Non-Fiction Film Noir: Bart Layton on The Imposter

A con artist poses as a family's long-lost child in a documentary mixed with dramatic re-enactments. The director reveals the strange truths.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Remember that movie where a missing child was found only it wasn’t the real kid? No, this isn’t Changeling, it happened more than once. The Imposter tells the story of a con artist who posed as a Texas family’s missing son, and lived with them long before he was found out. Director Bart Layton mixes documentary with some actors recreating scenes in an unusual take on the material. We got to speak with Layton on the phone as he toured the country with the film. It opens next in New York, and makes its way to Los Angeles in August.


CraveOnline: Do you think the case presented in The Imposter has anything in common with the case the movie Changeling was based on?

Bart Layton: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I don't know a great deal about that case other than obviously I saw the Eastwood movie when it came out. I think what was interesting is that film, the one character in that film that you never got to know in any shape or form was the imposter. That child who turned up, you never really got a sense of what his motivations were and where he’d come from and all the rest of it. That was kind of the one element of that movie that you didn’t really get insight into. I think the difference with this film is that that is the one character that you really do spend time with and time inside his head if you know what I mean.


Did the Barclay family never want to do a DNA test?

Well, as you saw in the film, they were very resistant to that. That was a big part of what was puzzling was that they were resistant. According to the FBI agents, they were resistant to having DNA tests done.


They didn’t want to know either way.

Yeah, I think that’s right and we can’t be certain as to what their motives were for that. I think one of the big questions that the film asks is really about what lengths people might go to to believe something that they desperately need to believe. And who knows whether they were reluctant to have a DNA test because maybe deep down they felt that it wasn’t their kid and didn’t want to face up to that truth. Who knows? Those are some of the very interesting sort of slightly bigger questions that the film poses.


As a filmmaker, what were the differences to you in doing interviews and finding archival footage, versus directing actors in scenes?

It is a completely different process really. All of those interviews took an awfully long time to do. Not an awfully long time but you have to spend an enormous amount of time with those individuals because I think, as you might have seen from the film, they tell their story in great detail and they’re right in the moment when they tell it to you. And that doesn’t happen quickly. You have to spend time getting to know those people, talking to them, creating quite a relaxed and intimate atmosphere. I don't know if you remember when the sister makes her journey to Spain, she talks about it in the present tense and it’s a very visceral memory. She conjures up quite a detailed picture. It’s from that picture, from those memories which I constructed the drama sequences. So the inspiration to everything that was in the dramatizations was the details that they talked about in their very detailed account of what they remember from that moment. So yeah, it was two different things, getting an interview and then directing actors in some of the drama elements. It’s a very different process and one has a great deal of focus on the visual elements and the other one has you’re purely thinking about the editorial content of the interview.


Sounds like the documentary side is paring it down to the story, and the narrative side is more building to the narrative.

Essentially with the documentary bit, you don’t know what you’re going to get. All you can do is ask the questions and hope that you remember to ask all of the most critical things. What you’re trying to do is ask all of the questions that the audience is desperately trying to ask or will want to know. Then what I would do with that is when we shot all of those master interviews, then I’d start constructing the documentary. Then when I had the structure of the documentary, then I went away and planned the drama elements of it and working with actors. What I did with the actors was I showed them the interviews that I had shot of the real people who they were playing. That enabled them to get into character and understand what these characters are like.


It’s one thing to take this unusual approach as a filmmaker. How did the actors feel about being part of a documentary?

I think generally everyone who worked on the project found the story so compelling and I think everyone bought into this idea that because the story itself is so unusual, it kind of felt like I think the actors could see that it couldn’t be turned into a full drama “based on” story. As a fictionalization, I think if it wasn’t true, you might not believe it. So I think the actors understood the reasons why I wanted to preserve the documentary. I wanted you to be able to look at these people who had really experienced this extraordinary series of events and try and understand how it all happened. So I think the actors felt that it was important to preserve the truth, but I think it was very challenging for an actor because they didn’t have dialogue and really what we were doing with the drama elements was just creating this incredibly cinematic atmosphere which really was intended to illustrate the story that these people are telling us.


What genre would you put The Imposter in?

[Laughs] I think ultimately it is a documentary but I think it’s also a non-fiction film noir in a way.


Were you able to compete in the documentary categories at film festivals?

Yes, it was. It competed in the documentary categories at many festivals, Sundance, South by Southwest, Miami. It won at HotDocs. It won the Filmmaker’s Award there. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Miami and it was in the documentary category at Sundance so ultimately yes, it is a documentary but of course as you’ve seen, it doesn’t look like most documentaries that you’ve seen.


This might be premature, but does it qualify for the Academy Awards documentary category?

I don’t see why it wouldn’t.


They have crazy rules about the musical score, so I don’t know how strict they are about documentaries with re-enacted footage.

Do they really? I don't know. I believe it does and I think that’s obviously something that we’ll get into further down the line. [Checks with an assistant] It has been entered, yes.


One of the most striking shots in the movie is when Frederic is dancing in his cell. Can you explain how that came about but he must have known they were shooting?

Just to clarify, that is a piece of archive footage so you know that sequence where he is being interviewed by Connie Chung in his prison cell on the news? That footage of him dancing was shot when he was in prison and at the time of his arrest. So that wasn’t something that I shot. That was a piece of news archive.


What has been your journey going to each festival, doing the Q&As and now more interaction with audiences as it’s coming out in different cities?

It’s been an amazing journey really because I think what’s been most gratifying is that everyone seems to have responded to it incredibly positively. I shouldn’t probably jinx it but I don't think we’ve had a bad review yet. Most of the audiences seem to be incredibly enthusiastic. There’s a lot of very lively debate after each screening. Everyone generally stays for the Q&A which I understand is sometimes unusual. There’s good buzz around the film which is exciting so really I wasn’t sure whether people would feel like it was an unconventional documentary and not something that they would take to but I think most people have really embraced the fact that it’s unconventional and it plays like a thriller.


Have you had to become sort of an official spokesperson for this case?

No, not specifically. I think really the film speaks for itself. I think it’s one of those very rare stories that’s so unusual, sometimes people have come out of the cinema going, “I cannot believe that was real. I can’t believe that was a documentary. I can’t believe those people weren’t actors.” Then they go home and they Google it and they blog and they write online or they tweet and they go, “Oh my God, it’s all true.” So no, I’m not a spokesman for it and there’s been a lot of very good journalism around this story so if you’re interested in finding out more, you can. It’s online.


Do you have extra material that’ll be on the DVD?

Yeah, there’s a really fantastic featurette that a very talented young man called Ed Perkins has directed. That’s got interviews with everyone and there’s also some other material, additional scenes and things like that.


What’s next for you?

I can’t say too much about it but I’m working on a very interesting, I would describe it as also another story which if it wasn’t true you would find it incredibly difficult to believe. And it will also I think continue to push the boundaries, push the conventions of documentary but it’s a heist movie really. It’s a heist movie but in part it’s a documentary.