It’s only mid-July, but it appears that the summer’s best movies, according to film type, can already be anointed. On the art-house, independent front, first-time director Benh Zeitlin’s superb Louisiana-set, reality-grounded fable Beasts of the Southern Wild has that market locked, while in terms of blockbusters, early word on The Dark Knight Rises (in theaters next Friday, as if we needed to tell you) leads us to believe that Christopher Nolan’s final Batman epic will make The Avengers seem like child’s play.
Today, the best documentary field is looking like a closed case, thanks to British filmmaker Bart Layton’s stranger-than-fiction knockout The Imposter (now playing in limited release). A deft mixture of poignant, probing interviews and cinematically striking reenactments, The Imposter fulfills all of the documentary format’s requirements with all of the suspense, twists, and hypnosis of a great narrative thriller.
The actual story, however, is the film’s biggest hook. The Imposter takes a deep, personal look at the unbelievable deception pulled off by French “chameleon” Frédéric Bourdin in 1997, when he posed as Nicholas Barclay, a kid from San Antonio, TX, who disappeared three years earlier at the age of 13. Despite the fact that Bourdin didn’t at all resemble Barclay (he has black hair and brown eyes; Barclay had blond hair and blue eyes), the sly Frenchman managed to convince the family of the impossible. And that’s not even half of the full, endlessly surprising story.
Tasked with streamlining a daunting event into an accessible film, Layton incredibly delivers one of the most intriguing documentaries to come around in years. Complex recently spoke with the director to explain his initial attraction to the material, how he intends to transfer Bourdin’s manipulations directly onto viewers, and why The Imposter is ideal for people who don’t normally rush to see documentaries.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
After watching The Imposter, the first thought that came to mind was, I can’t believe this really happened.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I know. That is the extraordinary bit of it, that it really happened in the real world. Actually, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, but there have been a few funny incidents at Q&A’s, after screenings. One guy, at either Sundance or SXSW, put his hand up at the end of the screening and asked, “I’d like to know if this is based on a true story.” He thought the whole thing was fiction, and that the people in the interviews were actors.
When you first came across Frédéric’s story, did it immediately strike you as a good one for the documentary format?
Well, I think the thing is that I felt it had to be a documentary. A lot of people have said, “Well, why didn’t you make it as a fiction film?” Like you said at the beginning, the most extraordinary thing about it is that it really happened, and I think, from that point-of-view, it’s important to preserve that truth. The first thing you think is, How could this have possibly happened? How could a family have failed to know their own child? How could a 23-year-old French man convince authorities and the family that he is their kid?
It felt much more important to meet those people and look them in the eye and understand that. If you fictionalize it, you lose all of that, and that’s why I felt it was important to make it a documentary. It had to be a documentary.
At first, did the thought ever cross your mind to just do a straight Frédéric Bourdin documentary? It seems like his whole back-story could make for a great film in and of itself.
Yeah, there was that at one point. I thought, Is that what this film is about? But then I actually thought that, well, that was a story about deception and it’s about an imposter, and what would that be? Would it be a biography? And then I realized what was so extraordinary here is that we’re introduced to this idea of not only deception but also self-deception, which seems like a much bigger thing here. Are we able to convince ourselves of things that are glaringly impossible? Are we able to convince ourselves of something if it’s something we so desperately need to believe?
That felt, to me, like a bigger story, in a way. So that was really the entry-point. It felt like he was a way into a more interesting story, somehow.
It seems like you had some really great access to Frédéric, too. How much time did you get to spend with him?
Not as much as you’d think, actually. We had good access, and I talked to him and he agreed to take part in the film. We shot his interview over two long days in London, and that was it. I think I probably thought I’d go back to visit him again, because there were things in the story that I might need to pick up, but I never did.
I realized it was going to be about him telling his story and then letting everyone else tell their stories, and trying to find out where the truth lies, really, and who you can believe. That became kind of key to the structure of the film, this idea that I wanted to take the audience on an equally bewildering journey to the one that I went on in making the documentary.
He’s such a fascinating guy to watch. There are these moments in the film where you can sense his regret over what he’s done, but then, in a matter of seconds, he gives this smug laugh, and you can’t tell if that sensed regret was real or not, almost like he could be proud of what he’s done. Interviewing him must have been a whirlwind of feelings and reactions on your part, no?
I think that’s absolutely right, and it’s a really good observation. I think, also, you as a viewer have to navigate that, because you see all of these sides to him, or maybe you’re only seeing one side, and that’s the side that he wants you to see.
Maybe you as the viewer, and me as the filmmaker, along with everyone he’s come into contact with, we’re all victims of that manipulation, and that was something I thought was very interesting. Could I find a way to allow the audience to have some experience of being on the receiving end of him and what he does?
In that regard, was this a difficult film for you to structure? Because every scene and reveal has to play off of the previous one so delicately.
Yeah, it was. The structure was the hardest bit, in a way, but, in a way, there was a logic to it. Like, for example, I wanted all of the characters to enter the movie at the point in which they entered the real-life story, from the point in which they received the phone call, like when the family received the phone call from Spain and how that was the inciting incident for their journey. The FBI agent received a phone call from the US Embassy, so that’s when she is thrust into the film.
Then, the challenge became how to inter-weave all of those stories, so that they’re all simultaneously running and you’re navigating within them. And it’s difficult, because, ultimately, what you’re faced with is you’ve got many hours of interviews that you have to try and distill into 90 minutes. It’s challenging, and it’s obviously important to get a balance between everyone’s stories.
As far as the family’s side of the story, there are moments when their blunt honesty is really surprising. When the story begins, you’re asking yourself, “How the hell could they fall for this guy’s act?” So, in a way, it’s brave on their part to put their story out like this. Was there any resistance on the family’s part to even participate in the film?
They were hesitant because there had been things that had been written about them in the past and things that had appeared in the media that they felt were depicting them very negatively, so they were definitely cautious about getting into something like that again. But, at the same time, they also felt that they had never really had the opportunity to tell their side of the story in their own words, and that was what we were asking them to do.
So they were glad to participate, and when we showed them the film, on the way to Sundance, they were pleased that they had participated. They felt that it was honest.
It does seem like a chance for them to have some vindication, because the viewer’s experience puts him or her in the same position they were in when it happened. Like I said before, at first you’re asking yourself, “How could they let this happen?” But then, as the movie progresses, you realize, “Wow, I’m starting to buy Frédéric’s whole act, too.”
Exactly. That’s the key to the structure. As we were making the movie, I’d finish one interview at the end of the day and say, “Holy shit! I get it. I think I understand how this could have happened.” And then the next day you’d do another interview with someone else and you’d come away with the completely opposite conclusion, and that was something I wanted to reflect in the structure of the film.
I wanted you, the audience, to have some of the experience of going, “Wait a minute,” and then the next minute, again, you go, “Wait a minute. Oh, shit!” That journey, which at times is quite bewildering, is something that we knew the audience would be able to experience through the structure of the film.
Now that you’ve told both Frédéric’s story and that of the family, would you ever consider going back to tell Frédéric’s full back-story in a second documentary?
Well, I feel like this was the story that I wanted to tell. This was the section of the story that I wanted to tell, because part of what I thought was interesting was this idea of putting you in the position of the people who were, or are, victims to his manipulation.
What’s the way to understand how he did what he did? Well, the way to understand that is, rather than us going on a long back-story about what he says happened to him as a child, why don’t we listen to him tell that story and see if we are sucked in? That felt like a more challenging, more interesting, and bolder thing to do, really.
The way you structure and visually present The Imposter, it rarely even feels like a documentary, which could be a good way to entice people who might not be into the documentary format as much as they are into more traditional movies.
Absolutely, and I made this movie for them, no question. That obviously wasn’t the sole intention, but I certainly thought that the story was unusual enough and compelling enough to create a film which is a cinematic experience. It could appeal to people who don’t typically go and watch documentaries.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the story, regardless of the format, and I felt that this was such a strange, fascinating, and compelling one.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)