As a producer-actor, giving carte blanche to an auteur can be a dangerous thing, as John C. Reilly found when he and his wife Alison Dickey began shopping their passion project, and Reilly’s first producorial feature outing—an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s 2012 novel The Sisters Brothers—to some of the world’s most respected directors. Luckily, after bracing himself to give up on his dream of playing Eli Sisters, one of the film’s two leads, Reilly found himself back on board when France’s Jacques Audiard took the reins, casting Joaquin Phoenix opposite him as Charlie Sisters, the other of two bounty hunters on a mission to kill a thieving prospector in 1850s Oregon.
What was it that appealed to you about this story by Patrick DeWitt? You hadn’t really done a Western before, had you?
I was really looking for something more original to do, and, yes, for better or worse, the through line in my whole career is that there’s a lot of variety, and this is one of the few types of films that I hadn’t done yet. But that’s not really what drew me to the project; what drew me was the emotional quality of the story. It has all the trappings of a Western—horses, a manhunt, killing people with six guns and all that—but in most Westerns, the characters are very opaque. What I loved about Patrick’s book is that you finally get inside the heart of these guys. You find out what they’re feeling about these situations. I also have brothers, and I think anyone who has a brother—or any kind of sibling for that matter—has a lot of feelings about that relationship and how complicated and how intense it can be. That really appealed to me too about this story. The story of two siblings, the trauma that binds them together and how they survive being in this symbiotic relationship.
How faithful did you intend to stay to the book?
That was entirely Jacques’s decision. Our main criteria for finding a director and a partner to do this film was to find someone who was going to make a very personal film out of Patrick’s book. We were not interested in hiring someone to be jobbing in and executing the book as written. Alison and I, our favorite films are the ones that really have a personal point of view, that feel like only this one director could have told this story. We looked for people, laid this project at their feet, and we said, “Here’s the book, and here’s a version of the script. What do you think you can do with it? Do you feel connected to it?” We went to a few different people, and Alison always wanted to go to Jacques, but it felt somewhat counterintuitive for an American story that takes place in the Old West. Eventually we wised up and went to Jacques.
How did people react to being offered such free rein?
I think, at first, people were kind of stunned; they were like, “What? You’re just giving us this project?” I mean, people in Hollywood, and the film business in general, are much more used to finding something and then desperately protecting it from everyone else. But here we were just kind of offering this thing up, saying, “We want you to have total freedom, and we want you to make a story that you think has meaning to the world right now, but especially to you.” Jacques really took to that, so—to answer your question about whether it’s faithful to the book or not—I think it’s very faithful to the spirit of the book and the emotional quality of the book. A lot of the book is told through interior monologues of my character, which is very difficult to translate into a visual medium, so Jacques had to do a bit of extra work. He amplified a couple of characters that were not as featured in the book, which really upped the stakes of the movie and got you involved with every single person that you see. I think people who have read the book will really enjoy the treatment that we’ve given it, and people who haven’t are going to be stunned at the originality of Patrick’s story.
As a Frenchman, how did Jacques approach the Old West?
A big feature of having a non-American tell this story was that it instantly freed him from all the stupid baggage that comes with the Western. Jacques just looked at the story like, “What is the reality of these people? What do they eat every day? Where are they going? What are their physical movements every day, and what does it mean when you say this or that to a person at this time?” The movie is really exciting and I feel really original and subversive in that way. It’s like these are just people who live at this time. It’s not some mystic cowboy thing. It’s a human story set against the backdrop of this crazy, crazy time of looking for gold. It was absolute madness on a huge scale out there.
What was Jacques like to work with?
Well, Jacques has the most amazing bullsh*t detector I think I’ve ever worked with. In France, directors have final cut. Their word is the final word, as opposed to most filmmaking in the States, even independent films. In France, the attitude is much more like, “Get out of the way; let Picasso paint!” I think there was some learning from the American actors, and myself, to understand that the top of the pyramid was Jacques, and then Jacques had to learn that actors can have more agency than perhaps he was used to. I think French actors in general are more beholden to the director, just doing exactly what the director asks them to do, and American actors, especially dramatic actors—from the tradition of Marlon Brando on—are taught to engage with the character, make decisions, explore it. You’re taught to understand it yourself and then, when you get to the set, engage with the director and compare notes.
Was this a very collaborative set?
I have to say, that was one of the most beautiful things about this whole project: the way Alison built bridges between America, France, Spain and Romania. Alison was really the one figuring that out; how do we all meet in the middle? There was a lot of that. There’s a reason there aren’t more American-European co-productions. It’s very difficult because of language, cultural and filmmaking differences. Americans are extremely legal; there’s all this contractual talk all the time. Europeans tend to be like, “Whatever. We’re making a movie. Just show up and we’ll figure it out.” That, especially in this time of division between people and countries, I thought was a really beautiful thing. There’s a couple characters in Patrick’s story that have the utopian ideal, and, in some way, I think we achieved some of the utopian ideal with the way we made the film.
So it was entirely shot in Europe?
Yes, it was shot in Spain, Romania and France. You asked me, what do I think that Jacques brought as a Frenchman? Well, along with that bullsh*t detector that he has, he is very unsentimental. A lot of directors will look at a big vista with a mountain in the back and be like, “Oh, we have to linger on this, it’s just too beautiful. We have to just see this beautiful thing.” And Jacques doesn’t give a sh*t about any of that. If it’s beautiful, that’s great. Of course, he tries to make his films as compelling to watch as possible, but he’s also economical with time and rhythm. There was so much stunning visual imagery in this movie that he was breaking hearts constantly. The set designer and the camera guy, they would point to a location and say, “Jacques, see how amazing that looks.” And he would say, “It doesn’t matter, the characters are not going there. They’re on their way to the hotel, not there.”
Joaquin Phoenix plays your brother. How did you settle upon him, and what does he bring to the role?
Well, I think that Joaquin is the best actor, in my opinion right now, in terms of being alive on screen. There’s so much he’s done, but, specifically, if you watch The Master, you literally can’t tell what he is going to do from moment to moment. He’s also someone with incredible integrity and someone I really respect. I knew I’d have to spend a lot of time with this person, and I knew that our relationship as brothers in the film was one of total respect, and so it had to be someone who could meet me toe-to-toe in many different ways, and, luckily, Jacques agreed. Joaquin’s reputation precedes him and any time you’re lucky enough to work with someone that’s going to make you work hard like that and rise to the occasion, that’s exactly the kind of situation you want to be in. Actually, part of handing the whole project to Jacques and saying, “You have total freedom to do whatever you want,” included giving him the final say about all the casting, which included my part. So I had to be open to my not playing this part, which I had been developing for years. In fact, there was a brief moment where it looked like I wasn’t going to play my part. I couldn’t believe it, but I thought, “All right, well, either this is a test or it’s what he needs to do. If this is what he needs to do to feel like he’s really free to make the film he wants to do, then great.”
Does Jacques like to encourage any kind of improvisation?
Jacques used to be an editor, so he is very, very economical. He doesn’t like to waste a lot of time just kind of lulling about, improvising and saying, “Oh, maybe we’ll find something here.” That said, like any great artist, if he sees something interesting happening, he will just abandon whatever it was he was doing and go for that. We did have a fair amount of improvisation, but not in the way that I’ve done on other films. It was more behavioral improvisation, because we had a lot of plot to get through in the film. The movie was a road movie for a long period of time. We were just always on the move. It wasn’t like we were sitting in one apartment, trying to come up with new ideas. We always had a lot to do every day. The beautiful thing about directors like Jacques is that they really don’t care about what you’ve thought about ahead of time, or even what they’ve thought about, they’re just there in the moment, going, “What’s really happening here? Is this interesting to me? Is it compelling? Does it tell our story or not?” That’s a really great quality. So many directors get nervous. So many directors, they show up on the set and they start the day nervous, and so they hold on to their plan. All the greats, whether it’s Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson or Jacques—and I hold all those people in the highest esteem—they all have this quality in common: just go for the best idea. It doesn’t matter what it is, we’ll figure it out, and we will make up the time if we get off schedule.
How do you balance producing and acting? Were you watching the dailies?
The older I get, the less I watch dailies. I’ll leave you to interpret that how you wish. [Laughs] I was very involved, like a traditional producer, in the lead-up. Alison was really the main driver of the production when she and I were partners in the pre-production, and then when it came time for me to act on film, I had to step away from some of those more practical concerns because we were shooting. So I would do things like make sure the other actors were doing OK. I would just kind of troubleshoot. I was doing the bridge-building that Alison was doing between the production partners, but between the director and actors, just making sure that everyone was in sync. And then, hopefully, just losing myself again in the character. When you’re on a film set, there are lots of people there, but most of them are not paying attention to you. There’s only one person that you really need paying attention to you, and that’s the director, so that you can get some feedback.
What do you think people take from the film?
Well, some of the things I described, but I have my own feelings about it. A lot of it is very personal. It’s about the idea of finding a new masculinity, and I think Jacques was interested in asking, “Where do we go from here?” And from here I mean from this moment in the West, in the early 1850s, when we were going from hand-loaded pistols and rifles to cartridge bullets, which upped the rate of fire by many times. This was an emerging moment—we were coming from blood law, and everybody suddenly said, “Wait, this is not sustainable. Every time we have a disagreement, we kill the person we have a disagreement with. If we go on like this, we aren’t going to have much of a town left.” So, Jacques really wanted to make a film that was relevant to our time, for that reason. We’re asking, “What are the essential qualities of masculinity? And how do you move forward as a modern man? And also, as a society, how do we make ourselves sustainable?” We can’t be as violent as we’ve been and expect to survive.