2012 was a strong year for documentaries, and the pick of them all was arguably The Imposter, and ahead of the film’s DVD release, which is today, we were fortunate enough to catch up (once again) with director Bart Layton.
The Imposter tells the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a French con-artist who miraculously impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a missing child a few years his junior. Taking place in 1997, Bourdin moved to America to live with the family who had been searching for their son for a number of years.
Having interviewed Bart (alongside Charlie Parker, a detective from the picture) prior to the film’s cinematic release, we have been given the chance to discuss with the talented filmmaker his life five months on, and how this extraordinary film has changed the prospective fortunes for him, as he begins a new project with Hollywood star James Franco.
He also discusses his surprise at the fantastic reception this film has received, and how important it always was for this project to be viewed upon a movie, rather than a mere documentary…
The first time I interviewed you was before the film’s release, when in a sense it was the quiet before the storm. But now, five months on, can you reflect on the past few months? It must have been an exciting time for you.
It has been a really exciting time, yeah, it’s been quite mad. I think as I said to you when we first met, the idea was always to try and create a movie that was going to appeal to a broader audience than just a documentary audience. Of course you can always say that and it’s hard to know or quantify what that really means, but it has certainly seemed to have done that so that was kind of thrilling. Ultimately I felt that this was the best way to tell this story, to make this film. Not that I was specifically desperate to do it as a documentary rather than a fictionalised version, but it just seemed that this was the right way to tell this story, and so I suppose one of the most gratifying things was that it played in multiplexes and it did well. So that was cool and there was one point when someone tweeted from a Bolton multiplex saying “About to watch a sold-out screening of a documentary. I never thought I’d see the day.” Which to me was one of the highlights of the whole thing, because it just meant that the thing I was hoping to do – to bring it to a wider audience – was happening.
Traditionally documentaries are made for the small screen, but this just works brilliantly as part of a cinematic experience. Was there ever any thought on making this for TV or was it always your intention to make it for the big screen?
I run a quite large production company which specialises in documentaries for the small screen, up until now, even though movies are what have driven us right from the beginning. But when I found this story I thought it was much bigger than TV and I wanted to tell it in a way that was cinematic. I don’t think for you can do a film for TV and then hope if it all comes together you can upscale it and it will work in the cinema, I just don’t think it works like that. You have to set-out with a different set of criteria really, and the way you construct your film is very different. In TV you have to give the audience all of the information right from the beginning, and make it as clear and compelling as you can from the titles, because if it isn’t they’re just going to switch over. You know, you’re competing with shorter attention spans and people’s abilities to turn over. With cinema you’ve got the ability to allow a story to unfold in a much more organic way, you can tell it in a way that invites confusion. You think about movies like The Usual Suspects, you haven’t got a clue what’s going on for the first hour of the movie or whatever, but it’s completely enthralling and you can do that in cinema in a way that you can’t do in TV.
So how did you work on enlarging this story, so as to make it more cinematic?
The first thing really is that everything starts with the story that you want to tell. Then think very carefully about those choices, so this was a story for me where nothing was quite as you thought it was, nothing is quite as it seems. I realised, for example, when Frédéric told me how he did what he did, how he would ring up pretending to be a tourist having found a destitute child and he was explaining what he would say to the police, pretending to be someone he wasn’t. The moment he said that to me I kind of could see the beginning of the film, this idea that I would take his voice and twist it to make it feel to the audience like it was a 999 call, a piece of archive, and right from the very beginning make it clear that not everything is not quite as it seems and that felt like a very cinematic way to start. From thereon this was this realisation to me that we are relying on someone who is an unreliable narrator to tell us a large portion of this story, so we as an audience should be kind of the receiving end of some of that con-artistry. Normally when you watch a documentary you watch it in a position of a neutral observer, but I felt there was the opportunity to put the audience inside the experience, in the way that you would if you were watching a thriller.
You mentioned the unreliable narration from Frédéric, did you have to double check everything that he said just to make sure that even though it was unreliable, the audience were still being treated with the truth?
Yeah that is exactly what happened. We were incredibly rigorous and we researched everything that we were told. There were moments where I was quite surprised that things I had doubted were true, such as how he got hold of the identity of Nicholas Barclay. He told us he was in the children’s centre at night and phoning around to finally get through to the missing children’s centre in Washington – so we of course called the missing children’s centre in Washington to confirm all of these things, and they said no, we would never do that, it’s against policy and we wouldn’t have sent out a missing child’s flyer to the police. So then we were like, hang on a minute, if that’s not true then how did he get the identity of Nicholas? How did he find out all of the details that he knew? How did he get hold of the missing persons sheet which had all of the details like the tattoos, and eye colour and all the rest of it? And sure enough two weeks later the centre for missing and exploited children in Washington rang back and apologised, and then confirmed that actually they had checked their records and they did send that information to a policeman in Spain, who was one of Frédéric’s aliases. So surprisingly some of the things he described did check out, and then of course we obtained all of the material from the FBI under the freedom of information act – we were able to request the Interpol files, the FBI reports. A lot of it is redacted, meaning that the names are blanked out, but you can see in black and white all of the things that you think shouldn’t really have happened, but they did.
The film doesn’t exactly portray Frédéric in a positive light, so did it take him any persuading to get on board, or was he always keen to get involved in the project?
He took a bit of persuading because he is a pretty cautious individual, not very trusting. But at the same time he is a consummate attention seeker so I think there was that.
I mean, this is an absolutely incredible story, and not to take anything away from you as I’m sure you have had to work hard to find these stories, but you must still be pleased this particular story fell onto your lap?
[Laughs] Yeah, I certainly remember thinking when I found the story that it must have been told before, either as a fictional film or documentary, it has to have been done, and I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t. Whilst in production we found out that the French were finishing off a scripted movie version of it called The Chameleon, which never really went anywhere as far as I understand. But yeah I was completely amazed it hadn’t already been done, and actually when we started talking to Frédéric it turned out that there was another company in Texas who were also on the case in trying to get access to him and get a rights agreement for his life story, and before we had any financing for the film we basically thought, let’s fly him into London and shoot an interview with him over the course of two days, which is what we did.
As a documentary filmmaker you are somewhat reliant on sourcing out these great stories, are you a bit worried that it may be difficult to match this one in your forthcoming projects?
[Laughs] I don’t know if you ever worry about that, you just worry about that when it’s done. I don’t think you worry at the time when you’re setting out to make something that this could be the best true story ever, that’s a penthouse problem, it becomes trickier when you’ve made the film and it’s been a success and the things you think are potentially knockout follow-ups, you interrogate a bit more, in a bit more detail as you’re thinking, has this got the potential to be as good? And if not, should we do it?
Not that I want to start pitching ideas to you, but Charlie Parker… There is a fly-on-the-wall documentary to be made there, surely?
Yeah, and funnily enough he’s been approached several times from people who have seen the film and work for TV companies about having his own show. It’s not the kind of film that I would make, but, well you’ve met him so you know, he is a class act. He is like a character who is performing in his own movie, all the time.
The Imposter has been so well-received by the public and critics alike, and is shortlisted for an Oscar too. Not to take anything away from this movie, but have you been at all surprised by this reception it has received?
Yeah, totally. When you start off all you’re thinking is, will we get the finance for it? And when you get the finance you think, will we actually be able to deliver what we’ve promised? And when it looks like you can do, you think, will it be any good? Are we going to get into a film festival like Sundance? And of course when that happened, really at that point it should the moment when you think, wow, we’ve done it. But that quickly segues into the next thing, which is will anybody buy this? And who is going to buy it? Then of course that bit when you don’t dare to think, will it end up getting a decent release at the cinema? Which is really the one thing you daren’t wish for, even though it’s what you want. So constantly you’re measure of success changes. Just getting into Sundance would have been a good result, so the fact that it had a good release and did well at the box office definitely surpassed all of my expectations really, and then the BIFA’s, the shortlist for the Oscars… That kind of stuff is just amazing. I always knew it had the potential because it’s such a good story and if I’d really screwed it up it would have been a bit embarrassing.
So what does the future hold for you? Have you got any projects lined up?
Well my day job is to executively produce a lot of shows for British TV, documentaries for Channel 4 and American networks and things like that. So we run this production company of which I’m the creative director, so that keeps me busy. In terms of movies, I’m being offered some really interesting and quite surprisingly big movies which are not documentaries, which is both flattering and terrifying, and then I’m working on a feature which will probably be another hybrid, I can’t say much about it, I’m just describing it as an existential heist movie. It’s another story that if it wasn’t true you would never believe it, and I’m working on that with James Franco, which is quite interesting.
So finally, you’ve said that you have been offered fictional, narrative-driven productions – was that something you’ve wanted to get into, or has it just come about recently and turned your head slightly?
No, it’s something I have always wanted to do. Like you Stefan, I’ve always been movie obsessive and my mum was a theatre director who worked in narrative fiction. But for me it’s really about finding the right way to tell a story, and if it’s a true story I am really interested in finding a way which possibly defies classification in a way, a way of telling the story that makes it bigger, and including elements of documentary adds a great deal of emotional importance to the drama, and adding drama adds a great deal of energy and emotional importance to the documentary, so I’m not terribly bothered by whether it’s fiction or not. I’m not the sort of observational filmmaker who can sit around just filming with a group of people for months and years and then edit it all together. I’m much more interested in the craft of filmmaking the ability to create something really visual and really striking. So I guess I’m probably better suited to fiction or drama than I am to documentaries in some ways.