Books to Film: Author Patrick deWitt on Seeing His ‘Sisters Brothers’ on Screen

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

‘I enjoyed the experience of seeing the movie,’ the Canadian author says—but only on his second viewing. Seeing his work go to the screen, Patrick deWitt says, takes some getting used to.

Patrick deWitt speaks at Paris’ Shakespeare and Company. Image: Olivia Snaije

Editor’s note: At the Frankfurt Book Fair’s THE ARTS+ program, Canadian-born, American-based author Patrick deWitt will talk about the experience of seeing his book ‘The Sisters Brothers’ adapted for film. —Porter Anderson

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

On Screen: ‘Kind of Shocking’
Canadian author Patrick deWitt is in Paris to promote his new book called French Exit (HarperCollins/Ecco, August). The visit coincides with the release of the film adaptation of his novel The Sisters Brothers(HarperCollins/Ecco, 2012).

A special screening of the film, directed by Jacques Audiard, will be shown this weekend at the Festival America, a biennial event running through Sunday (September 23) on the outskirts of Paris and focusing on culture from the Americas. This year Canada is the festival’s guest of honor and deWitt will be participating in a number of panels.

DeWitt, who was at the bookshop Shakespeare and Company on Tuesday (September 18) to discuss French Exit, said that when he first visited Paris “I was hell-bent on not enjoying it and I didn’t want to engage in the writer-in-Paris thing. But I really liked it and I feel really different here than anywhere else, and I don’t know why.”

DeWitt, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, said he’s well aware of the cliché of American writers in Paris. He’s familiar with the body of literature by those authors who lived in the city in the 1920s. His father owned many of their books, and in past interviews, deWitt has confessed to having a soft spot for Gertrude Stein.

But “I don’t avoid cliché,” he said, “and in this book, I intentionally jump into cliché. There’s something sort of joyous about engaging with cliché and then triumphing over it … I’m wary of newness because newness becomes old really quickly. If there’s a way to inject yourself into something well-worn…?”

French Exit is a satirical but affectionate portrait of Frances, a wealthy Upper East Side New Yorker who moves to Paris with her adult son and the family cat when she discovers she has run out of money.

Frances is “as mean as can be,” DeWitt says. “Yet I have a fondness for her.”

DeWitt quipped that he “really just wanted to write about Paris,” but in fact what he does in French Exit is give us an intimate look at the wealthy 1 percent. DeWitt said that when he turned in his manuscript to his editor, it was “the stupidest time to submit a sympathetic portrait of wealthy people.”

Film: ‘A Big Thing To Process for a Writer’

Writing about a subject far from his own reality is something he says he likes to do.

“My first book was about me or someone like me,” he says. That was [Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner, 2009.

“The process of publishing that book and discussing the autobiographical elements was tedious and made me uncomfortable. Since then, from the point of [view of] a writer, it’s fun to be a voyeur, wondering what it would be like to be a contract killer or from the Upper East Side. Being on the outside looking in, I feel like this is a natural feeling to me.”

DeWitt slipped into the skins of two violent brothers in the California Gold Rush for The Sisters Brothers, a comedic Western, which director Audiard adapted with Thomas Bidegain for the screenplay. DeWitt has experience with film. He wrote the screenplay for the 2011 independent film Terri, which starred John C. Reilly.

The 2011 Canadian cover design, from House of Anansi

DeWitt was already working on The Sisters Brothers at the time and Reilly and his wife, the producer Alison Dickey, read the manuscript and talked deWitt into letting them adapt the manuscript, which went on to become an award-winning novel.

In a recent news conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, Reilly was quoted by Jessica Wong of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, saying, “We know what can happen in this process of books becoming movies. Often, 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,'”

In The Sisters Brothers, Reilly plays the older brother Eli Sisters and Joaquin Phoenix plays Charlie, the younger brother. In 2012,Reilly took The Sisters Brothers to Audiard, who had just released his film De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone), based on Toronto writer Craig Davidson’s short story collection.

For an Author: ‘Accepting the Differences’

The Sisters Brothers, which has won Audiard a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is the director’s first film made in English. Audiard was quoted by Raju Mudhar at The Toronto Sun, saying, “The charm of the book was that it was very literary, and it took us a while as we had to take a step back from the book.” Audiard added that the story was more a fairytale for him than a Western.

Fans of deWitt’s novel will notice that in the film adaptation, the characters of Morris and Warm have been enhanced—the small-town crime boss Mayfield becomes a woman, and the idea of a utopian commune is introduced.

DeWitt said he was only involved in a minor way with the screenplay, doing “dialogue polish” at the end. He said that he has seen the film twice and the first time it was “a big thing to process for a writer. There are so many things that are different.

“It’s a process of accepting the differences. It was kind of shocking.”

The second time he saw the film, he said, “I enjoyed the experience of seeing the movie. I felt removed and that wasn’t unpleasant. It’s a complicated thing though, there’s a lot to digest. It was an honor to have someone like Jacques [Audiard] to film it.

“Jacques’ aesthetic is so evolved. The sensory detail is so evolved. It’s like a feast. So I’d say there’s French stuff in there.”

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About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.