TIFF 2018

'Trust us': how John C. Reilly persuaded Patrick DeWitt to let him adapt The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers is "a great piece of Canadian literature" that John C. Reilly knew would make a great film. Still, the actor is thankful Canadian writer Patrick DeWitt agreed to let him adapt the darkly comic western, now screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Canadian writers are 'why we always come back to Toronto,' says screenwriter

Joaquin Phoenix embraces co-star John C.Reilly during a press conference for their film The Sisters Brothers Saturday at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. (Fred Thornhill/Canadian Press)

The Sisters Brothers is "a great piece of Canadian literature" that John C. Reilly was sure would become a film, no matter what.

Still, the actor is thankful Canadian writer Patrick DeWitt — whom Reilly and his wife, producer Alison Dickey, met while making the 2011 indie film Terri   agreed to let him adapt the darkly comic western that would become a multiple award-winning novel. 

"We know what can happen in this process of books becoming movies. Often times they get twisted into an unrecognizable shape... We said 'Pat, we'll try our very hardest to make a great film out of this. We'll find the very best people we can. Please trust us,'" Reilly explained on Saturday at a press conference during the Toronto International Film Festival.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly portray brothers who are tracking a chemist who allegedly stole from their employer and is on the run toward gold-rush era California. (Courtesy of TIFF)

The Sisters Brothers stars Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the sibling assassins of the title. The brothers are tracking a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who allegedly stole from their employer and is on the run toward gold-rush era California.

Also featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Root and Rutger Hauer, The Sisters Brothers marks Jacques Audiard's English-language directorial debut and earned the French filmmaker a Silver Lion for directing at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday.

Acclaimed CanLit

B.C.-born DeWitt published The Sisters Brothers in 2011. It went on to win a Governor General's Literary Prize, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Stephen Leacock Medal, along with being nominated for both the Man Booker and Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The cadence of the book's dialogue — which the film also incorporates — can be compared to how DeWitt himself speaks, Reilly noted about his friend.

"He's a very sensitive and intellectually curious guy."

DeWitt's novel won a Governor General's Literary Prize, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Stephen Leacock Medal, along with being nominated for both the Man Booker and Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The discourse between Eli and Charlie Sisters is an important element of the The Sisters Brothers.

"Even though they look like these filthy brutes that are murderers for a living — which is what they are — they're actually pretty well educated and they have these somewhat intellectual conversations all the time with each other," Reilly said.

"I think they use that thing of 'judging a book by its cover' to their advantage, to always have the jump on people. Because people kinda assume that they're less intelligent than they are — kinda like me and Joaquin," he quipped.

Toronto-born partnership

In their adaptation, director Audiard and his screenwriter collaborator Thomas Bidegain made changes, including depicting small-town crime boss Mayfield (Root) as a woman and introducing the idea of a utopian commune as chemist Warm's ultimate goal.

"We were very happy that he enjoyed [the changes]," Bidegain said of DeWitt, who travelled to Paris to review the screenplay.

"It was really the icing on the cake of that story."

Canadian authors are a great source for movie inspiration, the screenwriter suggested, noting that The Sisters Brothers is now the second time he and Audiard have adapted a Canadian book. The last was 2012 drama Rust and Bone, based on Toronto writer Craig Davidson's short story collection. Incidentally, the French duo were promoting that movie at TIFF when they were first approached by Reilly and Dickey about adapting The Sisters Brothers.

"If there's any writers in this room..." Bidegain quipped, "that's why we always come back to Toronto."

With files from The Canadian Press