Sisters Brothers: Interviews with the Actors of Jacques Audiard’s Award-Winning Western, Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal

The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard’s Facinating English Speaking Western

Interviews with John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jacques Audiar, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Thomas Bidegai

Genesis of Project 

John C. Reilly: We had kind of a diplomatic détente here in Toronto. The French mafia came over, the American mafia came over and my wife Alison Dickey and I, Jacques was here I think with Rust and Bone and we went to this restaurant and it wasn’t open during the day but we got them to open it and so we sat in this empty restaurant together. It really was like a mafia summit or something. And despite Jacques initial suspicions of these strangers bearing gifts it was the beginning of a great thing.

Thomas Bidegai: I want to work with American actors and actresses for a long time. Even before the idea came to make a Western I wanted to work with American actors.

American Western?

Thomas Bidegai:  It’s not my idea, it was John’s.

John C. Reilly:  It was Alison’s (my wife)

Wild Guy in Old West

Joaquin Phoenix: I guess it just felt there was something unique and different. Typically I don’t really fucking know Westerns but how I think of them, I think of characters that are always really stoic and there was something about these characters where they had these really vibrant personalities. I think there was something interesting about that. I wanted to work with Jacques and John and I wasn’t doing anything else.

Riz Ahmed’s Unusual Role

Riz Ahmed: I really enjoyed playing this character. I kind of got to learn a lot about what was going on at this time in America. It was like, it’s really idealistic moment where lots of people trying to start communes and it was almost like communism before communism and all these people coming over from Europe and starting all these kind of idealistic utopian societies or at least trying to. So I learned a lot about that and that was pretty interesting. Kind of interesting how it resonated with what’s happening in California now where there’s a different kind of gold rush happening and these idealistic people in Silicon Valley going, we can save the world and make a better tomorrow with our technology. So it kind of felt very relevant to today but also an opportunity to learn about some stuff I didn’t really know a lot about.

Woman in Unsettling Scenes

Rebecca Root: loved my character, Mayfield.  In the book, Mayfield was a male character so I felt that it was a pretty wonderful opportunity for a female voice in this very macho world. But there’s something about my Mayfield who is kind of tough and I kind of styled her a little bit on Margaret Thatcher, dare I say that? That’s kind of sort of authoritarian yet could be the mother of the town.

Men Traumatized by Youth

John C. Reilly: That is one of the more interesting things about the characters. Even though they look like these filthy brutes that are murderers for a living, which is what they are, they’re actually pretty well educated and they have these somewhat-

John C. Reilly: They’re actually pretty well educated, and they have these somewhat intellectual conversations all of the time with each other, so I think they use that thing of judging a book by its cover to their advantage, to always have the jump on people because assume that they’re less intelligent than they are.  Kind of like me and Joaquin. So we just spent time together, really. Joaquin pointed out before, these guys have spent their entire lives together, and since the time they left home, it’s been really only the two of them every night, every ride, every meal. We had a lot of catching up to do, so we just tried to spend as much time together as possible.

Joaquin Phoenix:     It was great for me. I think it was more difficult for John, but he’s very patient and understanding, so we made it through, didn’t we sis?

Siblings Psychological Dynamics

Audiard (translated by Thomas Bidegai): It appeared to me very early in the process. They’re tough guys, they’re killers. They’re worn out. They’re just children. Twelve year-old children. That’s what it appeared to me. So for me, it’s more like a fairy tale than a western.

Western Landscape

Audiard: I’m not very interested in landscapes. I’m not a governor, but I like actors.

Material Cinematic Potential?

Thomas Bidegai: The book is told from the first-person. It’s really about Eli, and we had to find situations that would allow the character to stand out so we can see as an audience his inner-life coming, and his new approach to the world. Also, we needed … there are actually two couples in the film. There’s the Sisters brothers and then there’s Maurice and Warm … Warm is over there … in the novel, Maurice and Warm are out there, but they’re more casual maybe, and they’re not as present as they are in the film right now.

Reilly’s First Producing Credit

John C. Reilly: I have to first of all give credit where credit is due, although I am technically a producer on the film, my wife, Alison Dickey, it was her idea in the first place. She was working with Patrick DeWitt, she found the book, she suggested Jacques, so she was the initial momentum for the project.

There’s lots of producers on the film. We each have our strengths, and I did my bit where I could. I think, yes, the book would’ve been made into a film without us, because the book is a very compelling piece of work, and it’s a great piece of Canadian literature. We knew that it was a very filmic idea, the book, but we also were friends with Patrick, the author. So, we know what can happen in this process of books becoming movies, and oftentimes they get twisted into an unrecognizable shape, so as a friend to Patrick, I think that’s one of the reasons he trusted us with the book was we said, “Pat, we’ll try our very hardest to make a great film out of this. We’ll find the very best people we can, and please trust us.”

Casting Riz and Jake Gyllenhaal

John C. Reilly:  All of the decisions on the filmmaking, whether it was cast or costume or whatever, every single aspect in the great French tradition were made by the director. So, I think Jacques could speak to that better than I could.

Thomas Bidegai: I discovered Riz in the “Night Off”. I have not seen the film with Jake and Riz together.

Riz Ahmed:  I guess me and Jake were kind of joking that it felt like a kind of sequel for us, because we’re double act again and we’re on the road, but instead of in a car, we’re on horseback. I guess it’s interesting with the same people again several times. You develop a kind of shorthand, some of that whole getting to know each other stuff you can just get past.

That was cool creatively, just having a common ground to start off with. But it was interesting in a way that the dynamic was kind of reversed almost from “Nightcrawler”, or at least it was a bit blurrier in terms of who was in charge or who was kind of guiding them.

Joaquin Phoenix–Four Movies this Year

Joaquin Phoenix: There was nothing that I was really interested in for several years, and then there were four projects that I couldn’t say no to. That’s really it.  It wasn’t any grand design. It just worked out that way.

Toronto Film Festival

Thomas Bidegai:  What’s so special about Toronto for me is that it’s on the American continent. Maybe in Europe we have that in Cannes, but as big and radical as here, it’s only in Toronto.  There’s no competition here.

Riz Ahmed’s Character

Riz Ahmed: I just loved this character. He’s just someone who’s trying to make the world a better place, and he’s such an optimist. I think I can sometimes be a bit of cynic, or at least a bit skeptical. I think that’s like the British perspective, it’s a bit like looking at everything a bit skeptical.  I don’t know if I felt like I related to him that much going into it, but by the end I felt like, “Yeah, that can be a kind of nice way of looking at the world.” Instead of seeing everything that’s broken, looking at all of the opportunities there are to fix things and stuff. He’s just someone who really cares about trying to make a positive impact, and I guess that I tried to take that on.

John C. Reilly: My wife Allison and I were working on a film called Terri, an independent film directed by Azazel Jacobs. Correct me if I’m wrong but we met Pat because of Azazel.  So Azazel was already friends with the novelist Patrick deWitt from Los Angeles, where Pat lived for a long time. He lives in Portland now I think. Pat had written this manuscript that was going to be turned into a book for Terry. Rather than make it into a book, he just transitioned it directly into a screenplay of that film, at the urging of Azia and Allison. And then I got to know him pretty well through the course of making that film. And then he has this other manuscript that was not a book yet, which was destined to become a book. He gave it to us at the end of that project. I just saw Pat last night. Our relationship is great. He’s a very sensitive and intellectually curious guy. He chooses his words very carefully. In some ways the way the dialogue is in the book is similar to the way Pat speaks. He’s very deliberate with his choice of words like a great author would be.

John C. Reilly: I just feel an enormous debt of gratitude for him for coming up with this idea in the first place. We had this great moment where Pat and his … Some of his family came to visit us in Romania, and he said to me, “You know John it’s really … It’s a really gratifying moment as a father,” because his son was with him to say … For his son to be able to look on the set of the San Francisco set and say like, “Dad, all of this happen because you came up with an idea.” That’s a humbling moment for anybody, and it was a special thing to share with Pat.

Novelist Patrick deWitt

Thomas Bidegai: We actually met with Patrick in Paris. He came for [inaudible 00:22:18]. We met and we talked a lot, and he read the screen play also when it was finished. It was really interesting. There’s one thing that is not in the book is the utopia, the idea of the utopia, that socialist utopia. We were very happy that he enjoyed that, that he liked this idea, that is really the icing on the cake of all that story, that just not talk about gold all the time. Gold is just the stepping stone. There’s an idea behind that. So he enjoyed that and we were happy about that.

True to Book’s Original Vision

Thomas Bidegai: It’s a long process, the adaptation, because the charm of the book is really a literary one. It takes us time to get away from the book.  It’s a second time we adapt a Canadian writer.  Rust and Bone was based on a short story of Craig Davidson. And now it’s Patrick deWitt. Like the song, you know that song? It’s better to run to Toronto. Do you know that? It’s a nice song.

Best Advice to Emerging Artists

Thomas Bidegai:  I hear a voice in the dark. Sometimes I think is god.  So god, what do you want to know?I don’t think if I can really talk about this now.  It’s a responsibility, to answer that question.  I have to take drugs.  It’s a joke.  It is always surprising for me.  Cinema is really about images, and it’s incredible how it always ends up being a work of writing.

John C. Reilly:  Don’t assume that there isn’t a place for you in this world. There is, there is, but you have to make it. You have to make your place in this world. I come from a background in Chicago where I looked at the movies like this foreign country, there was no place for me there. And just through trying and staying optimistic and trying to grow as an actor, or as a human being, I made a place for myself at the table.

Rehearsal Schedule

Thomas Bidegai: There was not any rehearsal or time.  We just shot.

John C. Reilly: We did one day of reading through the scenes, but it was almost obligatory, just so we can say, “All right, we’ve done our rehearsal. Can we get on with it now?”

Most Intimidating Scene

Joaquin Phoenix: Every scene.

John C. Reilly:  It was a very demanding film to make. Every day was a challenge. There were many different dangerous things. There were many complicated things. Those horses are very unpredictable, you know?

Thomas Bidegai: To confess today, it’s like a public confession.  It’s rare for me but every morning I was extremely enthusiastic about meeting with them. It’s very sincere. Sometimes I was tired. But I loved to see them in the morning. In the afternoon it was different. But in the morning …