From his melancholic Oscar-nominated turn in “Chicago” to feuding with Will Ferrell in “Step Brothers,” John C. Reilly is the rare American actor to oscillate from dramatic roles to broad comedies. His wife, Alison Dickey, has always hoped to unite those two modes. “We’ve been together a long time,” said Dickey. An independent producer, she met Reilly when she was working as Sean Penn’s assistant on the set of “Casualties of War” in 1989. “I’ve seen the whole trajectory of his career. I’m so well aware of what he’s capable of doing. I always feel somewhat satisfied and somewhat unsatisfied after I watch a film of his, just in terms of wanting to get the whole palette.”
Eventually, she decided to do something about it. While developing her own projects, Dickey scouted for talent on the festival circuit. It was her enthusiasm for Mark and Jay Duplass’ “The Puffy Chair” that led Reilly to work with the sibling directors on their studio debut “Cyrus.” Dickey was reticent to produce one of her husband’s projects, but eventually took on that role for Azazel Jacobs’ 2011 coming-of-age drama “Terri,” which found Reilly playing a good-natured high school principal.
That collaboration dovetailed into their next movie together, which took years of development, became Reilly’s passion project, and one of his best roles in ages: “The Sisters Brothers,” an unorthodox Western in which the actor plays Eli, one half of the titular duo opposite Joaquin Phoenix’s Charlie, as sibling guns-for-hire who spend half the movie stumbling through violent encounters and the other engaged in more tender, familial struggles.
“One of the beautiful things about his performance in the film is that it really showcases his range both as a dramatic actor, but also being able to find comedy in a situation,” Dickey said. “That’s what John’s interested in. Comedy just comes out of reality. That’s one of the beautiful things about his acting. It’s just so tied to truth.”
Dickey and Reilly spent seven years developing “The Sisters Brothers” from the acclaimed novel by Patrick DeWitt. His work first came to Dickey’s attention on “Terri,” a script that began as a chapter from one of the author’s unpublished books. Jacobs urged Dickey to read the manuscript for DeWitt’s upcoming novel, suggesting that Reilly might be a good fit for Eli, the brother more conflicted about the morality of their gunslinging ways.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” Dickey said. “I got John to read it, because my enthusiasm was off the charts.” They optioned the rights before the book was published — a canny move, because “The Sisters Brothers” became a hot property after it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and received various other awards. “We started getting the Hollywood phone calls,” Dickey said. “We knew we needed to stay the course to make the best possible movie.”
For the first time in his career, Reilly decided to sign on as a producer. “This naturally happens when you’re a performer and you’ve been doing this as long as I have,” he said. He developed some of his characters in collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Hard Eight”), and with Ferrell, but “The Sisters Brothers” allowed him to take a more active role. “It was a lot of work, but it was immensely satisfying to know that I gave everything I possibly could do it all along the way,” he said.
Despite Reilly’s stardom, the pair made a conscious effort to avoid the studio route. “While it was tempting to go to a studio with this project, we also knew that the right call during development would be to do this independently,” Dickey said. With that line of thinking, they hired Dewitt to adapt his book into a screenplay, joined forces with former studio executive and producing muscle Michael De Luca, and prioritized finding the right filmmaker. “We wanted to approach an A-list director who would make it his own,” Dickey said. “We were starting to think of directors who really have that ability to take material and make it really personal.”
A year after “Terri,” French auteur Jacques Audiard was at the Toronto International Film Festival with his gritty fighting drama “Rust and Bone.” Dickey set up a meeting. “One of the real hallmarks of his work is his sense of dynamics,” Dickey said. “The films are so visceral and gritty and real. At the same time, they have an emotional undercurrent that pays off.”
The producer had admired Audiard’s work since his 2001 feature “Read My Lips,” and introduced Reilly to the filmmaker’s unique tone. “She was the one advocating for Jacques all along,” Reilly said. “We were looking for someone who could avoid the baggage of American West nostalgia, because I think the myth making of movies is so powerful that we, as Americans, believe that the West was what it was in the movies … having someone outside of America was a really good way to subvert some of the clichés.”
Audiard was intrigued by the pitch, mainly because he had never worked with American actors. “I realized there’s something peculiar about them,” he said. “It’s difficult to define. They have a certain way of using cinema.” Audiard agreed to develop the project further, but had already started working on his next movie, “Dheepan.” That project would go on to win the Palme d’Or in 2015. In the meantime, Audiard began working on a new version of the screenplay with his writing partner, Thomas Bidegain. “We knew it would take time,” Audiard said. “I love classic Westerns, but they never really moved me.”
After meeting with Dewitt in Paris, the new writers realized they needed to expand the story to develop two other characters: John (Jake Gyllenhaal), a British detective assigned to capture wanted chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Warm, it turns out, has a potion with the ability to reveal gold in the river, and his promise of untold wealth entrances all three men even as they react differently to the news. “When it became a four-hander, it really solved the dynamic problems with the script,” Dickey said. “It clicked the project into a structure that he had been searching for. Once he found that, it was exciting.”
Reilly saw the range of characters in broader terms. “The four men in the story are in four ways of emerging into a new kind of masculinity, or a new way to live,” he said. “In this moment that we’re in, where we’re examining gender roles and everything else, where do we go from here? That was also the question in the 1850s American West. We’ve come from this place of brutality and open warfare, and pretty much the gun is the law of the land. In order for this to be sustainable, where do we go now?”
Audiard took charge over the rest of the casting, including the decision to cast Phoenix as the raucous opposite to Reilly’s warm-hearted persona. “Joaquin has a very peculiar status in Europe,” Audiard said. “He’s a huge star. I don’t know if it’s the same thing here. The way he acts makes him very European.” But it was Reilly’s own bifurcated performances that appealed to the filmmaker. “I’d seen John C.’s movies,” Audiard said, “and that was what I was interested in.”
For Dickey, the character of Eli Sisters provided a natural outlet for Reilly’s screen presence. “He can be gentle and introspective, but also, you can’t mess with him,” she said.
The movie bears this out in the tonal contrast between many scenes: Eli’s an adorable naif when he’s learning how to use a toothbrush or engaging in an innocuous elementary school fantasy with a prostitute, but when duty calls, he’s a merciless sharpshooter. In the context of a Western, that dichotomy might look strange, but Audiard’s French movies often feature hardened men who eventually reveal their sensitive sides. “At the end of the day, I think Jacques made a really personal movie,” Reilly said. “That was really gratifying, to have someone take this on not as a director-for-hire, but as someone who could make it personal for all of us.”
Audiard’s involvement became constructive in another way — his Paris-based company Why Not? signed on to handle the physical production. “They’re the ultimate independent filmmakers,” Dickey said. “They do everything on their own terms. Their directors have complete freedom, and the films are all a direct result of this pure artistic expression. It drew me much closer to my independent film roots. I knew that language well.”
It reminded Dickey of a revelation that hit her on the set of “Casualties of War,” nearly 30 years ago. “We were out there in the middle of the jungle in Thailand, and I was watching Art Vinson produce that movie with a really fantastic international crew,” she said. “It was incredible. At that point, I realized I wanted to switch to physical production. I changed gears and worked my way up, learning the ropes.”
Though Reilly and Dickey co-produced “The Sisters Brothers” through Top Drawer Entertainment, Dickey wasn’t sure when the pair would officially collaborate again. “We both have our own careers, and that’s the lovely thing about our partnership,” she said. “In a way, I feel like we’re always working together, because it’s the place we find in our conversation about our work that allows us to work independently. We really value each other’s opinions and it’s great to have that kind of personal and creative partnership.”
They usually have a lot to discuss at the end of the day. “We do our thing, and we come home,” Dickey said, “and we can be a foil for each other.”
Annapurna Pictures is now playing “The Sisters Brothers” in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.