The Imposter, as described by its IMDB page is a documentary centered on a young Frenchman who convinces a grieving Texas famil”y that he is their 16-year-old son who went missing for 3 years and opens in San Francisco Friday August 3rd at The Embarcadero Center Cinemas.
As a preface to this interview i would like to start by saying that; this was my second interview and although nervous beyond words, I found myself not only excited about its outcome, but also pleasantly surprised in its content. Bart Layton I can only describe as modest and charming. Him and producer Dimitri Doganis talk about their craft with passion and ease. I look forward to seeing more of their work in the future. Click the jump to read my interview with both Dimitri and Bart
Cal: Thanks for coming here and letting us interrogate you. So I guess my first question is how did you find this story? How did this come to be?
***On the way to the interview I thought of how I was going to say this line about a thousand times. After a little laughter and a few… Both Layton and Dimitri Doganis became pleasant on the ears with their ‘across the pond accents’. It became easy to get a bit distracted.***
Dimitri: Well Bart originally found the story in a spanish language magazine. Bart was in Spain and came back excited about this incredible story that I think I found quite difficult to believe was true, or at least thought something was being lost in translation. And then when we start researching it there had been some other articles written. So, the original story that Bart came back with was kinda a profile on this guy who’s known in France as the chameleon. And even before this case was quite notorious in France. So we then started doing some research into his past, found articles about him in the international press and about this event in particular. And then started kinda looking into it and digging deeper trying to find him and the rest of the family. I think its one of those cases where sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. It doesn’t happen that often and we spend a lot of our lives making television documentaries for US broadcasters and UK broadcasters. Very rarely do you come across a sequence of events where you think ‘If you made this up it would be completely unbelievable’. And this seemed not only to have that extraordinary quality but also to be potentially a way of taking you into a whole load of themes and questions and issues which went beyond just the events as laid out.
Bart: We were looking for our first feature film, which is something we had been working towards for quite a long time. You don’t come across stories this extraordinary very often. It offered up the opportunity to certainly do a documentary for much bigger than television, but also i think it will take you as an audience to somewhere you don’t expect to go to in a documentary; that this could be a film that would appeal to people. It would scrupulously avoid documentaries in the cinema. The experience you have is like watching a thriller.
Dimitri: And i think that was always the idea; to make something which you wanted to watch rather than you thought you should watch. I say this having made films about all sorts of very important issues from, the wars in Iraq and all sorts of other things both domestic and international. There is a sense in which documentary is often important but it can also be enjoyable.
Cal: So when you found this topic you just knew that is was what you wanted to do for this documentary?
Bart: Ya, I think we couldn’t believe this series of events had happened in the real world. It felt like if it was a plot to a movie it would seem farfetched. We were immediately intrigued by the potential because it felt like trying to understand the psychologies of the people involved. Ya know, how did this happen? What kind of person would do something like this? And of course what kind of family could fall for a crime like this? Those were, I think, the starting points. We felt that it could be quite an unconventional film and that it kind of, ya know, because the story somehow inhabits it feels like the plot to a film noir, and also its true. We wanted the form of the film to reflect that. It kind of starts off like a conventional documentary then it stops, then it rewinds, and it starts again like a movie. It sort of confounds your expectations quite early on. There are people, having watched the documentary, who have put up their hands and gone ‘ was this a true story?’. Of course it is, but its hard to believe.
Cal: It definitely crossed my mind for a second. (Nervous laughter followed by an abrupt and awkward aaaa noise coming seemingly out of nowhere.) So how did you get in touch with these people? How did you start your interactions with them? What was the process of it?
Dimitri: We found him online.
Bart: He had the youtube page broadcasting bits of his thoughts. He is now a free man living in France. Then we brought him to london, we talked to him about… ya know, cause at that point I don’t think we knew what story we were gonna tell. Was it going to be his story? Was it going to be biographical, were we gonna start at the beginning and tell his story? That was certainly a thought at one point. Then meeting with him we realized of course to tell this story successfully we would absolutely need to understand how he was able to do what he did. And of course that means the need to speak with the family and understand their motivations. I think you go into the cinema going ‘how could you not know that this French 23-year-old was not your 17-year-old. But then we hear them talk, you realize that it’s possible because they desperately need to believe it? What were the reasons for that? So then we spoke with them. But we sent our co-producer, a woman called Poppy Dixon, who’s just a young incredibly intelligent industrious young, kind of british rose, off to…
Dimitri: the worlds of San Antonio where she spent the best part of a year meeting various different people. Poppy’s one of those people who is just both incredibly dogged and journalistically rigorous. But what also is absolutely charming and absolutely sincere.
Bart: We didn’t know where to start. So we’d like go into bars and ask people for leads. In fact, I think there’s a podcast or a featurette on apple where you can see her telling the story of how she ended up looking for this family, or connections to the family. When she eventually found them their experiences with the press have been quite negative. There’s a big article in the New Yorker magazine in which they were portrayed pretty unfavorably and so i think they were hesitant, as you would be. Also, Dimitri went and met with them and then I went and sat down and kind of explained what I wanted to do, which was just to hear them tell their side of the story in their own words and that was gonna be it. We felt that it was important that if he was gonna do that, then they were gonna do that.
Dimitri: Eventually they saw that we were sincere and that Bart’s vision for the film was very much to allow them to give their account, in their own words, and not to mediate it, and not to para-phrase it, but to actually allow them to tell their experiences as strongly and powerfully as they could, and there wasn’t a hidden agenda there. It was really going to be up to the audience to make sense of it all.
Cal: So it was pretty easy for them too??
Dimitri: You mean to take part? I’m not sure if it was easy. I think they were as Bart says, initially they were hesitant. We went to visit them at various times and Poppy spent quite a lot of time talking to them about it. And I’m not sure exactly what the time frame was. I suspect it was probably eight or ten months from our first meeting till when actually we filmed the interview with Carrie, the sister.
Cal: The interviews are very raw, It seemed like they trusted you. How did you go about building that trust?
Bart: That is a bit of… I spent time with each of them before we did the interview. I met with them all at least a couple of times before we brought the camera to them, and just were really straight about. For example, a lot of people asked whether they knew he was going to be in the film. Of course we told them that right at the beginning because that would have seemed a bit dishonest not to. And i think when they spend time with you and they get a sense of what it is that you’re interested in, which is not putting them under pressure, not making them feel uncomfortable about their own process. Actually, it was quite the opposite. It was kind of allowing them to try to explain what their emotional state was at that time. You’re trying to get to talk to them where they’re giving you stuff which is kind of fresh from their memory, rather than with all of the hindsight of the fact that it turned out not to be their kid, and that obviously, they don’t feel like the stupidest people on the planet, but actually rather allow them to tell you something which is almost in the present tense. So, when she talks about making that trip to spain, it’s really raw. As you say, it’s a really visceral memory. And memory was a big part of what this film was about; memory and subjectivity and the way in which you rely on your instincts…
Dimitri: …and I think liable at times. I think that idea of truth is a very documentary one used when being faced with the challenge of how to find a truth as objective as one can be and how to represent that as clearly and cleanly as you can. Here you’ve got a story where you’ve got these competing subjective versions of the truth or different meanings given to the same event where one person says “That happened, but it happened because of this..” and someone else saying, “No, no, it happened because of a completely different reason”. So that’s a real challenge for filmmakers. How do you make a film where you don’t have that one single truth and as Bart says, ‘that’s not what you’re going after, it’s not this kind of news magazine show where you’re kind of trying to interrogate people and get to that truth.’ It’s about trying to pull those subjective versions out of people, pull those competing accounts out of people, and then give the audience the ability to make their own sense out of it.
Bart: That’s what the story really becomes about. It’s interesting when you see people talking about what the story really is. The story – on a basic level – is about a guy who cons his way into America, yet people often think it’s about the disappearance of this kid. Well it’s not really about either of those things. In the sense that’s the starting point for a story which really is about making you kind of question the lengths that a human being might go to in order to convince him or her self that something is true when it can’t be. That’s what I think you come away questioning really more than anything. So it’s about his deception, and the family’s self-deception, and you can say that self-deception was because they wanted something so badly they believed it to be true, or you might say the self-deception was for other reasons as he alleges. I think there was a much bigger theme then perhaps – all be it incredibly tragic and very important case – were missing a child. Actually, there’s something much more universal.
Haven’t we all deceived ourselves about the nature of a relationship at some point in our lives? deceived ourselves about our feelings for someone, or what that person’s true nature might be, or don’t we know people who that’s happened too? Those seem to me very immediate, universal ideas and I think those are what the film gets into really. If the film is successful, that’s what it does. It takes this kind of thriller type narrative. But actually underlying these quite interesting ideas, how some people will lie and cheat in order to secure love and affection, and how some people will allow themselves to be deceived, and why might they allow themselves to be deceived; for the sake of a family or the illusion of a family? However you want to put it.
Cal: So in making the film did you ever have a sense that you might come to some answer of where the boy had gone, or any emotions towards it?
Bart: i think we knew quite early on that wasn’t going to be what we set out to do and that the success or failure of the film wouldn’t be about our ability to answer.
Cal: But was there an urge?
Bart: There was, but then I felt like we weren’t going to find out definitively what had happened to the missing boy. There were times at which when we started speaking to people it where it felt like it was opening new lines in that investigation which you could follow. But none of them felt like they were going to result in a definitive thing. It also felt like that was getting away from this story. So as Dimitri says, ‘unfortunately, right or wrong, the film isn’t about what happened to him, It’s about how this series of events could have happened.’ So it’s really about grief. Is it about self-deception? Is it about this guy who manages to believe that he could inhabit someone else’s life, someone elses family? So i think there were times in which it felt like we were getting new leads in that, but at the same time I don’t think I ever felt like we were going to answer that question.
Dimitri: I think it’s a very different film. You can set out to make an investigative film about what happened and desperately try to recreate what happened to that missing child and try to get to the answer of that. But I think that is a different film and an equally valid one. But I think this film is about a man who pretends to be a missing child. A 23-year-old french Algernon man who pretends to be a missing blond, blue-eyed American teen-ager and is accepted by the family and seems to get away with it. And is accepted by the FBI and by the state department, by the school authorities, seemingly by everyone, and how could that happen? That’s where the center of our story sits, and again, I say this in full respect and being fully cognizant of how important the case of a missing child is. That is, in a way, the staring point rather than the focus for our film.
Cal: So I have seen locked up abroad. I think a lot of TV series and documentaries where they use re-enactments it tends to get very cheesy and there’s an emotional disconnect between the interviews and the re-enactments. So, what about your directing style sets you apart? Your obviously a genius in that matter.
* *Ass kissing much? What can i say attractive british boys make me nervous**
Bart: I suppose I think that, first of all, having done the work that we’ve done on TV it was really important that this wasn’t going to be like an upscale version of TV. This was going to be cinema. It was going to be shot like cinema; the aspect ratio would be different. So that was challenging to figure out, but I think your point on that is that it’s just about figuring out how you handle the emotional value of what we’ll call re-enactment. I think its different because one thing we didn’t want to do is try to create something that was trying to persuade the audience that this is a bit of reality, a bit of archive, a bit of news footage, or a bit of found footage. We wanted to go the other way to create something that was a sort of heightened reality that plays with this idea of memory.
When you remember something, generally you see it from your own perspective. You often don’t see yourself in that, and that’s the same with dreams. Also, the memory is not as reliable as you think it is. So a lot of that was in forming the ideas in the way in which we should tell the drama elements. Also, there’s no dialog in it which is I think the thing that you identify with hoaky. It feels like we’ll hang on a minute to say are you trying to tell me that this is really what happened? Whereas actually what we’re seeing here is this idea of visualizing the story being told. It’s almost like your spending time inside that person’s story rather than inside reality or the truth. Do you understand the distinction?
Dimitri: I think part of what that is is about the primacy of testimony. It’s about saying the interview – that testimony – is what comes first and that sits front and center and that’s what drives the narrative. The reason it works so well is because there’s very little that you can do in drama which can be as effective or as powerful as looking into someone’s eyes when they tell you about the moments their life changed forever. You have to have the best actors in the world and the biggest budgets in the world to actually try to come close to that in terms of drama.
Bart: The images are inspired by the description of the memories. Ultimately, you know when the sister says there were boys playing ball against the wall you suddenly think about why would that be a memory? Is it because the sound of that was, if you were really stressed out the sound of that could be, is that a pleasant thing? Is that unpleasant? Is it stressful? Can you use that to heighten the tension of these things? All of these little things would trigger things for us to visualize, I suppose. Most of the imageries is, if I’m telling you a story you have a kind of movie that plays out. It’s that movie that we were trying to recreate.
Dimitri: I think if you look at the way it was shot, people ask about the recreations, which i think is the wrong word. I think it’s not a good word for it.
Calindra: Whats the right word?
Bart: It’s a visualization almost.
Dimitri: I think of them as drama sequences. The notion that you are recreating something is wrong here. It suggests this kind of objective; this is what happened and now were recreating it. Actually, what those are and the way they’re shot, they’re all slightly off frame and slightly floating – slightly etherial.
Bart: And subjective. A lot of it is quite subjective. You see it from one person’s point of view.
Dimitri: The camera comes in over someone shoulder, or up someones feet, or you walk into the scene with someone, or it’s a point of view and then pulls back to reveal who is telling you about that scene.
Bart: You kind of have a short hand to understanding whose memory you’re inhabiting. Whose story your spending time in is part of the idea of what well call the visualizations or the re-enactments.
Cal: So you did the interviewing. Then did you go thru the interviews and kind of jot down your ideas?
Bart: We basically assembled the structure of the film with the interviews and then went away and effectively wrote the script for the drama which would be interconnected. And then those bits – where the dialog sort of overlaps into the drama – that’s all carefully planned so you do get this sense of seemless connection between the flashback bit of it and the memory. So there are bits in it where in my script for the drama there would be past tense bits of dialog which would say things like, ‘ya know I told them I wanted to do it myself’, where it’s actually you’re in the scene in which he’s supposed to tell them ‘I wanted to contact them myself’, but instead of saying that he’s saying “I told them”. So the actor would be like, ‘is that supposed to be in it?’ Actually, it is supposed to be in there, because it’s like he’s inhabiting his own memory rather than a straight reconstruction kind of thing.
Cal: So this is your film that you’ve directed. Are you going to continue in this fashion?
Bart: Yeah I think that’s the idea. Were moving into fully scripted stuff. But I think were fascinated by the extraordinary things that happen in the real world and as Dimitri says, ‘there are things which are stranger then you could make up.’ I think when you find those kinds of stories there’s something about the fact that’s it’s true that you want to preserve and so that’s about blending *** I love the way british people say blending*** what we understand as documentary and what we understand as drama, because I suppose part of what were trying to do is bring in an audience that would never normally go to a documentary into the cinema and understand that they can have this really rewarding experience from watching a documentary.
Dimitri: I think if the film is successful for us that would be the most gratifying thing; that people would go and see it, not because it was documentary, and not because they thought it was an important subject, but they would go into it and have an experience that we would expect from going to see any kind of movie that’s playing in the theatre. That it plays like a thriller. It provokes debate. It’s enjoyable. It’s rewarding. It’s something they can talk about coming out but it also just so happens to be a true story that’s actually completely unbelievable, and is only redeemed by the fact that its true.
Cal: I think you guys have definitely accomplished that.
Bart: Ah, thank you
Cal: It’s definetly not along any lines of any documentary I’ve seen so far.
Bart: That’s good. I think that’s good thing.
Cal: When I meet someone I get a first reaction like, uh, what do you call it? A First impression of someone. What was your first impression of meeting this chameleon?
Bart: That’s a good question.
Calindra: What was the energy or the feelings that you got from him?
Bart: Well it’s hard because obviously you come to that meeting knowing all of this stuff about him. So it’s hard to put that aside and just figure out what your experience would be if you had just met him as like a normal person. I think to probably answer that; if you interact with him you have quite a lot of conflicting impressions. At some points you think he’s quite charming and definitely I thought there were points where I thought he was charming and sympathetic, and there were other points where I thought he was repellent, when he’s remorseless, I guess. But when he tells you the sob story about his lost childhood it’s hard not to think ‘Yeah i could understand how you got to where you got to.’ You meet kids who have done bad things, and then they tell you that they’re mom was on crack from the moment they were born.
Dimitri: Not that his was.
Bart: No, not that his was, but we’ve made documentaries with some very bad people – damaged people. They’re not bad people they’ve just had bad experiences where no ones ever given a shit. So, when you hear his story you start to sympathize, but then you start to think ‘Am I becoming a victim of his manipulation and his con artistry?’ And again, that is something we try to put in the film so that when you watch him you have that interaction. You become on the receiving end of his manipulation.
Dimitri: You know how some people you can hum a tune and they can play it on the piano and they’ve never had a days’ full training in their lives. He’s kind of got that perfect pitch for human emotion. He can intuitively and instantly understand what is motivating the person he is talking to and which buttons he needs to press. Because he’s been doing it his whole life he’s so finely tuned into that stuff. He’s quite extraordinary.
Calindra: Well thank you guys, i think were out of time.