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Once Upon a Time in the West: Author Patrick deWitt on Bringing ‘The Sisters Brothers’ From the Page to the Screen

October 5, 2018Ben MK

Most Westerns are generally beholden to a certain set of genre conventions — where the line between the hero and the villain is as cut and dry as an Arizona plain. For Canadian author Patrick deWitt, however, the very notion of what constitutes a Western is something that he set out to challenge with his 2012 novel, The Sisters Brothers.

Now adapted into a feature film by director Jacques Audiard, The Sisters Brothers tells the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly), two brothers who have spent years under the employ of a vicious crime boss known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Lately, though, Eli has been looking for a way out of this criminal way of life. And when the siblings' next job has them pursuing an inventor named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and fellow bounty hunter John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), Eli finally sees an opportunity to turn his longing into a reality — whether Charlie is onboard or not.

The Sisters Brothers recently had its North American premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival; and that's where I sat down with Patrick deWitt to discuss the book, and to find out more about the journey of bringing his award-winning story from the page to the screen.

It seems like John C. Reilly was really instrumental in getting this film made. Can you go into more detail about how he championed the movie?

deWitt: I didn't really understand how difficult it is to get a movie of that size made. And he and his wife Alison were the first ones — they were initially the ones in possession of the property, and they just assembled this really brilliant team. They were very thoughtful and careful and patient — it was just in good hands with them. And they showed me over and over again that they were going to do whatever it took to have it made properly, and to their specification. They're pretty special people, Alison and John.

Where did the name of the book — and of the main characters — come from?

deWitt: That's a hard question to answer. I don't really know where these people come from. They're not rooted in anyone I've ever known or known about. It's fiction, they're just invented. It started as a bit of dialogue — like an exercise in dialogue — and I wouldn't have thought at the time that I started it that it would lead to anything significant. But they just had a lot to say to each other. So the naming of them came later on in the book, and I didn't know that it would be the title of the book or anything like that. It was just something that I think I added on to amuse myself, but it took on more weight as time passed. And then it became more prominent, in that it was the title.

What do you think Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly brought to their roles, beyond what you wrote on the page?

deWitt: They brought real life. There's something of a remove in fiction, sometimes. I don't know if that's always true, but I think it's no small feat to recreate life believably on the screen. And that these people can do it, with Jacques [Audiard] and with everyone else helping. I don't understand how they do it. I'm mystified by it. They brought all of their talents and abilities to the roles. And obviously nobody was shirking, it seems to me. Everybody seemed all-in, and it felt personal.

When I first heard the title, it automatically came across as tongue-in-cheek, which is why I was taken aback by the amount of emotion and drama in the film. When you wrote the book, did you set out to challenge the reader's expectations in that way?

deWitt: I did. I wanted to write a different kind of Western, I think. And I wanted to bring people something that hopefully they hadn't necessarily seen before. I like the idea of somebody sitting down with a set of expectations — especially if they're a fan of a genre, they're demanding a particular experience. So I was pleased about the idea of fooling these people into reading a Western and getting something that they hadn't necessarily bargained for.

What are some books or films in the Western genre that inspired you in writing this book?

deWitt: I watched certain spaghetti Westerns and stuff with my father on television, but in terms of Western literature I'm just completely ignorant of it. I don't have any interest at all.

Since you're not a fan of Westerns in general, why did you decide to write a Western?

deWitt: I think there's a joy at coming at something from the outside. There's something childishly joyful about just the feeling of being a charlatan — just sort of fun. And the way the pressure seems off — it's like I don't know what I'm doing, so it's very freeing. Not really understanding what the expectations are, or not really knowing what I'm supposed to do, you can do anything you want. And so I really like that feeling.

And then I think I had a bone to pick with the genre, and I wanted to address some things that I found lacking in the genre, generally. Specifically everything’s so cut and dry in Westerns, everything's one way or the other. Often, not always, but I wanted to see a Western that had a little bit more nuance, or more grey tones.

Last but not least, what are you working on next?

deWitt: I'm touring for my new novel now, so I'll be traveling for the next few weeks. And I am finishing up a screenplay adaptation of a short story of mine that was published in Brick [magazine], called The Looking-Ahead Artist. And I have an idea for a novel in my mind, but it's a long ways off.

The Sisters Brothers is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver, and opens nationwide October 12th, 2018.

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