Patrick DeWitt on the Surreal Joy (and Terror) of Seeing Your Novel Onscreen
Eight Years Later, The Sisters Brothers is a Movie
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is a book lacking in scenic description. Why would it need it when the Western, cinematic in nature, is cemented in the collective consciousness? Our minds fill in the blanks as we read this tale of two brothers, for-hire killers, as they cross the Oregon trail, bicker, and inadvertently get mixed up in the Gold Rush. The Sisters Brothers hinges on the dialogue between Eli and Charlie Sisters. Their relationship is a stark portrayal of the underbelly of toxic masculinity and the desire to escape the confines of a life that is thrust upon them.
When DeWitt’s novel was released in 2011, many people thought it was a funny book. But I disagree. While re-reading it before the premiere of The Sisters Brothers at the Toronto International Film Festival, an adaptation directed by Jaques Audiard, I was struck by the sadness of the brother’s relationship. “It occurred to me that I had crossed the threshold for a horse I did not want, but Charlie had not done the same for his own flesh and blood. A life of ups and downs, I thought,” narrates Eli at one point. The line has the cadence of a joke, but reflects sorrowful feeling. I was a little skeptical about how this melancholy would be translated on screen, especially with Eli being portrayed by John C. Reilly, an actor I knew previously mostly for his slapstick comedy. But DeWitt was confident that Reilly was the right fit for Eli, moreso than any other member of the cast.
To that, I’ll agree that DeWitt knows his book better than I do. Watching the film, I was relieved to discover that Reilly plays Eli with constraint and seriousness that produces a mirror-like similarity to the original source material. The movie is a feat of representation of interpersonal relationships amongst brothers, men, and men who become brothers. Audiard dedicated The Sister Brothers to his own brother.
DeWitt’s most recent book, French Exit, longlisted for the Giller Prize, is lighter fare than The Sisters Brothers. The story of French Exit follows a widower, Frances, and her adult son, Malcom, in the aftermath of the death of the family patriarch. Once it becomes apparent that their funds are quickly running out and they will no longer be able to upkeep their lavish lifestyle, they make a rapid departure to Paris. It’s a book that you can sit down and read in an afternoon like a salacious treat—which is what I did. Although the length of a novel, it reads more like a short story. Each sentence is sharp and hops along to a silent but rapid beat. It’s dark, but the satire is so well executed that I didn’t feel sad while reading; instead, I often laughed aloud at the turns of narcissism. I wasn’t at all surprised when the dead husband and father ends up being reincarnated as a cat.
At the TIFF, I sat down with Patrick DeWitt to talk about The Sister Brothers, director Jacques Audiard’s interpretation of it, and French Exit.
Tatum Dooley: Was there any apprehension to having your book translated to film?
Patrick DeWitt: It just seemed so far-fetched and outlandish. I didn’t really understand how difficult it is to get a movie made. It took eight years, and so many people worked so hard over the course of those years to get the film made. It makes me thankful for the relative simplicity of life as a fiction writer where you sit down and do it.
TD: You mentioned that John Reilly matched your image of Eli Sisters. What about Joaquin Phoenix [as his brother Charlie]?
PD: All the other roles I hadn’t really considered. When you invent a character, there are physical attributes in your mind; the idea that they’ll line up isn’t really realistic. The actors that have come on to star in this film are all actors that I admire. I’m just dead pleased that they took part. I think, in terms of the cast. John was the one who really was a bull’s eye for me from the start. He seems to sort of embody that character in some ways for me.
TD: Correct me if I’m wrong, but The Sister Brothers isn’t heavy on descriptors in terms of what the characters look like or even what the setting looks like. Was that purposeful?
PD: I don’t really know what I’m doing when I set out to write a book. It’s a day-by-day process. My favorite part of writing is sitting and seeing what happens every day. It probably makes things more difficult, not knowing where you’re going. Things tend to change a little bit longer. But the daily work is exciting because I have no clue what’s coming and I appreciate that. So to me, The Sister Brothers wanted to be somewhat spare in terms description or background. And much more reliant on information delivered by dialogue.
TD: In that case, it’s nice that the film takes direct lines of dialogue from the book.
PD: Yeah, which is nice. It’s such a chatty book, I think it lends itself fairly well for film.
TD: The lack of description doesn’t hinder anything about the imagery in the book because the Western has such a strong cinematic language. Even if you haven’t seen a Western, you know what a Western looks like.
PD: Yeah, the visual information is already there. That’s probably why I didn’t describe it. I also have an aversion to historical texts where they’re naming every tree. It’s like people are drunk on research.
TD: Can you speak a bit about the experience of seeing the film for the first time?
PD: Yeah well it feels miraculous in some way. Deeply surreal.
TD: Was it emotional?
PD: It was, you know. It’s a bunch of different things at once. You know, confusion and fear is a part of all this. It’s somewhat jarring. Because we hear the work in our head one way, and when it’s presented in other way it can’t line up. I’m thrilled the whole time I’m watching it, but I’m also sort of on the edge of my seat. By the end of the film . . . I think the film and the book are linked in some fundamental way. I’m really pleased that there is divergence from the story. I think one thing about the film as opposed to the book is that the film is a much more loving recreation of the [Western] genre, whereas mine was a charlatan’s point of view. Jaques has really studied and really admires that genre. There’s all this really touching, loving detail on this film and a general feeling of reverence. That’s one of the things I noticed was different about the film.“You know, confusion and fear is a part of all this. It’s somewhat jarring. Because we hear the work in our head one way, and when it’s presented in other way it can’t line up.”
TD: What was the reaction from your friends and family like?
PD: It does feel like another level for them. Generally my family is supportive of my writing endeavors. Whenever anything goes well, they’re pleased, and I think feel relieved. I think especially with my parents; they probably assumed that things wouldn’t work out, because why would they? As a parent, I now understand that you really never stop worrying about your children. And I know they were worried about me for a number of years. I think the idea that they can rest easy when it comes to me is probably gratifying.
TD: I found French Exit to me much more humorous than Sister Brothers; it was very much a Roald Dahl short story.
PD: Yeah, I love Roald Dahl. There’s an entire school of storytelling that I was sort of tipping my hat to. I was thinking of Jane Bowles. I was thinking of Evelyn Waugh. I’m very much influenced by British writers.
TD: I was really taken by, how in both of these books, you have these familial ties that don’t end when they’re supposed to: two Brothers who are together every night and have almost an anxiety about departing from each other, and then of course in French Exit, Malcolm and Frances obviously are in an unhealthy boundary situation. I wonder what interests you about familial ties that way?
PD: This has not been brought to my attention; this the first time I’ve thought about that through-line between two books. So that’s interesting. I find, I don’t know, there’s something about the family dynamic that I do seem to return to, and typically people that focus on family are people that have had very unhappy experiences with their family. And I have been very lucky with my family. I adore my family. We all get along pretty well. So it’s curious to me that I return to it because often times I’m displaying the darker sides of the family dynamics, which I haven’t experienced. So I don’t really know.
You know this comes up, often, a sort of why do you do this? And . . . I sort of willfully refuse to understand for myself even why I do these things because there’s something to be said for not knowing. I think when you start tinkering with the mechanism of it, it can foul it up somehow. If I know why I’m doing what I’m doing, I might stop, or something might change in some way, and I don’t want that to happen. So I return to the things I return to for reasons I don’t necessarily understand.
TD: [French Exit] went through a pretty drastic change from when you started writing. Franklin [the dead father who is reincarnated as a cat] was originally alive and was going to run to Paris.
PD: To say that this is even the same book is correct and incorrect. I began a book about somebody very much like the antagonist’s deceased husband, Franklin Price. I abandoned the book because I wasn’t enjoying myself. In the meantime I moved to Paris to research and visited New York three or four times. So I’d done all the legwork; the book just didn’t want to be a book. I worked on Undermajordomo Minor and then returned to a contemporary setting with French Exit, not really realizing what I’d done until I was almost done with the book—which was that I told the same story of the abandoned book from the point of view of the external characters.
I think the failure of that original book, the reason it didn’t really connect with me, was an issue with the primary character. The idea of focusing on somebody who’s sole goal is to amass money is ultimately not that interesting. But somebody who’s demonically narcissistic, the way he influences people that are on the outskirts of his life, that was more interesting to me.
TD: When you write, do you self-edit continuously?
PD: By the time I finish the first draft, it’s usually pretty close to what the book will look like when it’s published because I’m fairly cautious. I’m not one of these writers who knocks out 20 pages in a day. If I get a page that’s great. Often times it’s less than that. If you’re working six hours a day and one page is done, it’s typically in pretty good shape.