Bart Layton’s American Animals has been amongst the best received and most talked-about movies of this year’s Sundance crop since its Friday premiere at the Eccles, and it’s not hard to see why. As with his first film, The Imposter—a documentary about a French confidence trickster posing as a missing Texan boy—American Animals is another slice of stranger-than-fiction truth. This time, it’s about the audacious theft of several rare and precious books from the special collection at Transylvania University in Kentucky in 2004, which resulted in the serious injury of a librarian and a haul that early estimates suggested could be worth $5 million. Layton here recreates the crime in narrative form, whilst still blending footage of interviews with the real gang of four students who orchestrated the heist, as well as their families.

Equally audacious, the movie is honest about the inconsistencies in the various accounts, even occasionally allowing its dramatic cast to intermingle with the documentary subjects, and it is bathed in the cinematic language of the very heist movies the boys watched to prepare for their own scheme. The result is a film that doesn’t just exist in the heist movie canon; it also enhances the genre by connecting it so inextricably to the real world, with its gang of kids misguided by their love affair with fiction. A cast of best-of-generation actors, led by Evan Peters (American Horror Story) and Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), effortlessly author these naive young adults, as their older, wiser real-life counterparts, freshly released from nearly a decade behind bars, reflect on the damage their youthful exuberance wrought.

As Layton explained to me when we sat down in Park City yesterday, the risk inherent in this approach was not lost on him. American Animals feels fresh and different in ways that might have concerned more conservative financiers. But it was also the only way to fly, he knew, and the reaction from crowds at the festival this week confirms the effectiveness of this unique take. STXinternational just did a deal for distribution in the UK; domestic plans can’t be far behind.

DEADLINE: The film starts by recreating this crime we’re hearing the real people describe in interviews, but it gets more and more cinematic. Did they really screen heist movies to teach themselves about what to do?

LAYTON: Absolutely. The intention was to try and find a sort of film language and a grammar that sort of mirrored the journey of these guys, as they get progressively more lost in a fantasy. We decided on a starting point which feels quite familiar and naturalistic. As the idea takes hold, they become slightly detached from reality. So my thought was like, How do we mirror that in the filmmaking?

You start with a quite naturalistic lighting, it’s quite handheld, all of that. It feels sort of gritty and indie. Slowly, and conceptually, as they get into trying to live inside a movie, the camera movement changes, the lighting changes, the color palette changes. Not massively perceptively, but then we go more toward referencing the movies that they were using as references to plan the heist. There are more gags and there’s fewer of the documentary sequences, or what I’ll call the non-fiction, rather than the word “documentary”, because I think that’s a better way of explaining it.

DEADLINE: It worked on the audience at the premiere.

LAYTON: Yeah, I think that was successful because I was sitting in the audience and listening to the gasps, watching people hide their faces behind their hands, and it felt like they got the tension.

DEADLINE: There’s a greater level of investment for having the real people, and their families, on camera throughout, too. You start with a title card that says, “This film is not based on a true story,” and then you fade out “not based on” to establish: this is something very different than a straight-up fictionalization of a true incident.

LAYTON: I think it would have been more disposable in that way, and I think, for me, the thing that makes it a story worth telling is, it is a true story, and it is also about these very lost young men who are searching for identity in all the wrong places. They are looking for something that will define them and give them a place in the world. It was really important to me that you understand: there’s an irony to them stealing On the Origin of Species. I think Evan’s character, Warren, in the film as you know him, he was supposed to be all together, and yet his whole life is just one wreckage. We have evolved to a point where we’re not really equipped to survive. We are wont to just to consume and be fed this kind of mantra of what your life’s supposed to look like. They’re rebelling against that but in a completely misguided way.

To me, the story is more relevant now than it ever was at the time, because now there’s a metric for how valuable you are as a member of society. You’ve got however many Twitter and Instagram followers. You can Google yourself, you can know that you exist and that you’ve done something. Whereas with those kids, they had what we, 50 years ago, would have considered a tremendous success; nice house, nice family, nice car, a nice roof over your head with food on the table. But to them, that was just mediocre and boring and ordinary. That’s, I guess, what is ultimately at the heart of this story.

DEADLINE: Your first film was another stranger-than-fiction true story, The Imposter, which you told as a straight documentary. Did you always see this particular tale as a narrative feature, or did it start as a doc?

LAYTON: We have a production company in the UK, which is always looking for true stories. True stories, for me, because they exist in the world that you and I inhabit, they sort of speak more poignantly about what I was just talking about. So we’re always looking for those kinds of stories that are stranger-than-fiction but true. I think this fits that bill.

There had been some news articles, and there were a couple of magazine pieces. I never really thought of it one way or the other. I just thought, Oh, it’s a fun story. It wasn’t until I started communicating with the real guys, who at that point were serving a very long prison sentence. I just wrote and I said, “I read your story…” One of the things I found compelling was the fact that they were not your usual suspects; that they from good families, privately educated, well-brought-up, seemingly. So I wanted to understand what led them to do something which had the potential to irreversibly f–k up their lives and the lives of their parents and their family.

Then the letters that they sent back, which eventually would form the basis of this script, were just astonishingly honest, and really unexpected. Spencer, Barry Keoghan’s character, in his letters, he wrote about how he dreamt of being an artist, but he knew that his capacity to make great art was going to be limited by the fact that he never had any meaningful life experience. No suffering. He even says in the film, “I read about all other artists, and none of them had a nice life with a nice family in a nice cul-de-sac in suburban anywhere.”

For me, the idea of starting out with a protagonist whose main problem is the absence of a problem, it felt like a good place to start. It also feels like it’s relevant. Yes, it might be a problem that’s specific to middle-class, privileged white men, but it’s a problem nonetheless, because these are the people who are both going to be shaping the way culture and society works and rectifying some of the social ills, and what they’re really worried about is themselves as individuals and whether they’re going to be interesting or famous. So it’s really the letters that they sent which turned it from a good yarn into, “Oh, this could be an important story.”

American Animals

DEADLINE: The film is also very honest about the nature of truth, and the inconsistencies across the accounts of the entire team.

LAYTON: That came out of talking to them about the same incident, and them each remembering it differently. Then as a director or a writer, you’re like, “Well, which version?” Then you go, “Hmm… maybe both, actually.”

We encourage you to question not just their unreliable narratives, but their memories too, and also the way stories get fictionalized when they become movies. How close can we ever be to the truth, and does it matter? I like the fact that Warren was like, “Well, that’s not how I remember it, but let’s go with it if it works.” Those kinds of things were things that, for me, were easy to invent, because they felt appropriate and ultimately truthful. With that stuff you’ve got to be careful. You’re not trying to be flashy for the sake of it, but it actually did serve a point, and you start to hint at, “Is everything what it seems to be?”

How many times do you watch a movie and at the beginning it says, “This is based on a true story.” We know it’s Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe, but actually we enter into this contract where we’re going to just go along with it, and we know they’re not the real people, we know Natalie Portman’s not Jackie, and we want to believe that it’s as close to the truth as the real events.

I feel audiences are sophisticated and we all know what the game is. I’m sure there’s a lot of directors who would say, “You’re breaking the story. You’re throwing me out of it.” I would say, “Yeah, but I’m doing it on purpose.” We had a really clear reason for doing it. I would argue that it enhances your emotional engagement rather than lessens it.

DEADLINE: There are moments when the real people “perform” in the film. There’s a scene in a car between the real Warren and Evan Peters, who’s playing him. Is any of the interview stuff scripted?

LAYTON: Well, people have even questioned if they are the real guys or whether they’re also actors, which is really bizarre. But most of what they say and do is not performance. It’s real, it’s a real interview. There are a couple of transition moments like that scene, but probably that’s the only real performance moment. Mostly, in the interviews, it’s me going, “What happened next?” and them talking about it. There’s that powerful moment in the film where Warren breaks down, and that was just me asking him about his sense of guilt and how he felt about what he had done. Then it all came out. You can’t ask a real person to perform that stuff.

DEADLINE: So you would have filmed the interviews before you wrote the script?

LAYTON: I wrote the script first, based on the letters they had sent from prison. When they eventually came out of prison, I was able to sit down and interview them. What I’d written in the script was based on what I expected them to say, because they had already said it in the form of letters or phone calls. Then, actually, what they said in the interview was quite different. It was more emotional, it was darker, there was a lot more detail. So at that point, I kind of had to press pause on the production, because it was only a few months later we were going to shoot the drama. Much to the annoyance of all the producers, I went, “No, I need to press pause, and I need to go back and rewrite the script around the honesty of those interviews.” Then I did that, and then we went and shot.

DEADLINE: There are a few films in the festival this year that deal with the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. Jennifer Fox’s The Tale is directly autobiographical to the point that Laura Dern plays “Jennifer Fox”, struggling with a misremembered story from her youth. Then there’s Nancy, which is about a woman that invents fictions for her life because it’s how she arrives at her own truth. They’re all completely different in their approaches but it feels like there’s something in the air.

LAYTON: Yeah. It’s always amazing how that happens, and I guess that’s what the zeitgeist is. Everyone’s always talking about the need to take risks, but there’s so much nervousness as to how people deal with something where you f–k with the form, and it freaks people out. It doesn’t freak audiences out, I don’t think. I think it freaks out the kind of people who worry that there has to be a certain formula for a movie. I think there’s a nervousness around things which mess with the grammar of filmmaking. Yet at the same time, everyone f–king whinges on endlessly that they haven’t seen anything new.

When I started writing, I came up with something that worked pretty well on paper, even though it was unconventional, but it expressed the intention. You sit in these meetings and everyone goes, “It’s brilliant! It’s brilliant! But how’s it going to work?” And you go, “It’s going to work like this.” The truth is, you really don’t have a f–king clue. You just hope it will.

Everyone asked, “Did you do a version where, if the non-fiction stuff didn’t work, you could just cut something more conventional?” And I was like, “No, I didn’t.” Because you’re either all-in or you’re not. If you’re not all-in, it’s not going to have a clarity of vision or intention, and I think that’s when films start to feel generic.

People would say, “When you get the edit, that will be your last rewrite of the script.” It’s like, “No, I don’t want a rewrite. I’ve written it. I’m going to make the film I’ve written.” The final version of American Animals is very, very close to that screenplay.

DEADLINE: It’s a false narrative, particularly in financing and distribution, because, yes, the risk of taking a chance is that the film doesn’t work, but the risk of making something formulaic and playing safe is also that the film doesn’t work. The hit-rate for taking risks is probably much higher, in fact.

LAYTON: I couldn’t agree more. After The Imposter, I was approached about doing quite a few quite big movies, which was surprising given that I had only really made a small documentary, and I was quite seduced by some of that. But then there was a point where I was like, “Eh, I’m not sure I feel like any of these films have the potential to be something you didn’t see coming.” They didn’t really feel like they had the capacity to be a film that you wouldn’t be happy to watch on the plane or something. You know, it’s two years of your life. You better make something worthwhile. You better just be telling the story that’s really worth telling.

DEADLINE: That extends to casting too: you don’t populate the movie with really big names, but actors like Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan have that secret sauce which is this kind of charisma and talent that the characters demand. Were you under pressure to look for bigger names?

LAYTON: At one point we had the ability to cast much bigger names; the biggest names in that age group. There aren’t many of them, but they wanted to do it. When the financiers were aware of that, they obviously found that attractive, but I made a really strong case for why I didn’t want people that would come with baggage and familiarity from other roles. In the end, the financiers were brilliant in being supportive of the idea of having just the best actors for the roles. I was working with Avy Kaufman, a phenomenal casting director, and I just refused to stop until we found this ensemble.

I did it in a slightly similar way to how you’d get a gang together for a heist. You find the ringleader, the kind of Danny Ocean character, and then once you’ve got that person, you then think about who are these other characters that you want to find? Each of them has to have a very distinct color and have a very distinct look and personality, and they have to all be complementary. They all have to be different, and they all have to have different motivations. And it would have been easy to cast a bunch of Hollywood pretty-boys, but it would have been such a less interesting film for it.

They didn’t really know how the real people were going to become part of the film. The four actors wanted to have communication with the real guys. They wanted to be able to pick their brains and to go and see them and spend time with them. I actually didn’t want that to happen, and I sort of put a ban on it, because I felt they would be different people. They’re going to be 10 years older. They’d spent most of that 10 years behind bars. If I want to portray you when you’re 18 or 19, speaking to you now will be of limited assistance.

As soon as they get together, they’re going to form a relationship. Then what if the real guy’s going, “Do me a favor. Don’t make me out to be too much of a this or that,” or, “I promise you I wasn’t…” Then as an actor, you’ve suddenly got a responsibility to this one person. I wanted to liberate them from all of that. I didn’t want them to have to worry about it or even really think about it. But Evan must have been channeling Warren’s mischievousness because he decided that he was going to completely ignore me. He made contact with real Warren through Twitter, and they started having conversations [laughs].

I guess my intention wasn’t that you’re looking at it going, “Oh, there’s the actor guy and there’s the real guy.” The intention was really, you’re going, “There’s the older guy and there’s the younger guy.”

DEADLINE: You made the film with Film4. Martin McDonagh enthuses about his experience with them on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Were they supportive of this approach and the way you cast the film?

LAYTON: If I could make movies with Film4 from here till the cows come home, that would be my preference. I cannot speak more highly of them. As a group of individuals, they are creative, loyal, and have brilliant taste. I was talking about some pressure to cast bigger names, and they just back you all the way. I have to say, AI Film, the other investor, were equally supportive. You know, the whole thing with this movie was either you get it or you don’t, and if you don’t get it, let’s not try and do any half motions. You’re either all-in or you’re all-out. Film4, they’re just totally decent human beings and lovely. You know, there have been a few comings and goings of different people, but the culture has stayed the same.