Sisters Brothers, The: Interview with Director-Scribe Jacques Audiard about his Western, Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal

Origins of Project

Jacques Audiard: In this case, the idea for the project didn’t actually come from me, it came from John C. Reilly and his wife Alison Dickey, the producer. We met in 2012 at the Toronto Film Festival, where Rust and Bone was screened. They asked me to read Patrick de Witt’s novel, which they owned the rights for. I read it and was enthused. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the first time someone came to me with a subject that I liked. Before that, I had always started from one of my own ideas, or a novel I had read.  The initiative always came from me. Not this time. I might add that if I had stumbled across De Witt’s novel by chance, if someone hadn’t asked me to take a look at it, I would never have embarked on doing a Western off my own bat. In the meantime I made Dheepan, because the script was already underway. At the end of the day, all that took me to lots of different and unexpected places.

Desire to Make Western?

JA: Frankly, no. I don’t have a knowledgeable relationship with the genre. The proof being that the Westerns I’ve found most interesting are basically the westerns of the “decline”, or at least the postmodern ones: Arthur Penn’s films, for example, Little Big Man as much as Missouri Breaks. The same goes for the classics, I’m drawn more to the twilight works, which hold a criticism of something—of the genre itself: Rio Bravo, Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn. In dramatic terms, Westerns are very linear and epic, there’s no suspense. In my work to date I think I have been drawn to tighter stories, to screenplays that are more “efficient”.

Personal Themes

JA: Or else it’s the presence of these familiar themes of filiation and brotherhood that instantly made the book appeal to me. Who knows? These themes are present in any event, they’re part of the relatively common motifs in Westerns: the legacy of violence passed down by your ancestors, how to control it… You’re never far from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, which is about the arrival of democracy, no less. How are we going to manage to soothe all this original violence? The thing that makes The Sisters Brothers different is that this mythology boils down to the conversations between two brothers.

No Interest in Landscape as Territory of the Genre

JA: This is a pre-Freud, pre-analytical Western. Two brothers talk and talk and end up saying things they never said before. Normally that should take place in a drawing room, here it takes place on horseback. The Sisters brothers are incorrigible chatterboxes but also ruthless killers, and the charm of the novel lies in this unexpected mix between the two. We were rapidly taken with the idea of leading the story toward a kind of macabre fairy tale. Two kids lost in the forest; they progress in an imagery composed of chromos, in stages, they are heading toward something. Since we had to find an opposition between the two brothers, one of the big tasks of the adaptation was the development of the characters Warm (Riz Ahmed) and Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), the idealist and the dandy. They existed in the novel, but in a way that was more simply comic. We made them into characters of the modern world, purveyors of utopia, the complete opposite of the two brothers.

Westerns as Films with Moral Viewpoint

JA: In The Sisters Brothers, there’s a moral horizon that a character decides to head toward. One of the brothers will change his approach as the story unfolds. Expressing the film’s objective through Warm—the idealist whose convictions will seduce character after character, most especially Eli—was our biggest task with the adaption. That and cutting out dialogs! There was a story in that utopia that we could tell, especially since it was founded on the highly documented accounts of the Saint-Simonians, who crossed the United States in the 19th century, all that European pre-Socialism that went to the US in search of a new society.

The film never contents itself with being simply a reflection on the Western genre. But we can’t not reflect on the genre either. When you set out to do any kind of film, you think about the project in relation to your experience, the images you see, the books you read, the conversations you have, the things you think about on a daily basis. It is all taken into account to determine the relevance of that particular project over another. Whereabouts in the great image-making system will the film you’re about to make stand? It’s not a question of subject matter. You never say to yourself: “Oh, that’s a good subject!” No, you ask why it is a good subject… So what is a Western today? To put it simply, you can see two trends. On the one hand there’s a neoclassical side—Appaloosa, Open Range—films that reactivate a mythology, with a certain reverence for the archetypes, landscapes, etc. And on the other there’s a Tarantino-type approach: ironic, ultraviolent, applying the codes of violence of contemporary cinema to Westerns. We steered toward a third way, I think: the appeased Western.

Story Told in Parallels

The brothers on the one side, the duo of Warm and Morris on the other. The viewer imagines that the culmination of the story will be the point where they meet, the final confrontation, but far from it: when they meet, a whole other movie begins. By creating Warm and Morris pretty much from scratch, at least in their utopian characteristics and their political depth, we realized that when the two paths meet around the river, it takes on a totally different dimension, a different weight. Especially for Eli’s character. It’s like in one go he’s offered a different way of thinking, with a new life horizon, which makes him challenge his brother’s authority. Normally in a Western, you rescue a girl from the Indians, you see cattle drivers and farmers fighting, everything is simple and linear. Here we assert something that is less clear. We’re in a Western where the cowboy cries when his horse dies, the hero jerks off while thinking about the girl he left behind back home, where a toothbrush becomes a communication tool, a sign of evolution.

Shooting in Spain and Romania

It was intentional. We scouted for locations in the US, along the route from Oregon to San Francisco which ends at the Pacific, all these totally fabulous places. Then we scouted in Alberta in Canada, where the series Deadwood was shot. Beyond the issue of cost, the thing that bothered me was that when you get there, all the decors are there, intact, all preserved in an impeccable state. And you ask yourself, “how many times have I seen this?” The big sky, the pioneer villages… all these decors are available, with the mountains in the background, the depth of perspective… All you have to do is hire the spaces! It struck us that we needed to be more inventive than that. What’s at stake here is the relationship you have with reality as a movie director. I had already experienced that with A Prophet, where I had visited real prisons in France, Belgium and Switzerland: all that reality does not help to see the film. At best it leads to a documentary; it doesn’t drive you to make a real cinematic gesture, or to be inventive.