Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Such is the case with the climactic chapter in the long career of con artist extraordinaire, Frédéric Bourdin, a story which director Bart Layton brings to life with Hitchcockian precision in his documentary thriller, The Imposter. The film centers around Bourdin’s most improbable and notorious con, in which the then 23-year-old, brown-haired, brown-eyed French-Algerian falsely assumes the identity of a 16-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed Texan boy, who had been missing for several years. For a while, Bourdin pulls it off, fooling both the authorities and even more improbably, the missing boy’s own family. Layton clearly understands storytelling, and Bourdin, who narrates much of the documentary, is, as Layton explains it, a “master storyteller,” manipulating the audience with his twisted brand of lost-boy charm. We recently caught up with the director to discuss what was it was like working with a con artist, filming in rural Texas, and Michael Jackson’s choreography.
In your film, Bourdin speaks with a directness and openness, which was kind of surprising for someone who’s famous for compulsive lying and manipulation. Is it possible to take anything he says at face value? What were your overall impressions of him?
Spending time with Frédéric isn’t straightforward. He can be charming and off putting, child-like and world-weary at the same time. He’s someone who seemed to have lived his life in a fantasy he has created for himself—one that perhaps suited him better than the troubled life he was born into. He is a master storyteller and it was easy to get sucked in; wanting to believe him despite knowing he was a convicted and pathological liar, wanting to hear him tell his story in his own words, a story he seemed to have been writing and re-writing for some time. You become aware quite quickly that as an interviewer, you are susceptible to some of his manipulation. To a certain extent, I found myself in a similar position to all those people who have been victims of his deception, and that was an interesting realization. I wanted to allow the audience to experience that to some extent, to be put in direct contact with the imposter.
The shots of Texas, with their cowboy-western sense of desolation, felt distinctly American. As a British filmmaker, were you purposely seeking a cinematic idea of America?
Absolutely. Texas has an iconography for anyone who adores American movies, and before we set off, my DOP and I poured over photographic books by Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. Certainly the imposter’s idea of what America represented was only what he had seen in movies or on TV, and there were times where he seemed to describe himself almost as a character in his own strange movie, and I certainly wanted to create an atmosphere that reflected both that and the unusual dusty beauty of the place where the story takes place. I also wanted to illustrate the contrast between this wild country and the cityscapes of Spain, where the story begins. By the way, Texans have to be among the friendliest English-speaking people I’ve ever met.
Your own approach to combining dramatic elements with documentary footage in the film feels natural. How do you achieve this unusual level of fluidity between dramatic and documentary modes?
The best way I can explain it is that if a great storyteller tells you an extraordinary story, you have quite a visual experience. There’s a kind of movie that plays in your mind, and it was this movie that I wanted to visualize. The recreations are not meant to tell you, This is what must have happened here. Instead, they are meant to lure the audience deeper into the fabric of the interviewees’ not necessarily reliable stories. In terms of fluidity, at times I had the interviewee and the actor intersect or overlap in movement and speech. The boundaries get blurred, and the idea here is to remind you that what you’re seeing is not reality so much as a subjective reality, if that makes sense. There are also moments when the actor seems to address the camera mouthing the words of the interviewee. Again, the idea was to make the audience aware of the device, to encourage you to suspend your belief rather than suspend your disbelief.
In one of the final scenes of the movie, you show amazing footage of Bourdin in prison doing a Michael Jackson impersonation which is a perfect metaphor of stolen childhood. What was going through your head when you first saw that footage, which when used in the context of your film, appears almost disturbingly surreal and too good to be true?
It is an extraordinary piece of footage, isn’t it? Bourdin does seem to have this huge affinity with Michael Jackson, and I guess on some level he feels he can relate to him—as you say, the stolen childhood, the inability to relate to the adult world. You’re absolutely right, and I felt like it was a real clue or perhaps just a reminder of his true character. Here he is in prison, sent down for impersonating a missing child, being filmed by a news crew, and he decides to do this elaborate Michael Jackson dance that he has obviously spent years perfecting. Not everyone reads it in the same way, but I think most audiences see this as a final twist, and clearly, like many things in the film you have to make your own mind up as to how to interpret it.
The Imposter is currently in select theaters.