In December 2004 in Lexington, Kentucky, four Transylvania University college students finally pulled off the heist they'd planned for over a year — stealing rare books worth over a million dollars from their unguarded university library. Unfortunately some challenges came up, and even a year didn't prevent them from making mistake after mistake, leading to their capture and landing them each seven years in prison. A movie about the Transy Book Heist (as the robbery came to be known) is coming out June 1, but how accurate is American Animals compared to the true crime? It turns out that's the wrong question to ask when it comes to this unusual feature.
Director Bart Layton comes from a documentary background, where showing, not telling, is key to getting the audience to invest in a story. And what better way to show why four bored, frustrated college boys were willing to throw away all the privilege that led them to where they were, than by having them tell it themselves? Shot in faux-documentary style, with talking-head commentary and to-the-camera asides from from Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), American Animals features additional commentary, correction, and reflection from the actual guys behind the heist on their cinematic counterparts as events unfold.
In a short feature on the making of American Animals Layton explained, "I wanted the real guys in the movie...It makes for more interesting and less conventional film." True-life stories occasionally include their non-actor counterparts, sometimes as cameo, sometimes as coda at the end of a film, to give audiences a reminder of the story's tie to reality. It's rare for a movie to include real-life counterparts to make the story less believable, though; American Splendor and 24 Hour Party People are among the few that include actual musicians and artists crabbing about the inaccuracy of their on-screen portrayals.
American Animals goes a step further, pointing up inconsistencies in the real robbers' stories, showing conflicts between their memories and the movie's more factual recreation of the real thing. Their own words come into question, blurring the idea of what's real and what's fiction to the point of irrelevance. Making matters worse, a lot of their scheme was lifted from heist movies they'd watched to learn how to pull the robbery off. They even assign each other codenames on their first attempt to nab the books, dressed in ludicrous, conspicuous old man get-ups, an idea ripped straight from Reservoir Dogs. The confusion is intentional, and on top of that, the film takes a knowing wink by doing the exact same, borrowing shots, framing, and even entire scenes from a slew of famous heist movies.
If viewers want to grasp at some element of reality, they'll have even more difficulty if they're familiar with Lexington, KY, where Transylvania College is located. The film was shot in North Carolina, on the Davidson College campus, rendering the location specifics of the boys' plot as mysterious to locals as it will be for moviegoers outside the southern area. Fortunately, all viewers have to understand is the library layout, which Spencer went through the trouble to building a dimensional model of for them to walk through their plan.
However, the men didn't count on another librarian ever coming in, and so their original plan immediately went sour. Warren and Eric, the two who went inside to grab the actual loot, dropped the most valuable volumes of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (the inspiration for the film's title) as they ran out the door. They initially thought they grabbed nothing, but got away with several original Audubon drawings, an original Charles Darwin volume, and several other works adding up to a very valuable haul.
Unfortunately for the amateur robbers, the loot was even more valuable than they thought, leading to a judge determining in 2008 the four had been sentenced incorrectly. Due to the rare and important nature of the works, they recommended and were allowed to increase the boys' sentence from seven years to nine. A painful ending for a pretty ridiculous crime.