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Alum Screens Civil War Drama Tonight

Men Go to Battle: story of the struggle of two brothers

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Actor James Franco said it best in his (unconventional) Indiewire review of a new film cowritten and directed by BU alum Zachary Treitz: Men Go to Battle is a Civil War film made by “mumblecore dudes.” Franco meant it as high praise, citing characters who “talked like real people and not like they were reading a script.” Other reviewers—the New York Times, AV Club, Variety—agreed. Variety said its “almost hallucinatory historical verisimilitude” and “terse dialogue and rough-around-the-edges accents” conspire “to create a world that feels bracingly real.”

That authenticity is exactly what Treitz (COM’07), coauthor Kate Lyn Sheil, and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz (COM’06) were going for. The film, set in rural Kentucky in the 1860s, is the story of two brothers struggling to manage their fledgling family farm as the Civil War looms and then erupts. The film brought Treitz the best new narrative director Jury Award at the Tribeca Film Festival this past spring, was a New York Times critic pick, and had a limited theatrical release this summer.

Tonight, Treitz will be at BU to screen and talk about Men Go to Battle as part of the Cinematheque series, a College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work. (Jutkiewicz is unable to attend because he is shooting another movie.)

BU Today spoke with Treitz about the film, the challenges of working on a limited budget, and what it was like having the film screen at the Tribeca Film Festival.

BU Today: How did you and Brett Jutkiewicz meet up?

Treitz: I met Brett in a psychology class and we became friends quickly. He shot my last thesis, we lived together, and he graduated and moved to New York, and then our group of friends kept making movies together. We still do it today, because there’s something about working together during a formative time in your life. When you work together a lot, you develop a shorthand that is valuable, almost like an unspoken language that gets things done quickly. I know what he’s looking for and he knows what I’m looking for.

How did you come up with the idea for the film?

The setting and time period were loosely based around my family history. I’m from Kentucky, and part of my family lived in a rural part of the state in the 1800s. There is this sort of family lore that was passed down, and I was interested in that, and interested in what was true and what was not. The cowriter, Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards), and I started doing research, not only about my family, but about other people who were living in rural Kentucky in the 1860s, which was a time of huge national change. What was interesting was reading these unpublished diaries and letters in archives around the South, and seeing, in the midst of something that is transformational, how quotidian and mundane and sometimes even funny people’s lives could be. We used the tone of that to inform how we wrote for the characters.

What kind of research did you have to do for a film set in the Civil War era?

The biggest archive we accessed was at a place in Louisville called the Filson Historical Society. It has a great collection of letters, very Kentucky-centric.

I think the language was sort of surprising in how immediate and unobtrusive it was. This is around the same time as Mark Twain is starting to write, so it’s not Elizabethan English; it’s pretty immediate. Some of the vocabulary is different. We were conscious of not using anachronistic words or words that would take you out of the narrative. We were being pretty loose and not period-y about the dialogue, with an effort to make it feel very contemporary, so it wouldn’t feel sort of distant or “other.” We made sure that the etymology and most of the words or phrases were working, and we found some really nice tidbits of phrases in these letters. The main thing was to not make it feel too strange, especially for the actors, so that it would feel natural. I think a lot of period pieces get so involved in that stuff that they lose sight of making something that feels alive because the actors are kind of stumbling around.

How did you settle on the plot about two brothers?

I made two short films with actor David Maloney: one was my thesis film at BU, and the other was one I made after, called We’re Leaving, which played at Sundance and I was really happy with. I knew I wanted to make another film with David; he is a great personality, a larger-than-life character. He grew up making movies with his friend Tim Morton.

So they had this great, brotherly chemistry and we wanted to use that and their energy, so we wrote it for them. There was no casting process, no question about who would play those roles. We wrote it knowing what they would bring to the table.

How did you shoot the film’s battle scenes on such a tight budget?

That was an early idea we had and thought was going to be easy. We would go and shoot with some Civil War reenactors, but once we approached them, we realized it was going to be a lot more involved. They originally, and I think wisely, turned us down. So that started a process, over a few months, of trying to convince them that we were invested, but would not take them out of this activity that they like to do and spend a lot of time on. We weren’t going to ruin it. It took a lot of convincing and phone calls, and what we eventually settled on was that we would dress up as civilians from the same time period, and basically embed, almost like we were war journalists, as civilian reenactors. The camera was wrapped in a burlap sack and Brett put it on his shoulder like it was a bag of potatoes. I put the sound kit in a haversack, and we tried to make ourselves blend in and apparently it worked, because they all really appreciated it.

Had you ever been to a reenactment before?

The first weekend we went down to shoot with the reenactors was the first time I had been to a reenactment. It was sort of a bad idea, but that was the reality of it. Brett and I have shot in a lot of situations where we didn’t have permission or were not necessarily welcomed, and I think there is an amount of excitement to “stealing” locations and shooting things that are out of our control, because it puts you in an immediate mind-set, and you have to shoot documentary-style and you have to get what you need to get. You become alert and resourceful about how to draw a story out. It’s a seat-of-the-pants way of working.

What other resources did you take advantage of while shooting in Kentucky?

Every location you see had to be period-appropriate, because we didn’t want the audience to fall out of it and say, “Oh, that’s vinyl siding.” We tried to keep up the illusion, and that was fun and really challenging for a small team like ours. Things like the cabin that the brothers live in, that was something that our producer found just a couple of weeks before we started the shoot. It was a run-down old stagecoach shop, and the only thing that was left was the kitchen, because it was made of stone. So we had our art department, which was maybe five people, completely rehab it in two weeks. They put a new cedar roof on it, new plaster, new floors.

We also had to do that with the town we shot in. We had great exteriors for filming. It was the only town we could find like this, and we searched in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Indiana. But it also had a major thoroughfare going through it, so we had to close the road and put down 1,300 tons of dirt and run wagons and carriages over it to make it look like it had been used. That was a huge part of the fun and one of the biggest challenges—doing these art projects.

What was it like to premiere at Tribeca, win the best new narrative director Jury Award, and sell rights?

We’re very lucky. Not every movie gets the attention that we got. We won a nice award there, and we got a deal for distribution with a company that put it out theatrically. We got the opportunity to have the movie seen like we wanted it to, in the theater. We just feel very lucky and happy that it has a life and gets to be seen by people. It’s nice when people connect to it and reach out to say how much they liked it.

What are you working on now?

Several projects. Working on a documentary, another feature, possibly a miniseries—we’ll see if anything actually happens.

Men Go to Battle screens tonight, Friday, October 14, at 7 p.m., followed by a talk by Zachary Treitz (COM’07), at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinematheque series, is free and open to the public.

Zachary Treitz’s film Men Go to Battle is available for download on iTunes and Amazon Video.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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