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How Tribeca-Winning Director Zachary Treitz Made ‘Men Go to Battle,’ a Period Film That Feels Strikingly Modern

How Tribeca-Winning Director Zachary Treitz Made 'Men Go to Battle,' a Period Film That Feels Strikingly Modern

READ MORE: Watch: New Trailer and Clip Arrive When ‘Men Go To Battle’ For the Civil War Film

The problem with period pieces is that they’re distancing. Even the finest, most humanizing historical films have an anthropological quality, as if the people onscreen were torn from a history book rather than a captured slice of life. This problem of estrangement is typically inherent to the fabric of the genre. That’s not the case with Zachary Treitz’s “Men Go to Battle.”

Treitz, who was awarded Best New Narrative Director at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, has created a period piece that feels contemporary. Set in 1861, “Men Go To Battle” is a portrait of quotidian life in an extraordinary moment in history. The Civil War proves merely a backdrop for brothers Henry (Tim Morton) and Francis (David Maloney), who own a modest farmstead in Small’s Corner, Kentucky and lead an insular existence consisting mainly of chores and brother-on-brother roughhousing. Somewhere between the idiosyncratic performances, deep-rooted chemistry between the leads, minimalist production design, understated but masterful cinematography, naturalistic dialogue and fluid pacing, Treitz has pulled together a historical piece that’s wholly original. Conspicuously missing are the overwrought signifiers of the period piece; “Men Go to Battle” retains the impressionism of “Barry Lyndon” without sacrificing the engaging character-driven humor that’s the stuff of life.

We sat down with Treitz to discuss how he did all of this on a shoestring budget with mostly nonprofessional actors.

This is an incredibly unique project in the way it captures the essence of daily life during a historical period but somehow manages to sidestep period piece tropes. Is that how you originally conceived it? 

We wanted to make something that we had never seen before. We wanted to create something that is of itself, and not built on referencing any other world besides the world that we’re creating. It’s a slightly hermetically-sealed world: we wanted to make it feel natural and not period-y or old-timey. It was a game we were playing. But it was something we wanted to win. All of the scenes are like little puzzle pieces, and they all fit together to tell a story. But they all are meant to be not exactly fitting together; they’re meant to be jagged and rough so that what’s happening in the scene tells the story, but in a way that makes the audience do a little bit of work. Dropping in and out, I guess. 
You wanted it to feel a little bit like life. 

I guess we wanted it to not feel unlike life. How do we make a movie that feels like we’re filming it now, but it’s 150 years ago? How do we not fetishize the spaces, how do we not fetishize the history? We wanted to make it look easy. We avoided anything that felt like it was heading towards masterpiece theater feel. We had beautiful locations, but where you have this incredible vista you do a close up of Henry and you don’t see the landscape. You see it as a blur in the background. I think there’s some sort of knowledge in there as you watch that we are in beautiful environments and stuff like that, but we don’t care.

That’s what’s wrong with making a period piece to me: The things that are interesting to people normally are the beautiful costumes and location and language. We wanted the interest to be in the intensity of the characters. We stripped away some narrative conventions, like establishing shots and the directly linear plot that would take you from scene to scene. It was going to be harder to keep the attention of the audience, so we needed to make sure that things were happening fluidly, quickly and that you’re right there with the characters and you’re not losing focus on them. As long as you’re seeing people, I think you can engage in what’s going on with their lives as long as it doesn’t read false. There’s a ton of stuff that we filmed, but it just didn’t fit the bill. We filmed for 44 days. We wanted to feel like we could follow any of the characters anywhere, that you could follow any of the minor characters out of the scene and keep the movie going. And the unspoken depth that that gives to the characters I think really helped bring the world to life. You have a bunch of proteins and amino acids, and somewhere in there, the electric spark happens and you’ve got something that’s living. It was tough. It took us 44 days to figure out where that was. 

The main actors, Tim and David, are goldmines. They have incredible chemistry and banter. How did you find them?

I’m from Louisville. That’s also where Tim and David are from. Growing up in a semi-small town, you tend to know people who have similar interests as you. I knew them; they went to high school in Louisville, and so did I. Tim and David were best friends from a decade ago. They had made all of these really small movies for school. They’re really bizarrely funny. I wish I could have been on that wavelength at their age. Anyway, they had a relationship together that was a lot like being brothers. They talk the same; they don’t necessarily look the same, but they have the same mannerisms. It’s a lot like relationships I had from that era. It’s this weird coalescing that happens at that age. We wanted to put them in our story and use their chemistry. We knew they were performers in their own way, even if they might not be trained.

A lot of the humor for me came out of that very idiosyncratic character dynamic. Did you incorporate them into the writing process or let them improv?

Kate and I have known them for years. We wrote those two parts for them. We took parts of Tim and David’s relationship and their personalities that we knew we could pull out of them onscreen. So while they’re not playing each other by any means, we wanted to be able to exaggerate certain things from their lives and the way they are and the way we are, and put those things in. So, Kate and I wrote the outline together. She would write a scene and then I would write a scene and we’d keep switching back and forth. Then we were did some rehearsing. We wanted to iron out anything that felt like we were winking at the camera, anything that felt like we were being ironic.

When it came to Tim and David, we were really reluctant to give them the script. Eventually we did a shoot, and then went back and rewrote based on what we were seeing was coming out of the rehearsal process and the filming process, and see what assets we had, and what we could leave behind. By the time we got to the last shoot, we had a pretty tight script. We didn’t improvise anything. But it was a very collaborative and open process with what went on the page and what went into the movie. It’s really hard, because you can’t improvise a movie like this. Just getting the language right would be impossible. We didn’t really make it some wildly different style of English, but there’s a lot of words you just can’t use. We spent a lot of time pulling those words out of our own vocabulary and we couldn’t expect the actors to do the same thing. 

How did you develop that hybrid language? 
Kate I went through a research process, reading a lot, going into archives, reading firsthand accounts, primary resources that are not published. The movie is about people who were left out of history, people who don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. But they’re within this broader historical context that really matters, and the movie is the interplay between those two things. We wanted to read letters not from Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, but Susan Brown who is just a 17-year-old girl writing about the party she’s going to tomorrow and the people who came calling today and what skirt she got yesterday from her dad. All these little details came into not only the story, but also the language. We would constantly be consulting dictionaries and the OED and stuff just for like, when is that word from? Does it belong in that context in that location? In Kentucky in 1860, would it [make sense]? We were really cautious not to take anyone out of it because people are constantly hunting for anachronisms. I’m not exactly sure how it came together in the way it did. It was somewhere between the performances and the way it was filmed and the way the sets looked and the way we edited it and the writing. 
You were incredibly low budget. How did you economize on the elements that usually make period pieces expensive, such as locations and production design?
We started driving around Kentucky and it was impossible to find locations. And then we started driving around Indiana, then we started driving around Virginia. There’s plenty of old, beautiful buildings, but they’re either unsafe and they’re so old that they can’t be made to look new. Everything needed to look like it was built 20 years ago, not 180 years ago. So we spent all this time, and then we got really lucky. Steven, our producer, was about to pull the plug because we couldn’t find the main cabin. He was like, “Look, if we don’t find this in the next two days, we just can’t shoot this movie.” Then he went on this nature walk at this farm that was 20 minutes outside of Louisville. He was walking around on this cattle farm and stumbles upon this cottage. It was an old stagecoach stop. He was like, “I think I found it.” 

For the other locations, we knew a guy who had been a Civil War reenactor and who gave us a lot of costumes. He recommended this one collection of buildings. It was almost immaculately preserved but it wasn’t filmable. It was on a country road that was paved and we had to bring in 13 tons of dirt one night, put it all down on the road, cover it while the local people are writing editorials and writing to state senators about how we’re closing the road and how their commutes are being affected. Then they started telling us that they were going to shoot us. It was insane. Our art department was freaking out and really scared they were going to get killed. So we ended up shutting it down one day and everything kind of cooled down. We did it on a weekend, and there were no death threats anymore.

What about the battle scenes?

I was like, “We’ll just shoot at reenactments!” And then we realized I’ve never been to a reenactment. It’s a very sealed off social environment. They don’t want outsiders because it’s annoying and people will get weird impressions. It’s their hobby and they don’t want to bother with some movie shoot. Finally, we got sort of a “maybe” out of them. In October of 2012, we knew that they were having the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Perryville, which is sort of a climaxing moment in our movie. This was going to be the 150th reenactment, which meant these guys and girls from all over the country come in and it’s a national event with thousands of people. We’re just begging them, please let us film there. And they’re like, “No, it’s going to cost a lot of money, we can’t shut down anything.” We’re like, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do: We’re going to dress up in costume, just three of us. We’ll just go in and put our character in there and he’ll just be one of your guys.” And they’re like, “Maybe, I don’t know.” We were just like, “Okay! That’s good enough!”

So we drove down to Kentucky, got in costume, and just threw Henry [Tim Morton] in his Union uniform into the ranks with these guys. We were like, “Can you guys show him how to shoot a rifle?” It was a good trade because they wanted more people, and Tim was really good at being a soldier and marching and taking orders. We were just tossing Tim in with these guys. 

By the end of it, these guys were coming up to us and they were like, “You know what? I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never seen anyone who was so inconspicuous and so respectful. Thank you all.” So we developed a relationship with them where they let us come back to a couple more events and do it the same way. They gave us more and more access to the people. We started to set up scenes rather than just filming in this documentary fashion. That evolved over the course of the year. We were constantly thinking, “Well, we have no resources. How do we use our lack of resources in our favor?” We’d say, look, we have nothing to offer you except that we’re not horrible people. We tried to open ourselves to them and their environment. 

Throughout all of the trials and tribulations, what would you tell yourself when you were thinking about abandoning the project?
The hardest part of this whole process is staying excited about something over a long period of time. Most movies are filmed 20 days, 30 days, whatever. And ours took over a year to film, and then an extra year before that to write the script, and an extra year after that to edit it. I kept trying to come back to the essence of what had originally excited me about the footage or about a scene, and trying to keep that tiny spark alive. And it was not always alive. At a certain point, even after we had done even our first shoot the first two weeks, I didn’t look at the footage for a month. I just got such feelings of anxiety that I’ve never dealt with before. I kept thinking, “What are we doing? We’re going to take a small amount of somebody else’s money and gamble it in this way where everything can, and often did, fall apart every day?” It was just absurd. We had so much less control over the elements than most movies do. You just have to pretend you’re excited until the cycle comes around where you are excited again. And what’s good is the collaborative process is that even when you’re not excited, other people will be.

We were continually slightly more lucky than unlucky. Terrible things were happening the whole time. We were constantly getting shut out of things, but then we would have some breakthrough that just felt like, “Oh my god. This is why we’re doing this.” There were so many times where the movie was just one conversation away from not being completed because somebody said no. Every movie is like that, but not every movie is a period piece. Not every movie has so few options of where they can film and what they can be looking at. Because of that, this is a movie that we could never make again.

READ MORE: Meet the Tribeca 2015 Filmmakers #50: Zachary Treitz Digs Into Brotherly Love and Brotherly Hate in ‘Men Go To Battle’

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