My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Talking to the filmmaker behind Men Go to Battle.
Men Go to Battle is the story of two brothers who live in a cabin on the remnants of their family’s once-grand Kentucky estate, which they sell piecemeal to survive. The year is 1861, and rumors about the Union Army are a hot topic in the parlor of the town’s wealthiest family, the Smalls. When younger brother Henry (David Maloney) is romantically spurned by Betsy Small (Rachel Korine), he enlists in the Union Army without telling Francis (Tim Morton). The brothers’ lives diverge for the first time, and they are forced to confront the world alone precisely as the Civil War transforms it forever.
Men Go to Battle eschews the extravagance of conventional period pieces in favor of intimacy and naturalism. The camera lingers on Henry’s face as he marches into the Battle of Perryville, and outdoor scenes are scored by cicadas and rustling wind. Contrary to expectations, Men Go to Battle is also very funny. Much of the humor arises from longtime pals Maloney and Morton’s prankish brotherly dynamic, which vacillates between hostility and affection. Korine also kills as a romantic, well-bred young woman who gently humors her hapless suitors—that is, until Henry makes the wrong move.
I sat down with director Zachary Treitz to discuss the film, which he co-wrote with Kate Lyn Sheil and for which he was awarded Best New Narrative Director at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Men Go to Battle plays at Anthology Film Archives in New York City through July 14 and opens in Los Angles on July 15, 2016.
Hannah Holden We encounter many characters that only appear on screen briefly but seem to be living complex, fully-considered lives. It’s as though a door could open onto any of their stories. Can you explain what you’ve called “filming democratically”?
Zachary Treitz I think the term comes from something I read by William Eggleston. He used it differently than how we are, certainly, but my take is that you make a world so rich that it feels as if you could follow any of the characters and get something interesting. We filmed a lot of scenes like this, and it turns out that when you are making a narrative film maybe it’s not the best idea, because the audience gets lost. But it was fun to do.
And there are just so many problems with making a period piece—a huge, tangled web of problems. Those scenes you mention were a way to mentally get around the fear of venturing into bad territory, and avoid treating things too preciously, too seriously, or with the idea that there is some weird aesthetic that feels old-timey. We concentrated on the writing and characters and, while we worried extensively about how things looked, on not making that our only focus.
Kate and I spent a fair amount of time reading through diaries, letters, and published archives. So, while the characters and the stories were ours, when it came to inventing the dialogue, thoughts, mannerisms, and funny things people say, we had this great wealth of information. Making it up is really hard, so we had this crutch to lean on and be inspired by. And that helped with the democratization.
Our hope is that you feel like you are just dropping in, really hard, to each scene. Not that it’s a struggle to keep up, but that you have to keep your wits about you, and that there isn’t this narrative through-line tugging you through every scene. It’s more like life, which is somewhat random. I’m not going to claim we’re trying to be life-like, but we want to open it up and make a world to get lost in.
HH Henry leaves home, goes on a journey, and returns changed. But the film doesn’t end there. Instead, we’re launched into the next phase of his journey, which we don’t actually see on screen.
ZT Yeah, I was told it was really important to leave room for sequels. (laughter)
No, I appreciate finality in stories. The central idea is that when you’re watching the film, the characters don’t know what’s happening, therefore you don’t know what’s happening. I think it’s exciting to feel that way. That’s not to say it isn’t going places: it’s a pretty simple movie. There aren’t a lot of conventional narrative twists and turns. In my mind, it’s a little bit of a fairytale. It’s a Cinderella story where Cinderella goes to the ball and everything goes to shit.
HH Henry seems like a character who especially doesn’t know what his next step is. He’s a little guileless.
ZT I like movies about fuck-ups rather than people who are really on top of things. One comment from our main reenactment guys who helped us with some of the historical stuff was something about Henry and Francis being “too dumb to be stupid.” Which is funny, but not really the point.
HH We stare at Henry’s face for much of the movie. There’s a lot of humor in his small reactions.
ZT You see the world happen to him. Which is how I feel, honestly. I feel like I never change, but everything else around me does. It’s nice to see a character who has a lot of stuff happening around him.
HH At the Rooftop Films screening of Men Go to Battle, you mentioned that you needed to build trust with the reenactment community before they were willing to work on the film. How did you go about that?
ZT Basically, it started with me, the cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, Kate Lyn Sheil, and an assistant cameraperson driving down to Kentucky for a reenactment. It was important because it was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Perryville. We knew there were going to be thousands of people instead of hundreds, and we were trying to convince them to let us film there. They deal with this a lot. People are always asking to shoot stuff at these things, and it’s often disappointing or intrusive. These guys have this fun thing they do on the weekends that they put a lot of time and money into, and they don’t want some asshole to ruin it.
I spent so much time on the phone explaining how sincere we were and talked them into a “maybe.” Our friend Morgan gave us some costumes and off we went. We all wore era-appropriate civilian stuff, because they wouldn’t let us be military.
HH What were these costumes like?
ZT Really goofy-looking stuff—shirts that only button to here, wool pants, suspenders, socks, a jacket that looked right, a hat and tie. We were trying to be like reporters in the camp. Brett had this huge Alexa in a burlap sack. The only way you would know it was a camera was from the front because of the lens, but otherwise it just looked like some idiot hauling around a sack of potatoes. Kate wasn’t welcome—they were like, “No women.”
There are issues with shooting reenactments. There’s a car in the distance or a port-a-potty in the shot, or you pan and there’s some guy on his cellphone. Another issue is a lot of these guys are too old and too fat. These historical soldiers were actually sixteen, emaciated or thin, which doesn’t happen to be the demographic of reenactors. But we found some younger guys, and it turned out that Tim was really good at following orders and shooting with a rifle. He learned how to march and they really appreciated having an extra guy.
A bond developed where we would be filming stuff with him marching around and doing drills, and they would be cooking sides of bacon that were so gnarly. Eventually, we told Tim, “Alright, we are good with that scene. We’re gonna fill up our car and go grab a bite to eat.” He’d say, “Okay, I gotta fall in and do more drills.” He really lived the life that weekend.
The whole thing was like, “You can’t be in the battles with us, but you can film from the sidelines.” But by the last day we decided to go for it—to just keep marching on. Suddenly, we were on the battlefield and cannon fire was going on. Somebody told us to stay back, so we retreated into this little forest area. I was thinking, Man, we were so close. But wait, don’t the soldiers retreat during this battle? And then the whole army came back, right on top of us, and the Confederate Army right behind them. Running through this cornfield, it felt—however briefly—like we were there.
HH One of the inspirations for the look of Men Go to Battle was Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (2011). Is that correct?
ZT Yes. I felt like there is a lot of physicality in that movie. It’s not clean, as though they got all these wardrobes out of the costume department, strapped them on, and lived in them. I like period pieces of all shapes and sizes, but we were always trying to figure out why certain things feel like Masterpiece Theatre. It’s a sort of alchemy that is hard to pin down. What feels silly and what doesn’t? It was sort of scene by scene, between the way we approached the acting, camera work, and art direction. We were always trying to figure out the balance of those three things to make it not feel like PBS.
Somewhere along the line, we decided that everything needed to be dirty and gross. These two brothers are out there alone, and they aren’t very proper and prim. We realized we could cover them in dirt all the time and it would make the movie better. Even in the Smalls’s house, we put dirt over things. People did a lot of home repair back then and things would look worn-in. Sure, if you were very rich, you had nice stuff, but you still darned things at home. We wanted things to feel rough because so much was homemade. We had this sock of dirt that we would just beat people with to put dirt on their faces.
HH You’ve mentioned reading letters as research, but letters also play an important role within the film itself. To what extent were the letters in the film adapted from the archives?
ZT I would say most of the actual text was made by us. Very rarely was I like, “I want that phrase.” I don’t want it to seem like we just made a collage of other people’s stuff. The tone of some of these diaries was really important: the thought process and the flatness of how they would talk about big and small events on the same page. “My brother died today, but I also bought a new pony.” Or, “Our cousin died thirty miles away, and I’m also going to a dance tonight.”
HH Was there any historical person in particular who influenced you?
ZT There was David Peck, an Ohio private infantryman. Basically, we found him because we were explaining this scene we had in mind to an archivist at the Fulton Historical Society. Very early, I had this idea that Henry would go into the biggest moment of his life and get knocked out for it, missing it entirely. It would also be this really scary, frightening moment when he is convinced he’s going to die and just through sheer dumb luck, he doesn’t. The archivist said, “Oh, I was just reading these letters by this guy David Peck who was so scared he fell asleep before the battle started, and when he woke up it was over.”
This guy was just a goldmine of mundane writing, just griping endlessly to his wife—”You said you were going to send me mittens and I haven’t gotten mittens; Ted Fields owes me 12 cents and I want you to get it for me and then send it to me. I don’t want you to spend it on the kids, you spoil them enough.” The tone of it is just great, so linear and flat.
HH Many of the letters you had to draw from were written by well-read girls from privileged backgrounds.
ZT What we took from their letters was how educated some of these young women were. It was all a cotillion thing where you were being groomed to marry. They were very articulate and sensitive. It felt really personal and invasive to read their correspondence because you could really understand where these people were coming from. “He said that to you at the party! That son of a bitch!” (laughter)
If we had only read through these letters and nothing more, it would have still been worth it. We were touching these things with our bare hands, wondering, “Shouldn’t we be wearing gloves?”
HH What was it like to use the events of the Civil War as the background for a movie that can be, at times, humorous?
ZT Making something that is purely humorous was never going to happen, but it’s not in the fabric of my being to treat life as seriously as some strictly tough drama. Plus, the best humor is in the worst situation. And the best way to do comedy is to take everything too seriously. A big part of our approach was to avoid winking at the camera—like, “Look at us young, inexperienced kids making this period piece and joking around.”
HH A painting goes crooked, a light falls down.
ZT Right, and people start looking at the camera. We took it to this other place, where we let go of things that wouldn’t be funny to people of the time. We didn’t want it to feel like our commentary on 1860. There was occasionally stuff like that in the script, but we just took it all out.
As we wrote, we would film in little pockets. We’d film a scene and be able to say what worked, then build upon that as we changed the script for the next shoot. There’s very little improvisation, because how are you going to improvise in a language that isn’t your own? But the writing was porous in that we always wanted to push in a direction that was good for the actors. We wanted to open ourselves up to happenstance somehow. It was important not to be dictators.
HH There’s a moment of improvisation when Francis throws a knife into a wooden floor. Can you talk about the serendipity of capturing that on film?
ZT It’s really hard to be open to the world around you when it’s filled with airplanes, cars, candy wrappers, and water bottles. But as much as we could, we created this little insular world, especially the cabin, and let life play out. If David was doing something, Brett and I would grab it.
Because we created this little bubble, the camera could poke around and see little moments that were happening between people that weren’t scripted. To me, the best stuff is the stuff you can’t think of. That’s the whole point of this—to make something new that is beyond yourself and outside of your own realm of understanding.
Hannah Holden is an arts and culture writer based in New York.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.