THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Q and A with Director/Screenwriter Jacques Audiard
Q: How did this project come about?
Jacques Audiard: Under unusual circumstances, for me. In this case, the idea
from myself but from John C. Reilly and the producer Alison Dickey, who is
We all met in 2012 at the Toronto Film Festival, where my film Rust and Bone was
screened. They asked me to read Patrick deWitt's book because they had obtained
rights. I did read it, and it got me enthusiastic. I didn't realize it at the
time, but this
was the first instance where someone recommended material that I responded to.
until then, I was always working from my own ideas or a novel I had read - so,
generating my own movies. I should add that, left to my own devices, I would
have happened on deWitt's book or would have thought to try making a Western. I
already at work writing Dheepan, which was my next film.
Q: You weren't harboring a desire to make an authentic Western movie?
JA: Frankly, no. I haven't felt a connection with the genre. The ones that
me the most were the Western "in decline," more or less post-modern works; for
example, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks.
Among the more classical Westerns, it would be the same, as I was more
movies about the twilight of the West, ones that critique...perhaps, the genre
Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn. Dramatically, the
Western is very linear and without suspense, although epic. In my work, I feel I
been drawn to stories that are more fraught...
Q: You gravitate to very personal intimate stories.
JA: Yes, and the book had the strong theme of brotherhood, so I guess that
in. It's hard to say. The element of fraternity is a motif common enough to
linked to the legacy of violence dating back to one's ancestors and how to
With that, you're never far from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is
more and no less than arriving at a state of democracy. All the vestigial
is one going to quell that moving forward?
So for me, what distinguishes THE SISTERS BROTHERS is that this mythology has
addressed - and as a conversation between two brothers. This is a Western taking
before Freudian analysis: two brothers talk and talk, finally saying things
said before. Normally, that might happen in a living room and on a couch; here,
happening on horseback.
The Sisters brothers are active talkers and ruthless killers, and it is that
mixture which made telling this story so attractive. Also appealing was how dark
could make it - like a fairy tale of two children lost in the forest but moving
Because there had to be a worthwhile conflict for the two brothers together,
the key changes we made in the adaptation was expanding the characters of Warm
Morris, the idealist and the dandy. They were in the book, but as very simple
characters. In the movie, coming up against the brothers' mentality and
take stands for a more modern world and a more utopian outlook.
Q: A lot of Westerns are about morality, from at least one of the characters'
perspective; in THE SISTERS BROTHERS, there manifests a clear moral horizon that
draws one brother.
JA: Yes, Eli's point of view is shifting along the way. The movie's objective
through the character of Warm, whose convictions start to seduce people - one
another. That was a big part of writing the adaptation. We took real-life
from the Saint-Simonians who migrated across the United States in the 19th
European pre-socialists who were going to establish a new society.
Q: So the movie was never going to be a simple meditation on the genre.
JA: That comes into it, but when you're making a movie you're in your own
cognizant of images you see, books you read, conversations you have, everyday
The question arises: in this day and age what is a Western, exactly? We can
camps. There are ones that are classically made like Appaloosa and Open Range
carry reverence for archetypes, landscapes, etc. The other way is Quentin
approach: irony, more contemporary ultra-violence. For THE SISTERS BROTHERS it
seems to me that we went a third route: quieting down the Western.
Q: There come to be parallel duos: the brothers on one side, Warm and Morris
as another. The viewer imagines the movie building up to them all meeting in a
resolution, a final confrontation. But they meet up and things don't happen in
JA: The encounter of both parties on the banks of the river took on new
and additional weight, because we had made Warm and Morris into fuller
With most Westerns, it's more basic conflicts and revelations; here, there is
evolution and emotional responses you haven't seen in this context.
Q: Now, to recreate North America, you had to film in Spain and Romania.
JA: It was our call, and not just because of budgeting. We saw some wonderful
in the U.S. on the West Coast, and in Alberta, Canada, where the television
Deadwood shot. But you get to these locales and they're camera-ready: the big
the mountains, the constructed town sets...These have been seen many times. I felt
needed to be more inventive. What's at stake for me as director is the reality.
through this on A Prophet, where we had visited real prisons in France,
and Belgium; you would get documentary, yet not so much real and natural
Q: Your films have increasingly explored the need for reinvention of the self
a stranger to oneself and others.
JA: And for myself, with each movie it's vital to find the means of placing
yourself in a
situation that engages you in a different way, has you work in a different way;
not always a given. Dheepan was making a movie with nonprofessional actors, from
elsewhere, speaking Tamil. In a way, THE SISTERS BROTHERS doubled the challenge:
filming a Western in English, in Spain and Romania, with American and British
Q: What was your feeling about for the first time making a movie with
JA: I've always somehow sensed that I wouldn't be able to make a movie in the
for organizational and logistical reasons. But there are many actors undeniably
compelling to work with, who register onscreen for the audience with presence
What I found, working with them on THE SISTERS BROTHERS, is a real commitment
one that never lets up. Jake Gyllenhaal said to me, "I've read up a lot on the
But in your opinion, Jacques, how would someone who had studied at a premier
Coast university in the 19th century express himself? What would his phrasing be
I was glad to be asked, but, how to respond? Well, Jake went off to work with a
for a month and then returned with the script phonetically annotated. All he
needed was the costuming. This was a first for me.
With these actors, they arrive ready with the character's approach to life,
ascertained how the character comports himself sitting down and how he behaves
the company of others - whether or not they look at someone when speaking to
They know where the camera is, why it's being situated there, how they're going
show up onscreen or in the frame, and what details of their expressions are
going to be
captured. I found this impressive and, electrifying, even. We could be in for a
of shooting, yet every morning I was incredibly relieved to come to work and see
Q: How is it directing Joaquin Phoenix?
JA: Joaquin is the most charming man I've ever met. He said to me right away,
"Jacques, I am not a professional actor." Well, it's hard to take that statement
as he's been in front of the camera since age eight...At the end of each take, he
waiting for you to go to him and tell him how it was and what needs to be
the next one. If I would tell him, "It's good," he still questions it.
Q: What is the basic dynamic between the brothers, one older and one younger?
JA: I loved filming the two of them together, particularly since John is
younger is the boss of them. It's a biblical motif that the older has lost his
He has some growing up to do that will engage the viewer. These are hardened
- but at the base of their being, they're still around 12 years old; something
in time for them from youth. They can only function as a duo, but there is
unresolved from their childhood...or, perhaps, viciously resolved.
Q: The way the film comes to an end is ironic and recalls a bit the close of
JA: Addressing violence, and moving on, was present in Dheepan, as someone -
it was Juliette Welfling [the film editor on both movies] - reminded me; there's
probably overlap because I knew I was going to do THE SISTERS BROTHERS while
planning and making Dheepan. At the end of THE SISTERS BROTHERS, everyone finds
or rediscovers - their true place.
I've never had to film a movie as out of sequence as I did on this one. But I
the ending be shot last, so that everyone could feed on the memory of the movie
had made. I waited to go over things with the actors on the morning of that last
it would play out as a true completion.
The ending is not meant to be dreamlike; it is actually happening. But the
the sequence takes, as we filmed it, does have a kind of unreality. We're very
subjectively with Eli, in the moment, as he feels the sensations.
Q: Speaking of which, how was it collaborating with cinematographer Benoit
JA: I had admired his filming for Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noe. Benoit first
foremost wanted to shoot in 35mm; he's one of the few cinematographers today who
seeks to impart color into an image, rather than the de-saturated,
that's become the standard with digital.
What came about is a palette that's dark, but when there is light it is very
sometimes even outside. We kept in mind "tin pans," those daguerrotypes done on
metal plates in the 19th century, enhanced by red velvet or green or -
enough - gold.
Q: Was there any discussion of fashioning the movie visually after other
JA: Again, that's just not what had fascinated me. Many filmmakers get caught
technical issues or re-creations but unless they help me prosaically I try not
The remarkable images that I have seen in the past 10 years are not in cinema
contemporary art. We would like to maintain an intimate rapport with heritage,
the tools and the representation of reality have changed. This is a grand - and
contemporary - paradox.
Q: You have dedicated the film to your own brother, who disappeared at age
remembering a brother, does this right away take one back to childhood?
JA: In my case, it does. For a family of two brothers, when one disappears,
becomes the only son and the eldest. All the responsibility that was his now
you; it's like an inheritance. You realize how you were comfortable in taking
behind him. In an instant, you have all of the inconveniences of the first
are without advantages. And you are alone.
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