Built into the independent, Civil War-set feature “Men Go To Battle” was an inherent production challenge: How do you recreate the Civil War on a micro-budget? Director Zachary Treitz had always known to pull it off he’d need to lean on the historical reenactment of the Battle of Perryville.
“Because it was the 150th Anniversary of Perryville, Civil War reenactors were having a national event, which meant instead of having hundreds, they had thousands of men and women replaying the events of the key battle,” Treitz told IndieWire in a recent interview.
Treitz lobbied the reenactment leaders for months to convince them to allow filming, but there was concern the filmmakers would interfere with the allusion of re-living the events.
“These are men who sleep on the ground in rainy 30 degree weather and without a tent because they want to authentically relive the war,” said Treitz. The filmmakers were told up front that if any of the reenactors complained about the crew, they’d be asked to leave.
“To show our respect, we dressed in civilian clothes from the period and I wrapped the camera in a burlap sack so when it was on my shoulder it looked like I was carrying a sack of potatoes,” said cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz.
Jutkiewicz and Treitz didn’t know what to expect when they showed up for the first day, initially keeping their distance and slowly working their way closer as they met some of the men. The circumstances presented a definite challenge, but one that fit well with the way the filmmakers like to work.
“Brett and I enjoy the idea of throwing a character into an environment and then shooting the film in a documentary style,” said Trietz. It’s an approach Jutkiewicz first worked with shooting the Safdie Brothers’ 2009 “Daddy Longlegs,” and the two collaborators continued to experiment with this style of shooting in Treitz’s shorts.
The key trick on “Battle” was to find a group of young reenactors willing to have actor Timothy Morton inserted into their ranks, but once they did they were thrilled with the results.
“We prepared Tim with a bunch of scenes and things we wanted to get, then we’d rangled people around him,” explained Treitz. “I looked for good faces and voices to crowd the frame. I’d then quickly explain, ‘Tim’s going to say this, you are going to react this way, we’ll repeat it three times, here we go.’ We’d get two takes in and they’d have to go for mess hall or some other scheduled event.”
“It was very much as if we were shooting a documentary during the Civil War, thanks in no small part to level of detail and authenticity of all the participants,” said Jutkiewicz. “More than once we had to run from oncoming Confederate troops and retreat with the union soldiers. One moment in particular, when we ducked behind a split-rail fence and crouched behind a firing line of Union soldiers, I struggled to get the camera over Tim’s shoulder for a shot of the advancing rebels, and was gripped momentarily by a real fear of being fired at. It was an exhilarating moment, the feeling of which I think translates on screen.”
For some of the battle footage, the filmmakers knew they would be unable to shoot documentary style during reenactments, so afterwards they recruited their favorite reenactors and re-staged scenes where they could more carefully stage and coordinate action.
Before production, Treitz was awarded Rooftop Filmmakers’ Fund grant for Edgeworx Studios to do $10,000 worth of special effects on the film. Originally, the director assumed he’d use the special effects artists to paint out power lines and other aspects of 21st century living from his footage. But once they started planning and scouting, Treitz realized that instead he could use the grant to make canon explosions and they planned their action accordingly.
“Never would have thought to do crazy explosions, but having that grant influenced how we shot those scenes. It was really serendipitous.”