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About The Production
"When you're with a sibling or a relative, there's this sense of inescapability," reflects actor John C. Reilly. "It's a feeling of being joined together. The relationship is not a choice; it's fate, and it's blood. You can't get out of it, but can you get through it?"

With THE SISTERS BROTHERS, acclaimed director Jacques Audiard, as he has before, takes hold of the reins of blood ties - this time in the context of the Western genre. The result is shot through with the tension of his films like A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, as well as with the hard-won compassion of his more recent Rust and Bone and Dheepan.

Audiard and his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain adapted the new film's script from the novel The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, which was optioned by Reilly and Alison Dickey as producers in 2011.

The author recalls, "I had worked with John on Terri, having written that film's screenplay adapting some of my unpublished writing. Director Azazel Jacobs read The Sisters Brothers in rough-draft form and thought that John would react positively to the material. He asked me, 'Could I give the book to John?' and I said, 'Please do.' John's reaction was strong and he right away wanted to get behind it as a project."

The Academy Award nominee remembers, "I tend to procrastinate about reading. But when I got The Sisters Brothers, I read it in 24 hours. I felt immediately connected to the characters, especially Eli Sisters. The dynamic he has with his brother Charlie resonated with me; I have three brothers of my own. It was also really funny, and there was an emotional availability rather than the macho impenetrability of characters in the Western genre."

DeWitt explains, "I was thinking a good bit about Charles Portis, an author who is most famous for True Grit though others of his books aren't Westerns at all; and the Monterey novels of John Steinbeck. I had started with a dialogue scene of two men on horseback, and it was just sort of happenstance that I wrote a Western."

Reilly offers, "What I found fascinating about Patrick's language in the book was that we have assumed, through films and television stories about the West, that people talked in these rootin'-tootin' ways - and you realize, maybe it wasn't like that at all. They didn't have radio or movies or television, just the written word. There would have been a heightened sense of formality - and treating people with respect or not could mean life or death."

As Reilly's producing partner, Dickey notes that "we'd been looking for a Western for John to do; it's a form where we can tell elemental stories about ourselves. I stayed up all night reading the book, it was so good."

The book was also considered good enough to be shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction, at which point "Hollywood started calling," smiles Dickey.

Accordingly, she and Reilly allied themselves with Academy Award-nominated producer Michael De Luca (The Social Network) to move the project forward.

De Luca had first worked with Reilly nearly two decades prior, on the award-winning Boogie Nights. The producer says, "John is one of the great American actors and the part of Eli Sisters absolutely seemed to be a role that he was destined to play. Having John as a fellow producer this time around too made working on this project all the sweeter.

"Patrick deWitt's novel is a modern classic, in my opinion. I love Westerns, but this is also a fantastic and emotional story about brothers and men, and a search for humanity."

At the outset, months went by and "there wasn't a director," remembers de Witt. "I crossed my fingers."

Then, in September 2012, De Luca, Dickey, and Reilly went to the Toronto International Film Festival, where Audiard was presenting Rust and Bone. Their interest in the filmmaker predated seeing the new movie. Dickey says, "John and I had seen Read My Lips in the theater over a decade earlier and had been following Jacques' work ever since. His films are so visceral and immediate."

Reilly adds, "Jacques hasn't made as many films as other directors of his generation, but I don't think I know of any who have as perfect a track record. I knew he would get at the very personal story in this material."

A meeting was convened, and when Audiard returned home to France there was a copy of the just-published French-language version of the novel waiting for him on his desk.

Two months later, everyone met up again in Los Angeles "and the conversation deepened," says Dickey. "Trust was built, and we decided to partner up.

"There's a logic to approaching a foreign director for what can be perceived as American material. They don't carry cultural baggage, and they approach things with a fresh perspective; think of how Ang Lee made his movies work so well."

Reilly reveals, "Jacques is used to working completely independently, on his own terms. We gave him the property and said, 'Make it your own.'"

One of Audiard's first instincts in writing the screenplay with Bidegain was to expand the characters of the Sisters brothers' quarry, John Morris and Hermann Kermit Warm. Dickey comments, "The development of these characters moved forward and it became more of a four-hander with two pairs, with the relationships deepening and kept in motion."

Reilly adds, "In THE SISTERS BROTHERS, Warm has higher ideals for the human experience. When people ready for a change come across him, he has a magnetic effect on them; they sense that he knows things can be different in the future. With Morris, it's that he's seen a lot of bizarre situations in his work and he meets someone who is very good at listening and sussing things out."

Emmy Award winner Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), who portrays Warm, believes that the progressive chemist "is a self-taught prodigy who sees the best in others. He's not just looking to find gold in the landscape; he's trying to bring out the gold in people. Now, he has told too many interested parties about the chemical formula he's created to find gold efficiently and so he is being chased - while he's like the founder of a startup, heading to San Francisco!

"Jacques is one of my favorite film directors, and when the opportunity to work with him came up I jumped at it. Before we met, he sent me detailed e-mails that were insightful - and also cryptic and mysterious. It was also fascinating doing the research on what science was like at that point in the 1850s."

The movie took more time to come together while Audiard and Bidegain began and then completed movies they had already committed to directing: respectively, Dheepan and Les Cowboys - with Reilly appearing in the latter for Bidegain.

As work on the script continued de Witt was consulted, including on dialogue exchanges. Dickey comments, "Jacques had the ability to take the book apart and throw the pieces in the air. Then he would pick them up and create something new while keeping a faithful connection to the source material."

Initial scouting for locations began in 2015. Audiard and associates traveled the route the Sisters brothers do, in pursuit of Morris and Warm, all the way from Oregon to San Francisco.

Once the screenplay adaptation was ready, the producing team was rounded out with France's Why Not Productions - continuing a 15-year relationship with Audiard - and the U.S.' Annapurna Pictures, and key department heads were recruited well in advance of the shoot.

Audiard sought out cinematographer Benoit Debie (who had shot Annapurna's Spring Breakers) as a new collaborator. "We had a long prep on THE SISTERS BROTHERS," says Debie. "Jacques and I had so much to discuss about the film, and influences ranging from comics panels to Western movies.

"[Production designer] Michel Barthelemy and I talked about what the palette of colors would be, both indoors and outside. Jacques felt it was important to have color, but not too intense."

Barthelemy, who has been the production designer on many of Audiard's movies, admits, "I knew about the project years before we would be shooting, and it was so surprising - Jacques doing a Western? Then I read the script and was totally overwhelmed by the documentation that I would need for this period! Step by step, it came together.

"One of the things that the script honed in on was human ingenuity, the ability of man to invent. So it was that I found myself looking for traces of a prototype 19th-century flushing system. We tried to be close to reality, and if there's a little anachronism it's about taking some freedom with the existing principles. Sometimes you have to stick to what was there and sometimes you have to break free of too much reconstitution."

In a coup, the production secured the participation of costume designer Milena Canonero, who has won four Academy Awards for her work. "She is a legend," marvels Barthelemy. "Her textures are super-precise. For her, everything must make sense and have a good energy. She will take a look at every extra on the set."

Ahmed admires "the level of detail and authenticity that went into sourcing the costumes. Milena tracks down antique pieces from around the world, then cross-references with pictures and written accounts. What all that homework does for an actor is to get you to a place when you're on the set where you feel completely free."

The Spanish and Romanian locations ultimately chosen for filming on "afforded not only a financial upside but also matched the emotional intensity of the material with the intensity of shooting outside in the elements and connecting to each other," comments Dickey.

She adds, "There were so many different languages being spoken on the set - French, Spanish, Romanian, Italian, English - and everyone expressing themselves with real intention reflected the story in the movie."

Ahmed reflects, "As a Londoner, I'm in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. One of the coolest things about making THE SISTERS BROTHERS was being on a set with people of all different nationalities. The film is about trying to find purpose through connection with other people and overcoming structures that keep us apart.

"For me, it was eye-opening as well getting to work with all these actors together." Academy Award nominees Jake Gyllenhaal - whom Ahmed had previously starred opposite in Nightcrawler - and Joaquin Phoenix were cast as, respectively, John Morris and Charlie Sisters. Reilly had actively lobbied for Phoenix to be in the movie: "I knew he had to be Charlie. I hold him in high esteem as an actor.

"But he and I didn't talk about what the brothers are like; we just started spending time together. During the rehearsal period, we'd go out for walks to the top of this hill in Spain; it was a mile and a half, and we would not say one word to each other. We were bearing witness to each other's existence and getting used to being in tune, sensing each other's needs and energy."

As far as the brothers' own relationship, at base Reilly sees his character of Eli as "the caretaker; he's the one who makes sure they get breakfast and have the horses ready to get the brothers where they need to go. Charlie is more fiery, not taking no for an answer.

"Acting with Joaquin was great. He's very instinctive, so if you make an assumption about something he will throw it right back in your face. You have to accept what the moment brings, be in the moment. There's no leader, no follower - you're finding a flow. That experience with Joaquin extended into Eli and Charlie. When he wasn't on the set with me, I felt an emptiness."

Once in production, Audiard was attuned to accommodating improvisatory moments from the actors in-character. Debie notes, "Jacques will take the time to work with the actors - especially to get at comedy. On THE SISTERS BROTHERS, I definitely had to improvise because what we were doing on a day would change."

Ahmed reveals, "Jacques' approach is, he does not want things to stagnate. So he will push you to try something different; it's not that he's driving towards one image in his mind that's preconceived, it's that he wants to see something evolve. Then he can pull it in another direction.

"I found this to be a creatively stimulating sense of play, keeping me on my toes. It's an open, fluid, dynamic process."

Reilly states, "I trust Jacques because he has an incredible bulls-t detector. He is there at the camera, looking right at you. He can spot if something is not genuine, and artificial - if you're overacting. He wants an unexpected interpretation: what is a new way to do this? That extends from the casting process through to playing out the scenes. "The other thing that impresses me about him as director is how he's thinking of the edit in his head. You can say, 'Well, on that last setup I walked over here...' and he'll say, 'It doesn't matter; we're not going to see that.' He will also figure out the tempo of the scene as we're doing it, and his ability to find rhythm also ties in to how he sees the edit."

Dickey muses, "I haven't seen any filmmaker work the way Jacques does, any who designs shots the way he does. He's thinking of 10 different things at the same time and yet he's completely present in the moment. The balance is also that he's thoroughly prepared but can be completely flexible."

The director's unique style enhances what Dickey assesses as "a movie about brothers set against the backdrop of a unique time and the attractive expanses of the West, where dreams were followed."

Reilly adds, "In a larger way, I suppose THE SISTERS BROTHERS is about the founding of America and what it was built on. But in a more relatable human way it's about relationships. It goes from the macro to the micro, and back."

De Luca states, "I think Jacques has made a really beautiful film."


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