Why did they do it?
It is a question many Lexingtonians have been asking about the four college students who robbed the special collections room at Transylvania University's library in 2004. And it's the question that nagged at Bart Layton, the British film director who has brought the story of the heist to movie screens across the country in "American Animals," which opens Friday in Lexington.
The incident happened in the last days of the fall semester, just a few days before Christmas, when two men subdued librarian BJ Gooch and stole several rare books, including two original folios of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," said to be worth $8-$12 million. There were two other participants in the crime: one was the getaway driver and the other was on a nearby roof as a lookout.
When the four men were arrested after attempting to sell the books at Christie's auction house in New York, the surprise was they were four students, Spencer Reinhard from Transylvania University, and three University of Kentucky students: Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Charles Allen. All came from middle to upper-middle class homes, the latter three graduating from Lexington Catholic High School. Reinhard graduated from Tates Creek High School.
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"They just weren't your usual suspects," Layton said. "You just don't expect relatively privileged, upper middle class young men who are well educated and from good families to be involved in something like this. That was the initial intrigue. Because my background is in documentaries, I didn't know whether there was more to it than that, but my initial instinct was to find out."
After reading about the incident in a magazine, Layton contacted the men while they were in the midst of seven-year prison sentences for their crimes.
"It was really what they wrote back in their letters that made me want to make the movie," Layton said. "The things they described as their motivations were so unexpected.
"The things they said had driven them to it were things that I felt were relevant in terms of the culture. They talked about wanting to find an identity and struggling with all kinds of pressures to be a certain way, and they talked about this need to find this so-called special life they were promised."
Layton was particularly intrigued by budding artist Reinhard, who said his life was too nice, without any real defining trauma or hardship.
"That idea of a central character whose main problem is that he doesn’t have a problem was sort of fascinating to me," Layton said.
"That idea of wanting to have a story to tell, wanting to have an experience, one that ends in hardship, was kind of an extraordinary middle-class problem to have, or upper-middle class to have."
He notes the crime was right before the smartphone era, when people walk around with devices connected to social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter that, "give instant validation that they're interesting and important." He adds the robbery was planned by the young men at a point in life where many people realize their most glorious dreams of youth may not come true.
The film addresses Lipka losing his soccer scholarship at UK after spending most of his youth working toward that goal.
"American Animals" is Layton's first dramatic film after a career as a documentarian, directing critically acclaimed films such as "The Imposter," about a Frenchman who tricked a Texas family into believing he was their son who had disappeared a few years earlier.
Layton said he never considered handling the Transy heist story as a documentary, though it does include the documentary element of interviews with the participants interspersed with dramatic scenes.
"We go and watch true stories all the time in the cinema, but then you have that sneaking suspicion that after they say, 'inspired by true events' or 'based on a true story' they're taking wild leaps of exaggeration and fictionalizing the story," Layton said. "I felt very strongly that it was the truth of this that is so important and needed to be preserved. We didn't want to go off into movie world, where the consequences don't really effect you in any way."
Showing the consequences is the key to Layton's answer to people who might suggest making a movie about the heist is glorifying the crime.
"They need to go and watch the film, because I really defy anyone to watch it and think that the criminal act is glorified," Layton said. "I think you really get a sense of how they were seduced by the idea of it, and the adventure and the fantasy, but it was always very, very clear in my mind when it came to the actual act, the criminal moment when they crossed the line they shouldn't have crossed in relation to the assault of BJ Gooch, the librarian, it was always clear in my mind that would not be depicted in a way that was glamorous or glorified, and that's an essential part of the film."
There is a fantasy sequence in the film where the aspiring robbers are shown like the smooth movie criminals they are watching in movies like "Oceans 11." But the actual robbery plays out far differently, the fact that they are all scared and clearly in over their heads increasing the tension.
"They fell in love with the adventure and the fantasy," Layton said. "And the fantasy went too far."
If you go
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.).