Director Zachary Treitz’s MEN GO TO BATTLE, which is eligible for the AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi American Independents Audience Award, follows two young farmers, Francis and Henry Mellon as they eke out a living in the rural Kentucky countryside in 1861. As the Civil War plays out in the distance, the brothers focus on their more immediate concerns, keeping the farm going through the winter, and joking around to pass the time. When a disagreement over selling a field escalates, the brothers reach an impasse and Henry runs off into the night, joining the Union army. Now separated, each brother faces his own hardships. With this impressive first feature, Treitz smartly delivers a fresh tone to the American period piece, making a character-driven war film rooted in realism, that admirably employs limited resources to craft a feeling of grandeur with intimate detail. Lyrical and luminescent, the film offers a rich world of modest splendors — and stands apart as strong independent work from a striking new voice in American film.
We talked to Treitz at AFI FEST 2015.
Can you talk about the evolution of MEN GO TO BATTLE from conception to writing to filming?
I wrote and developed the film in tandem with actor and writer Kate Lyn Sheil. We originally based it on my family’s history in Kentucky and slightly around our two lead actors, Tim Morton and David Maloney. They were old friends and good friends of mine, and we believed their relationship would be a good focal point. We also wanted to make their world very specific, so we supplemented a lot of diaries and firsthand accounts from the time, most still unpublished, to bring a level of texture and granularity with the details. After combining all of those things into a blender, we came out with something that was not at all like what we originally imagined. We really went on an adventure through the whole process.
Can you talk about some of the obstacles you encountered over the course of filming and how you and your team overcame them?
Having made this movie over the course of over a year, keeping up the original enthusiasm and trying to keep that spirit alive with everybody else was immensely difficult, especially going into the editing process. Despite all of the tiny problems that we had, keeping yourself motivated and making yourself care even after you feel like things have become rote and boring was incredibly hard. But it becomes easier when you realize that even though you have seen something a million times, everybody else hasn’t, and they might have the reaction you had when you originally had these ideas.
The turmoil of war is something that still plagues the entire globe. As a filmmaker, do you expect the film to shift audiences’ views toward war?
The movie is really a “wartime” movie, so the answer is basically absolutely not. Our original intent in making the film was to ensure we never generalized or dehumanized anything on the grand scale of the historical overarching narrative of the Civil War. We wanted to make the film a very humble and personal experience. We hoped to humanize something that’s usually just reserved to a few paragraphs in a textbook.
Can you discuss how you approached the shooting style of the film?
We wanted to keep the actors very free within the space, so we would light and shoot in order to give them maximum room to move. We stuck with the idea of setting up a scene, letting it play out, and then trying to capture it. To me, the main difference between theater and film is to find unique and unrepeatable moments, something that wouldn’t be able to be seen again, within the acting that we capture. It was much more like making a documentary with actors than anything else.
What was your reaction to being selected for AFI FEST?
I played a short here a few years ago called WE’RE LEAVING. I really loved AFI FEST that year, so I came back the next year just to watch movies because the festival has such a strong program. The international candidates are really strong and you often can’t see many of these films outside of the festival for some time. I think a free film festival is really important for film.
Now that you’ve had two screenings so far, what has your AFI FEST experience been like this year?
This year, our screenings were really great. The audience reaction and the questions were unlike anything else we have received before. There was a level of engagement that bodes well for how people are responding.