The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Sisters Brothers.
John, how did you find the book?
JOHN C. REILLY: Actually my wife found the book. She and I were working on a film called Terri at the time with Azazel Jacobs, a great New York filmmaker. Patrick DeWitt had written the script for that movie based on some short stories that he had written. At the end of it, Alison Dickey asked him if he had any other writing or anything in the pipeline. He said that he had this manuscript that hadn’t even gone to the publisher yet. She read it and just devoured it in a day. And, she brought it to me and said, “You have to read this! The character of Eli is like Patrick was thinking of you!” He wasn’t. (laughs) It just turned out that way. Then, I read it, and it just seemed like such a filmic idea right away. The landscapes and the adventure these guys go on, and it was also shockingly vulnerable for a Western. The fact that you get a sense emotionally what’s going on with these guys was just…wow. When you read the book, the character Eli is kind of the narrator. A lot of his inner monologues kind of tell you what’s going on in the story. So, that’s how it started. We just realized that we had to make this into a movie. I’ve never done that before, and I might never do it again. It worked out really well on this one! Why not quit while you’re ahead. So, we approached Jacques Audiard, which was also Alison’s idea. We had been following his films all along. If you’ve seen A Prophet or Rust and Bone, you know this guy is among the best in the world. Then, it just turned out that he was eager to work with English speaking actors just because it was a new thing for him. I don’t think he was especially interested in a Western. He was intrigued by the story and the familial relationships. Anyone who has had siblings can relate to some of the squabbling and the love/hate dynamic of the brothers in the film. In the book, the final third is when you finally meet Warm and Morris. But, Jacques realized those were very compelling characters, so he moved them up into the story so that you’re tracking them as you’re tracking the brothers. So, he really made this delicately balanced quartet out of a book that was told through the voice of my character. That was a very long answer.
“in life things are not what they appear to be. That’s the lesson for today.”
How did you pick Jacques Audiard out of all the directors you could have gone to?
JR: Well, there’s amputations in both A Prophet and Rust and Bone. But, we thought of Jacques, because he’s one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. We promised Patrick DeWitt that we’d do our very best to get the best people we could get to make this film. And, miraculously it all came together. Here we are seven years later sharing the movie with people. Jacques initially seems like a counter-intuitive choice. He’s the first Frenchman to direct a Western. There was only one other who directed a series of them in the 1920’s, but they were in French and shot in France. So, yeah, initially you think that this Western American story and having a European do it is a counter-intuitive idea. But, he’s a great filmmaker. And, if you really study the area it was a very multicultural time in America. There were people pouring in from all over the world. It was like a Tower of Babel of languages that were going on in San Francisco. I hope we capture a little bit of that in the film. This idea that a European would be good to tell the story suddenly just appeared to us. There’s no reason to make another The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. There’s been so many great Westerns done, and a lot of them are based on myths that we hold onto ourselves as Americans in the West. It’s a lot more interesting than that, actually, what was going on. The actual historical details are very interesting. That appealed to Jacques. He said that he didn’t want to do a Western. He saw it as a period piece. It’s about two brothers and their relationship and what’s happening in their world at the time. It’s not really about the good guys and the bad guys and the white hats and the black hats. I think one of his chief concerns was to make a film that was relevant to our time. The feedback that we’ve gotten back on the film so far is that it is very relevant. Our world right now feels like a world at a tipping point. We have to decide what we are going to do now. We come from this past, and if we’re honest about it, it’s a past of genocide and of the strong subjugating the weak. But, that’s not a sustainable plan for the future.
As a producer on the film, can you talk about the struggles of shooting abroad?
JR: Turns out you can’t just march into Yosemite with some horses and light some fires. It’s a lot tougher to shoot in some of the places we were looking for. There were a number of reasons at play. Number one was that Jacques was not so keen to abandon his whole team in Europe and go to Canada or America to try and make a film with a whole new group of people. Staying in Europe was one way to do that. And, then…Spain is just an incredible place. I had been to Barcelona before, but I have to say if you haven’t spent much time in Spain, then go! It’s unbelievable. First of all, there’s no billboards in Spain. None. Zero. So, when you’re driving around the countryside of Spain, it’s just the countryside. Imagine that! It’s a radical idea for Americans to think about. But, this idea that the landscape is basically unchanged. Then, there’s all this geographic variety there. Once all of the scout photographs started to come in from Spain and Romania, Jacques started to think that it wasn’t just possible. It was preferable. There’s all these vistas that haven’t been shot before. I think Spain was another great way to put a twist on it.
What was it like adapting the novel?
THOMAS BIDEGAIN: Well, as you’ll find out when you hear Jacques, we had to write in French. We actually wrote the adaptation in France. We even sent the screenplay to Patrick, the author of the book to check out the music of the dialogue and stuff like that. It’s the first time that Jacques got offered something and didn’t start it himself.
JACQUES AUDIARD: Absolutely. And, I loved that.
TB: So, actually the novel is written a lot in first person. It’s the inner voice of Eli. So, we had to find ways to transport that on the screen and keep a movie with a solid drive. We developed the characters of Maurice and Warm a lot. One of the differences there is the “utopia” which is not in the book. The utopia gives an added level of story, because if they didn’t have the utopia they would only talk about the gold. They would only talk about money, and money is just a stepping stone for something bigger. So, it’s actually the story of two guys chasing one guy chasing one guy who is chasing an idea. That’s the story of the movie.
Can you talk about the benefits and challenges from working with a multilingual crew?
JA: I don’t know if it was a challenge for me. I wanted to work with American actors for a while, but not to shoot in America. I wasn’t ready for that yet.
ALISON DICKEY: From the production standpoint we had the French team, and then we had a crew from Spain when we were in Spain. Our hair, makeup and wardrobe are from Italy. We had Milena Canonero who is amazing, a great costume designer.
TB: She did Barry Lyndon.
AD: She did Clockwork Orange, and she works with Wes Anderson right now. She is unstoppable. So, we had all these languages behind the scenes, and I also think it was an interesting reflection on Jacques take on the gold rush which was a community filled with immigrants. We had an interesting year between the extras, just gazillions of Chinese people. It was just fantastic. The result of that was that I think everyone had to speak with a lot of intention. You had to make sure you were using your words carefully and understood. I just thought that was a beautiful way to build a film community.
JA: I think that question should be asked to the first AD.
TB: He was the hero of the whole production.
JR: At a time of such strife in the world between countries and political parties, the fact that we put together this movie with French, Belgian, Spanish, Romanians, Americans, Italians is something that we are really proud of. We found a way to bridge all these differences for a unified vision.
JA: The set looked like the first days of America.
Jacques, can you talk about working with your cinematographer?
JA: I’ve seen his work, and I’ve been following his work for a long time through the films of Gaspar Noe and Harmony Korine. Very early in the process, we wanted to do it in black and white. The reference we had for this film was The Night of the Hunter. Cortez, the director of photography, used a lot of high contrast, and the equivalent for me was a lot of colors. I wanted the strong colors, and for the me the only DP that would work so well with color was Benoit Debie. Almost to bad taste. He uses a lot of color.
Even with that emphasis on color, though, the film starts with darkness.
JA: We think that, more than a western, this is really a fairy tale. So, it starts in the dark.
TB: We even worked, at one point, on a version of the screenplay that was all at night. We thought it would all be shot at night.
JR: Thank god that didn’t happen.
TB: And, then they get to the Mother at the end and the sun rises. We stopped that conversation when the producer got involved. Nights are hard. You need days and nights in order to know that time is passing.
How do you keep track of the multiple tones in the film?
JA: Well, we never know if it’s going to work. We write stories that will really evolve during the movie. The genre will evolve and the story will evolve also. So, when I end up in the editing room I have a lot of different material to work with. I like the idea that we are following characters and the form of the movie will evolve at the same time as the characters. The form becomes dramatic.
JR: That is a great attribute of all of Jacques’s films I think. That idea of balance that you’re talking about. Alison and I were in Los Angeles as different cuts were coming in, it was amazing to see how just a little too much of one scene, even like five seconds or something, would throw the balance of something off. It really is a masterfully done balancing act between these four people. Once you commit to getting to know four people over the course of the story, it requires a lot of playing with the light and the dark.
TB: I think there is only one rule when it comes to screenwriting: things are not what they appear to be. So, it’s the case with the story, but it’s also the case with the characters. They are not who they appear to be. It has to be the case with the movie, itself. It’s not the genre it appears to be. You think it’s a Western? Maybe, it’s a comedy? You think it’s a fairy tale, and then it’s a Western. It has to evolve. That’s the only rule.
JA: That’s how it also resembles life, because in life things are not what they appear to be. That’s the lesson for today.