One of the biggest hits and surprises of this year’s Sundance Film Festival and Hot Docs was Bart Layton’s The Imposter. It’s one of those stories that had to be told as a documentary because as a work of fiction, it would be impossible to believe. In the early 90s a family in Texas had their young son disappear. Three years later, they received a phone call from Spain claiming that he had been found, but was drastically different after spending so much time underground as a sex slave. The curiously old looking boy returned to the family and even though he looked noticeably different and spoke with an accent, the family accepted him. Eventually, it was discovered that the boy was actually French conman Frédéric Bourdin, who was in his 20s at the time and had spent years posing as kidnapped children. What makes the story so odd and compelling is how easily the family and media was fooled given how obvious it was that the Bourdin wasn’t the missing child, raising many disturbing questions about the family’s motivations.
Taking cues from filmmakers like Errol Morris and James Marsh, Layton’s movie mixes probing interviews with various subjects involved with the bizarre events (including a hilarious private eye named Charlie Parker), with stylish recreation footage as well shot as any fiction feature. While some purists might still scoff at including such footage, the technique works perfectly in The Imposter as it allows the filmmaker to visualize the various versions of the truth his subjects present, amounting to one of the strangest stories you’ll ever see flickering across the big screen. We got a chance to speak with the director about the origins, production, and many tantalizing ambiguities surrounding one of the most intriguing documentaries to come along in years.
Dork Shelf: How did you discover this story and how much were you able to find out before you starting shooting?
Bart Layton: Well, at first I came across a story in a Spanish newspaper about Frederic Bourdin and his life as a serial impersonator. He’s known in France as the Chameleon. That was very compelling and there was information available about that. So I began to do more research and found a very good article in the New Yorker and there was also an article in The Guardian which talked about his time in Texas. That was the starting point. Trying to find out what kind of a human being would try to do a crime like that and what kind of a family would fall victim to it. Then having read those articles, I knew a fair bit about the story. But of course, it was nothing like what we uncovered over the course of making the film.
DS: Was the focus always going to be on this specific event in Texas or was there a time when the project was more of a general film on Frederic?
BL: I didn’t really know in the beginning what the story was going to be. I just knew that it was incredibly compelling and he was fascinating and unusual. I think I probably realized quite quickly that it wasn’t necessarily going to be a film about him as the imposter, but that he was going to be a way into a possibly more interesting story, which was about perception and self-deception. He provided a story that was really about the family in many ways, which is about grief and loss and the lies that we choose to believe. All of those things.
DS: I was quite fascinated by how accepting the family was, so I was curious if during research you came across any stories where something similar had occurred or if you maybe spoke to behavioral psychologists who had noticed this as a phenomenon?
BL: Well, yes and no. I didn’t really get into that. I realized quite soon that this wasn’t necessarily what the film was going to be. I knew that I wasn’t going to have experts and I wasn’t going to have people who were peripheral to the story. I didn’t necessarily want for the film to have people commenting on different syndromes that can be a product of bereavement or whatever it was. I felt like what the film was going to be about was presenting the audience with these different and potentially conflicting versions of the truth. Going back to your earlier question, when I started doing the interviews, I would go from one interview one day with an FBI agent or a family member convinced that I understood what happened. And then the next day I would do an interview with someone else and come away with an almost completely diametrically opposite conclusion. So that was a really interesting thing. That to me unlocks the whole question of what the film should be. Because really, when you have those kinds of interviews, you realize that there isn’t going to be one clean, definitive truth that is all encompassing and makes everything fall into place. Actually, you’re going to be confronted with different versions of the truth that suit different people. So then I thought that was what the film should be so that the audience goes on a very similar journey to the one that I went on as a filmmaker, having this quite bewildering experience some times encountering these twists and turns.
DS: I loved that Rashomon quality. I take it that all came when shooting, you didn’t anticipate when you started?
BL: Yeah, that was really just the product of having those conversations and realizing that you couldn’t try to construct a nice smooth path to a neat truth. Actually, what was going to be more compelling as a story was trying to reflect that experience of making the film. You as the audience kind of follow all of these stories simultaneously. You set off on the sister’s journey with her when she sets off. Every time we are introduced to a new contributor, it’s when their involvement in the story begins. So you meet Charlie Parker when she receives a phone call, you meet the mother when she receives a phone call, and you meet Frederic when he makes a phone call. Then the job for me was weaving it all together so that you’re on a journey that swings from one sympathy or conclusion to the other.
DS: How difficult was it to find Frederic and the family and get them to participate?
BL: It wasn’t terribly difficult to find Frederic. He has a YouTube account and our researcher sent an email and he responded. We brought him to London and talked to him a little bit. I think that’s when I realized that he was going to be a conduit to a different film than the one we started out to make. Then with the family, that took some time to find them. They obviously had very negative experiences with the media before and were unsure about participating in the film. But then, I think they also realized that they hadn’t really had the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Many people had written about it and drawn their own conclusions. So I think ultimately, they wanted to tell their side of the story. I’ve shown them the film since and I think that they’re really glad that they did.
DS: I was wondering if they had seen it.
BL: Yeah, on the way to Sundance, we visited them. We felt like they should see it. They knew that there were going to be difficult things in it and difficult allegations. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to get out into the media before it’s released. That side of things should be left up to the audience to decide.
DS: Where did you ever find Charlie Parker because he’s such an incredible character?
BL: I know, he is extraordinary, isn’t he? A lot of people have asked if we somehow produced or engineered Charlie in someway. That is Charlie Parker. There is no prompting or producing. That is him. We found him because he had been involved with the case from the start having been hired by Hard Copy to track down the missing kid. He was a gift in film terms.
DS: Without giving too much away, did you genuinely think you would find anything when he went digging in that back yard?
BL: I suspected that we wouldn’t, but there was a point in which we thought very briefly found something. I didn’t think so, but it was again this idea that anyone should be able to believe what they want to believe about the story and that was what Charlie chose to believe.
DS: What on earth is Frederic doing right now?
BL: He lives and works in France. He’s done a little work in television sales and things like that. But he’s also quite well known in France right now, so I think he finds it difficult to find work. He’s not the most trusted person [laughs]. If he turned up for a job interview at your place, I’m not sure that you’d be anxious to hire him. But you know, he has a wife and kids and what seems like quite a normal life.
DS: I really loved the mix of styles in the film and used stylized recreations like an Errol Morris or James Marsh film. Was that something that was important for you from the beginning?
BL: Yeah, I mean ultimately it’s about trying to construct a visual language that is fitting to how unusual the film is. I think what Errol Morris did in The Thin Blue Line was to use reconstruction to find a truth that hadn’t been there before in the accounts. I think what’s different in this is that, first of all I think that suggests you’re reconstructing what must have happened. Whereas with this, I think it’s what people want you to believe happened. So that’s why I think those sequences warranted having a kind of noir, dreamlike heightened sense of reality. And so much of the story feels like it occupies a space between the real world and the movie world anyways. It warrants that kind of treatment, so I wanted to have a very strong, visual grammar to the whole thing. And you know, reconstruction can be a very dirty word when it comes to documentary. People feel quite awkward about it. I think the crucial thing is that you have to be very clear with the audience about what it is. I think where it’s dangerous is when you’re presenting it as an archival reality and that’s not being honest with your audience. I think this was very clearly from the beginning not reality. It’s a very subjective version of the past and how memory can be unreliable.
DS: I completely agree. It’s problematic only when you’re trying to shoot something that fits in with actual documentary material that you’ve already shot.
BL: Yeah, and that’s not on. That sort of fake archiving.
DS: It’s very clear with what you shot that it’s not documentary footage.
BL: Yeah, we tried to make it clear early on when the actor speaks directly to the camera. I remember in a test screening someone said, “that really threw me out of the film.” And I said, “well, that’s the idea.” It’s supposed to signal to you that we’re in this guy’s head or in this guy’s story, not reality.
DS: Simply because I was so impressed by that footage, I have to ask if you have an interest in going into fiction film or are you committed to documentaries?
BL: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s always about the story. But yes, at some point. The whole thing about this film is that people have asked, why didn’t you do it as a fictional drama? But I think if this was a drama, you’d almost feel like it was too far fetched. So I think it was important to keep it in the realm of documentary. But yes, I’m interested in that. But I also think that in documentaries, the fact that you can look real people in the eyes and try to figure out what happened can be so much more compelling than anything that could be done with actors.