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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 came not from myself but from John C. Reilly and the producer Alison Dickey, who is John's wife. We all met in 2012 at the Toronto Film Festival, where my film Rust and Bone was being screened. They asked me to read Patrick deWitt's book because they had obtained the 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. Up 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 never have happened on deWitt's book or would have thought to try making a Western. I was 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 had interested 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 interested in movies about the twilight of the West, ones that critique...perhaps, the genre itself: Rio 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 have 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 drew me in. It's hard to say. The element of fraternity is a motif common enough to Westerns, linked to the legacy of violence dating back to one's ancestors and how to manage that. With that, you're never far from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is about no more and no less than arriving at a state of democracy. All the vestigial violence, how is one going to quell that moving forward?

So for me, what distinguishes THE SISTERS BROTHERS is that this mythology has to be addressed - and as a conversation between two brothers. This is a Western taking place before Freudian analysis: two brothers talk and talk, finally saying things they've never said before. Normally, that might happen in a living room and on a couch; here, it's happening on horseback.

The Sisters brothers are active talkers and ruthless killers, and it is that unexpected mixture which made telling this story so attractive. Also appealing was how dark we could make it - like a fairy tale of two children lost in the forest but moving forward towards...something.

Because there had to be a worthwhile conflict for the two brothers together, one of the key changes we made in the adaptation was expanding the characters of Warm and Morris, the idealist and the dandy. They were in the book, but as very simple funny characters. In the movie, coming up against the brothers' mentality and brutality, they 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 is expressed through the character of Warm, whose convictions start to seduce people - one after another. That was a big part of writing the adaptation. We took real-life inspiration from the Saint-Simonians who migrated across the United States in the 19th century, 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 life and cognizant of images you see, books you read, conversations you have, everyday epiphanies...

The question arises: in this day and age what is a Western, exactly? We can identify two camps. There are ones that are classically made like Appaloosa and Open Range that carry reverence for archetypes, landscapes, etc. The other way is Quentin Tarantino's 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 forming 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 the expected manner.

JA: The encounter of both parties on the banks of the river took on new dimensions, and additional weight, because we had made Warm and Morris into fuller characters. With most Westerns, it's more basic conflicts and revelations; here, there is palpable 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 locations in the U.S. on the West Coast, and in Alberta, Canada, where the television series Deadwood shot. But you get to these locales and they're camera-ready: the big sky, the mountains, the constructed town sets...These have been seen many times. I felt we needed to be more inventive. What's at stake for me as director is the reality. I went through this on A Prophet, where we had visited real prisons in France, Switzerland, and Belgium; you would get documentary, yet not so much real and natural gestures.

Q: Your films have increasingly explored the need for reinvention of the self and being 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; that's 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 actors.

Q: What was your feeling about for the first time making a movie with American leads?

JA: I've always somehow sensed that I wouldn't be able to make a movie in the U.S., for organizational and logistical reasons. But there are many actors undeniably compelling to work with, who register onscreen for the audience with presence and physicality.

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 period. But in your opinion, Jacques, how would someone who had studied at a premier East Coast university in the 19th century express himself? What would his phrasing be like?" I was glad to be asked, but, how to respond? Well, Jake went off to work with a linguist for a month and then returned with the script phonetically annotated. All he then needed was the costuming. This was a first for me.

With these actors, they arrive ready with the character's approach to life, having ascertained how the character comports himself sitting down and how he behaves in the company of others - whether or not they look at someone when speaking to them. They know where the camera is, why it's being situated there, how they're going to 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 hard day of shooting, yet every morning I was incredibly relieved to come to work and see them.

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 seriously as he's been in front of the camera since age eight...At the end of each take, he stands waiting for you to go to him and tell him how it was and what needs to be adjusted for 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 gigantic. The younger is the boss of them. It's a biblical motif that the older has lost his birthright. He has some growing up to do that will engage the viewer. These are hardened cowboys - but at the base of their being, they're still around 12 years old; something is frozen in time for them from youth. They can only function as a duo, but there is something 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 Dheepan.

JA: Addressing violence, and moving on, was present in Dheepan, as someone - I think 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 insisted that the ending be shot last, so that everyone could feed on the memory of the movie we had made. I waited to go over things with the actors on the morning of that last day so it would play out as a true completion.

The ending is not meant to be dreamlike; it is actually happening. But the form that 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 Debie?

JA: I had admired his filming for Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noe. Benoit first and 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, blue-dominated look that's become the standard with digital.

What came about is a palette that's dark, but when there is light it is very colorful - 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 - appropriately enough - gold.

Q: Was there any discussion of fashioning the movie visually after other cinematic Westerns?

JA: Again, that's just not what had fascinated me. Many filmmakers get caught up with technical issues or re-creations but unless they help me prosaically I try not to. The remarkable images that I have seen in the past 10 years are not in cinema but in contemporary art. We would like to maintain an intimate rapport with heritage, but 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 25. When 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, the other becomes the only son and the eldest. All the responsibility that was his now falls to you; it's like an inheritance. You realize how you were comfortable in taking shelter behind him. In an instant, you have all of the inconveniences of the first generation and are without advantages. And you are alone.

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