Copious Notes

'Real choices ... real consequences.' Behind the scenes of the Transy book heist movie.

"American Animals" features the story of Charles Allen II, a participant in  2004 book heist at Transylvania University.
"American Animals" features the story of Charles Allen II, a participant in 2004 book heist at Transylvania University. agervasi@herald-leader.com

Chas Allen made one life altering mistake. He was hesitant to risk making another one.

The first is a matter of public record: In 2004, with three fellow college students, he participated in the theft of several rare books valued at $8 to $12 million from Transylvania University's special collection library and assault of the librarian in the process. Allen was the getaway driver, and with the other three, he was arrested in early 2005, convicted and served a seven-year prison sentence for the crime.

While he was in prison, Allen was contacted by filmmaker Bart Layton, a British documentary director who had read the story of the Transy book heist in a magazine. Filled with questions about why four relatively privileged college students would commit such an foolhardy and violent crime, Layton wanted to hear more, obviously with an eye toward making a movie.

"There were a lot of people that wanted to make a film, but I really got a sense of exploitation, and I really didn't trust that they would be authentic, and I didn't think they would represent me and the other guys for who we are," Allen said in an interview at the Kentucky Theatre. "It was actually getting to know Bart over five years, and getting to know that he's a genuine person, and I trusted that he would be authentic with the film, and he was."

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That film, "American Animals," opens Friday in Lexington at the Kentucky Theatre and Regal Hamburg Pavilion. While there have been plenty of stories written about the crime by local and national journalists, the film will bring the story of the heist to its widest audience, most of whom did not see it on the 6 o'clock news or read about it in the newspaper.

"I'd never heard of this story until I read the script for the first time," said actor Blake Jenner, who plays Allen in the movie. "It's such a wild and weird story. My first impression was, what in the world were these guys thinking, and where were they in their minds. I thought they were living in some sort of fantasy land, thinking they could pull this off."

Blake Jenner.jpg
Blake Jenner plays Chas Allen, the getaway driver in the Transylvania University book heist, in the new movie "American Animals." Photo provided


That's not too far from what Allen himself thought upon hearing the proposed plan from fellow students Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka and Eric Borsuk, when they asked him to join the scheme that Lipka and Reinhard cooked up. While the timeline is compressed in the movie, Allen says it took about a year to get him on board. And when he did join, it wasn't so much that he bought into the scheme, he says.

"I was going through a lot of things in my personal life that were very painful, and I felt this huge sense of anger," Allen says. "I got to a point that I just wanted to tear everything down around me, and I was feeling self destructive, very selfish. I got to a point that I didn't care what happened. I didn't care if we got away with it or got caught. I just wanted things to change."

Things did, of course, once they committed the robbery, portrayed in the movie as clumsy and inept involving far more complications than they anticipated, including the need for Lipka and Borsuk to physically assault librarian BJ Gooch during the crime.

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While Allen may have been detached leading up to the crime, his emotional outburst after the crime marks one of the major turning points in the story.

"That was the moment that I knew my life was crashing down," Allen says of the scene in a car outside Christie's Auction House in New York City, where the robbers tried to get the items appraised, in hopes of selling them. "I was so angry at the other guys, but I was also angry at myself, and he really nailed that."

Playing the scene in the close quarters of a car was, "a wonderful acting experience and one of the most eye opening that I've gotten to experience," Jenner said.

Watch the trailer for 'American Animals' - a telling of the true story of four young men who brazenly attempt to execute one of the most audacious art heists in US history.

During the filming of the movie, Layton did not let the actors communicate with their real-life counterparts, even though they all appear in the movie. The film intersperses the drama with interviews with the actual criminals. Allen says the interviews were shot three years ago and that Layton rewrote the script afterward because his goal was authenticity.

The scenes with the real men was one of his favorite aspects of the movie, Jenner says.

"When it gets too unbelievable, you have the real guys who experienced this ... keeping this grounded for you and reminding you that this is an authentic story ... these are real people, these are real choices and these are real consequences," Jenner said.

"They let their imaginations get the best of them. It was getting lost in toxic young camaraderie."

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Allen and the others were paid for their on-camera work, "a fairly insignificant amount. We were compensated for our time and their ability to actually share our life story," meaning they were paid for the rights to the story, he says. But, Allen says, he has no stake in the future success of the film. He adds that he cannot speak for the other three men's compensation, and requests for comment about that through the film's publicist were not answered.

Since opening June 1 in New York and Los Angeles, "American Animals" has done modest business. According to the website Box Office Mojo, the movie has made $754,491 as of Sunday playing on 72 screens nationwide. It expands to more theaters and cities this weekend, including Lexington.

Evolution cover.jpg

In addition to the movie, Allen also released a book this week: "Evolution: Becoming a Criminal," his second book about the heist after “Mr. Pink: The Inside Story of the Transylvania Book Heist” in 2011. Allen, who says "writing is a passion of mine" and has some other books in the works, was also co-author of Father Jim Sichko's book, "Among Friends: Stories from the Journey," which came out in 2014.

"It's wanting to express the truth of who I am," said Allen, who notes several times in the interview that he feels misunderstood and doesn't believe the crime should define him as a person. "For me, that hasn't been easy. It's been really hard to share these shameful things that I have done and express that. There's something unique when we fully embrace our story, accept responsibility for it — own it. When we own our story, we can change it."

And he and Jenner see the movie as a cautionary tale, particularly for young people who may, like Allen and his accomplices, be seduced by cool, glamorous Hollywood heists like George Clooney and his "Oceans 11" cohorts, not realizing actual crime can have horrible personal costs for the victims, the perpetrators and everyone close to them.

"In this film, they don't get away smooth into the sunset," Allen said. "This is the kind of film where you actually see the consequences and see how gruesome and ugly crime is, and that people actually get hurt."

If you go

'American Animals'

What: Drama about the 2004 Transylvania University rare book heist directed by Bart Layton, starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahams and Ann Dowd.

Runtime: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Where: Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. (weekend showtimes 12:30 p.m., 2:50 p.m., 5:10 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 9:45 p.m.); Regal Hamburg Pavilion, 1949 Star Shoot Parkway (11:10 a.m., 2:10 p.m., 5:05 p.m., 7:55 p.m., 10:50 p.m.).

Special collections librarian BJ Gooch recounts the story of two thieves attacking her to steal parts of the special collections at Transylvania University's library. The story was the feature of the film American Animals, directed by Bart Layton.

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