Interview: Bart LaytonFeatures
We spoke to the director of the BAFTA nominated The Imposter.
After coming seemingly out of nowhere last year, superior documentary feature The Imposter has dazzled audiences the world over with its bizarre tale of Frédéric Bourdin and how he, a 23 year old Frenchman, managed to convince a desperate family – not to mention the authorities – that he was a 16 year old American boy who had been missing for 3 years. Sometimes the truth is most definitely stranger than fiction.
The film is a hugely entertaining mix of real-life interviews with all the main protagonists, including Frédéric himself and dramatised reconstruction segments and you can read our Becky’s stonking review over here.
With The Imposter out on Blu-ray and DVD this week and after it garnered two prestigious BAFTA nominations a couple of days ago we spoke to the genial director of the film, Bart Layton who was enjoying himself post Christmas in Devon although like us he admitted to a little over indulgence over the Christmas period, “I went surfing yesterday and found my wetsuit was rubbing a lot more than usual, think I'm developing an extra chin!”
Congratulations on your British Independent Film Award for Best Debut Director and Best Documentary. How does it feel to be getting all this recognition?
It's been amazing, beyond all expectations. It was about this time last year that we were getting ready to head off to Sundance which was the beginning of the films life in the wider world. I don't think we could ever have quite expected the reaction that it's had. I suppose the critical reaction, both here and in the States, has been pretty amazing. It's been good because I guess you always want to have success on your home turf. I always had this idea of creating a film that even though it was a documentary could go beyond a documentary audience and it also might bring people to documentary that didn't believe that it was for them. I think we've been successful in that. A lot of people have kind of suddenly woken up to what docs can do.
How have things changed for you since The Imposter's release?
All sorts of exciting things have happened, we've been taken to L.A. to have all kinds of bizarre meetings in Hollywood, you know all of that madness and having interesting, very exciting conversations about big fiction movies and things like that. I guess it also makes it easier for us to finance other projects of this kind, so in that sense it's all good!
One of the consequences of the film is that there is renewed interest in the case and people here hadn't really heard about it.
I think even in the States it wasn't a terribly well known case. It made the news at the time of his [Frédéric’s] arrest in '98 but most audiences are kind of astonished that they didn't know about the story.
How did you find out it?
I read about it in a magazine that was sitting on a mate of mine's coffee table and my initial thought was that it must have been made as a movie, it must've been done. I was kind of astonished to find that it hadn't. As soon as we started looking at it, as soon as I started trying to get access to Frederic then I realised there were other people; other filmmakers sniffing around, even though it was over ten years since it had all happened.
At the heart of the film a young boy is missing, have there been any developments on that front since the release of the film or is it a shut case?
Charlie Parker who you see in the film, is still obsessed with it, is still digging, still trying to figure that out. I'm not sure he's going to have much luck but he's the person to follow.
You must have developed your own theories?
I don't really have theories that aren't presented in the film in a way. I don't have an opinion that wouldn't change next week or the following one. In my mind it's very ambiguous as it is in the film. In the Hollywood version all of the endings would be neatly tied up and we'd have a nice wrap up but I guess life isn't like that. In this film we don't have a neat answer and I guess at the same time I sort of felt like, rightly or wrongly, even though I was very mindful that there's a missing boy at the heart of the story I didn't feel like that was ultimately what the film was about. Yes of course you want to get more of a sense of what happened but at the same time to me it was more, 'how did this all come about? Is it a film which is more or equally about self-deception than it is about deception?' So that became more of what the film was really about than specifically what happened to Nicolas Barclay.
Have you spoken to the family about how they feel about the film?
Yeah I showed them the film on the way to Sundance before anyone else saw it. I wanted them to see it before it was seen publicly and they were pleased they took part. They felt that they had finally had the opportunity to say all the things that they wanted to say, they'd had a number of quite negative experiences with the media and were, I think torn between risking doing something else that was gonna be similarly negative to them. But they also felt that they never really had the opportunity to tell their side of the story because I think they'd been ridiculed for not having been able to recognise their son. When we showed them the film they said that it was honest and fair.
Frédéric has been rather vocal since The Imposter's release. Have you read any of what he's been saying on Twitter?
I read some at the beginning and then just blocked him from email and Twitter and what have you. I know that he has issues with the way that I've described him in the media. I think he seems very complimentary about the film but that's Frédéric. He is what he is and the more that he broadcasts his vitriol the more people are able to see what kind of human being he is I think.
He signed up to do the film straight away didn't he?
Yeah he's a consummate attention seeker.
Like most people I came out of the film hero worshipping [private investigator] Charlie Parker, he deserves his own TV show. How did you find him?
Most of the credit for finding both him and the family goes to a young woman called Poppy Dixon who's a producer of the film and she tracked all of those people down in Texas. Charlie - you can follow him on Twitter - he runs a detective agency and we contacted him through that and couldn't believe that he was for real rather than an actor in a Coen Brothers film. He was extraordinary and a lot of people suspected that he might be an actor but of course he's not, when you meet him that is him! He's the real deal.
Speaking of actors, in the "reconstruction" segments there is an actor playing Frédéric and this confused people somewhat as they ended up looking very much alike and many of the audience wondered if they were the same person.
He's a really brilliant and clever, very highly trained young Welsh actor called Adam O'Brian and he's done a brilliant job. I think his performance got over looked because there's so much else going on. Again Poppy and the team were searching on Spotlight for someone who physically could match Frédéric and he was actually the first actor that I met. I thought, 'no it's too easy, it can't be the first person to turn up.' So I went on and auditioned dozens and came back to Adam and did a workshop and he was always going to be [the one]. He was brilliant. If you look him up on Spotlight he's a really handsome guy, he looks a bit like Marlon Brando at times and he doesn't really look like Frédéric at all but by the time we finished with him and the fact that he was able to mimic Frédéric so perfectly - his head movements, his particular way in which he forms his sentences and things like that - he nailed it. I quite like the confusion, what I don't like is the idea that people think that the whole thing is faked and the actual people in the interviews are actors because they're absolutely not. That's a level of confusion that I would rather avoid but at the same time I'm quite happy that people are enjoyably confused for big parts of the film.
What have you got coming up next?
I'm working on a bunch of things, some of which are fully fiction films but I think the next thing I'm doing is another true story which again if it wasn't true you would never believe it. I can't say a whole lot about it but the way I can describe it is as an existential heist movie. James Franco is involved with it which should be interesting.
The Imposter is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.