How a true-life heist movie used the real criminals and victim to bring the story to life

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“American Animals.”
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The Orchard/MoviePass Ventures

  • “American Animals” looks at a thrilling heist that took place at Transylvania University in 2004.
  • Director Bart Layton explains to Business Insider the unique way he used the real-life criminals in his movie to make it more real than most “based on a true story” movies.

When a movie starts with the text “based on a true story,” audiences are meant to believe that what they are about to see is mostly true. But the words “based on” can be very misleading.

Often the rights to a true-life story are based on an article or book. This leads to the real-life people behind the story, if they are still alive, often not being involved in the storytelling. And that can mean the filmmakers taking a lot of major artistic liberties to get the story compelling enough for it to be worthy of the big screen.

But with a background in documentary filmmaking, director Bart Layton (“The Imposter”) wanted to change that perception with his new movie “American Animals” (in theaters Friday). And right from the opening, it promises to be different.

The text at the start boldly changes from reading “This is not based on a true story” to “This is a true story.”

Finding the men behind the heist

“American Animals” looks at the audacious attempted heist of priceless books from Transylvania University’s special collections library in 2004 by childhood friends Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard. The movie follows the two, along with two other fellow students they enlisted, as they plan and follow through with the heist. Every second they think they are masterminds when in fact they are a bunch of bored suburban kids who get in over their heads.

This may all sound like your typical heist movie, but here’s the kicker: Layton also filmed the real members of the heist as well, so along with actors cast to play them, the movie also gets the perspective of the men who did it. The heist members even have on-screen discussions with the actors playing them at certain moments.

Evan Peters as heist member Warren Lipka in

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Evan Peters as heist member Warren Lipka in “American Animals.”
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The Orchard/MoviePass Ventures

Reinhard (played by Barry Keoghan), Lipka (Evan Peters), and the two other members – Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) – were all caught after the heist and went to prison for over seven years. It was during their stint in prison when Layton, who had come across their story in a magazine article while on a flight, began writing letters to the men.

“I wrote to each of them and asked why, what was the motivation?” Layton told Business Insider. “They sent back these surprising letters about doing it because they were searching for their identity and the realization that maybe they weren’t going to be interesting or special in life like how they were told they would be when they were brought up. For me it took it from a great story to an amazing story.”

For years, Layton had a correspondence with the men through letters while also feeding his interest in the subject by getting their case files and police reports of the heist through the Freedom of Information Act. And despite a “big Hollywood producer” having the life rights to the men, according to Layton, he began to work on a script for a movie that would depict how the heist went down.

A style of true story you’ve never seen before

Layton is no stranger to putting a unique spin on stories that are already ambitious in nature. His major breakout in the movie world was his award-winning 2012 documentary “The Imposter.” In it, he tells the story of a man who in 1997 convinced authorities on two continents that he was a boy who had gone missing three years earlier at the age of 13. He even convinced the boy’s family.

Layton didn’t just film interviews with all the players involved – even the crafty admitted imposter, Frédéric Bourdin – but filmed Bourdin’s recollections through reenactments, blurring what was true and what was made up by Bourdin.

Bart Layton (L) on the set of

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Bart Layton (L) on the set of “American Animals.”
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The Orchard/MoviePass Ventures

For “American Animals,” Layton wanted to go a step further. He believed having the real people placed into the narrative would heighten the truth.

“I wanted to experiment with this notion that there might be a new way in which to tell a true story,” Layton said. “A gripping roller coaster white knuckle heist movie but at the same time because of the inclusion of the real guys you have a connection to the truth and to the reality.”

While trading letters with the heist participants in prison, Layton was informed that the Hollywood producer declined to reacquire the rights after they lapsed, allowing Layton to nab them and go forward with his movie. When the heist members were through with their prison sentences, Layton asked them to be in the movie, though making it clear that they were not going to receive a major pay day for their involvement.

“It was nothing that would commensurate to life rights from Hollywood,” Layton said. “We paid them for their time. We didn’t want them to profit from this seeing they did something that’s not legal.”

Getting the victim to agree to be in the movie

“American Animals” concludes with how the heist went down, and though it’s depicted with all its stranger-than-fiction qualities, it’s the added element Layton plugged in that really drives it home.

Layton was able to track down the librarian who was working the day the heist took place. Depicted by character actor Ann Dowd in the movie, at a point toward the end of the movie, the real Betty Jean Gooch comes on screen, dressed exactly how she is in the movie, and is interviewed about the experience. It’s a moment in the movie that stands out for Layton because it defines what he tried to do with the movie – building an added element of fact.

“I wanted her to get the last word,” Layton said, though he admitted she needed a lot of convincing to be in the movie.

Gooch, along with the four real-life heist members, were the few who saw the movie before it had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (it was co-acquired there by The Orchard and MoviePass Ventures).

“She’s the only person I would have gone back into the finished film and changed anything,” Layton said. “But she actually loved the film and said after we showed it to her that she could actually begin to find a degree of forgiveness toward the guys after all this time.”