Editor’s Note: “Men Go To Battle” is not your normal micro-budget independent film. The story of two Kentucky brothers set against the backdrop of Civil War is a perfect example of how resourceful low budget filmmakers can be, as director Zachary Treitz and his small band of collaborators creates a vibrant and credible-looking period drama. The film is much more than an inventive recreation of period, it is also an exercise in taking a modern approach to story and filmmaking to cut through the layers of historical embellishment to make a direct and intimate film that is as relatable as any set in 2016.
In the first of a series of articles about the film, cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz talks about how he approached shooting “Men” and how he tackled the challenge of shooting in the low light, pre-electricity world of 1861.
When director Zachary Treitz asked me to shoot a micro-budget 1860s period piece, the thought of it was both extraordinarily exciting and incredibly daunting. Zachary and I met at Boston University’s film department and had been working together in independent film for years, but “Men Go To Battle” would be like nothing we had ever done before as it called for creating a convincing period piece on a budget for probably less than what it cost to shoot for one hour on “Lincoln.” To pull it off required incredible resourcefulness and a singular vision.
We set out to make the anti-period piece. It would be rough and naturalistic, dark and moody. We’d strip away any stuffy pretension inherent in historical dramas and treat the characters like real people, not effigies for broader historical contexts. The desire to make it intimate and immediate — a glimpse at the life of two people outside of even the margins of the history books — informed how the film would be shot.
One of our first discussions after I read the script was about the shooting format. Most of the visual references we discussed were shot on film: “Barry Lyndon” for its candlelit photography, Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” for its camera movement and beautiful simplicity and “Breaking the Waves” for its visceral style and handheld camerawork. I had shot two shorts for Zachary on super-16mm film, but the amount of low-light photography we’d be doing and the limited amount of film we could afford ultimately led us to decide that shooting digitally on the Arri Alexa was the best fit. I knew the Alexa would be the digital camera that could give us the closest approximation to the tactile quality of film. I paired the Alexa with a set of vintage Cooke lenses that gave the image a softness but maintained good contrast to help create the rougher, more organic style we were looking for.
I knew I’d have to work very loosely and fluidly to capture the spontaneity of the actors’ performances and allow them freedom to live and breathe within the scene. Tim Morton and David Maloney, who play brothers Henry and Francis Mellon, were cast together in part because they are old friends and have a brotherly rapport that Zachary and co-writer Kate Lyn Sheil wanted to preserve. It was a documentary-style approach to the period piece. I operated the camera, which was handheld for almost all of the shoot (the final cut of the film is, in fact, entirely handheld) and kept the presence of crew and equipment on set to a minimum to preserve for the actors, as much as possible, the feeling of being in the period.
I wanted the imagery to feel as if we took the camera in a time machine to 1861 and just had to work with what was there, to feel real darkness at night because that’s how nighttime was before electric light. We worked on the edge of exposure quite a bit throughout the film and often pushed the camera to its limits, which I think creates a feeling of veracity and authenticity. One of my favorite shots of the film was lit with a single candle on the brothers’ dinner table when they sit in silence after their mules have run away. When the candle flickers, the whole room flickers with it and it underscores the desperate emotion and dark humor of the scene. Their life on the farm is on the precipice of collapse, as is the candle on the verge of blowing out. It’s an effect that would have been very difficult to convincingly fake with an electric light.
Choosing the Alexa over a less expensive digital camera meant that, in every other aspect, the camera and lighting departments had to be absolutely as lean as possible. The most crew I had at any one time was a 1st AC, DIT, Gaffer and Key Grip (although our Key Grip was also in the art department), and our lighting package for the majority of the shoot consisted of only one actual film light, with all of our other fixtures built by me and gaffer Jonathan Rotberg.
For fire and candlelight, I used a combination of actual fire and low-wattage household bulbs depending on the scene. I built two units that we dubbed “candle panels,” which were one-foot by one-foot boxes, four inches deep and lined with aluminum. Each panel held about 30 tea candles and could be mounted on a C-stand. I used beeswax candles that burned longer and brighter than normal tea candles and had the unexpected added benefit of making the set smell kind of like honey. I used the panels a lot for the night interior scenes inside Henry and Francis’ cabin, as they were bright enough to light a good portion of the small room and were especially good for close-ups where you can feel the quality of using actual candlelight. All the small points of light together created a great soft spectral glow, and by blowing out or lighting candles I could adjust the light level. I managed not to spill hot wax on any of the actors, although the floors of our cabin location fared a bit worse.
Zachary was intent on not being precious with the imagery or creating frames that felt too intentionally composed, so I would often start by finding a frame that I felt was well balanced and supported the intention of the moment within the scene, then adjust it slightly to introduce an unease or a sense of imperfection. There was a frame we kept coming back to for close-ups that was kind of 3/4 front and just above eye-level, usually on a 40mm lens with the camera only about two feet from the actor. It wasn’t very traditional framing for a close-up but there was something special about it – it felt very intimate but being above the eyeline gave the shot a voyeuristic quality as well, almost as if the camera just melted away. I tried to strike a balance between framing that felt purposeful without being heavy-handed or overly stylized.
It was important for me that the camera was always present with the characters and especially with Henry, so the audience would experience the world through him as opposed to from a distance. I tended to use wider focal lengths like 25mm, 32mm, and 40mm and to move the camera closer to the actors rather than shoot with longer lenses farther away. There’s an immediacy to the imagery when the camera is close to an actor; it’s something you can really feel and it has a subjective quality that I liked for this film. The idea of wanting the audience to feel completely dropped into Henry and Francis’ world was something that Zachary and I discussed at length. It was paramount that we created visuals that were visceral and immersive, that if we were going to pull of a nineteenth century period film there had to be no feeling of artifice to it whatsoever.
Throughout the production we had to find solutions to endless obstacles. For a scene of a search party on horseback, I wanted to shoot at eye-level with Francis, who was riding a horse. We didn’t have the money to rent any kind of tracking vehicle, so although I had previously only rode a horse once in my life, I mounted a horse with the camera on my shoulder so I could shoot while riding alongside David.
Ultimately, it was the passion of everyone involved that made this seemingly impossible film possible. Even now, looking back on it I’m not exactly sure how we managed to get it done. We were very fortunate to have Zachary and Kate at the helm, whose vision and patience were almost superhuman. I owe a lot of credit to my crew who never faltered despite some incredibly long and cold nights, and to the art and costume departments who, on pennies, were able to create a wonderfully rich world to photograph. Making movies is always a team effort, but this one took a much more than a hundred percent from every single one of us, and I think the results are very evident on the screen. It’s a film that I feel very proud to be a part of.
Editor’s Note: This feature is presented in partnership with Arri, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Click here for more information about Arri’s products.