By Josh Caudill
Chas would serve as the getaway driver, Spencer was the lookout, Eric and Warren would be the only ones to venture inside the library to actually execute the heist.
Warren walked up the library stairs to the Rare Book Room where he had scheduled an appointment with the Transylvania University librarian, B.J. Gooch, under the alias “Walter Beckman.” He was noticeably shaking and scribbled a signature in the visitors log after being reminded by the librarian.
Set aside for “Mr. Beckman’s” appointment was a number of books worth millions of dollars including Audubon’s iconic Birds of America series and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Warren asked if he could bring a friend up to look at the materials. Eric nervously signed in under a fake name. He was only supposed to carry the books. He chatted with the librarian, thinking Warren was getting cold feet.
Then Warren took out the stun pen to subdue Gooch, and Eric briefly froze before zip-tying her. They proceed to load their backpacks with the books, wrapped the Audubon folios in bed sheets, and carried them into the elevator… which repeatedly landed them on the wrong floor.
They improvised, heading down a stairwell, when a second university librarian yelled at them and gave chase. They dropped the folios in the stairwell and ran for the getaway van with the librarian close behind, so close that she was almost hit when Chas backed up. They narrowly escaped.
Eric was furious, punching the seats, believing their elaborate plan had failed entirely. Sick from adrenaline, Warren threw up on the dashboard. Chas yelled, “You didn’t get anything?” Warren wiped the vomit off his mouth and replied, “No, we got the backpacks.” Eric and Warren unzipped their bags to examine the haul.
Days later, they’d find themselves in New York at the famous Christie’s Auction House trying to get their new treasures appraised. It was there that they’d plant the seeds to their undoing, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs law enforcement could clearly follow to the door of their bungalow on Beaumont, near the University of Kentucky.
Sounds like a movie, right? It is. “This is not based on a true story. This is a true story,” reads the opening card of the film American Animals now out in theaters. Starring Evan Peters (American Horror Story), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) and Blake Jenner (Glee), Having already generated buzz at Sundance, the story of an outlandish and dimwitted heist looks to dazzle audiences nationwide.
However, the film has generated local controversy in the Lexington community. With the promotion and the release of the film, the detractors have been more openly vocal about the 2004 “Transy Book Heist” getting Hollywood recognition.
Some Lexington readers have bemoaned that the film is exploiting tragedy for entertainment and that the responsible parties of the heist are now getting fame and “profiting” off the release of the film. They even touch on hot-button issues such as “white privilege.”
Would the story be as interesting if it was four kids robbing a convenient store? Highly doubtful. Is class system the reason why it’s interesting? Is it because they had no previous criminal record? Or is the story being told mainly because the type of crime was so outlandish and unique?
Backlash is something that Eric expected with the movie. He believed many in Lexington had their mind made up about what this story was and never felt they got a fair judgment from their hometown.
“That’s why we waited so many years. We can hope that people know the real story,” Eric said. “It’s not that we think we have so much ‘self-importance,’ we just think our story is an interesting story. Obviously, people want to hear about it so we want them to hear the real story.”
On the flip side, there is a lot of excitement and buzz from those who believe it’s a cautionary tale but also a redemption story. One local reader who saw an advance screening of the movie said, “I love the story! I feel like I know these young men now and that the movie captures the remorse and regret they felt afterwards.”
American Animals director Bart Layton was attracted to the story after running across an article on it over a decade ago. His partner and the film’s producer Poppy Dixon coordinated letters and visits with the four boys throughout their time in prison and based the script off those letters and visits.
“Initially, it was this extraordinary story of this brazen heist but the more I read about it, the more outlandish it seemed to become. Not the least, the fact that it was perpetrated by some quite unusual criminals,” Layton said. “They weren’t hardened bank robbers. They were upper middle class, well-educated young men from good families, that was intriguing to me. I couldn’t quite understand what would have motivated them to do it.”
Jenner (Glee), who plays Chas, had never read anything like this before. As a fan of Reservoir Dogs and Heat, he found himself hooked ever since his team sent him the script. He sent Layton a tape and then the director told him to go home and watch the documentary he did called The Imposter.
“I went home and checked it out and became such a huge fan,” Jenner said. “I knew I had to work with this guy and have this experience. Then I got the call that he wanted me for the job. I felt a yearning to be a part of something like this.”
His excitement was understandable. Jenner was finally getting to venture out and expand his acting range of needing to be angry and upset. One particular scene, Chas confronts Warren and Spencer inside the van after the visit to Christie’s, believing they were going to lead the cops right to them.
“I never really gone to these levels before,” Jenner said. “Chas gets really angry and I hadn’t got the pleasure to portray that on screen just yet so, it was a big learning experience, trying to get to that place of paranoia and fear as you do with anything like this.”
The film blends in and out of documentary and feature, showing the testimony and conflicting accounts of the real culprits, employing the same techniques of the award-winning film, I, Tonya. Behind an incredible soundtrack and score, American Animals tells a compelling story of young men in search of identity.
It captivates the audience by taking them along for the planning of the crime, mixing in doses of comedy along the way before ultimately the film switches tracks and the intensity is amplified.
When reality collided with their Ocean’s 11 type fantasy in the Rare Book Room, it becomes raw and visceral. It’s uncomfortable and too real and you can see rows of people in the theater watching through their hands, unable to bare the tension.
For that scene, Layton shot it over several days and to capture the intensity and sweaty panic that the real Warren and Eric felt, he had Peters and Abrahamson running around the block, running down stairs, sparring and doing push ups. He strategized even further to capture the moment as accurately as possible.
“I didn’t want them to have physical contact with Ann Dowd, who plays the librarian up until the point when it actually happens in the scene so they would have that sense of horror and feel uncomfortable,” Layton said.
According to Jenner, when the actors were in the old men makeup during the first heist attempt, those days were the hardest because they were wearing wool and the adrenaline from the scenes were setting in.
“When we are in the car and trying to regroup and were very emotional, we were running around doing push ups and drinking a bunch of coffee, trying to stay wired and use all of that manufactured anxiety so we could feel close to the authentic moment the real guys were in,” Jenner said. “We used every resource to confuse our minds and our bodies.”
One can’t really argue with the film’s impact and execution. Critics are raving about it. As of the date of this article, it has an 86 percent rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 92 percent from the audience.
There’s already talk that the profound and entertaining true crime thriller has the makings of an instant cult classic and one that Lexington can hang its hat on in the entertainment world.
“I’d love for it to be a cult classic,” Layton said. “For me, I want people to feel the experience we all demand from a cracking-white knuckle roller coaster thriller ride, a heist movie that delivers on all of those promises.”
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