The Barclay family suffered a devastating blow in 1994 when 13-year-old Nicholas disappeared without a trace. However, 1997 brought a sign of hope — the young boy had been found in Spain. Seemingly damaged due to sexual abuse by his captors, he was ready to come home. The only problem? It wasn’t Nicholas at all — Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin adopted his identity, fooling authorities and the Barclay clan themselves into thinking that he was the real deal. As you might imagine, it wasn’t long before someone started to doubt this ruse (detective Charlie Parker, oddly enough, noticed the ears of Bourdin and Nicholas didn’t match up), but the exposed identity only makes the situation uglier, ferreting some nasty theories concerning the whereabouts of the real Nicholas Barclay.
It’s a story that would be scoffed at in a scripted drama, but it’s that same unbelievable, stranger-than-fiction quality that makes Bart Layton’s “The Imposter” such an intriguing documentary. Thrilling in a way that non-fiction films generally aren’t, the filmmaker weaves a gripping tale by utilizing his subjects’ conflicting perspectives, heightening their stories with highly cinematic reenactments. We caught up with Layton to talk about the film and he gave us the skinny on what drew him to the project, the film’s pacing, the subjectivity of truth, and what’s up next for him. “The Imposter” opens July 13th in limited release.
The Initial Draw
The story of the Barclay/Bourdin debacle is most interesting because of its remarkable nature — and it’s very ripe for some sort of film adaptation (in fact, Jean-Paul Salomé’s “The Chameleon” took the fiction approach for it, but more on that later). But how do you tell it properly, and which idea should be focused on? While the director was immediately taken by the premise, he was itching to ask a few particular inquiries. “I thought that this was so intriguing for a documentary because I couldn’t understand how this could happen in the real word. My first question would be what kind of person would do this kind of crime, with the next question being what kind of family would fall directly into it,” he noted, skeptical of the plausibility of Bourdin actually making a convincing Nicholas Barclay. “That’s the big one — is it possible to commit to something so glaring if you desperately want to believe it? It’s not just about perception, it’s also about self-deception.” Research for “The Imposter” was careful, as Layton didn’t want to spoil stories while meeting the subjects. “I met with them all beforehand so they understood what the project was and the ins-and-outs of everything, to make sure there wasn’t any hidden agenda or anything like that. But I really wanted to save the big questions; you want to see that for the first time on camera. It has to be genuine, truthful, and unrehearsed, you really want that kind of honesty. You obviously have to make them feel comfortable.”
Subject matter aside, one of the strangest parts of “The Imposter” is how quickly it moves for a documentary. Don’t get us wrong — we love the genre — but the majority of non-fiction films don’t generally progress so engagingly fast. “Part of the structure and pacing came out of the experience of making the film, as it was quite a bewildering journey at times,” Layton explained. “There were times where it felt like being a detective, in a way — you go from one interview one day, convinced that you understand what happened, then to the next interview and come up with the completely opposite conclusion. And that’s a really extraordinary experience to have in a documentary, because for that genre you have the intention of finding one neat, objective truth. We found four or five subjective truths of the same thing.” Being such an invigorating experience conducting the interviews, the filmmaker decided that this was the most appropriate feeling to convey for the actual movie-watching experience itself.
Why So Cinematic
“I feel the kind of drama done in documentary is so rarely done well. I think it’s very dangerous if you try to shoot something to tell the audience that this is real, like shooting something as verite or a fake archive, because you’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. I wanted it to feel hyper-real or dream-like, to not say that this is exactly what happened, but that instead you’re spending time in their memories or their subject version of the story. So I thought it should have a very cinematic look, quite painterly with lots of conflicting color temperatures and a real strong look to it — I shot it in different speeds, etc. Essentially you are in someone’s subjective version of the event.”
The Ending (Spoilers)
When the film concludes, you’re half expecting some sort of epilogue to this larger than life story — maybe because we’re conditioned to think that way by conventional docs, or possibly because we just want more — but Layton crafts a much more subtle, powerful ending to a particular story thread that works as a strong punctuation point for all of the perspectives he indulged. Detective Charlie Parker was convinced that the Barclay family didn’t lose Nicholas at all — they accepted Frédéric Bourdin because they had actually killed him, and having their “missing” child returned covered their asses from the law. With a hunch that the body of the boy is buried in the backyard of the clan’s old property, he contacts the new homeowners with the intent of proving his theory. Though he finds nothing, Layton discovered that this was an efficient moment to close on, and it wasn’t one of his dramatic reenactments. “All of that digging in the garden was absolutely real up until the point with the final shot, which is that crane shot up. I think I suspected when he told me he would dig in the garden, I had a really strong suspicion that he wasn’t going to find anything. And that empty hole felt, to me, like a metaphor for this idea that there is nothing. There’s just an empty hole that we just fill with whatever conclusion you wish to draw,” he remarked. It serves as one of the more memorable climaxes of the year, maybe of the entire genre.
Set Neutrality, “The Chameleon” (Slight Spoilers)
And with everyone telling a different kind of story, what’s impressive is how neutral the film stays. “I think, ultimately, what the film becomes about is not the question whether they did or didn’t they do it, but moreso the ‘why’ they chose to believe that. They tell you this story that makes sense, you see the logic of it, but when you talk to someone else, they do the same. You sort of believe all of them and none of them at the same time. So I wanted that to come across in that film.” Speaking of “The Chameleon,” which is the narrative film of the same story, Layton admits that he was aware of his existence but by no means thinks it does justice to this amazing incident. “I tried to avoid it because even a bad idea can filter into your subconscious, which I didn’t want it. But I started watching some of it and really wasn’t into it at all. I also feel that the extraordinary thing is that it really happened, and as soon as you take it into a fully scripted version, you lose some of its magic. You need to preserve that element of truth. They also chose a line, that the family were the murderers, and the whole film was constructed around that.” He then summed up his exact perspective regarding the conflict between his film and theirs: “Our film just asks very different questions.”
The skill Layton displays in the reenactments seems to reveal a yearning to do something completely fictional, but the filmmaker isn’t ready to abandon the documentary genre just yet. “I’m really interested in doing a straight narrative eventually, but I also want to try and find a way to tell these kinds of stories similar to ‘The Imposter’…not a hybrid genre, but something like it. They tell you something very unexpected about human beings. I want to find a way of making something that looks and feels like a straight up narrative, one that audiences come to in a way that they do to thrillers or a different multiplex movie but actually have these documentary elements which remind you of the saying ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ I’d like to do some uncategorized genre that is quite different.” While pondering this idea, he mentioned a recent movie which he thought could’ve employed this approach to great affect — Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours.” “That’s a true story but I can’t help thinking that it would’ve been so much more powerful if, instead of using James Franco to recreate the videos, they used the actual home videos the real man shot. Just ways I think of bringing in documentary elements into narrative.”
As for specifics, the director was a bit coy but did drop a few morsels. “I am working on something and it’s another story like this — if it wasn’t true, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s kind of like an existential heist film,” he paused, and then let out a chuckle. “It’s got a whole kind of existential subtext to it, it’s about the choices we make in life, but I think it will be genre-breaking in the end, I hope. We’re just starting to plan it now, and hopefully it will surface sometime next year.”