When Elvis Presley’s ‘A Little Less Conversation’ starts bouncing across the American Animals soundtrack, it hits harder than the song’s distinctive drumbeat. In a film that combines documentary and drama to tell a true tale, the track initially seems out of place – but it’s all part of Bart Layton’s unique approach to the infamous Transylvania University heist.
In 2003, Kentucky college students Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk attempted to steal millions of dollars in rare books from the school library. A brazen crime that was bound to fail, the details behind it are so bizarre that they can only be true.
The young men all hailed from comfortable upbringings, and were primarily motivated by wanting to feel special. They committed the heist during daylight, in the library’s regular operating hours, using their exams as an alibi. And to plan the theft — which involved using Reservoir Dogs-style code names — they watched Hollywood heist movies.
Ocean’s 11 is one of the DVDs spotted in the quartet’s to-watch pile. By using ‘A Little Less Conversation’, which returned to prominence via the 2001 remake, Layton calls out the fantasy that his protagonists were operating under. In a film that presents its real-life figures next to their dramatised counterparts and purposefully plays with truth, memory and reality, he also nods to the audience.
“We're not trying to pretend that it's something that it's not,” he explains. “We’re bringing you as the audience into the whole process of how true stories get fictionalised and misremembered and dramatised and all the rest of it.”
With American Animals releasing in Australian cinemas, we chatted with Layton about turning an extraordinary true tale into a stirring blend of drama and documentary…
How and when did you first come across the Transylvania University heist — and when you did, what was your reaction?
I found it in a magazine on a transatlantic flight and I thought it was a very unconventional heist story, not least because the perpetrators were fairly privileged young men from good homes and good universities. I guess the thing that intrigued me about it was why these young men with all of these opportunities would risk squandering all of that on something that was so clearly not going to end well for them.
I was intrigued enough to want to make contact with the real guys, who, at that point, were serving out fairly lengthy prison sentences. We began this unlikely pen pal correspondence from prison, and it was the things that they talked about in their letters, their motivations for doing what they did, that made it feel like a much more relevant story — a story of this rather lost group of young men who are searching for an identity and struggling with issues of figuring out who they were and questions of masculinity.
It felt like there was the opportunity to deliver on the things that we want from a heist movie, but also to get into a conversation about the culture — and about a generation who are brought up to believe that they're going to be interesting and that their lives are going to be important and special. And yet, like many young people, as you get into adulthood you start to realise that you're probably just going to be average. I think we're in a culture where being average is increasingly undesirable, which is unfortunate.
That’s a common thread across both The Imposter [Layton's previous documentary] and American Animals — people committing crimes simply because they can. Here, they don’t have any real motivation other than wanting to have a transformative experience. They don’t have troubled backgrounds, and they don’t need the money. They’ve simply stumbled across an opportunity. What draws you to these kinds of stories?
The idea of someone whose main problem is that he doesn't have a problem, but he wants to have a story to tell and he needs to have an experience that's going to make him remarkable in some way — that felt relevant to me, I think now more than when the crime happened in a way. We are in a culture where social media is giving us all a metric for how interesting or important we are in the world, so that leads to even more pressure to be a somebody. The strap line on the poster is "nobody wants to be ordinary", and it feels like that is a truism of our evolving culture.
I look for what is relevant about that story and why bother telling it. First of all it has to be a great story — a ripping yarn, a real page-turner. But equally important is a sense that the story is a way into a conversation that feels relevant.
When you wrote to Warren, Spencer, Eric and Chas while they were in prison, did you intend to turn their story into a documentary? Were you already thinking about combining documentary and drama?
I didn't know what it was at that stage, and whether there would even be a movie in there to be made. I just wanted to get a better sense of what it was that they were thinking, because it seemed so unlikely that it was going to be good or in-depth, or that they could've ever managed that they would be a successful enterprise.
And what would it even look like if it was a successful enterprise? How were they going to get the books out the country? If they got the money, what where they going to do with it? Where were they going to hide it? It became clear that they fell in love with a fantasy and they just didn't want it to end.
These young people were trying to inhabit a kind of movie fantasy, [so I wanted to] create a movie with an unconventional form. A movie that was certainly not a documentary, but borrowed some of what a documentary can do in terms of creating an engagement with the story and the characters — which is much deeper and much more visceral than when you watch a normal fiction film.
We all go to the movies and we suspend disbelief and we don't need the story to be true, necessarily. But when you know it's true and you're constantly reminded that this really happened, I think you engage with it in a slightly different way.
We see the group watching heist movies to plan their heist. You take that idea full circle, turning their heist into a heist movie — not only in a narrative sense, but in the film’s style. Was that part of the appeal of this approach?
What I wanted to do with the form and the grammar of the movie was to mirror their journey into the movie fantasy. So we start in a place that feels quite real and naturalistic, and as they start to get more and more taken with the plotting and planning and fantasy of it, the form of the film starts to mirror their submersion in this fantasy world. As the film goes along, we borrow more from the tropes of the movies that they were influenced by — the kinds of heist films I guess we all love.
And as they get more absorbed, we also get more complicit in the caper. As they get more detached from reality, the grammar of the film starts to change. It starts to get closer to the slickness of Ocean's 11 and those kind of very glossy movies, up to the point where they cross this line that should never be crossed — and when that happens, we are immediately thrust back into something that feels more like reality.
The idea was that we would play with those tropes to mirror their descent into a fantasy world where they're getting quite detached from reality and they've forgotten that there are real-world consequences. In their minds, it's like Ocean's 11 — but in reality, crossing that line and committing that criminal act is not like it is in the movies.
Watch 'American Animals'
Saturday 19 June, 11:30pm on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
USA, UK, 2018
Genre: Drama, Crime, Documentary
Director: Bart Layton
Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd