American Animals is the true story of four students who get lost in a fantasy of their own creation, only to discover that by the time they’re thrust back into “reality,” it’s too late.

Deciding out of the blue to steal the crown jewels of Transylvania University’s special collections library, they take things too far and cross a line into violence and criminality from which they can’t return. The story intrigued me immediately. I needed to understand more about why these well-educated young men from comfortable backgrounds would commit a crime like this—one so likely to lead to disaster. Could they really have imagined they’d get away with it?

Coming from a documentary background, I decided to write to the individuals involved in the crime and began a correspondence with them from their prison cells. The letters they wrote were surprising and eventually formed the basis of the script I began to write. They talked about their motivations for the crime, each giving different reasons for what they had done. Some claimed it was never about the money. One of them talked about his deep yearning to become an artist, but how his “nice” life was so devoid of experience or trauma that he might never have anything to say—no story to tell, no art of any value to create. Warren, the group’s leader, spoke of a need to be special, to leave a mark on the world—to not be just another “nobody.”

This idea of trying to live out a movie-like fantasy 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 used elements of nonfiction alongside the tropes of the very movies that they were trying to emulate. My intention was to shoot and cut the film in a way that mirrored the characters’ increasing detachment from reality—as they descend deeper into fantasy, so we, too, slide further into the grammar of a heist movie.

The intention wasn’t to try to create a hybrid simply for the sake of it—I believed this was the best way to tell the story. We’re all familiar with the “Based on a True Story” opening caption, followed by the photographs of the real people as the credits roll. But what about another version—one in which the presence of the real people actually enhances your experience of the dramatized scenes, and your emotional connection to both the story and the characters? Docs often elicit emotional responses from their audiences in ways that are harder for fiction film to achieve. If someone pulls out a gun in a documentary, it’s a heart-stopping moment—less so in fiction. I don’t want the audience to suspend disbelief—I want to remind them that the story is real, the people are real, and the consequences of their actions are real. As an audience member, you have more skin in the game.

Warren, (Evan Peters) Erik, (Jared Abrahamson) Chas, (Blake Jenner) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan) break the law to grow up fast. Image courtesy of MoviePass Ventures and The Orchard.

The interesting thing is that as soon as you decide to include real people, audiences want to describe the drama as “reenactment,” but it’s no more “reenactment” than any dramatization of a true story, which so many movies are these days. I’m not fond of the term “reenactment.” For us Brits, it conjures up images of people in medieval dress or civil war battles or ’80s crime shows reconstructed with slow shutter speeds.   

For the actors, I wasn’t interested in casting lookalikes—I just set out to find the very best actors for each role who could capture the essence of each character. And, although the actors wanted to, I didn’t want them spending time or chatting with the real people they were portraying. I felt that I had distilled the characters as best I could into what was on the page, and I wanted the actors to have the freedom to find their own versions of these people. The real guys are now 10 years older than when it happened and most of that time has been spent in prison, so they are very different people now. I preferred to think of the two versions of each character in the film not as “real” and “fake,” but “older” and “younger,” so that when you watch the film, you buy into the idea that they are one and the same person.

With roles in Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and now Bart Layton’s (L) American Animals, Barry Keoghan’s (R) rookie resume is looking like a vet’s.

Audiences are sophisticated. They know that Natalie Portman isn’t really Jackie Kennedy, but we’re all willing to play along. American Animals aims to say, “Hey, we all know what the game is. Let’s be open and honest about how stories get fictionalized and dramatized.” There were times when the real guys recalled the same incident completely differently—I decided to make this a virtue and dramatize both versions, so the audience begins to understand that it’s not just the narrators who may be unreliable, but memories themselves.

I shot the non-fiction elements with the real people first, and it was tough. I secured financing for and wrote a script that included dialogue from the real people based on what they had said in their letters and in phone calls. But then, a curveball: On the day, they didn’t say what I expected them to. I either had to get them to say something closer to what they had said previously (what I had in the script), or throw the script away and go back to the beginning. Documentary interviews involve a performance of sorts—like many social interactions—but once you turn your documentary subjects into actors, authenticity will almost certainly be lost. So I scrapped the script and started from square one.

The honesty and emotion of the real guys that came from this approach was striking. I went back to our financiers and convinced them that we needed to pause the production, to spend a month or so rewriting the script around what the real people had said. The film is undoubtedly better for it.

When we shot the “narrative” or “scripted” portion of the film, it was done without regard for the film’s nonfiction elements, other than the odd transition. The final cut of American Animals is the result of this slightly unconventional process—for which there wasn’t exactly a template. My hope is that the interplay between the fiction and nonfiction elements allows viewers to engage with the film in a distinct and deepened way. By denying audiences the ability to float off into movie-world and willfully suspend disbelief, moviemakers just might be able to raise their emotional involvement in a story. MM

American Animals opens in theaters June 1, 2018, courtesy of MoviePass Ventures and The Orchard. All images courtesy of MoviePass Ventures and The Orchard.