It’s hardly a spoiler to say that ‘The Imposter’ is a documentary where all is not as it seems. Just look at its tagline: “Deception Comes Home”. Few films in general this year have inspired so much post viewing conversation among those who have seen it, so it was a no brainer to accept the offer to interview the director behind the doc Bart Layton. I was complimentary to the film when I saw it over the summer (my review is found here), though I had very mixed feelings about some of his filmmaking decisions. I’d come around on them a bit since then though, so getting to talk to Layton about it really helped to flesh out what exactly he was trying to accomplish. We’ll know soon-ish if the doc is truly in play for a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Oscars, but it’s well worth seeing no matter what. Here’s the transcript of my interview with Bart Layton, a man fascinated by ‘The Imposter’, much like I was. Enjoy!
Joey Magidson: Hi Bart, how are you doing today?
Bart Layton: Good man, how are you? Did I keep you waiting?
Joey: I’m great, and no worries at all.
Bart: I’m curious, what other documentaries have you liked this year?
Joey: I loved ‘Mea Maxima Culpa’.
Bart: I want to see that one!
Joey: ‘The Central Park Five’ was pretty good…
Bart: I’ve heard a lot about that one.
Joey: I’m also a big fan of the baseball documentary ‘Knuckleball!’…
Bart: You know, I haven’t heard anything about that one, and I’m going to write it down to check out.
Joey: It’s just a lot of fun.
Bart: Did you see ‘Senna’?
Joey: Yes, that was a real good one last year.
Bart: What about ‘Fire in Babylon’?
Joey: That one I haven’t seen.
Bart: That one is worth watching, and a really interesting story. It’s about Cricket, but you genuinely don’t have to know anything about Cricket to enjoy it.
Joey: I will be on the lookout for it, I’m definitely curious.
Bart: Have you seen ‘Escape Fire’?
Joey: Not yet, but my editor did.
Bart: I really liked that one.
Joey: It’s a real strong year for documentaries, including your one.
Bart: It is! It’s really a very strong year, and I’m thrilled that you’re a fan of ‘The Imposter’.
Joey: Well, it’s clearly not like any other documentary this year, as you obviously know better than anyone…
Joey: First of all, the fact that there’s basically recreated footage in it, that sets it apart immediately. It’s a decision I didn’t initially like that much, so I’m curious why you made that choice?
Bart: It’s a tricky one, because people tend to frown on dramatization in documentary. It’s often a dirty word, reconstruction in TV, let alone cinema, so I understand people’s reservations. I have to say, it’s only really problematic when you try to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes in some way, you know, shooting something as if it was cinema verite, as if it were a piece of observational filmmaking and presenting it as if it were a piece of fake archive. That’s problematic and dangerous. I certainly wanted to do the opposite, and with the dramatizations, what they’re intended to be, and why I wouldn’t refer to them of reconstruction, it’s just an extension of the subjective nature of the materials and the stories of the people. What I wanted to do was create an atmosphere, where you’re playing with these ideas of memory. It’s not what must have happened, but what they want you to believe happened. That’s what I wanted to illustrate, and on a practical level, we weren’t blessed with the archives that something like ‘Man on Wire’ or ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ were blessed with, so we couldn’t do that. The reason behind it was just for it to be an extension of the storytelling. I’d never say it was the right way to always make a documentary, but it was the right way for this one.
Joey: It’s definitely different when you sit down to watch it. At the beginning it feels almost like a piece of true crime on TV, but by the end it works.
Bart: I certainly hope it doesn’t look like that! It’s still a cinematic experience.
Joey: I think after watching it, as everything evolves, it all comes together, plus you have such an interesting person to work with.
Bart: This is a different kind of approach for a documentary. I wanted to make a film where you’re much more in this experience, because on paper you shouldn’t be able to identify with any of these people at all. You’ve got a man guilty of impersonation of a kid and a family that can’t recognize that a French Algerian man has taken the place of their blonde haired and blue eyed son. You’re almost put on the receiving end of the con man, you hear his story and almost get another version of the truth. He’s doing it to you, as an audience member.
Joey: Definitely. As you’re watching it, you do identify with him, much more than you ever expect to.
Bart: I think it’s equally a film about self-deception as it is about deception.
Joey: Agreed. What brought you to this story?
Bart: Well, I think it’s such an astonishing story. The thing that brought me to it was reading about him, his background as a serial impersonator of damaged children, traveling around and pretending to be an orphan. I was intrigued by him and wanted to find out more, so in the course of doing more research I stumbled onto the story of him successfully impersonating this boy. If I saw it as a work of fiction I’d never have believed it. Also, there’s just this question of what kind of a person would be capable of going through with this sort of thing, perpetrating a crime like this. But, you know, for a lie of this magnitude to work, there has to be 2 parties, so I suppose I was equally fascinated by trying to find out more about what type of family would believe this sort of lie.
Joey: Was there one thing that surprised you the most while doing the research and then shooting the documentary?
Bart: It’s fair to say that everything was kind of astonishing and bewildering and compelling. I think the real surprises, which I hope are echoed in the film, are when we sort of feel like we’re being convinced of different things, depending on who we were interviewing. It was just a really strange experience and one I wanted to incorporate into the film.
Joey: Ideally you want to leave a documentary wanting to know more, and that’s the case here.
Joey: Last question now…what do you have planned next?
Bart: Well, that’s a good question (laughs). I believe it’s one of the highest grossing documentaries in the UK now, which is amazing, and we of course didn’t expect that. In terms of what’s next, I’m working on something I can’t say much about, but I will say that it’s another story that if you didn’t know it was true, you’d never believe it.
Joey: Before I let you go, what’s your favorite documentary of all time?
Bart: Of all time?
Joey: Go for it.
Bart: That’s really hard. ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ is definitely one of my favorites of all time. I’m a huge fan of a documentary called ‘Manda Bala’. It means “Send a Bullet” and is about corruption in Brazil. I thought it was really an amazing piece of work. I’m also a very big fan of ‘Touching the Void’. ‘Man on Wire’ is really strong too. I think if I had to choose one it’d be a close call between ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ or ‘Manda Bala’.
Joey: I’m actually a huge fan of ‘American Movie’…
Bart: You know what? I’ve never seen that one! You’re not the first person to recommend it to me either. Is that one of your favorites?
Joey: It is!
Bart: You know what’s another one that I love…have you seen ‘Anvil’?
Joey: Yes, and they’re sort of similar too in a way.
Bart: Another one I absolutely adore is a movie called ‘Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Genius’.
Joey: Very cool. Well, the movie is quite good and I wish you the best of luck during the awards season.
Bart: Oh, that’s very kind of you. Thank you!
Joey: My pleasure, and take care.
Bart: Take care man!
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!