Zachary Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil’s Men Go to Battle Shakes Up the Tribeca Film Festival
For his first feature, director Zachary Treitz was looking for adventure. “Going into the unknown was really important to us and not knowing what was going to come out was the exciting nature of filming,” he told me last weekend when we sat down with his cowriter, actress Kate Lyn Sheil, to discuss their new Civil War drama, Men Go to Battle. Bringing an independent, DIY approach to period piece filmmaking—a formidable undertaking for any first time feature director—with the help of Sheil and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, Treitz has crafted an inspired and accomplished debut that stands out as one of the best films in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
With impressive set design and documentary-style shooting alongside Civil War reenactments, Men Go to Battle stars Tim Morton and David Malone as brothers Henry and Francis Mellon. The precisely detailed and absorbing film follows the daily life on the brothers’ struggling farm in rural 1860s Kentucky. We observe as their intense relationship becomes increasingly strained, and their entwined lives more suffocating as the days go by. One night, when the two are forced to mingle with the prominent members of their town, Henry makes a forward and embarrassing advance towards a young woman (played by Rachel Korine), spurring him to run off without a trace. When Francis eventually learns that he’s joined the Union Army, the film unfolds through the brothers’ correspondence, as they must individually come to terms with the approaching war and its effect on their now separate lives.
Last weekend, I sat down with Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil to chat about their in-depth 19th century diary reading, the immaturity and maturity of Rachel Korine, and bringing the outside world into a period piece.
What was it about this period in history that intrigued you as writers?
Zachary Treitz: I’m from Kentucky, and my family is from Kentucky pretty far back. I’d heard these family stories for years, but my grandmother was talking to Kate and me about this one story, and we didn’t know how much of the story was real and how much was apocryphal, so we had this idea to do some research on it. We started going to these archives in Louisville and other places around, then we started reading first hand accounts and diaries and letters that were unpublished. We were just sifting through in these vaults for fun; we thought maybe we wanted to make a movie or a project around it. Then we ended up ditching the family side of it and started getting really into these incredible first hand accounts of life in the 1860s in small town Kentucky.
Kate Lyn Sheil: Simultaneously we wanted to write something for Tim and David, so it was the marriage of Zach’s family history and writing around those two dudes.
ZT: Tim and David are friends of mine from Louisville. They have a similar way of talking and a similar sense of humor that’s—
KLS: Very specific to Kentucky. It’s weird.
ZT: You look at them and they don’t look or act like they should be twenty-first century people, so we put them back in the 1860s. It was a long process of the two of us trading ideas on the writing. We made the movie over the course of a year, so we were able to shoot stuff and then see what was working with the actors and non-actors. We could see what was married together and then change the direction of certain things to suit what was working. The overarching ideas, themes, and story were there, but we were able to change scenes and things to fit what we were shooting, which was really nice. It’s a different way of working.
That research really comes through in the film’s specificity. Some of the most interesting moments were the mundane, everyday tasks of the characters, which I’m sure came from thoroughly combing through those diaries.
ZT: The research part was basically to be able to not have to imagine things. We didn’t have to make stuff up when we could just read it.
KLS: We wanted wall to wall detail to make it more immersive.
Kate, have you always been interested in writing films, and do you want to continue doing so?
KLS: I’ve always written, but this first time a script that I’ve written has ever been made. Writing is also a torturous and difficult experience, so we’ll see when I do it again, but I’d like to.
Do you find that your work as an actor informs your writing, because you can hear the dialogue in a unique way and know how you’d want it delivered?
KLS: Totally. Writing for Tim and David was great because we could tell how the words were going to come out of their mouths because we know them. But then it was certainly helpful in writing the scenes when we didn’t know who was going to be playing the part. It was really fun coming up with stuff that I thought was difficult and would be an exciting thing to play, and then to know that I wasn’t going to have to do it.
Considering you wrote the roles specifically for Tim and David, did you also write with Rachel Korine in mind? I really enjoyed the scenes between her and her suitors and how they were played with an equal amount of awkward energy and tenderness.
KLS: We didn’t write with Rachel in mind, but we were so lucky to get her.
ZT: It was hard to find somebody that had the right amount of immaturity and maturity at the same time, and someone who could play a pretty young role. Rachel read the script just a couple weeks before we started shooting with her. She was supposed to go to France with her daughter and her husband Harmony but cancelled that just to be in the movie. She was just so strong about it; it was crazy. We wondered if we’d find someone who was going to be able to take it over the top.
KLS: Yeah, and get the humor. We needed someone to take it over the top but still be incredibly good actor. With Tim and David, we rehearsed with them, but we didn’t really rehearse with Rachel. We knew how talented she was, but it’s always a wild card. So as soon as she started playing the scene we were like, thank god.
ZT: It’s also tough because, while Tim and David have acted in stuff together and made movies together, they’re not trained actors. Rachel’s not a trained actor but she’s an actor. There were other people that were trained actors too, and mixing those two things was always a big gamble, but somehow we got the formula right. Steve Coulter, who plays Mr. Small, he’s acted in a ton of things and he’s really great and really confident. He worked well with David and Tim and they took each other to new places. It was fun for Steve to see somebody at the beginning of his career coming into this world and be able to steer them, but it also puts him on his toes a little bit more. It was also weird to have people that were not from Louisville or Kentucky to have a pretty similar sense of humor and meet at the same place intellectually and humorously.
What tone were you trying to establish between the brothers? A lot of their early scenes are quite funny while still existing inside this mounting tension.
KLS: The humor was definitely a through-line.
ZT: We wanted a certain amount of intensity to both the humor and the more serious or combative parts so that it would be a constant opposition of those two things against each other, those two brothers against each other. There would always be a line of, is this funny or is this mean spirited? At the same time, between them, that’s would be how people who are that close and live in a tiny place for a very long time with very few options are with each other.
KLS: Who are also nearing the end of their relationship.
ZT: Yeah, but will always be in a relationship in some way. We wanted there to be a tightly wound intensity to the two of them that would be all those things at once. Then there would be an insider feel, a shorthand we tapped into because they already have that. While the actors aren’t playing themselves, they’re playing exponents of their personality that we knew we could draw on from them.
KLS: We also wanted to allow for there to be randomness in the movie. Within a scene we wanted there to be moments that were playful followed by a moments that were really violent. So that was important to us.
The letter writing scenes, for example, were cut together in a really interesting way. How much of the film was planned out ahead of time and how much developed in the editing process?
ZT: We shot it in a way that we knew we could modularly put things in different places. We wanted to feel like we were constantly dropping in and out, in a very jagged and caustic way, into moments of these people’s lives. While there’s a storyline, it comes from the events, not from the hand of god writers. We wanted to create a narrative and film it in a way that felt like we were just watching it unfold.
KLS: It’s interesting with the army stuff, because while that entire portion was written out in the script, we shot at reenactments documentary-style. So the final reenactment we went to we did stage a lot of scenes.
ZT: We never knew how we would do it. Going into it, we were just like, okay that area over there looks like it has a good background and foreground, do you think that we can grab three of these reenactors and do it in fifteen minutes? Tim do you remember your lines?
KLS: In terms of casting, the guy who plays his friend in the army, we just found him in a battle reenactment.
ZT: We would just look at these guys and their faces and their accents and be like, okay you’re perfect.
What was your experience like working with the reenactors, and were they hesitant about letting you into their world?
ZT: It’s a pretty insular world, and they rightly keep people out of it a little bit. They don’t want tourists and they see everyone as tourists. They’re wary of being distracted from something they like to do, so it took months of convincing and pleading constantly to get them to agree to open the door just a little bit to us. The closest we got was a “maybe.” Then we just rented a camera and drove down, got these costumes from one of our actors, and dressed up and went out there. We had no idea whether or not they were going to let us film anything. They weren’t interested and didn’t want us to do it, but after we started shooting for a couple of days they realized that we were on their side.
KLS: Brett was walking around with the camera in a burlap sack pretending that it was a bag of potatoes.
ZT: Yeah, we dressed up ourselves like Civil War journalists or correspondents. By the end of it they were coming up to us and saying. “Man, I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I’ve never seen anybody whose as a respectful and unobtrusive as you guys.” So then they just invited us along to do more.
KLS: But in terms of what it was like shooting there, it was like, okay we’re going to get as much as we can.
ZT: Pure chaos.
It’s pretty rare and great to already have that built-in world there for you to use and become a part of.
KLS: Yeah, it was one of many many things on this movie—which is true of most movies I suppose—where over and over again there would be some new hurdle where it was, if we can’t get this we can’t do the movie.
ZT: Really up until the last scenes we were filming.
KLS: So once they opened the doors to us it was a wonderful and very lucky experience.
ZT: We wanted the filming process to be an adventure for us—maybe not as much adventure as it turned out to be—but going into the unknown was really important to us and not knowing what was going to come out was the exciting nature of filming. A lot of movies are incredibly premeditated, and we had a lot of that, but we tried to leave things open to chance to fill in the liveliness of the world. It’s weird to say that you would want the outside world of effect a period piece, but we really tried to open it up.
How did you work with Brett to approach the cinematography and the overall aesthetic of the film?
KLS: Brett is incredible, and he and Zach have been working together for a decade now.
ZT: Yeah, we went to school together and made a lot of movies together—short films and features I produced and co-produced and he shot. As with a lot of people when you’ve worked together for a while, you get a shorthand and you’re able to push each other further than you would with a normal professional relationship. A lot of the actual aesthetic that Kate, Brett, and I talked about was pretty simple. We wanted a utilitarian approach to how we filmed the scenes that wouldn’t be drawing attention to the cinematography.
KLS: It’s sort of the same with everything about the production design, just hiding the seams.
ZT: And not trying to be really artsy-fartsy with things.
KLS: But Brett can’t help himself.
ZT: Basically Brett is unable to not make something beautiful, so that was the push-pull that we had. We were hurrying him constantly and bringing him a little outside of his comfort zone. So you have a feeling of this rushed, rough aesthetic that goes really well because Brett’s constantly pulling back towards the composition and beautiful cinematography. So for the content of the story and the characters, it works. We were in beautiful locations but not trying to shoot them in beautiful ways.
KLS: That’s the play between the production design and the cinematography. We were conscious of the danger of, well we put all this work into like the details here, we better linger on them. But we didn’t want to do that. We built this world but then shot it as though it were this room we’re in now.
ZT: We didn’t want to be precious about anything. Nothing was allowed to be sweeping; the only sweeping was the dirt.
Were there any films you looked to for inspiration?
ZT: Kate and I both go to a fair amount of movies and we love watching movies from all eras and all genres. We were really conscious to try to avoid any reference, because it was important to make it feel like it was its own hermetically sealed universe. We weren’t throwing out shout outs to other things that we liked, but it wouldn’t exist without certain movies, like Come and See, which is one of Kate’s favorite movies. Also, Edvard Munch, which was big inspiration on how to do a period piece and make it feel really intense and gross. We never got to those places entirely, but we liked the idea. Both of those movies feel like they come out of nowhere, and you can’t imagine why anybody would even make that movie or how they would even think to do it. We wanted to push ourselves to make a movie where it was beyond our own imaginations, and make something better than ourselves.
KLS: And if you didn’t know us, the hand of the filmmakers is not necessarily visible or obvious. In terms of new movies, the only new one that we thought of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.
ZT: The first time we saw that we saw it projected, and it was the first time in a long time where I was just blown away by the combination of visual aesthetic and the acting. Everything just came together really nicely in that movie. It’s hard to avoid Barry Lyndon or something when you’re thinking about lighting a space with only candles. But Barry Lyndon’s also really funny, and keeping a sense of humor about it was so important to us—having brevity and not being so self-serious.