In today's celebrity-at-any-cost culture, most folks would be thrilled to know that a movie about their lives is about to released.
But for recent Temple grad Warren Lipka, now living in Queen Village, the feelings are decidedly mixed.
The last time his story was told in a high-profile public way — a 2007 article in Vanity Fair magazine — it meant Lipka would spend four months in solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary.
At the time, Lipka was doing seven years of hard time for his role in the theft of valuable books and art from Transylvania University — a misbegotten heist that is now the subject of the film American Animals, starring American Horror Story's Evan Peters as Lipka and Dunkirk's Barry Keoghan as one of his co-conspirators. It hits theaters Friday.
Prosecutors who saw the article felt Lipka exhibited a rather flagrant lack of remorse, and the next thing Lipka knew, he was in solitary.
"It upset somebody," he said. "They took it as us not taking our punishment seriously."
Lipka says he takes it seriously now. So much so that he's become an advocate of prison reform and would like to apply his new degree — he graduated a few weeks ago — toward advancing that goal. He learned a lot at school, and quite a bit while embedded in the production of American Animals, which mixes documentary and dramatization to tell the story of Lipka, his collaborators, and their crime.
Though Peters plays Lipka, director Bart Layton (The Imposter) often hits pause to allow the real-life Lipka (and others) to comment – on camera – about what they were thinking at the time of the events depicted.
For Lipka, that process of reliving his crime has never ebbed. Making and watching the movie intensified those feelings.
"It's super-weird because what [Layton] was doing is so original, but in another way it's familiar territory for me, because it's revisiting who I was and what I did back then, coming to terms with what I have done — that's a very real thing for me. It's not an exercise," he said.
In 2004, Lipka was a restive, alienated kid at the University of Kentucky, squandering a soccer scholarship. He hung out with high school pal Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan), an art major at nearby Transylvania University. They smoked, killed time, dreamed of a way to break what they regarded as the mundane trajectory of their lives. Reinhard mentioned a collection of lightly guarded rare books and art at the university library, and the two, while watching Hollywood heist movies, started kicking around the idea of stealing from the $20 million collection. Speculative plans became actual plans, the plan became a dry run, the dry run became a crime – a botched affair that landed them in prison.
The Vanity Fair piece notwithstanding, post-prison Lipka is remorseful and says he accepts and owns the magnitude — a defenseless woman was injured — and consequences of his crime. So much so that Layton told Peters and others not to contact the men they'd be playing.
Peters violated that rule immediately.
"It was too important to me. I'm playing a real guy, I have a chance to contact him. I had to do it. I wanted to know what he was thinking, but I also wanted to soak up his energy," Peters said. "And Warren does have this unique energy. In many ways, he becomes the driving force behind what happened, and you can understand why. He has this charisma. The other guys wanted to be around him, to impress him."
As the Peters-Lipka back-and-forth took place, via social media and over the phone, Lipka was taking film classes, discussing the boundaries of cinema while working on a movie that pushed them.
"It was strange, sitting there with classmates, talking about the elements of the narrative form, knowing all the different directions that Bart was going, and the things he was trying," he said.
Watching the finished American Animals was "uncomfortable territory," he said, because of the "super-intimate" way the movie revisits the harrowing events of the heist gone wrong – Lipka zapping a female librarian (Ann Dowd) with a stun device. On camera, asked to comment on the moment, Lipka breaks down.
"My punishment was just," he said. "But at the end of the day, it's a story about a part of my life. A part of my life from years ago. Now I'm in Philadelphia, in a city that will welcome you as long as you show determination and grit. I've met a lot of people who have been actually super-warm and inviting."
That's not unanimous. After prison, he spent time in a halfway house in the city where a few folks were "not warm and inviting." Temple, on the other hand, was wonderful, he says.
"It gave me backbone. I'm not kidding. It provided structure, and I was able to build a lot of healthy relationships," he said. "That's kind of ironic, because my first experience with college, that's where I started rebelling."
Lipka, when he's not walking his dogs in Queen Village, is working on behalf of the movie. He hopes the people who see it will understand the sobering consequences of the kind of trouble he invited.
There but for the grace of God, Peters said.
"When I think of all the dumb [crap] I did, or almost did, growing up with my friends in St. Louis, I relate to Warren. And I think this is a movie a lot of people can relate to."
When the movie's rollout is complete, Lipka reiterated that he wants to get involved in the prison reform movement.
"Ninety-seven percent of people who go to prison eventually come out. And from what I could tell, there's zero rehabilitation that occurs in prison," he said. "We need to figure out a better way to help people get back on their feet."