Suppose your 13-year-old son disappears from his San Antonio home one day, and you go through all the agonizing stages of grieving for him. Then three years later, far beyond all hope, there’s a mysterious phone call in the night. Your son has been found—in Spain. What’s your state of mind when you go to get him? And what’s your state of mind when signs start to surface that perhaps this might not actually be your son?
If the story of The Imposter seems more like fiction than documentary to you, director Bart Layton can identify. That’s exactly the way he felt when he came across the story of Frederic Bourdin in a Spanish magazine. Bourdin, known as Le Chameleon in France, had made a career of impersonating and assuming the identities of missing children, most notably that of Nicholas Barclay.
“It was just sort of mind-blowing really,” remembers Layton. “It felt like, even if it were a work of fiction it would seem really far-fetched. What kind of a human being would do something like this? Then of course, what kind of a family would fall for something like this? So that was really the starting point for what became quite a compelling journey. And at times quite bewildering as well—to try and find out what was going on here.”
Forging a bond with one’s documentary subjects and convincing them to open up is always a challenge. But given the circumstances of this particular case, Layton had a particularly steep hill to climb in convincing Nicholas’ family to participate in the film. “They were a little hesitant,” he says. “They had had these kind of bits of media experiences that they had felt really burned by. There was a big article in The New Yorker that they felt had reflected very negatively on them. They felt they hadn’t been accurately portrayed. I think they just felt that their part of the story hadn’t been properly told. But at the same time they were nervous about doing something else. But after we met with them and all sat down in the same room, I said you know, it’s just us. There are no men from Hollywood with other intentions, so you don’t have to worry. After that they agreed.”
Layton also told them from the beginning that he’d be interviewing Frederic himself. That turned out to be a key decision in the process, because regardless of the ethical problems surrounding his actions, Bourdin is simply one of the most fascinating characters to appear onscreen this year. And he greatly influenced the direction of the project. “I just wanted to talk to him,” Layton says, “because I didn’t know what the film was going to be at that stage. If it was going to be his story or if he was going to be a way into a different story, which is exactly what ended up happening. He provided an entryway into another story that wasn’t really about just deception, it was about self-deception as well.”
That realization, that the film was about deception and self-deception, led Layton to his choice of using narrative dramatizations at key points in the story. The sequences are, on their own, as compelling as many studio films, but they serve a crucial thematic purpose as well. “I think what I wanted to do,” says Layton, “was find a way of telling the story that told you this is not ‘reality’; this is not ‘what must have happened.’ This is what these people want you to believe happened; this is the story they’re telling you. The best way I can compare it is when someone tells you a great story, there is sort of a movie that plays in your head. That was what I wanted to visualize—that story that plays out. And because it feels like it belongs somewhere halfway between reality and movie world. So it was really about trying to find a visual language and a grammar to it that would be suggest a heightened reality. It plays with these kind of ideas of memory. Memory can be unreliable. In the drama elements, you’re not getting something that is like fake archival footage—you’re getting inside of someone’s story, if you know what I mean. Inside their memory, or inside their version of the truth.”
That device also enables Layton to enter the story from several different perspectives. It’s a bit like the Rashomon of true crime documentaries. “What I think is interesting about the film,” he says, “is that you’re not faced with one neat version of the truth. You’ve got four or five versions of the truth. As a filmmaker, that was sort of bewildering to me, but that’s what I realized the whole film was about. There was no single neat truth. That was going to allow me to present the audience with all of these versions of the truth that are all equally unbelievable and believable, if you know what I mean. And it felt important to take it to this place that you didn’t think it would go in a documentary. Visually it should feel like [narrative] cinema. I was hoping to create something which the people who wouldn’t naturally go see a documentary at the cinema would go to and have a really visceral experience. That it would play out like a thriller, almost.”
Part of the effort to make the story cinematic is approaching the whole project differently than a typical documentary. Among the influences Layton cites, only one, Capturing the Friedmans, is a documentary. The rest are narrative films—Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Andrew Dominik’s Chopper, even David Fincher’s Zodiac.
The music of composer Anne Nikitin was crucial for Layton to capture the scope of the drama. “I had this idea,” he says, “that the score could kind of echo the idea of this lie. [Bourdin] starts off with this relatively small lie to get himself into this children’s home. And as the lie gets bigger and more complicated, the score gets bigger and more complicated. More instruments get added. So she took this idea and turned it into this extraordinary score. And she created themes—themes for the authorities, for the U.S. Embassy, the FBI. All of this kind of stuff. And it all just kind of worked together. Then we were really lucky because my sister-in-law is one of the leaders of the London Symphony Orchestra. And her husband is the principal of the London Symphony Orchestra. So she was able to pull together a massive orchestra for virtually nothing. So we recorded the score, which was one of the greatest days of the whole experience—to be able to do justice to this score Anne had written.”
But how do you find an actor to capture Le Chameleon? Adam O’Brian does such a good job that many viewers don’t realize, until the end credits, that it’s not actually Bourdin himself in those sequences. “He’s a really talented and really highly trained actor,” Layton says. “He didn’t just study language, how Frederic speaks and his intonation; he studied his facial expressions and his movements. I talked a lot with the actor about wanting to create cutting points, match cuts so you would be able to cut from a movement Frederic makes in the interview—Frederic might raise his hand to scratch his head or he might use hand movements to talk- that would provide a cutting point for me with the actor. I wanted to use these sequences where they sort of overlapped with actor, who is lip-syncing with the interview.”
But O’Brian had one last surprise for Layton. “I expected, when we filmed,” Layton says, “to have to play that footage back to Adam, for him to try to mimic it. But by the time we actually got there he had pretty much learned everything, down to the last hair. It was incredible. When he first started doing it, when we first started shooting, everyone on the set got sort of chills because it was so bizarre, so freaky. It was like having Frederic there suddenly. And even though people think in the movie they look identical, they actually don’t look anything alike, really. And there are points in the drama where he speaks in the past tense. So it gives you this sort of surreal crossover. Sort of reminds the viewer that you are in this kind of half-space. You’re inside someone’s story.”
In doing so, Layton pulls a deft trick—he actually puts the viewer into the story, as we are forced to judge between differing versions of various stories, including ones we know come from questionable sources. “I think some people kind of struggle with the unreliable narrator given the opportunity to tell an unreliable story,” he says. “But I think if you understand it, then you understand that’s part of what this story is about. You need to understand how he does what he does—how he is able to convince people of these extraordinary things. And yet from the beginning you, as the audience, are aware that the person telling this story is a liar. If there’s a cleverness to this film, it’s that you as the audience are put on the receiving end of the manipulator. He tells you this story, and you go on this journey with him. Then you have to question whether anything you hear from him is to be believed. Or whether anything that you hear from anyone is to be believed. That’s kind of a big part of what the film is about.”