Interviewed by Lesley Coffin
The new film Men Go to Battle is one of the rarest films to emerge from the indie world. A rambling and somewhat direction list character drama about two dimwitted Kentucky brothers, the movie is also a period film set in the time of the Civil War. Written (with costar Kate Lyn Sheil) and directed by Zach Treitz, the film is an often funny, surprisingly funny period film which uses period detail for just that…detail, while making the characters seem as contemporary as the year the film was made. Alongside Sheil, the film features Rachel Korine and stars Tim Morton and David Maloney as the idiot brothers Henry and Francis. I spoke with Treitz about his feature film debut, which began its limited theatrical release July 8th.
I really loved the title. It feels very evocative considering the film you made. Where did it come from and did you have it in mind when you were writing it?
I think we had the title before we actually had anything written. I just had this idea for a film called Men Go to Battle, along with an idea to write something about my own family’s history in Kentucky. I think I literally thought, I want to make a DIY, civil war film called Men Go to Battle that would be really big and boisterous. But I had no idea what the movie would be at the time that I came up with the title, I just knew I wanted to make it and I wanted to work the two actors that play the brothers, Tim and David. And then we started thinking about a story. I think the title’s a little ironic and relates to what the movie’s actually about.
Right, there is a sense that the title is about what’s inevitable when in war time, and yet the title isn’t even really true because only one of the brothers joins up.
Right, and there’s also the idea that if Men Go to Battle, they’re barely men because really just mess around all day. But I also liked the idea that it felt like a bold title…movies with men in the title tend to have that feeling. And being a period piece, you can either go in the poetic direction or the anti-poetic direction, which was the approach we took on this film.
Had you worked with both actors before?
I’d worked with David on some short films before. And Tim had worked as an actor before, but never with me. But Tim and David are best friends since school and they have such great chemistry. Just being around them you notice they share a certain sense of humor that is sort of otherworldly or not of this era. And even though they might not look that much alike, they really talk and think alike and can have a kind of combative relationship that I knew we could use because it gives the movie a great, playful energy. The brothers have a loving kind of resentment towards each other.
And they both have great voices, which really can carry you through some of the scenes which are a struggle to see because so much of the movie is lit with candlelight. It really helps you stay focused on what’s happening. Actually, I thought all the actors had really great voices and the dialogue feels very naturalistic.
We didn’t want people get lost and focus on accents or period vocabulary that were foreign to them. We wanted it to feel like a very comfortable, lived in world. I didn’t want the movie’s historical accuracy and period to become distracting. It isn’t a fun viewing experience if you can sense the filmmaker’s focus is simply on recreating something they can’t possible get exactly right anyway. That doesn’t connect to an audience, but if you can make it seem like people are alive and natural, it’s a much more enjoyable experience for audiences. But sound is really important to me as a filmmaker. I come from a kind of musical background myself, so I pay close attention to that aspect. And the sound dictated a lot of the editing and visual choices we made.
I know you and Kate Lyn wrote the film together, but did you allow for improvisation on set as well?
We had the luxury of having a lot of rehearsal time, which is something a lot films don’t have. So we tried incorporating any changes to the dialogue into the script and doing rewrites. We kept a pretty loose set for most of the scenes to capture the energy at the moment, but for the most part, actors kept to the script. Although we would occasional just keep rolling or set up the camera and not tell them. There is the scene with Henry and the mother with the kids, and Henry had such a good chemistry with them, and you don’t want to make kids self-conscious, so we just let them do what they were doing.
What kind of filming is easier on a technical level for a micro-budget like this film, the battle scenes or the domestic scenes?
Well, they were two very different set ups. When we were filming the battle scenes, we filmed those at reenactments and we were fortunate enough to get in with people who take that very seriously. So we could cut around anything that didn’t feel right or when we caught something inaccurate, but they really try to commit to being as historically accurate as possible. But then we had scenes at houses where we had to outfit from top to bottom. That’s probably harder from a technical perspective, because it demands a lot from the set design and costume departments. But, when people look around and the environment is completely historically accurate, it becomes more fun and the actors get really into it. It’s more immersive.
Because the focus is on the brothers, who have very apolitical views on the issues surrounding the civil war, you don’t get into discussions of slavery really or discussion about the politics of the war. One of them joins up, but he’s doing that more to be taken care of by the army than for any grand beliefs. Were you concerned about not commenting on slavery in a film about the civil war made today?
Any politics they may have are sort of contained within their cabin and small town. I think that our philosophy were in the most basic terms to do as much research as we could and make a movie about two guys too poor and destitute to have been slave owners themselves or been involved in the slave owning economy. They see it when in social situations, and the audience sees it, but they aren’t personally involved or discussing slavery. The movie is about two guys too poor to have owned slaves who live very insular lives, so getting into it just to make a political statement against it would have been forcing something that didn’t fit our movie. We just tried to rely on research about what people in that kind of town would have been talking about at that time, and how politics would have played into their everyday conversations. So we weren’t talking about big moments in history, characters were talking about their town and how the war was directly affecting them.
Did you think about what ideas would resonate with modern day audiences?
We wanted to make a movie that was very rooted in a specific time and place, rural, central Kentucky in 1866. None of us have lived that life, but ultimately when you’re writing characters, you can’t ignore the fact that a lot of their interactions as brothers resonate with modern day audiences because we either have brothers or known brothers. The characters are hopefully so alive and engaging, I think they are pretty relatable.
How did you partner up with Kate Lyn as a writing partner?
Pretty soon after meeting her, I had an idea for the DIY period piece, and she thought it sounded impossible but thought it would be fun and wanted to work on it. We started working on it pretty soon after meeting each other.
Did part of you think the project would be too big to make as your first film?
I would have loved to have made my first film with an easier movie or a contemporary movie. But this just happened to be the first story I thought of that I felt would make a good feature film and made me interested enough to want to make. But I’m glad it turned out to be a movie that I’m proud of and can say I’m happy to have spent years of my life on.
What have been some of the reactions and comments you’ve gotten to the film?
I think people appreciate that it is a movie that feels like it came out of nowhere, almost has the feeling that it’s an artifact. I think the movie has a bit of magic because of that feeling. I think people like that the characters feel full of life and are pretty entertaining and engaging. The fact that I made it primarily to work with our two leads, I’m so happy that they bring so much of themselves to the movie. As for the most interesting comments or questions people have had, someone asked what the white stuff was Francis falls into at the beginning of the movie, and its sorghum, an alternative to sugar introduced by the union just before the war because they knew that there would be a sugar shortage if the south seceded. It really was a thoughtful question about a detail in the film and allowed us to talk about the research we did.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)