Winner of the Best New Narrative Director award at Tribeca 2015, Zachary Treitz's Men Go to Battle tells the story of two brothers during the civil war in 1861 like you've never seen before.
I've never experienced anything quite like this movie. We always try to grasp at comparisons to describe a film, but the only thing I can try to liken this film to is a minimalist Barry Lyndon, a film with a tone so full and a voice that feels undeniably original. Men Go to Battle was created with a small team shooting over several phases in Kentucky since 2012. At Tribeca we caught up with director Zachary Treitz, Co-writer Kate Sheil, and producer Steven Shardt.
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If there is a fullness to the world it is probably because we wrote and shot thirty movies and condensed it into one.
NFS: It's a fully toned movie and I think you were really successful at creating a world. If I tried to boil down my experience: it's just that people don't relate to each other. Why do men, why do humans go to war? It’s in that inability to relate or understand each other from another side. I just thought this film really captured the endearing flaws of our warring nature.
Zachary: We really tried hard to make something that was to us new, something that was created from its own clay. We love movies and watch a lot of movies, but we wanted to make something that felt like it didn't even come from us — that it came from itself. Sui generis I guess is the phrase... Being dropped into an unfamiliar environment and letting the audience experience what it's like to be uncertain about what is going to happen next, which creates a mystery rather than being led through a very direct plot.
Kate: Yeah thinking let's not be manipulative here to try and get ourselves to this other plot point. We also talked a great deal about being slightly democratic in how we focused on various characters. We wanted there to be characters who showed up for one scene and they are not really explained and then you never see them again.
Zachary: If there is a fullness to the world it is probably because we wrote and shot thirty movies and condensed it into one. Even if you see a character for a few moments, they have their own interior life and we just follow them. We wanted the movie to feel like maybe at some point we would just stop telling the story of these two guys and just go off — that anything was possible at any moment. Steven [Shardt] says sometimes that this story accretes — it tells itself through accretion.
NFS: There is just a certain ineffability of the things that are said. There is just these little people trying to take back what they said or trying to fill in the blank. They are saying everything they need to say and not really saying it. How do you do that in the writing?
Kate: Well we were writing specifically for Tim and David so we are familiar with their cadences and the way that they communicate or try to communicate. Awkwardness is something that I am very familiar with and something that I appreciate. Also it was taking what we had written and finding what felt comfortable coming out of the actors' mouths. We did rehearse with David for two weeks beforehand. We always wanted there to be room for the scene to breathe and to find moments of spontaneity. We always hoped that it would have this ephemeral quality where it didn't feel super scripted.
NFS: I like what Bresson said about rehearsal: "Nine tenths of our movements are based on habits and automatism. It's anti-nature to subordinate them to will and thought." When you rehearse people over and over again it stops becoming something you are thinking about.
Zach: They aren’t trained actors. We wanted them to feel comfortable in the character that weren't themselves, but wanted to explore various specific parts of characters that are not them but are playing to their strengths and intentional weaknesses.
NFS: How did your research inform the writing?
Zach: We thought that a good way into this would be to just rely on tons of first hand research. Diaries, journals, letters — to use those as a crutch for filling in details and ways of thinking and experiences that people had in their day to day lives. We had all these first hand accounts that really informed us and brought us into the room. Then it was a matter of what we did in the room.
Kate: We wanted to steep it so much in all of these details that they became not a big deal anymore.
Zach: The writing process and the research process were intertwined. We also knew that we had to be somewhat resourceful so we were trying to get into these reenactments and trying to use other peoples worlds they have already set up and insert ourselves in there. Steven invited us to a writing workshop. We went out there with Northwest Film Forum. Over the course of that weekend we started to really gel with Steven being a more formal part of the movie.
NFS: I love how you explore class in the film and show how fickle fortune can be.
Zachary: Since we are trying to see the world through the major characters' eyes mostly, it was important to see how they see themselves and other people. For Frances, the older brother, class is so important to him. He desires and is very jealous of the more prominent family in town. He's a striver and there's something human about that, but also within a year you’re saying that the whole thing is very mercurial. It just takes a few missteps to totally wipe out the hierarchies that seem entrenched.
Boringness is a sin in film.
NFS: In a way, it’s such an accessible film and I feel that the pacing has a lot to do with that. How did you craft the pace together?
Kate: It was important to us that we dip into moments in these two men's lives and the lives of the Small family. That it was the accumulation of these moments that was going to create the arc of this story and not necessarily us manipulating it towards a conclusion. It was fast paced in the script, but it came through the editing mostly.
Zachary: We never allowed ourselves to have things like establishing shots. It's nothing against the establishing shot but for this movie we wanted the audience to be constantly catching up to what's happening — piecing the parts of their lives together. Not that there isn't a story or plot, but that it would happen in the conversation between the audience and the film rather than the film telling what you need to be thinking and feeling. That also has to do with how we scored it, which was only with insects and bird noises and fire. To use those as the emotional and manipulative tools rather than a string section or something like that.
NFS: You can tell right from the credits that you guys aren't fucking around.
Zach: We wanted it to be harsh. I mean every cut is like a fucking knife. We wanted to feel the editing razor blade come down in your face. Unfortunately it’s a period piece and we couldn't go crazy with it. We also never wanted to be slow. Boringness is a sin in film. I like a lot of boring movies, I'm not going to say that I don't watch them, but we wanted something that was moving out of the gate — running. Everybody has to catch up with it.
We spent more time getting to the grain, getting to the roughness than maybe other people spent time getting the beauty.
NFS: There are some incredible battle scenes in the film and I heard you shot them during actual reenactments. How did you gain access to that world?
Zach: We had never been to a reenactment before, but we had a very tentative maybe from the reenactors that we could film there. They were like "yeah you can sit on the sidelines with the press." We were like "Well that's not exactly what we were thinking — we were thinking more like we would be living with you guys over the course of the weekend." We ended up dressing up in the period costume as civil war correspondents from the time. With Brett carrying around a burlap sack that looks like a sack of potatoes but it’s really an Arri Alexa running after these re-actors. Chris with this haversack with lenses in it, and me with another haversack with our sound equipment in there running after Tim and throwing him into this situation. This is also the first shoot we were doing with Tim. We were just exploring what was possible.
Kate: It was the one battle that we always intended to be the battle in the movie. Perryville is the biggest battle in Kentucky's history. The land is now a historical landmark so it’s much smaller than the reenactment usually than it used to be. This was the 150th so we knew if we didn't get in to this 150th where there going to be like 10,000 people there that we may not get a chance again.
NFS: It was a stroke of genius to take advantage of that as a small film.
Zach: It was also just the amazing generosity of them to finally say maybe. Then over the course of that weekend they grew to really like what we were doing. They saw that we weren't there to trivialize them or make fun of them or make some ironic thing. We were as into it or more so as they were. That led to us being able to go to other events like that.
NFS: Allowing the cinematography and the image to go muddy at times and just overall oppressively grainy image was a great choice for this film. I appreciate the fact that you're willing to go there, because I think people care way too much about aesthetic beauty on its own merits.
Kate: We were steering away from the most beautiful shot we could find. We wanted it to be utilitarian.
Zachary: We spent more time getting to the grain, getting to the roughness than maybe other people spent time getting the beauty.