No indie is easy to make. Add on that it’s a historical saga, and it’s a nightmare. Making “Men Go to Battle,” about two farmer brothers in Kentucky in the early days of the Civil War, wasn’t a breeze, even before they had to shoot in and around cabins and small towns that looked like 1861.
“Battle” director Zachary Treitz and his co-writer, the actress Kate Lyn Sheil (who makes a cameo in the film), worked hard to get their research right, especially since the film is an atypically accurate depiction of what life was like back then. There are fights over land sales and one of our heroes joins up with the Union Army later on. But most of it is about observing the day-to-day without the usual period film pomp.
This isn’t a typical historical film. Big historical events aren’t mentioned and we’re mostly watching regular folks just trying to survive.
Zachary Treitz: We wanted it to feel like we were making it in this time. We wanted it to have that feeling where nothing was special.
Kate Lyn Sheil: We wanted to shoot a period piece as though it was a movie that took place in the present — to give it that freshness, that lack of preciousness.
Treitz: I’m from Kentucky, and there’s a lot of family stories from that time, which wound up being backgrounded. Part of my family had a small general store in a rural part of Kentucky, and a town wound up growing around it. They wound up decimated, basically, over the course of the Civil War. We thought maybe we’d try to do something with it. But it was pretty vague and we wanted to fill in the details. We wound up getting lost in these archives we would go to. We’d read diaries and letters, first-hand accounts from the time. Through one particular archive we entered in this world of teenage girls and old men from the 1860s, the 1850s, that were telling unbelievable stories that seemed so pedestrian.
So much of the storyline isn’t about story but about little incidents that accumulate.
Sheil: The attention to mundane details was something we were definitely interested in. We knew that massive shifts were taking place at the time. Giant battles were happening. And yet people were writing, “Today for lunch I had chicken.”
Treitz: “John Wilkins came over today and we talked for 10 minutes.” “Cousin Jeffrey was killed yesterday. The weather today was…” Everything was completely flat. [Laughs] It was this high-stakes, low-impact writing. We thought, ‘What if we tried to capture that tone of everything being the same?’ That led to making a small story that’s taking place in this huge, wide, wild world — something that’s really untamed and unmanageable.
The dialogue is also very different from other films about the period. It’s usually declamatory and overly formal. And yet we can’t really know if it’s accurate to the time.
Treitz: I don’t think we had the mental capacity to create what would be accurate. We wanted to create something that both felt accurate and didn’t take you out of it, didn’t make you feel like you were parsing through sentences.
Sheil: We did as much research as we possibly could to make it period-accurate. But then it was a process of finding what felt comfortable coming out of the actors’ mouths. We were very wary of it sounding old-timey.
There are a good deal of historical films that take a similar approach, making you feel like you’re present in the past. Are there some you used as inspiration?
Treitz: Peter Watkin’s “Edvard Munch.” The way he approached the look and feel of history that’s incredible in that movie. It’s really gruff and dirty and disgusting.
Sheil: “Come and See” was a big inspiration, though it’s a very different movie. That one, for me, has always been huge. It has this quality certain movies have: They feel like they came out of nowhere. You can really see the hand of the author in it, but you don’t understand how somebody made it. In terms of newer movies, there was “Wuthering Heights,” the Andrea Arnold movie.
Can you talk about the logistics of making a historical film on an independent budget. This couldn’t have been easy.
Treitz: I just don’t recommend it. [Laughs] I don’t wish it on anyone. It was really hard for everyone involved. You have to have a bunch of people you know well enough to put themselves in bad, bad positions for you. We were using an art team that wasn’t even an art team. They were just friends — painters, carpenters — but with very little film experience. It was more important to have people who were good people than people who were experienced. We knew anyone who’s professional would never have the patience for what we were trying to do. And even [our art team] very often didn’t have patience with us. [Laughs]
Sheil: In terms of finding locations, it was me and Zach driving all over Kentucky. There were lots of afternoons spent with very kind people who loved to drive to us to wherever. We got very lucky with our locations. So many things in the process of making this movie — which is the case with a lot of movies, certainly — were like, “Well, if we don’t find that by next week we can’t make the movie!” That happened over and over and over again — with the cabin, with the town, with the casting.
Treitz: Usually it would work out, and if it didn’t we would make it work out somehow.
Sheil: With the battle reenactments, it took a lot of begging and convincing to let us in there with a camera.
Treitz: There was a lot of refusing to hear “No” when people tell you that.
Sheil: Zach’s good with that. When people tell me “No” I’m like, “Oh, cool, OK, yeah, we won’t do it then.” [Laughs] But we were able to shoot there with the camera in a burlap sack and us dressed in period attire. We shot documentary-style there — just a lot of running and gunning.