By Christopher Bell | The Playlist July 13, 2012 at 11:59AM
The Barclay family suffered a devastating blow in 1994 when 13-year-old Nicholas disappeared without a trace. However, 1997 brought a sign of hope -- the young boy had been found in Spain. Seemingly damaged due to sexual abuse by his captors, he was ready to come home. The only problem? It wasn't Nicholas at all -- Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin adopted his identity, fooling authorities and the Barclay clan themselves into thinking that he was the real deal. As you might imagine, it wasn't long before someone started to doubt this ruse (detective Charlie Parker, oddly enough, noticed the ears of Bourdin and Nicholas didn't match up), but the exposed identity only makes the situation uglier, ferreting some nasty theories concerning the whereabouts of the real Nicholas Barclay.
It's a story that would be scoffed at in a scripted drama, but it's that same unbelievable, stranger-than-fiction quality that makes Bart Layton's "The Imposter" such an intriguing documentary. Thrilling in a way that non-fiction films generally aren't, the filmmaker weaves a gripping tale by utilizing his subjects' conflicting perspectives, heightening their stories with highly cinematic reenactments. We caught up with Layton to talk about the film and he gave us the skinny on what drew him to the project, the film's pacing, the subjectivity of truth, and what's up next for him. "The Imposter" opens July 13th in limited release.
The story of the Barclay/Bourdin debacle is most interesting because of its remarkable nature -- and it's very ripe for some sort of film adaptation (in fact, Jean-Paul Salomé's "The Chameleon" took the fiction approach for it, but more on that later). But how do you tell it properly, and which idea should be focused on? While the director was immediately taken by the premise, he was itching to ask a few particular inquiries. "I thought that this was so intriguing for a documentary because I couldn't understand how this could happen in the real word. My first question would be what kind of person would do this kind of crime, with the next question being what kind of family would fall directly into it," he noted, skeptical of the plausibility of Bourdin actually making a convincing Nicholas Barclay. "That's the big one -- is it possible to commit to something so glaring if you desperately want to believe it? It's not just about perception, it's also about self-deception." Research for "The Imposter" was careful, as Layton didn't want to spoil stories while meeting the subjects. "I met with them all beforehand so they understood what the project was and the ins-and-outs of everything, to make sure there wasn't any hidden agenda or anything like that. But I really wanted to save the big questions; you want to see that for the first time on camera. It has to be genuine, truthful, and unrehearsed, you really want that kind of honesty. You obviously have to make them feel comfortable."
Subject matter aside, one of the strangest parts of "The Imposter" is how quickly it moves for a documentary. Don't get us wrong -- we love the genre -- but the majority of non-fiction films don't generally progress so engagingly fast. "Part of the structure and pacing came out of the experience of making the film, as it was quite a bewildering journey at times," Layton explained. "There were times where it felt like being a detective, in a way -- you go from one interview one day, convinced that you understand what happened, then to the next interview and come up with the completely opposite conclusion. And that's a really extraordinary experience to have in a documentary, because for that genre you have the intention of finding one neat, objective truth. We found four or five subjective truths of the same thing." Being such an invigorating experience conducting the interviews, the filmmaker decided that this was the most appropriate feeling to convey for the actual movie-watching experience itself.
Why So Cinematic
"I feel the kind of drama done in documentary is so rarely done well. I think it's very dangerous if you try to shoot something to tell the audience that this is real, like shooting something as verite or a fake archive, because you're trying to pull the wool over people's eyes. I wanted it to feel hyper-real or dream-like, to not say that this is exactly what happened, but that instead you're spending time in their memories or their subject version of the story. So I thought it should have a very cinematic look, quite painterly with lots of conflicting color temperatures and a real strong look to it -- I shot it in different speeds, etc. Essentially you are in someone's subjective version of the event."