Just over 12 minutes into writer-director Bart Layton's astonishingly compelling new crime drama, "American Animals," there's a beautiful shot of what's supposed to be Lexington, Ky.'s skyline at night.
But wait a second.
Isn't that the crown-shaped spire of Bank of America Corporate Center? And those pink-red LED lights — man, that looks a lot like the Duke Energy Center. What's going on here?
Simply a bit of good old-fashioned cinematic sleight-of-hand. More than a bit, actually.
The truth is, "American Animals" — which was inspired by a real-life crime that saw four college students attempt to make millions by stealing rare books from Lexington's Transylvania University, and arrives in theaters locally on June 22 — spends most of its nearly two- hour running time trying to pass the Charlotte area off as Lexington.
The skyline shot will be a dead giveaway to anyone who's lived in Charlotte in the past eight or nine years, and several other scenes will jump out at anyone who's spent much time on a particular part of the campus of Davidson College (more on that in a minute). But mostly, the filmmakers succeed in the ruse.
"It just needed to feel representative of the world that they were inhabiting. ... You know, this middle America kind of vibe that was not a big metropolis, not a small town, but somewhere in between," says Layton, the director, when asked whether he had concerns about one city masquerading as another in a movie that seems to be striving so hard for authenticity. "It's really about, 'Can you find something that feels honest and truthful without it necessarily being exactly the same place?' I felt like we had actors playing real people, so we could have a different city playing a different town."
About the movie...
Before diving deeper into Charlotte's role in "American Animals," it's worth giving some more background on both the movie and the crime that inspired it.
But not too much.
If you're either oblivious to or fuzzy on the details about what went down at Transy U. back in the winter of 2004, that's actually a good thing — the movie will be much more compelling if you go in knowing the bare minimum.
And that's this: A couple of bored, unfulfilled college students discover that the school's rare book room — which houses, among other volumes, a first edition of John James Audubon's "Birds of America" — is guarded by nothing more than a swipe-card door lock and a matronly librarian. Deciding that they'd rather be proactive about going after "that thing that could make your life special" as opposed to waiting around for it, they hatch a half-baked plan to steal what's referred to as "the most valuable book in existence" and eventually add two acquaintances to the team.
After connecting with the real criminals — Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk and Charles “Chas” Allen II — while they were serving their prison terms, Layton hatched his own plan: To put a twist on traditional caper films by including their testimony, via documentary-style interviews with them and people familiar with them, as the story unfolds. Sometimes the real-life criminals remember events in conflicting ways, and Layton deals with that creatively: by having the way events unfold change before viewers' eyes as the actors play out their scenes.
"American Horror Story's" Evan Peters, "Dunkirk's" Barry Keoghan, MMA fighter Jared Abrahamson and "Glee's" Blake Jenner were cast as the leads; production took place primarily in the Charlotte area over the course of 7 1/2 weeks in early 2017, and second-unit shooting also was done in New York and Amsterdam. (There's also some footage in the opening-credit sequence that was actually shot in Lexington.)
The result is electric and already has pleased both critics and general audiences alike, with the Sundance Film Festival darling earning a 84 percent "fresh" score from Rotten Tomatoes and an almost-unheard-of audience score of 98 percent from users of the site. It was released in just four theaters nationwide last Friday and earned $35,158 per screen, ranking it in the top 10 highest per-screen averages for 2018.
Co-distributors The Orchard and MoviePass Ventures are rolling out "American Animals" gradually over the course of the month; it will open June 22 at AMC Concord Mills in Concord, Regal Ballantyne Village in Charlotte and Our Town Cinemas in Davidson.
Speaking of Davidson...
Davidson College was actually the key to bringing the production to North Carolina.
Location scouts reportedly looked at hundreds of universities and colleges around the country to represent Transylvania University, finally settling on Davidson after discovering its Chambers Building, which — like Transy's Frances Carrick Thomas Library — features prominent Doric columns and steps leading up to the entrance.
Richard Terry, the college's director of auxiliary services, says this is the only time he can ever recall Davidson allowing a movie (or TV show) to be filmed on its campus.
"I've been here for almost 30 years and we've been approached about those for about 25 of those years," he says. "Between warnings from people at other schools who've said 'Don't touch it with a 10-foot pole, because they'll mess up your campus, they won't pay attention to what you want, and you'll be sorry you ever had 'em,' and just time in our calendar where we could actually accommodate it ... we really have never done it."
But with a fair amount of trepidation, Davidson's administration agreed to let the filmmakers use the area in front of Chambers (a classroom building) and the inside of the E.H. Little Library — including the Davidsoniana Room on the second floor — for the film's critical heist sequences.
Everything inside the library was shot during the week of spring break, and everything in front of Chambers was done the week immediately following spring break. A number of Davidson students, staff and faculty were employed as extras, the filmmakers and crew provided shadowing opportunities for students interested in film production, and Terry and colleague Cissi Lyles (Davidson's director of guest services) did so much liaison work between the college and the filmmakers that they both got a "special thanks" in the end credits.
To create the rare book room, set designers put fake panels over the painted plaster walls in the Davidsoniana Room — home to several thousand volumes by and about Davidson alumni and faculty; downstairs, they used more fake panels to black out the large glass windows in the front of the Little Library, so it could more closely match the Chambers entrance. (In other words, during the heist, the actors would be shown walking into Chambers from the outside, then the perspective would cut to what's actually the inside of the Little Library.)
The Chambers scenes were actually the hairiest for Davidson because the filmmakers were keen to put parking spaces out front and to have cars pulling up and driving away. Thing is, in real-life, those brick pathways are designed primarily for pedestrian traffic — and the beautiful green grass that those brick pathways cut through is something Davidson aimed to protect.
Davidson agreed, but there was definitely some fingernail-biting going on.
"We had this whole getaway sequence, and the only way that was gonna work was by parking all over the campus," says Layton, the director, "and they were very, very nervous that we were gonna mess up their beautiful lawn. If you've been there, you know how amazing that lawn is."
Adds Evan Peters, one of the stars: Typically, "it's like, don't ever rent your house out to a film crew unless you want it destroyed. ... But dude, you could not walk on the grass. They were adamant. There was all kinds of tape and stuff, just 'Do not walk on the grass, please.'"
It became a running joke with Davidson's Richard Terry.
"What would happen is, when they were getting set up in the morning or finishing at the end of the day, our own students walk across the grass — it's not like it's a rule here that you don't walk on the grass. And (the cast and crew) would sometimes look at us and say, 'He's gettin' to walk on the grass.' And I would say, 'He pays a lot of money to be able walk on this grass,'" Terry says, laughing. "You didn't pay enough."
Charlotteans might also recognize...
Davidson College and that shot of the city's skyline are hardly the only marks the Charlotte area made on "American Animals."
According to the North Carolina Film Office, filming locations included Johnson C. Smith University; UNC Charlotte; Charlotte Douglas International Airport; the Workman’s Friend gastropub, the Diamond Restaurant and Snug Harbor music club in Plaza Midwood; Sav/Way Foods in east Charlotte; Wan Fu Restaurant in south Charlotte; Zack’s Hamburgers on South Boulevard; Mooresville Jewelry & Loan Pawn Shop and New Korner Pub in Mooresville; the American Legion Post 144 in Belmont.
There's also a scene late in the film that was shot at Fifth and Tryon streets in uptown Charlotte. In this case, Tryon Street is actually standing in for Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, where the guys have gone to get their take appraised by Christie's Auction House. Two of them get out of a car and head up the sidewalk on Tryon, then after the next cut, the two are actually in front of Christie's in New York. They head toward the entrance, then the scene cuts to the inside of "Christie's" — which is actually the inside of the Jerald Melberg Gallery on Sharon Amity Road.
Ah, movie magic.
(By the way, the scene on Tryon Street was shot on a sunny day, but extras carried umbrellas as fake rain came down on them. Layton says he wanted it to be raining because there's a tense scene inside a car after the Christie's meeting, and "I wanted that claustrophobia of the car, and then the rain, so it felt like you couldn't really get out and it felt oppressive.")
Of course, ultimately, the biggest magic trick Layton has pulled off with "American Animals" isn't about Charlotte looking like Lexington, but rather his clever re-invention of the based-on-true-events genre.
"We're so used to seeing the movies where it says 'based on a true story' at the beginning, and then you have that sneaking suspicion that probably a huge amount of artistic license was taken by the writer or director," he says. "But this is such an insane story it didn't really need to be fabricated.
"And by including the real people, you engage with it in a very different way. It's a very visceral experience when you're watching it because you're not suspending belief, you are absolutely in it, and you have skin in the game in a way. The consequences are real and the people are real. I wanted you as an audience to have that sense of, 'Holy crap, this really happened.'"