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VENICE 2018 Competition

Jacques Audiard • Director

“I always think I’m making French films with subtitles”

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- VENICE 2018: Cineuropa met up with Palme d’Or-winning director Jacques Audiard to discuss his surprise venture into western territory with The Sisters Brothers

Jacques Audiard  • Director
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

Presented in competition at the Venice Film Festival and based on Patrick deWitt’s novel, Jacques Audiard’s witty English-language debut The Sisters Brothers [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Jacques Audiard
film profile
]
sees John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix join forces as siblings in 1850s Oregon, hired to find a man who has developed a poisonous chemical formula revealing the location of gold, with a private detective (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) already trailing his every step.

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Cineuropa: It’s interesting that for your English-language debut, you chose a western – the most inherently American genre, if ever there was one. What convinced you to do this?
Jacques Audiard: It was actually John C Reilly and his wife [producer Alison Dickey] who gave me that book when we met at the Toronto Film Festival six years ago. I was a bit worried when I saw it was a western. When you are French, you just assume it’s not something for you. But I was curious as to why he’d thought of me, and after I read it, I was utterly fascinated. The thing is, it’s not really a western. As a European, you have a different approach to it, for sure, but for me it was more of a period film.

You certainly revel in all of the minor details from the era – like the first toothbrushes, which almost turn into the film’s recurring gag.
Many of the things that make it original were already in the book, including tooth brushing [laughs]. It’s funny because these guys have certain ideas of who they are, so when one of them suddenly sees that the other is doing it, too, they are embarrassed. I don’t know how I would describe this book exactly, but someone said it had a Gothic feel to it. Still, there are some recognisable aspects, like chases and horses, which turned out to be a bit of a problem. It wasn’t the first time that I’d worked with animals, but horses are big and scary – next time I will only work with ponies. It’s complicated because you actually need three different horses for one person. We had four main characters, so we needed a whole truck load of them. John’s horse was much older, and we couldn’t replace him that easily. Sometimes we would joke that on top of having to deal with Joaquin Phoenix, he also had to deal with that horse.

Even today, we still see this romanticised vision of the Wild West in cinema. But you don’t seem to be interested in that at all.
I wanted to talk about the gold rush, more than anything else. It was really important to us. People were coming to America because of the gold and this dream of a better life. But in the film, those who seem to have all these idealistic visions of utopias don’t really care if they’re going to poison the environment along the way. For me, the most important thing was this image of two men, both well into their forties, who talk and behave like 11-year-old kids. It’s a coming-of-age story, even though they are old.

Did you actually shoot in the States?
If you are shooting a western, or some kind of take on it, you have to shoot the landscape. But we didn’t shoot in the States: we shot in Spain, in the Basque Country, and in Romania. I can’t say I really wanted to shoot in the States – I know the rigour of their production system, and it’s just too complicated. I just wanted to work with American actors. I love cinema; I watch many films, and it always seems like they have this unique awareness of how filmmaking works. They know a lot about the camera and the lighting; they know where the cuts will be. They are so well prepared that when you arrive on set on the first day and yell, “Action!”, it’s already all there.

But it’s not just American stars, as one of the biggest pleasures when watching the film derives from seeing Rutger Hauer in a rather unexpected role. How did that happen?
There were many versions of what this character, Commodore, should be like and what should happen to him. And nothing really worked! But this role was always supposed to be small – he is this unseen, terrifying presence. He had to be a ghost-like figure. The same goes for the owner of the saloon, Mayfield, played by Rebecca Root. She is transgender, and when she arrived at the casting, her voice drove me crazy. During our research, we saw all these pictures of women with moustaches – one was a famous croupier at some casino. We actually tried to give her a moustache as well, but it turned out she was allergic to it [laughs].

You seem to enjoy working in another language. What is the biggest change for you once you decide to do it?
Dheepan [+see also:
film review
trailer
Q&A: Jacques Audiard
film profile
]
was in Tamil, and I don’t speak Tamil; A Prophet [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Jacques Audiard
interview: Jacques Audiard and Tahar R…
film profile
]
was in Arabic, and I don’t speak Arabic. So the question I could ask myself is this: why don’t I shoot in my own language? What it usually means is that I have to establish a different relationship with the actors – one that’s not exclusively verbal. With French actors, I would just say, “Do this; talk about that,” and then I would work on their intonation. They would repeat my voice, and I don’t want that. My language is my territory, and when I travel, I don’t understand everything either. I always think that I am making French films with subtitles.

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