American Animals writer-director Bart Layton delivers thrilling masterclass

BAFTA winning writer-director Bart Layton charmed NFTS students with an eye-opening Q&A about the fantasy of movies and hybrid filmmaking, following a thrilling preview screening of his first fiction feature American Animals.

American Animals is a true story which centres around four College Students living an ordinary life in Kentucky who end up carrying out one of the most audacious art heists in American history. Praised by the Washington Post as “fascinating, funny and, in the end, deep”, and “game-changing” by Screen Daily. In conversation with NFTS Co-Head of Fiction, Ian Sellar - who also had the role of script advisor on American Animals, Ian opened the discussion by asking Bart how the film came about. Bart explained that he read the story in a news article and was immediately curious, he says “it seemed so improbable and so unlikely - the perpetrators were these young men at good universities; well educated, good homes, and that didn’t sit right with this very audacious art theft.”

He revealed that his interest lead to further investigation, and says the more he read about it “the more outlandish and absurd it all became. I was really intrigued to understand the why, to know why young fairly privileged guys from good backgrounds would squander all of that on something that obviously wasn’t going to end well.” This intrigue lead to Bart writing letters to each of them while they were still in prison, and joked that “they had plenty of time on their hands to write back.”

Still from American Animals

It was during their correspondence that Bart realised there was more to it than “just a fun heist story”, saying “actually this is really a story of our time, and I thought maybe that’s a way into this other story, which is about rather lost young men in search of an identity and this so called special life that they believe they were promised”, adding; “particularly Spencer, he wrote about wanting to become an artist and feeling that every great artist had suffered or had an experience in life, and he felt he was never likely to have one. Pick up any screenwriting book and it says identify your main character and their problem - and his problem was that he didn’t have a problem.” He continued, mentioning that Warren talked about wanting to leave a mark on the world; “all of that felt relevant - we’re now in this culture where leaving a mark on the world is a big thing, being average is no longer really acceptable, average means average, and that is now somehow tantamount to being mediocre, or being a loser in some way, and so they were the themes I thought were interesting and relevant and that’s how it all started.”

Bart Layton with NFTS Co-Head of Fiction Ian Sellar

Ian asked Bart at what point he had a sense about what kind of movie it was going to be. Bart replied “I think because even though what they did was idiotic and misguided, their honesty and the fact that they were so incredibly articulate and self-aware in their letters, I thought if I just fictionalised it, it would become a much more disposable story - I thought there’s a new way of telling a true story which definitely isn’t a doc but it isn’t a straight fictionalising and hopefully, and this was the gamble, it was.” He added, “I always intended to have them in the film, because I felt like otherwise it could be seen that I just made them out to be these nice smart guys that are existentially angst ridden, and not all of them were, but some of them really were, and I wanted to show that.”

Ian mentioned the success Bart had with his first documentary feature The Imposter, and asked how long it was between completing that film and getting American Animals made. Bart replied “The Imposter had an unexpectedly wide reach in the end. It’s amazing, it did really well at opening weekend and then it had this life through iTunes and Netflix and the like. So I ended up getting offered movies after that, but nothing I felt connected to or interested by.” Bart also mentioned his production company, Raw, and said that after finishing The Imposter he continued to produce and exec-produce various TV shows and feature documentaries. He revealed that at that time he would work one day a week on American Animals as well as a book adaptation. Bart admitted he thought he would make the adaptation first, saying: “I got to the end of the American Animals screenplay and thought no one's ever going to let me make it, I just thought people would think I’d written this weird hybrid screenplay which I had no real ability to deliver on, because I’d written the voices of the real guys but they were in prison and I couldn’t interview them until they came out, but I sent it to Film4 and they said yes!"

Ian referenced the films very distinct style, he asked if it came naturally or whether it just the best way to deal with the story. He answered: “I think it was probably because it felt like it was partly a movie about the movies, I wanted to start with something that feels naturalistic, then as they get lost in the fantasy and the plotting, and trying to inhabit this movie world, we would creep closer to the kind of movies they were watching and they were inspired by. Up until the point where the fantasy crashes back into reality, and they’ve crossed this line they should never have crossed.” He continued, “that applied to the colour pallet, the score, the way the camera moved from handheld to more track and Steadicam - it starts to reflect their increasing detachment from reality. Taking away all the doc stuff as well so that we’re in the movie and we’re allowed to enjoy it and be complicit in it. Up until it goes too far and you’re back with a thud to something that feels more raw and visceral and real. I wanted this sense that we pulled the rug out from under not just the characters but also the audience.”

Ian mentioned that, as with The Imposter, various points of view of the same events are used to reveal the subjectivity of memories. Bart expanded on this technique, saying “that comes out of doing the interviews, they remember the same event or incident but they remember it in a different way. I thought maybe make a virtue of the fact that they’re unreliable narrators, you know memory is pretty unreliable. We’re pulling the curtain back on how movies get fictionalised and how truth gets lost on the way. I guess the idea was to be a bit more honest about the idea of true stories and how they get turned into movies.”

Opening up the questions to the audience, one student was keen to know about the music. Bart says “it was that same idea of falling into a movie fantasy, that it starts in one place and then as the plot evolves it becomes more ‘movie’ like.” Bart went on to say: “a lot of the source music I have in mind early on, I shoot to it or use it to set a tone on the set - it’s all about the emotional value, and I like to get the composer in really early because they’re a big part of it.” Bart also revealed that Anne Nikitin (the composer) read the script and did a number of tracks early on that are still in the movie.

Bart Layton and Ian Sellar in NFTS Q&A

Another student was interested to hear about the rehearsal process. Bart says it was a lot of “talking each of them through the script one on one so they knew what the journey in every scene was.” He says that they had five days of rehearsal time and mentions that there was quite a lot of planning, especially for the heist scene. “People can get hurt if you haven’t really thought it through, there was a lot of chaos in that scene. The camera becomes the other character, so we taped everything out, and we had a small version of the set so we knew what was where, so we could block out the action.”

One student went back to the distinct style of the film, and asked Bart if he could discuss the conversations between the DoP and Designer. Mentioning that he is a strong believer in preparation, Bart responded: “I literally found images that described as best as they could the look and feel and the atmosphere of almost each scene … it was just a kind of guide for the production designer, and it was also so that everyone always knew what the plan was. I think as long as you know what the story is and you know what the point of view is then that unlocks everything” which Bart says is something he learn from Ian Sellar, adding: “be really clear about the purpose of a scene, who’s scene it is, and who you want your audience to connect with, and that unlocks where you put the camera.”

Bart imparted that “there are certain things that you want to try, but when you’re under pressure and time’s getting a bit tight those are the things you think you don’t have time to try. But I would say nine times out of ten, those are the things you must preserve, they do work. I think there are things you have to hold onto, as long as you know why they really serve the story it’s important to hold onto them.”

For more information about the NFTS Directing Documentary MA, please visit

American Animals opens in UK cinemas on September 7th