Last year at Tribeca, I saw a film unlike anything I'd seen before. Most period pieces are distancing; they have an anthropological quality, as if the characters were torn from a history book rather than real life. But Men Go to Battle was a period film that didn't look or feel like one. Rather than exhibit the stilted style of the genre, the movie was intimate and contemporary. It was rough around the edges; it was fluid. Even though it was set in the Civil War—with historically-accurate dialogue and set design—it felt modern.
Tim Morton and David Maloney, long-time friends of director Zachary Treitz, play Tim and Francis, brothers who lead an insular existence full of hilarious banter on their Kentucky farmstead. The Civil War is not the story, but rather the backdrop; Men Go To Battle is a portrait of quotidian life in an extraordinary moment in history. With the impressionism of Barry Lyndon and the character-driven humor of daily life, first-time director Treitz brought the period piece into the 21st century. (At the time, I interviewed him.)
"It really was like shooting a documentary during the Civil War."
This week, in honor of Men Go to Battle's theatrical release in New York and LA, I caught up with the film's cinematographer, Brett Jutkiewicz. He and Treitz shot the film guerilla-style by sneaking around a Civil War battle reenactment in Kentucky. Jutkiewicz shot entirely handheld, often in close-up (his signature shot: 40mm lens with the camera placed two feet from the actor), and sometimes on horseback. Dressed up in period attire, they embedded themselves in battle scenes and made a deliberate film without a plan.
No Film School: Last year at Tribeca,I spoke to Zachary[Trietz, the director], who told me that you filmed mostly in Civil War reenactment sites. How did you engineer that?
Brett Jutkiewicz: Zachary and Kate [Lyn Sheil, the film's co-writer] tried to get permission to film at a reenactment Perryville, in Kentucky. It was a big event—the 150th anniversary of the battle of Perryville. They had been trying to get permission for months, and they were told "no," and then "no" again, and then eventually told "maybe", and Zachary kind of just went with that. We just drove down there. We showed up, and once we were there, we talked to some of the people in charge, and they were kind of hesitant, but since we were already there, they gave us permission—the one rule being that if any of the reenactors complain about us being there, we would have to leave. In order to show our respect, we all dressed up in costumes as civilians from the period.
"I wrapped the camera in a burlap sack, so when it was on my shoulder, it looked like I was carrying a huge sack of potatoes. "
NFS: Once you gained access to the reenactment, how did you shoot scenes?
Jutkiewicz: I wrapped the camera in a burlap sack, so when it was on my shoulder, it looked like I was carrying a huge sack of potatoes. We just joined the group of younger reenactors that we thought would be good for the story, and luckily they let us shoot with them. If we needed a scripted scene, we would just pull a few people together and give them the idea of the scene and just shoot it. It was very documentary-style filmmaking at that point.
Credit: Film Movement
Jutkiewicz: It was a very small crew: it was just me, and Zachary was directing and running sound, and Kate and our producer Steven, and one AC. It really was like shooting a documentary during the Civil War, which was strange. The reenactors take it really seriously, and there's a level of authenticity to what they're doing to the camps they set up. Walking into the camping setup, you could look 360 degrees and [not] see anything modern. We kind of just showed up, and it felt like we were dropped into the period, which was great for us.
"We talked about not wanting to be precious with the imagery. We wanted it to be tactile and rough and nimble, and to feel different from other period pieces."
NFS: You didn't have the ability to plan any shots?
Jutkiewicz: We talked about shots that we wanted to get that Zachary had in the script. We knew the moments that we wanted to get, and we knew the shots, generally speaking, but no, we couldn't plan because we hadn't seen the location and we didn't know how the camp was going to be set up, or how many people were going to be there, or whether it was going to be out in the field or in the woods. There were a lot of things we didn't know, but we talked a lot about what we needed to get while we were there, and what we hoped to get while we were there. [In terms of] the specifics of the shots, we had to use what we were given at the reenactments and work around it.
Credit: Film MovementNFS: This didn't feel like a period piece, mostly because of the way it was shot. There weren't a lot of slow pans or wide shots. It felt very nimble. How did you develop this "subversive period" aesthetic?
Jutkiewicz: We talked a lot about wanting to take a rougher, more naturalistic approach to a period piece because it's something that neither of us had really seen. These two brothers are not very famous, in a historical sense, so they aren't participating in any kind of bigger historical story that you would read about in the history books. We felt like we just wanted to shoot it like we would shoot a character piece in the present day. We wanted it to feel very loose, like we were present with the characters, and we were able to move with them and react with them. We talked about not wanting to be precious with the imagery. We wanted it to be tactile and rough and nimble, and to feel different from other period pieces.
"We had an extraordinarily small lighting package. For most of the shoot, we had only one actual film light."
But it was more about what we felt was appropriate for this particular story, and these characters, and the way that Zachary and Kate wanted to work with the actors—to be able to let them go a little bit and to explore the scenes and have the camera keep up with that. to not have [the actors] constrained by the frame or lighting.
Brett Jutkiewicz: "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. I had only ridden a horse once in my life. I mounted a horse with the camera on my shoulder so I could shoot while riding."Credit: Brett JutkiewiczNFS: Did you light a lot of scenes? Which equipment did you use?
Jutkiewicz: For the day interiors, we would occasionally put some light through windows, but a lot of it was natural light. Almost all the interiors—even day interiors, because it's really dark in the cabin—would also involve candlelight or firelight, in addition to the daylight through the windows. We had an extraordinarily small lighting package. For most of the shoot, we had only one actual film light, and everything else was fixtures that my gaffer [and I] had built. For firelight, we used household bulbs, and for candlelight (and some firelight), I built “candle panels,” one-foot by one-foot boxes lined with aluminum that would hold 30 tea candles in them, and we mounted them to C-stands. We would use that as a light source instead of using electric light where we could. I think the feel of it was that much better; the light created a soft spectral glow. I blew out candles to adjust the light.
"We just had to run with him, and we didn't know which way the reenactment was going to move, or which way the soldiers were going to march. We hoped that we knew what was going to happen next."
For the night exteriors, we had to light more. We did moonlight, and then used a lot of our household scaffold fixtures to use as starlight when were outside, because they were brighter than using actual candles or fire. We made strips with wood that had six bulbs on them. We had them on three separate circuits that would flicker against each other and create a fairly natural-looking firelight.
NFS: And what about your camera package?
Jutkiewicz: We used Series 2 and Series 3 Cooke Panchro lenses. It was pretty minimal. I had shot two shorts for Zachary on super 16, but because of the low-light photography and our budget, we chose the Arri Alexa. The Cooke lenses provided a soft look and the Alexa was the digital camera that looked most like film.
Credit: Film MovementNFS: Was there a particular scene that you had to be very dexterous in order to shoot? I'm sure that was nearly all of it, but maybe you can think of one specifically.
Jutkiewicz: A lot of that happened at the reenactments. One of them was just trying to capture an actual battle at the reenactment where Henry was with the troops. We just had to run with him, and we didn't know which way the reenactment was going to move, or which way the soldiers were going to march. We hoped that we knew what was going to happen next, and if we could get into a position to see Tim [who plays Henry].
At one point, we were hiding in these bushes, trying not to be seen by any of the officials there. We were in the middle of the battle. We're waiting, and all the sudden we see Henry's troops retreating back toward us, and we had to jump up, and we're yelling at each other, trying to figure out where Tim is, among this mass of people. Zachary somehow found him, so we grabbed a shot of him running back, and then just started sprinting with the camera, with the troops retreating. Meanwhile, guns started going off, and it's super intense. It almost felt like I was in the middle of an actual battle. We had to jump over this fence with the troops, and swing around, and try to get a shot over Henry's shoulder of the advancing troops. And then finally they fell back even further, and we were able to think for a second.
It's just a bunch of moments like that in the reenactments, where there was a lot of running with the camera trying to keep up and trying to get shots that at the same time looked nice and told the story.
Credit: Film Movement
NFS: Is there anything in particular that you learned from the shoot that you think you'll carry with you going forward?
Jutkiewicz: That's a good question. I think every time I shoot something I learn something.
What I learned is that if you have a vision—and patience—you can really achieve something on a scale that you might not have thought you could achieve. This was an incredibly ambitious film to do on such a small budget, and I really hadn't done a period piece before. I think if you have a certain level of resourcefulness and patience and vision, you can really achieve something that's quite special and profound.