It’s nothing new to hear about someone’s identity being stolen, their bank account wiped out or a credit card maxed out with big purchases. It’s a story often told on “20/20″ or “60 Minutes.”
While annoying and often difficult for the victims to resolve, those kinds of stories are nothing compared to the one told in The Imposter directed by British filmmaker Bart Layton. Here, he tells the story of Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin who many times stole identities, but most notably, he posed as a missing Texas teenager, Nicholas Barclay.
Barclay was 13 years old when he disappeared in June 1994 from San Antonio. He was never found alive, nor was a body ever located. But three years later, U.S. authorities got a call from a Spanish police officer – again, Bourdin posing – saying they found a missing American child.
In this scene from the documentary, Bourdin explains how he pulled it off.
The boy she found in Spain bared a slight resemblance to her brother – she figured the nightmarish story he told about where he had been contributed to his physical appearance – he still had blond hair, he had an explanation for his French accent, and he had the same tattoo between his knuckles. It had to be Nicholas.
It was not, of course. But Carey took Bourdin, a 23-year-old, home to San Antonio. With no motive other than to escape his life and start new, Bourdin seemingly posed no threat. But his devious behavior and disdain for a vulnerable, grieving family told through Barton’s lens and creative flair is what makes The Imposter a step above your typical true-story crime drama. The movie plays out with great intensity, building to a compelling and mind-blowing conclusion that makes this already hard-to-believe story that much more fascinating.
The movie was a hit at Sundance earlier this year where it made its debut and was nominated for the World Cinema – Documentary Grand Jury Prize. It opened in one theater in New York City on July 13th, earning more than $20,000 from that screening, not to mention great reviews from critics and audiences.
Part of what lures in audiences so much is Layton’s clever and artistic use of, for lack of better word, flashbacks, using Bourdin’s interviews to elevate the typical reenactment. I recently spoke with Layton about crafting those scenes and the risks involved in them, plus his time spent convincing Nicholas’ family to be part of the documentary, and why he doesn’t think this would make a good feature.
Gerrad Hall: I’m a big fan of crime thrillers, and I think what you achieved with the style and look is so different and exciting. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how you treated the “reenactments.” We see these so often in crime shows and movies, but they can be done in such a poor way that they distract from the story. What were you hoping to achieve stylistically?
Bart Layton: Well, I’m really glad that you responded well because I think using…I don’t think “reconstruction” or “reenactment” is quite the right word. I’d like to find a different word to describe it; I haven’t found the perfect term yet. I think reconstruction or reenactment kind of implies that you are almost forensically recreating a series of events that must have happened in a certain way. And with this, what I wanted to do was a slightly different approach because in the film, we’re confronted with different versions of the truth, different perspectives on the same series of events. And those are very subjective and often they’re very conflicting accounts. So what I was interested to do was try and find a way of reflecting not only the strangeness of the story – because when you hear about this story, it does sound like it could be the plot to a movie and one that was pretty far-fetched at that – so I felt like it was important to come up with a cinematic language and a grammar that would reflect just how unusual this story was.
So, one was I would describe it is that, if a great storyteller tells you a great story, you have a very visual experience; if you’ve got a decent imagination, you’re going to have quite a visual, moody plague in your mind once you listen to this story being told. And it was that that I wanted to try and recreate because what you’re getting is, I wanted to make clear that the people who are watching, you’re not watching a kind of fake archive, you’re watching a sort of heightened reality which is directly from the memories of the people who are telling you the story. And [Frédéric Bourdin] is a phenomenal storyteller, and when he starts telling this story…because it is such an extraordinary story, you are immediately taken to a place which is somewhere in between reality and movie world. And that’s really where I wanted those visualizations to inhabit, somewhere in between film noir, a heightened reality.
I also wanted to play with these notions of memory and how memory can be unreliable. Occasionally when you recall something, it’s not like real life, so a lot of what I did was, I shot using different camera speed, different frame rates so you get slightly drifty, slightly dream-like quality. Also, the kind of film noir thing, there was a point where I thought, “this story is so compelling, is there an opportunity here to create a different kind of storytelling with this?” which is really a documentary noir, and I think Errol Morris was very successful with that with The Thin Blue Line wasn’t really necessarily an inspiration, but also I thought there’s something about this idea that you’re not being shown the exact truth. Where drama and documentary can get particularly…it can be cheesy if the dialog is done badly, so there’s not really any dialog in these dramatic scenes. And I also think that it’s very dodgy if you’re trying to tell the audience that they’re watching they’re not. If you’re trying to pretend to the audience that they’re watching some kind of archival footage, where in actual fact it’s not at all…so I wanted to avoid any confusion in the audience’s mind that they could be watching a kind of verité reality.
GH: This story goes back almost 20 years. When and how did you come across it?
BL: I initially found a story about him in a magazine in Spain. It wasn’t really about this particular incident, it was just about him, his background as a serial impersonator of damaged kids. I was intrigued by that immediately, and then I started doing some research on the Internet and then found two articles which went into great detail about this incident in Texas where he had actually successfully stolen the identity of a missing child and seemingly convinced the family he was their lost boy. And I was blown away, obviously. I think there were two things: first of all, I wanted to know what kind of a human being would be capable of committing a crime like that; and the second part of that was trying to understand what kind of family would be capable of falling victim to something like that. And of course the big question becomes, what are human beings capable of convincing themselves of if they need to believe it badly enough?
GH: Are they naïve? Are they desperate? Are they potentially covering up secrets of their own?
BL: Well, exactly. All of those things become the big, interesting questions.
GH: Because the actual story had “wrapped up” years ago, did you and your producers go into this knowing exactly what you were after? Or were there things you discovered along the way that were new pieces of information, even the family?
BL: I think there were things which you do know, we did go into it having read – there was quite a lot of material in the public domain – but, of course, nothing can prepare you for actually sitting down with those people and hearing their account of the story because it’s a very, very different experience. That in itself was incredibly surprising. I think most people would probably go into the interview, and also go into the movie itself, with the immediate thought being, “Wait a minute, this cannot be true!” Or, “How could a family fail to know their own flesh and blood?” Of course these are the huge things that people are going to go into the…and I think that probably we went into those interviews with. But as soon as you sat with them and you’re hearing their story, you begin to understand it very differently. So I think that’s probably…how I would answer that question is, when you hear them talk about him and those first few days and all of the rest of it, you think, “Wow, you were sort of willingly suspending belief.”
GH: How difficult was it, all these years later, convincing the family to rehash this, essentially, double-tragedy they lived through?
BL: Well, they were very hesitant when we first met with them and talked about wanting to make the film. The bits of media that they had had involvement with – for example there was a very good and detailed article in The New Yorker magazine, I think they felt quite burned by that experience, they felt that even though they had their side of the story that they came out of it looking very bad and they didn’t want that to happen again. And ultimately, all I said to them was, “Look, there’s no hidden agenda here. Ultimately, all I really want is to hear you tell your side of the story in your own words.” And I was very clear with them that I would be asking the same thing of all of the other characters who are involved. I think ultimately they knew that we didn’t have an ulterior motive or anything like that. I think they did feel that there was a side of the story which had never been told by them, and so they decided they wanted to do that. And I showed it to them before we premiered the film at Sundance, and they were very pleased. They were pleased that they had taken part, because I think they felt that a lot of those things they had never had the chance to get across, they finally were able to.
GH: Frédéric Bourdin…was it difficult getting access to him or convincing him? He had the most to lose, he’s already been to jail, been humiliated…or is he humiliated? Did you ever get the impression that he has any shame at all for what he’s done?
BL: No, I don’t really get the impression that he’s got much shame in what he’s done. I’m interested to know whether you get that impression?
GH: I don’t at all. No.
BL: Hopefully the film gives you a fairly accurate understanding of what kind of an individual he is. And I think that’s important. I don’t feel that he’s particularly remorseful.
He wasn’t difficult to convince, but he was quite untrusting, which is ironic for someone who is so untrustworthy.
GH: Because you think he can smell his own type, maybe? Not that you were his “type,” but that he has his guard up where this is concerned.
BL: He is a very suspicious character. He took some convincing initially.
GH: There is something revealed at the end of the movie that is almost as shocking as the crimes he committed.
BL: Yeah, that gets an audible gasp in theaters.
GH: As I was watching this, I was struck by the style and the story, and I started wondering whether there have been any offers or discussions to turn this into a feature?
BL: We’ve had a great many inquiries about it. My personal feeling is, I’m not opposed to allowing that to happen. My own feeling is, there’s a good reason why I didn’t make that as a scripted feature because I feel like the most extraordinary thing about this story is that it’s true. It really happened. And I think as soon as you, even if it says right at the beginning of the film, “Based on a true story,” there’s something really critical about preserving the truth. Just as you ask now, I was thinking how an actor would try and portray the nuances of these characters. Because an actor really has to know one way or another what the motivations are and what happened. And I think that’s one of the things that the audience is left to try and figure out. I just don’t think it can be as strong as a fictionalized version. I think this is the way to tell that movie, and I think part of what I wanted to try and do was to create a documentary which people who would never go and see a documentary would go and see and would have the experience that they demand of the cinema.
GH: Absolutely. The closest thing I can think of to this that an actor has portrayed is Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. But that doesn’t even hold a flame to Frédéric Bourdin.
BL: (laughs) Yeah, I love that film as well. You’re not the first person to make that comparison.
The Imposter expands into Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley on Friday, August 3rd; Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis on August 10th; Dallas, Houston and San Antonio on the 17th, with more cities to follow.
The movie is rated R for language and runs 95 minutes.