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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.