When Simon Chinn was asked by director Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis to executive produce and raise the finance for The Imposter, their docudrama about an infamous French/Algerian con man, he hesitated. Layton had already filmed an interview with the hoaxster, Frédéric Bourdin, but the Texan family who were the victims of his cruel deception had not yet agreed to co-operate.
“Bart and Dimitri had a very compelling five minute promo and they had big ambitions to make a documentary thriller that would work on the big screen,” the London-based Chinn told SBS Film during a visit to Sydney where he took part in a Screen Australia-sponsored
Think Big Documentary Masterclass.
“We started engaging with various financiers who were pretty excited but we weren't sure the other participants that you see in the finished film were going to come on board. It's a tough story and not everyone comes out of it that well.
“Bart had already spent time in Texas and met with several members of the family and there was a general feeling among the family that they had been badly treated by the press. Ultimately, they were persuaded that this film would give them an opportunity to put their side of the story on record. ”
One can understand the Barclay family's reluctance because Bourdin duped them into believing he was their son Nicholas, who disappeared without a trace three years earlier in 1994, when he was 13. Nicholas was fair-haired and blue-eyed. Bourdin was 23, with brown eyes, dark complexion (he dyed his hair blonde) and he spoke with a noticeable French accent.
The founder of Red Box Films, Chinn has an impressive pedigree in feature documentaries as the producer of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, Project Nim and Searching for Sugar Man. So it wasn't difficult to secure funding for The Imposter from England's Film Four, A&E Indie Films, the doco production arm of America's A&E Networks, and several pre-sales.
However, Chinn acknowledges there was an element of risk because although Layton had directed the British TV series Banged Up Abroad, he had not directed a theatrical project.
The filmmakers screened the film for the Barclay family before its world premiere at the Sundance festival in January 2012, and they gave their approval.
Chinn and Layton chose not to see The Chameleon, a Louisiana-set movie inspired by the Bourdin case, directed by Jean-Paul Salomé and based on the book of the same title by Christophe d'Antonio. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York (where it got lousy reviews) while Chinn was raising the finance, timing which he wryly describes as “not massively helpful”.
The film deliberately doesn't reach any conclusions about what happened to Nick. “No body was found and the case was abandoned for lack of evidence,” Chinn says. Asked if he has any theories, he replies, “We could never make our minds up. Through the entire process of making the film we moved between differing points of view and we discussed it endlessly. It is confusing, and in the end, this is a film about people's subjective versions of the truth, of the events, and about deception and self-deception.”
Bourdin turned down numerous invitations to see the film but Chinn believes he did see it eventually and was told that he liked it. That's no great shock because I suspect Bourdin is a narcissist. What is surprising is Chinn's revelation that Philip Petit declared he was unimpressed when he first saw his feat of walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers re-enacted in Man on Wire.
Subsequently Chinn joined with John Battsek's Passion Pictures to make Everything or Nothing, a doco financed by MGM which profiles James Bond producers Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and author Ian Fleming. It was released theatrically by Sony in the UK to mark the franchise's 50th anniversary, aired in the US on the Epix channel, and is being distributed internationally by MGM.
He's now producing The Green Prince, based on book Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices by Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of one of the founders of Hamas who became an informant for Israel's security agency the Shin Bet. It's a UK-Israel-Germany co-production, financed by a patchwork of institutions including 'soft' German money and pre-sales negotiated by Global Screen.
Sixth Sense Productions and Southpaw Entertainment are developing a film based on the same book but Chinn doesn't see that as competition, declaring, “The other project is a dramatic adaptation while ours is a feature documentary with exclusive access to all the key players, and will almost certainly be out first”.
Chinn is in the vanguard of the ongoing renaissance of theatrical docs, observing, “Every year a couple of films come along which break the mould creatively in lots of ways and which compete with the best indie fiction films. Every time that happens I'm thrilled because it means more people are prepared to pay money to see documentaries in cinemas. That's a challenge to convince audiences that documentaries can deliver story and emotion and entertainment alongside the very best fiction films.
“When a doc like Senna comes along and does â‚¤3 million at the UK box-office you feel in a way that nothing is ever going to be quite the same way again and there are lots and lots of people who will come and see the next one.”
The Imposter will screen in cinemas from February 28, 2013.