by writer/director Bart Layton
So, a little bit about American Animals: Firstly, it is a true story—and one that at times seems so far-fetched that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been wildly exaggerated but I promise you it hasn’t. It’s the story of four young men who get lost in a fantasy of their own creation only to discover that by the time they’re thrust back to reality it’s too late, things have gone too far and they’ve crossed a line from which they can never cross back.
When I read about the robbery of some the world’s most valuable books, it sounded like the plot to an old movie; more surprising was to learn that the theft took place at a university, committed by a group of students. The more I learned of what happened, the stranger it became—how unlikely it seemed that they could ever have imagined they would get away with it. I was intrigued to understand more of why a group of well-educated young men from comfortable backgrounds would perpetrate a crime such as this in the first place.
My instinct was to make contact with the young men involved (by this time serving lengthy prison sentences) and ask them why. We soon began a long correspondence and the surprising letters they wrote formed the basis of the script I began to write. They talked about their motivations for the crime, each giving different reasons for doing what they had done; some claimed it wasn’t about the money. Others talked about their upper-middle class privilege and the expectations that brought with it. One of them, Spencer, talked about his deep yearning to become an artist but how his “comfortable and predictable” life was so devoid of meaningful experience or trauma that he might never have anything to say, no story to tell, no art to create of any value. Warren, the so-called ringleader, talked of a need to be special, to leave a mark on the world—to not be just another nobody.
I wondered if perhaps the story of the heist was a way into a bigger, more timely story, the story of a slightly lost group of people searching for an identity and fed on a mantra that their lives would be special and interesting and that they would end up being remarkable in some way. In the absence of what they see as meaningful life-experiences, they set out to manufacture one.
Not being experienced criminals, they planned their crime by watching old movies and googling “how to plan a heist.” The more they plotted, the more addictive the role-play became—“it was like our own version of Fight Club—but for real” one of them told me. They became increasingly reluctant to let go of the fantasy, no one wanted to be the one to pull the plug for fear of being thrust back into ordinary life again.
This idea of trying to live a movie fantasy instead of one’s real life made me wonder if there could be a form to the film that could reflect this; a new way in which to tell a true story—one that incorporated the REAL PEOPLE themselves alongside these amazing actors portraying them. The inclusion of the real guys aims to remind you that this really, truly happened and keeps us questioning versions of events as they become fictionalized. My hope is that, as a result, you will engage in a different way from how you normally would; by not allowing you to float off completely into a fictional movie-world, my hope is that you go on this hair-raising journey with them as it charts their increasing detachment from reality—only to be upended, as they are, when it all goes too far. I really hope you find the film to be more than a gripping heist movie (although I hope it delivers on that promise too) and that it leaves you with something worth pondering afterwards—perhaps about this increasing pressure to be “special,” to leave a mark on the world.