If you're one of the New Yorkers who contributed "The Imposter"'s solid run at the domestic box office (in its opening weekend it was released on a single screen in Manhattan, and found the best per-theater-average of any film in release as a result), chances are you have a lot of questions.
The Bart Layton-directed film was one of the most buzzed about documentaries to premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, because it posed more questions than it answered. The film centers on a 1997 case in which a French man living in Spain impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a missing adolescent from San Antonio, Texas by convincing the boy's family that he was the kid. If that sounds too crazy to believe, you'd be wrong. The joy in watching "The Imposter" comes from the mysteries that continue to creep into the tale, right up until the end credits.
Honor Roll is a daily series running throughout December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year's most notable cinematic voices. Today, we're running a our interview with Bart Layton, whose documentary, "The Imposter," was just announced as one of the selected 15 that will be vying for an Academy Award nomination in the Documentary Feature category.
To save yourself from spoiling the film, we advise you to read our interview with Layton after watching his documentary. Below Layton reveals how he came across the spellbinding story that makes up "The Imposter," how he got Barclay's family to agree to take part, and why he approached the film as a mystery and not as a character study. ["The Imposter" is currently playing in New York, and will expand in coming weeks via Indomina Releasing.]
Now the most obvious question first: How did you come across this story?
I didn't find the story originally, I found an article about him, about this impostor, in a Spanish magazine. In Spain they have these weird magazines that are a combination of soft porn and quite high brow news stories and it was on a friend of mine's coffee table in Spain. It talked about him as he's known in France — this kid who had been a serial impostor of damaged children. What he'd done is that he'd traveled through Europe going from youth center to youth center, or basically do what he does at the beginning of this film, which is find the police, pretend to be a damaged kid, and then he would wait for the social services to look after him. And I was like, "Woah, really?!" And he'd done this dozens, if not hundreds of times, and he'd been throughout Europe. Like literally, as you see in the film, all of that stuff, that's not a graphic sequence we created, it's from the actual Interpol file. He'd been in Barcelona, he'd been in Dublin, Ireland, Ljubljana, Prague, Sweden. I was like, "This is extraordinary." So then I Googled and I found this story. There was an article in The New Yorker and a good article in the Guardian newspaper in the UK.
It was just about trying to figure out what kind of a person would be capable of going through with something like this, and then of course the other bit of that is what kind of a family might fall victim to it. So that was the starting point.
No doubt a large part of the reason why your film is attracting so much attention, is because of how you structured the film as a mystery that keeps unspooling secrets right up until the credits roll. You could have approached the story in totally different way by laying out your cards in the beginning and embarking on more of a character study. Why did you choose to go at it from that angle in particular?
That's a really good question. The best way of answering it is that, when I was making the documentary, at times you feel like you're in almost a kind of detective story. You go from one interview one day thinking, "Holy shit, this is what happened. It's obvious." And then the next interview the next day going, "I can't believe I ever thought that. This is what happened, it's obvious." So that is quite a bewildering experience. And then I thought, this is a way to structure the film — that the audience should go on this bewildering, compeling journey where you don't know what to believe and you don't know what is what. You know that everyone is kind of an unreliable witness on one level.
The other thing I was interested in it was having everyone in the film enter the story at the moment of their kind of movie, at the movie of their inciting incident. We start his story when he picks up the phone to make that first phone call. We start the sister's story, really, when they receive the phone call saying he's been found. Charlie Parker's story starts when he receives a phone call from Hardcopy saying, "Can you find this kid for us?" Nancy Fischer — the FBI story starts when she gets a phone call from the state department saying, "An American child's been found in Spain."
So then I thought, If we introduce them in that chronological way, my challenge is to interweave it so that you're kind of simultaneously on everyone's journey with them and you're rooting for everyone simultaneously. And that felt like a really interesting way of structuring the film. And also, of course there's one question I had at the beginning: How much of his backstory should we tell at the beginning? And then I thought, actually you know what, maybe we shouldn't know. Maybe we should be on the receiving end of his manipulation; you are put in contact with him as an audience and you don't know who he is. He's the one person who doesn't have a caption. And of course it would great to have a "Usual Suspects" type of reveal towards the end of the film. Suddenly you get this barrage of information about him.
Is the story really well known in Europe?
It's not really well known. I think he is relatively well known in France, however.
How did you get Nicholas' family members to take part?
The New Yorker article [published in 2008] painted them in a really negative light. I think most people come away from that article feeling that unequivocally they must have done something very sinister. I don't think you come away from this film with quite that certainty. You come away with more questions. I think a lot of people come away from this thinking that they willfully deceived themselves to an extraordinary extent. And I think that's really what the film's about.
Having been in The New Yorker piece, they were very circumspect about doing something else. I think they thought a similar thing was going to happen. And then they ultimately felt like they hadn't had the opportunity to tell their story in their own words. And that was all I was asking from them. "I want your account of what happened in your own words." And that was it. And when I showed it to them they were glad that they had that opportunity to do so.
Would you have made the film without 'the imposter's' participation?
[Long pause.] I think it would have been really difficult to make it without either his or their participation. I think the interesting thing about it is that it's not a kind of investigative documentary. It's kind of about truth and lies. You need to be presented to this person and feel sort of manipulated. One of the things that's really interesting is that once you the audience have been sucked in by it, you can kind of see how everyone else could be. So it gives you this other dimension which I think is much more interesting than kind of telling a story about someone. It's just a different kind of a film I think.
He seemed to take great pleasure in retelling his stories. Is that an apt assessment?
I think that's probably true. I think probably he's a person that confuses attention with affection.
How much did you spend with him?
The interviews were shot over two long days.
What was it like to meet the man you had been reading about for so long?
One of the things you get when you sit down with him is you realize that you're on the receiving end of some of his sneakiness and manipulation. So you go through quite different emotions with him. There's a part of you which thinks, "I need to look after this guy." He's quite charming and he's quite sweet and he's quite sympathetic. And then there's another bit where you go, "Shit I must be falling for it." And so I guess that was also something that I wanted the audience to experience. I felt like that was the thing. That's why he should look down the camera lens and he should be big in frame so you have this kind of interaction with him where you are having that direct experience of him and his manipulation in a way.
Has he seen the film?
He hasn't yet no. It's mainly because I've been away a great deal and I want watch it with him. But no he hasn't.
A large chunk of the film consists of dramatic reenactments. What made you decide to go down that route?
I think I always knew that that was an important part of how to tell this story, and how to make it bigger. We didn't have masses of archives. I think drama in the documentary community can be a dirty word and I think people can frown upon it. It can be very problematic if you are trying to create drama sequences which you're trying to pass it off as a fake archive. It's like you're trying to say to the audience, "Look at this it really happened, it's reality." So I wanted to go the opposite way. I didn't want reality; I wanted this dream like quality that was kind of film noir. It was like memory; we all know memory can be unreliable. So I wouldn't call it reenactment, I wouldn't' call it reconstruction because that implies that you're forensically recreating a set of events that must have happened. What I wanted was something that said, "It's not what must have happened. This is what this person wants you to believe happened."
So did your experience making "The Imposter" give you the desire to make a full blown narrative feature?
I'm definitely interested in moving into other things. I'm really interested in challenging this perception that there are genre boundaries that you shouldn't cross. I don't know who wrote those rules really. I think as you go into pure fiction you kind of lose something that's amazing about human beings. In movie world anything can happened. People climb walls and dress up in superhero outfits. It doesn't need to be true. But in the real world, equally strange things happen. You can see in this film, equally mad, far fetched things happen. I like the idea that you can create a work, a movie movie, so your experience of it is like a movie, and you engage with it as you would a piece of cinema.
We all demand a certain thing of the movies — that it tells a great story, that it provides escapism, or that it's beautifully shot. Maybe we're not all like that. I think there are ways of taking true stories, and giving all of that to it.