If there’s a takeaway from this awards season, it’s that true stories are back with a vengeance. For proof, look no further than Rosamund Pike as war reporter Marie Colvin in A Private War, Sam Rockwell as President George W. Bush in Vice, Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book, Melissa McCarthy as forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
’Authenticity’ is hot right now too, as evidenced by Bradley Cooper’s approach to press for A Star is Born – a film seemed to be a shoo-in for awards glory. In all the vast swathes of publicity that accompanied its release, Cooper stressed all the ‘realistic’ elements in his otherwise fictional tale, from literally taking away Lady Gaga’s glam-pop image with a wet-wipe to playing live at the Glastonbury festival in the UK as a surprise warm-up for country legend Kris Kristofferson. It was a labour of love, he said, and the watchword was of course authenticity, a word that awards prognosticators love to hear.
When Globes night came around though, Cooper went home empty-handed. Instead, two of the night’s biggest prizes went to Bohemian Rhapsody, a film so radically inauthentic that its inconsistencies, mistruths and anachronisms actually seemed to become part of its appeal (how many reviewers asked, “Is this the real life/Is this just fantasy?”). Unscathed by the unceremonious dumping of controversial director Bryan Singer and accusations of “straight-washing” its gay leading character, Bohemian Rhapsody landed Best Motion Picture – Drama and saw Rami Malek rewarded for his portrayal of Queen singer Freddie Mercury.
Three days later, the UK’s BAFTA nominations upheld the notion that while the idea of ‘real’ appeals, it had better not be too real, thank you very much, because with the sole exception of a nomination for actor Barry Keoghan, in the jury-selected EE Rising Star category, there was nothing at all for Bart Layton’s 2018 Sundance entry American Animals, which garnered 11 nominations at the BIFA awards in December, and which tells the all-too-true story of the 2004 Transy Book Heist.
While the veracity of this year’s based-on-reality major awards contenders has ranged from the broadly confirmed (Yorgos Lanthimos’s 18th-century comedy The Favourite) to the hotly-contested (Peter Farrelly’s Civil Rights-era Green Book), all cleave to the traditional notion of how real life is transposed to film, with composite characters, fictionalized events and, in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, an entirely imaginary authority figure who tries to stop its protagonists doing what they’re most famous for.
The locking out of Layton’s film – a British-American co-production – is interesting, since Layton took a very different approach to the truth in his portrayal of a heist which saw four seemingly ordinary high-school jocks teaming up to steal millions of dollars’ worth of valuable anthropological first editions from the rare book room at Kentucky’s Transylvania University. Although it starred four rising young talents – Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson – American Animals also folded in contributions from the crime’s actual, real-life felons, a fusion of fact and fancy that caused some reviewers’ brains to short circuit (“Frustrating characters rob American Animals of heist film greatness,” complained The Daily Californian).
Layton – known for his previous documentary work on projects like The Imposter, and the TV docuseries Locked Up Abroad – took the grammar and visual style of the heist movie, overlaying the known, and some of the not entirely known, facts of the case to create a rollercoaster ride that escalates quickly – and won’t let the riders get off. “There’s a difference between being the movie world and being in the real world,” notes Layton, “and that’s why documentaries are so visceral and engaging, because you’re in the same world that you see outside your window. Whereas in the movie world it’s different. People speak funny. Everything has a neatness to it, and there’s an order that real life doesn’t really have. And I guess it’s that contrast that I was trying to borrow and weave into American Animals – that idea that whatever happens in this story is what would happen in real life, not what would happen in a movie.”
Why, then, given the current appetite for true stories, didn’t American Animals fare better at the specialist box office? And why is it not surrounded by more Oscar buzz? It’s tempting to wonder if some things really are too true-to-life, too stranger than fiction, and that placed in a non-documentary feature, people aren’t quite buying the story. Layton mentions Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line as “probably the forerunner” of a hybrid reality genre, adding Kevin MacDonald’s Touching The Void, his own The Imposter, and Tim Wardle’s 2018 Sundance hit Three Identical Strangers. “I guess what they have in common,” he says, “is if they were works of fiction, you’d probably just shake your head in complete disbelief, wouldn’t you?
That disbelief is, in fact, what happened to Layton’s first documentary feature, The Imposter, which tells the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a French conman with stubble and a heavy accent who posed as missing Texan teenager nearly ten years his junior. While the film generated a lot of heat at its Sundance premiere, many puzzled over its provenance. Layton recalls, “There were a lot of people – especially when it came to awards time and all the rest of it – that didn’t consider The Imposter a documentary. I remember meeting someone who was on the jury as Sundance…he said to me, ‘Well, half the jury decided it wasn’t a documentary.’”
After that film, Layton says, “we had this crazy demand for the remake rights, and, of course, that movie still hasn’t been remade because it’s so hard to do that as a fiction. You don’t really buy it. You can’t really buy the idea of a French-Algerian man stealing the identity of a blond, blue-eyed American teenager, and you’re never going to swallow the idea that that family is going to take him, in believing he’s a kid. It just doesn’t add up, does it? It’s so nuts.” And while Layton moved into the non-documentary feature realm with American Animals, his story choice and its depiction still remains perhaps a little too real, a little too confusingly hybrid for the BAFTA palette, and maybe for Academy voters too, judging by the popularity of digestible, quasi-authentic films like Bohemian Rhapsody at the Globes.
Fortunately for Layton though, Three Identical Strangers, produced by his production company RAW, has been the enduring sleeper on the non-fiction circuit; making the final five on this week’s BAFTA nominations, it also appears on the Academy’s long-list of 15 (surprisingly, the Globes hasn’t had a documentary category since 1976). Telling the story of three identical New York siblings who were reunited in the early 80s, Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers explores how the trio tried to conform to a narrative that was expected of them, living out other people’s ideas of their story. If it were fiction, it could be anything from a surreal Spike Jonze comedy to a conspiracy noir.
“When Grace Hughes-Hallett [the film’s producer] walked into our office with that story,” Layton says, “we were, all of us, speechless that, a) that we hadn’t heard the story before; b), that it hadn’t been done before, and, c), it was obviously true. It’s like Searching for Sugar Man – there are stories that have the kind of story structure you want from a fiction movie, and yet they’re gobsmacking because they’re true.”
Inevitably, there has been talk of remaking Three Identical Strangers as a biopic.
Layton laughs. “It will be interesting to see how that translates.”