ABOVE: ZACHARY TREITZ. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTIAN HANSEN.
Period pieces are usually delicate affairs to shoot, requiring a comfortable budget and highly controlled environments to create an accurate rendition of the time. “Not in our case!” says writer-director Zachary Treitz of his micro-budget indie Men Go To Battle. The film is Treitz’s first, which he co-wrote with actress Kate Lyn Sheil. Set during the first year of the Civil War in the South, it follows the antics of brothers Henry (Tim Morton) and Francis Mellon (David Maloney) who compete to keep their depressed farm alive, keep each other entertained, and act as suitors to higher class women until Henry runs off to join the Union Army.
Though the film feels as accurate as a movie can get, the shoot in rural Kentucky, Treitz’s home state, was far from controlled, stirring up anger from local politicians, potential lawsuits from the EPA, and death threats. “We tried to be open with chaos. We cultivated chaos into the movie,” says Treitz when we meet in New York. “We really liked the challenge of making it as physically and emotionally and intellectually exhausting as possible. And then there were moments where we really regretted it—a lot of moments.”
Fortunately, the hard work paid off. Men premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival to positive reviews, with Treitz winning the Best New Narrative Director Award. Tomorrow, it will come out in select theaters around the U.S. via Film Movement.
ETHAN SAPIENZA: How did you get into film and did your family consider it a feasible career?
ZACHARY TREITZ: No. They were supportive but they fought me all the way on it. I started making movies with friends in high school. [It was] basically a technology thing, as movies were suddenly not difficult to make and edit, which changed a lot of people’s lives I think. People were able to use the medium. I had this idea that I was going to be a musician. I was choosing between going to music school and going to film school and I made the choice. I can’t draw and I can’t paint and I can’t sing, so film is a pretty good art for people who don’t have natural ability. [laughs] That was a pretty easy choice.
SAPIENZA: I know you’re from Kentucky. Do you have familial connections to the time period?
TREITZ: The setting and the background of the story were directly inspired by my grandmother’s side of the family, who came to Kentucky in the early 1800s. They settled a farm there, and that farm grew into a town by the time the Civil War started, around 1861. They were decimated by the Civil War. Number one, they chose the wrong side, which was a bad idea. That has a certain scariness of what it means to have that in your family, them being Confederates. It’s not something to be—well, I don’t want to say it’s not something to be proud of. People get all fucking weird when you say that.
SAPIENZA: The South will rise again.
TREITZ: Yeah—Southern Pride! But it’s a complicated thing. This project started by looking further into the stories from that time period that I grew up with, and trying to uncover what their specific story was and also what life was like at that time. We started from there, and then Kate and I started researching. We went to archives and were reading firsthand accounts, diaries, and letters. We just changed our approach in a lot of ways. It really broadened our mindset of what a project could be—of what a movie could be. It gave us a lot of inspiration for tone and characters, from these people we would meet in these diaries. We were one of three or four people who have read these things in 150 years. Like a 15-year-old girl in her diary talking about what’s going on day-to-day. It’s pretty amazing and inspiring. I wish we had time to do that for years. We also wanted to make a movie with Tim and Dave. We wrote it specifically for them; never considered anyone else for the roles. We knew that it was going to be them in this setting and they were going to be more relatable to us. They’re outsiders in that high-class society.
SAPIENZA: You grew up with them, right?
TREITZ: I knew them from Louisville, in high school.
SAPIENZA: Were they receptive to playing brothers?
TREITZ: Yeah. I think they really loved the idea. They had made films in high school together, really absurd, funny things. They still do. They weren’t shy about being on camera or anything like that. I had made two short films with David before. I think the idea of them working together—they have a somewhat competitive relationship as well, as pseudo brothers are one to have. They were always jockeying for as much time and as many scenes as they could get in, compared to the other one. Which is… fine. On a friend and on a creative level I think we all shared an idea and [Tim and Dave] let us push them in new directions and they let us get out of our comfort zone, if we ever were in one.
SAPIENZA: Speaking of comfort zones, I heard you got death threats. Is that true?
TREITZ: [laughs] Yeah… I don’t want to over blow it and make it sound crazy. I didn’t get death threats but our art department did. We were closing down this road and we were going to put—and we did put—13 tons of dirt down to cover the asphalt in this town we were shooting in. It just happened to be on this major thoroughfare that linked Fort Knox and the people who work there. We were originally going to do it on a weekday and they were just furious.
There were these notes to our art department who were living in the town at the time that were like, “We’re going shoot you.” I remember one of our art department people crying to me on the phone and I was just like, “Stop everything. We’re going change this around.” We moved it to a weekend—which I don’t know why we didn’t do that in the first place.
We tried being accommodating to the public. We had a roadblock up, but these people would just move the cones and then race through the dirt road flicking us off while they were doing it. We didn’t have enough people to cordon the thing off. I remember this guy—the road is just a stretch of 150 yards or so of dirt—he gets through the first roadblock, flicks us off, pressing on his horn. Then he gets to the other roadblock on the other side of the road and—it’s so embarrassing—he has to get out of his car, while he’s flicking us off, and move the cones, and then guns it. [laughs] It was such a pathetic display of anger. It was really funny. Then there were the people who took it off road to get around our set. It was crazy, these people; they just really wanted to use that road. Oh well.
SAPIENZA: Don’t mess with Kentucky?
TREITZ: Yeah. The other side of it is there were a lot of people were really excited. There were people who were coming by the general store when we retrofitted it—it’s been unused for decades now. When our art department rehabilitated it, people were like, “I remember coming to this place as a kid and it looked just like this.” That’s awesome! It felt great. Not a lot of movies are shot in rural Kentucky. It’s really fun. We cast a bunch of people as extras. They’d be like, “Can we be involved?” We’d be like, “Heck yeah! Grab a costume and join in on the fun”—or lack thereof.
SAPIENZA: You shot the battle scenes at reenactments, right?
TREITZ: We shot at several reenactments. Most of the time we were in these reenactments mainly shooting the camp life. The one rule was you can’t shoot in the battle because of insurance purposes or whatever. And they didn’t want a camera out there. At the end of all the reenactments we went to—it’d be the end of a pretty long weekend, we’d have a lot of good, usable footage, and at least at the end of our first one we were like, “What do we have to lose going out there in the battle? What are they going to do, kick us out? We’re basically done. It’s the last one, everyone’s leaving after this.” [We did it] respectfully. We were all dressed in period attire.
SAPIENZA: You wore period clothing?
TREITZ: Yeah. That was the rule. That was the one reason they allowed us to do it eventually, we took it as seriously as they did. We dressed the part as civilian journalists. The camera was in a burlap sack over the shoulder, it looked like a sack of potatoes, except for the front, which had the lens. It really looked great. Tim looked great out there.
The last day we went out and just kept following Henry, just kept following him out there, until suddenly we were in the middle of the field. This guy just comes streaming up towards us on horseback—it was probably a colonel or something—and he’s like, “What the hell are y’all doing out here? Get the hell back! Get out of here!” [laughs] We’re like, “Aw man! We fucked it up. We’re not going to get anything.” [Cinematographer] Brett [Jutkiewicz], [AD] Chris [Barnett] and I went into this grove of bushes and watched them march past us. We were like, “Well, that’s the end of that.” Then I’m like, “Don’t they end up retreating in this battle?” And then 1,000 guys come back over towards us. I’m yelling at Brett like, “Do you see Henry?” He’s like, “I got him! I got him! Are you rolling?” I was like, “Yeah!” We were just in it. We were running through with him in this cornfield and diving past fences. It was like… reenactment warfare. It was exhilarating and fun, especially knowing those guns—hopefully—weren’t loaded.
SAPIENZA: After everything, what was it like premiering at Tribeca and winning an award and getting the rights bought?
TREITZ: It was a great because we wanted this movie to be seen in the theater on a big screen. We made the sound so it would be heard on big movie speakers. We did the mix at Skywalker Sound. It’s an intentionally cinematic experience. Having a distributor who’s very into that—very understanding of that—is great. For such a small movie we can’t do it on our own.
SAPIENZA: Did you have any expectations going into the festival?
TREITZ: You can’t make a movie like this without having absurdly high expectations that are unrealistic. We had a lot of expectations. We didn’t expect to win anything—you just don’t think about that kind of stuff. All we cared about was showing it to the people who made it with us and making them proud of their work, and us proud of it. Make something that’s better than the sum of its parts. Whether we accomplished that or not, everyone felt pretty good about it.
SAPIENZA: Would you ever go back to this time period?
TREITZ: Doing something in the 1860s—I think we shot it out. We got our fill. This was a learning process but I want to learn about other stuff. I don’t want to go back to the same kind of deal and be the mid-1800s film guy who just does his mid-1800s films, ’cause he’s a weirdo. I’m not a historian. I don’t pretend to be. It’s just the fun of educating yourself. Onto other difficult period pieces maybe.
MEN GO TO BATTLE COMES OUT TOMORROW, JULY 8, 2016, IN SELECT CINEMAS.