The Imposter is a thought-provoking new documentary based on the bizarre true story of a Frenchman who convinced a grieving Texan family that he was their 16-year-old son who been missing for 3 years. I recently met up with the film’s director Bart Layton, and the Private Investigator on the case, Charlie Parker, to find out more about this strange tale and how the film came about.
PPH: How did you guys meet initially, and did you get on?
BL: Well, the person who deserves a great deal of credit for a lot of the access in the film is Poppy Dixon, who’s the co-producer. If you wanted to speak to her, we could happily arrange that. And she went to San Antonio on her own – she’s a young, attractive English woman – and she was there trying to find the family in order to talk to them about possibly collaborating in the film, you know contributing, and also to find Charlie, and of course she found Charlie, and then Charlie helped her, because being a private investigator, helped her to find other people that we were looking for to be part of the film. She spent a long time just doing her own detective work, didn’t she?
CP: She did; she did a great job.
BL: And Charlie was incredibly helpful. And then I came out and we met…
This was a few months after?
BL: Yeah, this was a few months after she arranged it. And I came out and met with Charlie, and we hit it off straight away.
CP: I had seen a lot of people ask about the case, and he’s really believable. And he got me from hello, from the start. So it helped.
How did it feel for you, to go back to this story, being such a big part of your life at a particular time?
CP: It’s an unusual feeling, to go back and see Frédéric [Bourdin, the Imposter of the title] again. Our relationship was a strange one, and to see him on the screen and see how frightening he is…
What was it about the case that provoked you to feel so passionately about it?
CP: No one would believe me, and I think when you feel that you’re in the right, even if someone’s beating you up, you know that eventually it’ll be told right. So you take that stand, and it’s like a cause, it’s like a fight for a cause.
And you were isolated in that cause for how long?
CP: For… months. Even from my own wife! Who wanted me to work, get out and make some money, quit worrying about that guy. And I was thunderstruck when Hard Copy, the people that hired me, told me “forget about it, go on to the next thing”.
Between the two of you, what did you think the case says about the American Dream? Because it comes up at some points, the idea that this guy came over and he mentioned the American Dream? Does that mean anything to you guys in relation to this case?
CP: No, except that it’s going to be the American Dream and going to this movie that’ll probably help us find the real Nicholas Barclay. Somebody out there watching this movie will have heard something or know something. Just the fact that it grabs people, and gets a hold of them and mesmerises them is a big help.
BL: I think the idea of the American Dream is an interesting one – I think you’re only aware of it if you’re not a part of it. If you’re not an inhabitant of the US – it’s part of the psyche there. I think with Frédéric, what America represented to him was everything he’d seen on TV, everything that he’d seen in the movies. I think there’s this moment when he gets on a yellow school bus – it’s pretty commonplace to these guys, but for us it’s kind of an icon of America. At times it felt like he was playing a role in his own strange movie that he was creating for himself. And I guess he talked about America as the home of Michael Jackson and Kojak and all of those TV shows.
So Bart, as a Brit, do you have a fascination with Americana, because the film has a quite Errol Morris-esque and film-noirsh element to it – was that something that informed you making it?
BL: Yeah I think so – I certainly felt that there was something about this story and about this documentary that feels like it shouldn’t belong in the real world; you know, it should belong in a Coen brothers’ film. And I think because of that, because it had this cinematic quality to it, I was keen to find a kind of visual language which would do justice to the kind of surreal, at times, story which has one foot firmly in reality because, as Charlie says, he lived it. But it also feels like the character, Frédéric, could say that, do that in a movie. Those kind of shots that I shot of the school corridor and all of those things that we’ve all seen in those movies felt like they belonged in this kind of strange hybrid world.
And that really comes through in the film. Charlie, to what extent did you enjoy being in front of the camera? You provide some of the film’s most memorable moments.
CP: I was being myself. I was actually surprised when people laughed. I actually thought it was sophisticated to examine the ears, didn’t know that about ears… but people found that humorous. And nobody Photoshopped – young guys have used that for years, and back then nobody did. Lots of law enforcement people now use that to look at crime scenes. But to me, one of the best shots of the film is him walking down, out of that school bus – that was eerie to me – and looking at the people, and in the room with the orphans. That was a great shot for me.
And to what extent did the two of you develop a bond with the Barclays?
BL: Charlie’s relationship with them is obviously completely different. I think my relationship with them was… anyone you spend time with as a contributor, you tend to, I… Generally our nature – this is borne out – our nature as human beings is that we tend to believe people. We tend to see what’s best in them. If you’re confronted by a damaged child, you don’t question their mind to you – this is something he [Frédéric] relies on. I think most of the people you’re confronted with, you believe the story they tell. And I certainly believed everyone’s story, even though they were all completely implausible. And I think that’s one of the things that..
CP: I think in fairness to that family, the grandmother, Bourdin called the grandmother, made a 94 minute phone call and pumped her for information to tell the family. I bonded with them, even though I was accusatory at the beginning; Beverly still talks to me, I talked to Carey the other day. My job was to find out what happened to that boy. In my mind, that’s my job. And I think they were so fooled by him, that were they the perpetrator, he still got to them. He has a way of getting into someone’s head. I think the young kids liked him because there’s a vampire effect to him. I think older people like him because there’s a Criminal Minds thing to the show. This is the kind of movie that the old people like it, they know people like it. Strange, strange thing.
Have you, in all your years as a PI, worked on a case as strange as this?
CP: No, I haven’t. I believe he’ll do it again. I don’t care if he has a family, what he has – he will probably do it again. He’ll be an older person, and he’ll pretend to be someone else, but…
It’s a compulsion thing.
CP: I think fooling people, the challenge…
Do you see yourself going back to him as the subject? You couldn’t bring yourself to do it, or…?
BL: No. I feel like at the beginning I possibly wondered whether this was his story. What the film was going to be – was it going to be about the imposter and was it going to be really limited to his story. But I felt that actually he was the way into another bigger story which was really about not just about deception, but about self-deception. It becomes more of a human story, it becomes bigger than just his story. Even though I’m sure he’d like to think the whole film is about him, I don’t think it is – I think it’s about other things: what we chose to believe, what we’re capable of convincing ourselves of. But no, I wouldn’t go back; that bit of that story is done.
Charlie, are you a big film fan, and if so, what kind of stuff are you into?
CP: Actually my wife and I went to see Bernie – we like that – and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And I’m really not into criminal shows, like Criminal Minds, I never watch that. But a lot of people do. When I left that theatre with my wife [to see The Imposter], we were talking about that case! It so grabs you. It’s the only movie I’ve been to where no one spoke during the movie! No cell phones went off in that movie. I mean, it was quiet and they were on the edge of their seats – I bet you got that same feeling.
A version of this interview first appeared on Grolsch Film Works. The Imposter is in cinemas from Fri 24 Aug.