Writer-director Jacques Audiard isn’t a particularly patient man. I learn this immediately once I enter the room for our interview, his last one of the day at the Toronto International Film Festival. I find him energetic and ready to efficiently power through our chat so he can move on to his next task. His restlessness never got in the way of his thoughtfulness, as shown in both the answers to my questions as well as his filmography at large.
In nearly a quarter-century of filmmaking, Audiard has riffed on countless genres and their tropes, spanning from the war drama in A Self-Made Hero to Hitchcockian thrillers like Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped. He never settles for easy pastiche or homage, instead getting to the core of the stories and pushing them beyond their apparent limitations.
The Sisters Brothers, which marks both Audiard’s first English-language feature and his first foray into the western, proves no exception to the director’s rule. The misadventures of the film’s titular siblings, Eli and Charlie Sisters (played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively), as they attempt to collect a debt fulfills several outward markers of the fabled genre. But beyond that, Audiard discards any convention he deems superfluous, unwilling to let history or precedent dictate how he makes his own film.
In my talk with the filmmaker following the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, we discussed how he put his own stamp on the western—or, rather, how he made another quintessential Audiard film, but one that just happens to take place in the American West.
Even going back to your earliest films, you often deal with characters navigating both sides of the law, reinventing themselves or forging new paths in the face of tragedy. Did you see a through line with the characters in The Sisters Brothers to your prior work?
I see a relationship in the fact that very often they are coming-of-age stories, in which characters will learn something and make a transformation. This film is one of those stories, because John C. Reilly’s Eli transforms by the end.
There’s a great legacy of non-American directors making stories set in the West and observing things that native directors can’t see. Was that perspective a valuable one for you in making the film?
The western for an American director is really a foundational text. For me, no, it isn’t. The western is just a period piece for me. Men wearing hats, guns, riding horses. In that sense, my approach is different. Within the mythology, there’s a landscape of space. I don’t share that mythology, so I don’t [focus on] the [literal] landscape. I pay much more attention to dialogue between the characters. For me, the dialogue and the characters are the landscape.
How do you deal with the question of genre? A story in the American West immediately brings to mind certain conventions, which you are not necessarily commenting on in The Sisters Brothers.
I feel very free with the mythology. There are things that I really like and are fun for me inside the conventions when I look at them. But in the morning when we start working, we don’t say to ourselves, “Let’s do a very original western!” Very often in the western there’s something missing about the characters. It’s black or white. They don’t have dreams or a conscience. They have no problems of hygiene. When you locate that humanity inside the characters, then something changes, and they exist in a different way.
To your point about the hygiene, is that why you made such a big deal about the scene when Eli and Charlie use the water closet and the toothbrush?
Yes, these are historical facts. It’s the modernity of the world coming.
Toward the end of the film, there’s a shot of people in a doorway. Were you intentionally referencing The Searchers?
Yes, it’s something that everyone recognizes. They are back to the home of the western, back within the frame: “Oh, we’ve already seen that image.” But now they can speak!
It’s an interesting contrast, though, because John Wayne is looking out from the doorway to leave home in The Searchers, while John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are looking to return home in The Sisters Brothers.
Yes, the Sisters brothers come back to the home, but there’s no more father.
A number of stylistic techniques you use seem to cut against the grain of the genre. There’s some direct address, underwater photography, and, in general, the dialogue feels a little contemporary. Were these necessary to introduce into the film to achieve your vision of the western?
I think they came about naturally. When I shoot a film, I like to know exactly what I’m going to do in the next hour. So when Jake Gyllenhaal is in the water, somebody has a GoPro, we shoot that for a while in the water. The GoPro scene in the water materialized the sun. If you shoot at the sun in light, you see nothing. If you’re underwater, there you go, you can see the sun. I wanted an image of nature with the sun, and voila.
It’s my understanding that the characters Warm and Morris, who are being tracked by the Sisters brothers, were quite different in the novel, a little more purely comedic. How did you all make the decision to change them?
It didn’t work in the book, so we fixed that in the writing. Something was missing in front of the brothers, not only in the dramatic sense but even intellectually. They needed some idea to look forward to.
Did Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal play any role in making those changes?
No, that happened earlier. But when we changed the characters, they appeared in the casting very fast. It was easy.
Translation by Thomas Bidegain