Culture

Getting The Sisters Brothers to the screen wasn't an easy road.

How Patrick deWitt Turned His Breakout Novel Into an A-List Hollywood Western

It’s been seven years since Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers first came out in print. The book was the Canadian-born novelist’s sophomore release, and earned him recognition from just about every Canadian literary society you can think of.1 So it wasn’t much of a surprise when word leaked that a movie version was in the works. There was just something inherently cinematic about the darkly comic Western about a pair of brother assassins shooting and drinking and bickering their way across the west. It wasn’t difficult to see it working on screen just as well as it did on the page.

Still, like so many literary adaptations, it wasn’t always an easy road. It took time. Seven years, to be exact. In between, deWitt’s written and released two more acclaimed novels, Undermajordomo Minor — which is also currently being adapted for a movie — and French Exit, which came out this past August, is already shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, and presumably will be optioned by the time you finish reading this sentence.

And now, thanks to some particularly dogged determination by producer/star John C. Reilly and his wife (and fellow producer) Alison Dickey2 — the list of production companies involved in the film goes over 20 deep and takes up the entire screen during the opening credits — the movie version of The Sisters Brothers is finally coming to theatres, starring Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters.

I sat down with deWitt in Toronto following the movie’s TIFF premiere to talk about that long journey from book to screen, the surreal experience of seeing his novel come to life, and what’s next for him. (Spoiler alert: it’s yet another adaptation of one of his stories — only this time, he’s writing the script himself).

TITLE: You and John C. Reilly worked together on Terri before this. Clearly, that experience went pretty well. How early on did you two start talking about this book and him potentially optioning the rights?

PATRICK deWITT: What happened was, the director of Terri, Azazel Jacobs, he read the manuscript before it was submitted or published or anything like that, and he saw something in it for John. And he passed it off to John’s wife, Alison Dickey, who wound up being the producer of the film and who was the producer of Terri. And she also agreed that there was something in it for John. So she made him read the book — John says that it’s hard to get him to read a book, but she demanded it. And he read it and liked it and we went from there.

Still, it took something like seven years from them purchasing the rights to this movie coming out. You wrote and released two books in between. What’s the journey been like for you?

Well, it’s been something that’s just been sort of in the background. I wasn’t hugely involved in the making of the film. So, as I’m busy writing these other books or just going on with my own business, there was this scenario off in the distance that was happening. And I would get updates from time to time, or drafts of scripts to look at and give notes on, but enough time passed where you couldn’t help but wonder if it would ever be made. But in all that time, all these wonderful people were working to make it a reality. And it was sort of nice being in the background and not really knowing what was going on, and then coming to see the film in its completed version has been so strange, but wonderful. For me, it was a pretty hands-off experience, I guess you’d say. It was somebody else’s work to do.

Was there ever a thought about you doing a pass on the script, or is almost easier to let someone else do that, and just offer feedback afterwards, since you’re so close to the story?

Initially I did a draft with John, before Jacques [Audiard] was on board. And then Jacques came on, and Jacques and Thomas [Bidegain], his production partner, always do their scripts. That’s just the deal. And I’m a huge fan of Jacques’, so it didn’t take very long to decide that I would happily just sort of pass the baton to them.

But you still gave them notes?

Yeah, Jacques and Thomas gave me all the drafts. And I would just read them and tell them what I thought.

Was that a strange experience for you?

Yes. [Laughs.]

Obviously, whenever a book gets adapted into a movie, changes invariably need to be made. Were there any scenes or moments or little character tics that you knew you wanted to protect? Like, you can change everything else, expect this one thing…?

I think that the main thing [was], I wanted it to be Eli’s story, more than anyone else’s, and that was intact. I also was really hopeful for a believable recreation of the relationship of the brothers, and that’s obviously sort of the focal point of the film. But I’m pleased that the character of Eli comes through so clearly. Because his voice was the reason why I wrote the book. So that his point-of-view is made evident, and is very clear for the viewer, that was a big one for me.

Right. And I guess that’s way more important than getting bogged down in protecting specific scenes.

Yeah. I mean, there’s certainly scenes that I miss… But I don’t lament it, because they wouldn’t have fit in this version of the film. And you have to accept that they’re not the same thing and they’re never meant to be. But that took a minute to understand that, because I’m new.

Are there any Westerns that inspired you when you were writing this book?

I had watched certain Spaghetti Westerns 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.

Were you trying to play off, or undercut, any of those classic Western movie heroes with Eli and Charlie?

I think I was trying to kind of decimate the idea of the hero, honestly. Personally, as a reader, I dislike heroic figures and it always just feels forced and false to me. And I think that especially in the US we have a tendency to mythologize heroic figures and place so much importance on what are considered to be “brave actions” and this is tied up in the whole issue of masculinity in North America, and all these things that I’ve always been sort of revolted by. I came out with a real sense of belligerence on that score.

John seems like such a perfect Eli — he’s this physically imposing guy, but the characters that he plays always seem to have a real sensitivity underneath. Was it always the intention to have him play Eli when you were first discussing the project?

Oh yeah. And I think that he saw something of himself in the character. His performance feels very personal to me. That was the understanding from the start. That he was interested in playing this character, and that was my hope. So it lined up nicely.

It also sounds like he was really instrumental in ultimately getting the film made.

Yeah. I didn’t really understand how difficult it is to get a movie of that size made. And he and his wife Alison, they just assembled this really brilliant team. And they’re 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 specifications. They’re pretty special people, Alison and John.

Your most recent novel just came out in August. Are you working on something new right now, or do you need to take a break between that and this movie coming out and whatever’s next?

I’m touring for my new novel now, so I’ll be traveling for the next few weeks. And I’m finishing up a screenplay adaption of a short story of mine that was published in Brick called The Looking-Ahead Artist. And I have an idea for a novel in my mind, but it’s a long ways off. It’s going to be a couple months before I get to get back to my office.

References   [ + ]

1. Here’s just a brief sampling: winner of the 2011 Governor General’s Award, the 2012 Stephen Leacock award, the Canadian Authors Association Award; it was also shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize and the Walter Scott Prize and was #1 on Amazon.ca’s Best Books of 2011 Editors’ Picks list.
2. The three first met on the set of Terri while deWitt was finishing up his second novel.