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'The Imposter' Director Bart Layton Talks The Stranger Than Fiction Story & Its Subjective Nature

Photo of Christopher Bell 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.
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The Imposter

The Ending (Spoilers)
When the film concludes, you're half expecting some sort of epilogue to this larger than life story -- maybe because we're conditioned to think that way by conventional docs, or possibly because we just want more -- but Layton crafts a much more subtle, powerful ending to a particular story thread that works as a strong punctuation point for all of the perspectives he indulged. Detective Charlie Parker was convinced that the Barclay family didn't lose Nicholas at all -- they accepted Frédéric Bourdin because they had actually killed him, and having their "missing" child returned covered their asses from the law. With a hunch that the body of the boy is buried in the backyard of the clan's old property, he contacts the new homeowners with the intent of proving his theory. Though he finds nothing, Layton discovered that this was an efficient moment to close on, and it wasn't one of his dramatic reenactments. "All of that digging in the garden was absolutely real up until the point with the final shot, which is that crane shot up. I think I suspected when he told me he would dig in the garden, I had a really strong suspicion that he wasn't going to find anything. And that empty hole felt, to me, like a metaphor for this idea that there is nothing. There's just an empty hole that we just fill with whatever conclusion you wish to draw," he remarked. It serves as one of the more memorable climaxes of the year, maybe of the entire genre.

Set Neutrality, "The Chameleon" (Slight Spoilers)
And with everyone telling a different kind of story, what's impressive is how neutral the film stays. "I think, ultimately, what the film becomes about is not the question whether they did or didn't they do it, but moreso the 'why' they chose to believe that. They tell you this story that makes sense, you see the logic of it, but when you talk to someone else, they do the same. You sort of believe all of them and none of them at the same time. So I wanted that to come across in that film." Speaking of "The Chameleon," which is the narrative film of the same story, Layton admits that he was aware of his existence but by no means thinks it does justice to this amazing incident. "I tried to avoid it because even a bad idea can filter into your subconscious, which I didn't want it. But I started watching some of it and really wasn't into it at all. I also feel that the extraordinary thing is that it really happened, and as soon as you take it into a fully scripted version, you lose some of its magic. You need to preserve that element of truth. They also chose a line, that the family were the murderers, and the whole film was constructed around that." He then summed up his exact perspective regarding the conflict between his film and theirs: "Our film just asks very different questions."

Frederic Bourdin in Bart Layton's "The Imposter."
Frederic Bourdin in Bart Layton's "The Imposter."
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The skill Layton displays in the reenactments seems to reveal a yearning to do something completely fictional, but the filmmaker isn't ready to abandon the documentary genre just yet. "I'm really interested in doing a straight narrative eventually, but I also want to try and find a way to tell these kinds of stories similar to 'The Imposter'…not a hybrid genre, but something like it. They tell you something very unexpected about human beings. I want to find a way of making something that looks and feels like a straight up narrative, one that audiences come to in a way that they do to thrillers or a different multiplex movie but actually have these documentary elements which remind you of the saying 'truth is stranger than fiction.' I'd like to do some uncategorized genre that is quite different." While pondering this idea, he mentioned a recent movie which he thought could've employed this approach to great affect -- Danny Boyle's "127 Hours." "That's a true story but I can't help thinking that it would've been so much more powerful if, instead of using James Franco to recreate the videos, they used the actual home videos the real man shot. Just ways I think of bringing in documentary elements into narrative."

As for specifics, the director was a bit coy but did drop a few morsels. "I am working on something and it's another story like this -- if it wasn't true, you wouldn't believe it. It's kind of like an existential heist film," he paused, and then let out a chuckle. "It's got a whole kind of existential subtext to it, it's about the choices we make in life, but I think it will be genre-breaking in the end, I hope. We're just starting to plan it now, and hopefully it will surface sometime next year."

This article is related to: Bart Layton, Documentary, The Imposter, Interviews


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