable in some way,” says Layton. “In the absence of what they saw as meaningful life experience, they set out to manufacture one.”
Being novice criminals, they planned the crime by watching movies like Oceans 11 and Snatch and Googling how to orchestrate the perfect heist. The more they plotted, the more addictive it became — a fantasy that took them out of their ordinary lives. “They became increasingly reluctant to let go of the fantasy,” says Layton. “No one wanted to be the one to pull the plug for fear of being thrust back into ordinary life again.”
Layton met the ex-convicts in Kentucky after they got out of prison, determined to find out what would lead a group of privileged young men to commit such a brazen and reckless crime. What astonished Layton was their description of the first two years of prison, which they uniformly agreed were the best years of their lives. “I was completely taken aback by this notion and I asked them why they felt this way,” says Layton. “They said it was because they were free. They had liberated themselves from all the expectations their parents and teachers had for them. All the things they were supposed to do in life no longer applied.”
A Unique Structure
When Layton heard about the young men’s story, he initially thought they had mistaken their own lives for a movie. “So much of what they did was influenced by the movies they watched and their desire to live within a heightened reality they created, and I wanted to make something that reflected that,” says Layton. “The story was partly about the confusion between fiction and reality — and it’s also a true story. I found that I could experiment with a way of telling the story in which the characters and the audience simultaneously get whisked off into this fantasy world. It was important to show that these young men weren’t in any kind of safe movie world.”
Layton’s interviews with the young men formed the foundation for his screenplay; many of their comments wound up as actual dialogue in the movie. Oftentimes their perspectives of the heist shifted, or didn’t correspond with previous testimony. One participant would have a specific take on what happened, while another had a differing view. “I tried to make a virtue of that notion — how we all create our own version of the truth that we want to remember or believe,” says Layton. “Only memory can be unreliable — and no two people remember the same thing in the same way.”
He wrote scenes with the young men’s testimony in his head, opting later to film the real characters during production, building the script around their on-camera testimony; in this way, he knew precisely how to organize and center his story around the concept of fiction colliding with reality. “It was important they remained the subjects of the film rather than mere collaborators,” says Layton. “I was also interested in fictionalizing their story, since they didn’t often remember things in the same way. In certain moments, the real guys even occupy the same space as the actors playing them, which makes for a unique viewing experience.”
Choosing to inhabit a movie-like fantasy world versus living one’s real life in the mundane present became a mechanism for Layton to tell a true story that incorporated elements of documentary filmmaking alongside tropes from the fictional movies the young men emulated in the heist. “I wanted to shoot and cut the film in a way that mirrored their increasing detachment from reality, employing the grammar of heist movies only to upend it when things go too far,” says Layton.
“This story really, truly happened, and we keep questioning versions of events as they emerge in the story. As a result, audiences engage with the movie in a different way. By not floating off completely into movie world, willfully suspending disbelief, we become more emotionally involved in the story.”
Meet The Producers
The first producer on board American Animals was Dimitri Doganis, the founder of the British TV production company Raw, who produced The Imposter with Layton. Doganis came into the project as Layton began corresponding with the young men in federal prison. “This was the first chance we had to meet them in person, so my initial involvement in the story was with the actual subjects,” says Doganis, whose television productions include “Gold Rush: Alaska” and “Locked Up Abroad.” “Bart always saw this as a logical successor to The Imposter, which was a documentary with very stylishly dramatized elements and scenes. The idea behind this one was to make a dramatized, fully scripted feature that also had stylized documentary elements.”
Katherine Butler, head of film and TV drama at Raw, had been close to project nearly as long as Doganis. The former head of low-budget features at Film4, she produced Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, as well as The Imposter. When she left Film4, American Animals was one of the first projects in her new role at Raw. “I thought it was a ripping yarn, a great roller coaster ride, but also a solid genre movie, and heist movies are always fun and engaging,” says Butler. “This had a unique slant on established elements, something I’m always attracted to in the projects I work on. But there were layers underneath the heist story, examining malaise and the search for meaning, which felt very contemporary. I thought immediately of the millennial condition of being told you’re special and your life is going to be extraordinary. What happens when it’s not? How do you live your life when it’s not so special after all?”
Next aboard was Derrin Schlesinger, the British producer behind the indie hit Four Lions, who won a BAFTA for the comedy series “The IT Crowd” in 2007. Schlesinger received a phone call from Butler, her former colleague from Film4, asking her to join the project. But Schlesinger wasn’t available, having already committed to other productions. Butler sent the script, which Schlesinger read on a Sunday night. She was instantly transfixed, engaging with it as a heist movie but also as a commentary on young millennial males who are prevented from attaining the American Dream. “They can no longer go up a mountain and kill a lion in order to make that transition into adulthood,” says Schlesinger. “There’s a whole generation of young men who are unable to express their individuality, so they turn to this corruption of the American dream.”
Adds Schlesinger: “This is a unique form of storytelling with documentary elements in which the story’s actual subjects inform the fictional story. They’re like a Greek chorus that runs through the spine of the movie, commenting on the action. But as the story progresses, and more is revealed, and the characters try to rationalize their actions, things grow more fascinating. Sometimes the people undertaking a crime are not the best people to understand their own actions. They can look back with hindsight, but it’s the fictional part of the movie that informs the real subjects as much as they inform the fictional part of the movie.”
The final producer to board the project was Mary Jane Skalski, the only American executive involved in American Animals. Having won an Independent Spirit Award for her work on Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, Skalski also produced Dee Rees’ Pariah and Craig Johnson’s Wilson, starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern, based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel. Skalski received a phone call from the production team in England — because the project was set in America, and based on an American story, they wanted to add an American producer to the team.
Skalski wanted to be involved with American Animals for two reasons: the script and Bart Layton. “I love heist movies but what I liked about this one was the heist had a consequence to it,” says Skalski.
“Typical heist movies can be fun because most of the time you’re dealing with a victimless crime, but it’s not always that way in reality. This movie shows there are consequences to what happened (in the form of Transylvania University librarian Betty Jean Gooch’s abuse at the hands of the four criminals). There were emotional consequences to this crime, which all the boys felt.”
From her first conversation with Layton, Skalski found the writer-director both endearing and engaging, something important for a director helming his first narrative feature. “You can see why he’s so good at his job as a documentarian but I could also see the elements that would make him a strong feature film director,” says Skalski.
“In addition, he had a strong point of view that he brought to this project. He had a real sense of energy, which was evident within the first five minutes we met.”