Interview: Bart Layton and Dimitri Doganis on “The Imposter” and Getting at the Truth in a True Crime Film

The fact that one of the summer's biggest thrill rides is a documentary is just one of the many surprises in store for audiences and its director and producer...
Frederic Boudin in a scene from Bart Layton's The Imposter

“Normally, you come across stories where you think I could see how that would happen,” said Dimitri Doganis, the producer of the new documentary “The Imposter.” “This is one of those times where you think how would that happen.”

To say much more would be to take away some of the surprise of “The Imposter,” so consider yourself warned about and directed towards one of the year’s most exciting films. Then again, even after spending the last two years trying to bring the story to the screen, Doganis and director Bart Layton are still scratching their heads about the true life tale Layton first read about in a Spanish magazine concerning Frédéric Bourdin, a French master of disguise who made a specialty of pretending to be missing or orphaned children. While they were fascinated by his many exploits, they were particularly drawn to Bourdin’s 1997 fleecing of a family in Texas, who after three years were still searching for their son Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared at the age of 13.

It’s only natural that Layton, Doganis and a team of Brits would be the proper ones to tell the story of international intrigue, which would grow to include FBI agents, the U.S. Embassy in Spain and a host of other unlikely parties, after others such as the TV tabloid Hard Copy and the 2011 drama “The Chameleon” had taken their crack. However, as Tom Roston’s fascinating article in The New York Times about balance in documentaries, the film is a hybrid of sorts, employing actors to portray both Bourdin and the family he conned while using interviews with the real-life subjects for dialogue and a sharp visual style that would be more expected of a summer blockbuster than of a Sundance Film Festival sensation, which is where the buzz began for this most unusual of true crime thrillers.

While at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, I got a chance to speak with Layton and Doganis about how they initially became interested in Bourdin’s story as documentarians, the trickiness of making a film about a trickster and appropriately enough, when they realized their own film wasn’t about what they thought it would be.

What was the appeal of this story?

Bart Layton: As documentary makers, it’s rare that you come across a story which if it was a work of fiction, it would seem far-fetched which feels so unusual and so compelling that you desperately want to understand what kind of a human being would be capable of perpetrating this kind of a crime. The other thing also is what kind of people are capable of falling victim to such a crime. I think in that lies something really interesting about where the film goes, which has to do with the nature of deception and self-deception. Once we got beyond how extraordinary the actual story was, trying to understand how this could happen in the real world was probably the starting point for us.

Without spoiling the film, the film involves some misdirection appropriate to the story you’re telling,
but in making a documentary, was it a fine line to walk without breaking the audience’s trust?

BL: The answer of that lies in the making of the film and the experience of going from interviews where you are convinced you understand what happened to another interview the next day where you come out with the opposite conclusion, so in terms of how we conceived the structure of the film, it felt important to take the audience on a journey very similar to that bewildering journey that we went on. It became clear that we weren’t going to get a definitive version of the truth that hadn’t been out there before, but what we were going to get and what was going to be so interesting was several conflicting and subjective versions of the truth, which we would allow the audience to navigate. That felt like a really exciting way to [make] a very different kind of film.

Dmitri Doganis: We wanted to treat the audience like one of us. The audience gets the information direct from the source in the same way that we get information direct from those interviewees. We talked to somebody early on, it was actually during the editing process, who said without having seen the film, “Aren’t you worried that you’re going to let Bourdin, the imposter, manipulate the audience and you’re giving him a platform? In a way, that’s unfair to the family to let Bourdin have this platform.” And it felt to us much more like it would be very unfair to the family not to give him that platform because unless you experience him and see how seductive and manipulative and charming he could be, then you can’t understand how they might’ve fallen victim to him. You need to see him doing his thing to be able to make any kind of reasonable judgment about the events that then unfold.

BL: It’s about reflecting the experience of making the film so that we take you the viewer on a similar experience, a similar journey to the one that we went on and you go through those different…you come out with different conclusions, you go through the different extremes of sympathy, condemnation and back again.

Did each party’s involvement complicate participation from the others?

DD: No, I don’t think so. We were very careful to tell everyone that we wanted to tell the story in the words of who were involved in it and that we wanted them to be able to give their account directly to the audience. That’s why people agreed to take part because they were able to explain what happened from their point of view in a very direct way. We made it clear that not only did we want that, we needed to hear their side of the story and to hear them tell it and it wasn’t for us to try and decide what was true or not true. It’s for the audience to make that decision based on what those people tell them, whether it’s the family or Bourdin.

This may be rounding back to something we talked about earlier, but did the film always interest you in terms of having broader implications on the elusive nature of truth or was that something that came gradually as you discovered more and more about this case?

BL: That became a big theme in the film. As you can see, it’s not about what exactly happened to this missing child. “The Imposter” is a conduit to a bigger story potentially, which is about the truth or the lies that we choose to believe. What’s so interesting about this and I hope what makes it different as a documentary is that you are presented with very subjective versions of the same event and just as we the filmmakers have to navigate that, we hopefully present a narrative which enables you to go on that same journey. It’s not going to be a definitive truth.

DD: It was clear very early on to us that this wasn’t going to be a film that tried to answer what happened to Nicholas Barclay. That was not our place and that’s not what we were qualified to do. Everything about what we were doing, the conversations we were having, the research we were doing, the way we were thinking about the film was about this elusiveness of the truth, so it was stamped through the core of the project, whether we liked it or not from very early on. The skill of what Bart’s done with the direction of the film is that it really replicates and represents that in a really interesting way.

BL: And it’s a heightened reality. It plays with ideas of memory and how memory can be unreliable, just as storytellers can be unreliable. When someone tells you a story, you have a movie playing in your head and you fill in lots of the gaps in the story they’re telling you. That’s what I wanted to do with the drama was try and recreate some of that movie that’s playing in your head.

DD: And you know it’s all slightly off. The frame rates are slightly off, the movements are slightly off. It’s not a literal translation or a literal representation of truth. It is more dreamlike and more heightened.

BL: Like memory. Recently, I witnessed a car accident with my wife, but our memory of what color the car was were both different.

DD: [laughs] When you’re married, you can often remember events very differently than your wife…

“The Imposter” opens on July 13th in New York at the Sunshine, August 3rd in Los Angeles at the Nuart and expands into limited release on August 10th. A full listing is here.

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