Lost In History: Zachary Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil’s Men Go to Battle at the Tribeca Film Festival

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04/08/2015 6:31 AM |
Photo courtesy of Brett Jutkiewicz

The Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 15–26 this year, features a lineup which, like the city itself, can be all things to all people to an almost daunting degree. Beyond the corporate money and celebrity flash in the top-billed panels and special events this year, the eclectic programming of Tribeca’s humbler precincts has, also like the city, become a reliably supportive showcase, in particular, for young, local artistic talent—including a number of a familiar faces from the city’s independent film scene.

 One such face is Kate Lyn Sheil, the microindie muse-turned-House of Cards supporting player-turned-who knows what next, who appears as a Southern belle at a ball in Men Go to Battle, playing in Tribeca’s World Narrative Competition. Sheil wrote the film with director Zachary Treitz, who makes his feature debut with a story of two brothers, Henry and Francis Mellon, scuffling farmers in Kentucky in the first year of the Civil War. Though Henry, the more inward of the two, braces at Francis’s rash decision-making and poor task management skills, it’s he who gets drunk, humiliates himself with a bookish, middle-class potential sweetheart played by Rachel Korine, and runs off to join the Union army. Despite its archetypal story and familiar historical milieu, the film takes nothing for granted, rediscovering the base interactions—physical, social, economic, emotional—at the heart of everyday life, and sustaining a tone of intimacy.

Sheil and Treitz are a couple, and according to Sheil, worked together on outline for the film, and then took turns writing individual scenes, and revising the other’s scenes; when not fulfilling her responsibilities as a producer, Sheil was on set “helping with blocking, giving notes and that sort of thing as well.” The two filmmakers, who live in Chinatown, answered a few questions of mine over email. (For much more Tribeca coverage, see thelmagazine.com throughout the festival.)


One thing that struck me about the film was how detached the characters seem to be from what we might today consider the arc of history, despite the Civil War setting. Francis and Henry are illiterate; aside from a book another character is seen to read, and a prop issue of Harper’s Weekly, there’s very little connection to any kind of wider culture, and aside from a number of folk songs which the characters sing, and a single daguerreotype portrait, no real interaction with any kind of recorded history. Did this make the characters feel closer, or further away from you, as you were writing the film and conjuring them into existence?

Sheil: The movie is set against the backdrop of an encroaching Civil War but we did our best to make it an immersive experience about the lives of these two isolated, self-obsessed, ignorant brothers. I think with historical fiction we have a tendency to make heroes or villains of the characters and that tendency serves its purpose but it’s a little dangerous because it gives them an untouchable quality. I wanted to explore the weakness, the casual destructiveness and lack of engagement of these two men because, yes, that does make them feel closer to me. I wanted to take a look at two flawed, bumbling idiots during a time when tidal shifts were happening in American history. I have a great deal of love for them but they also at spurts depress and disturb me. We specifically set the movie during the first year of a war that would last for nearly five. We didn’t want any of the characters to have prescience of any kind.

TreitzI feel close to the main two characters, Henry and Francis Mellon. They have traits and sensitivities I can identify with, but they were also specifically written for the two people playing the parts. It would be hard to care or write about characters with whom you have no sympathies, but the Mellon brothers are both exaggerations of qualities that Kate and I wanted to focus on. The setting of the story helped us distance ourselves, as well as the research we did into unpublished firsthand accounts from this time and place. We wanted the characters to feel like they are firmly rooted in the world we wanted to create and capture, which is this small town in rural Kentucky in 1861 where the war is slowly encroaching.

We tried to be as painfully literal and specific with our location and timeline as possible. The story takes place over the first year of the war, and very few people at the time – at least in our reading from the voices who were there and experienced it—thought it would last as long as it did, or become as brutal as it was. So we tried to tell the story from the eyes of the characters as they would see it. The Mellon brothers, at least at first, are not engaged with the politics or events outside of their farm. But when they venture into the wider world, politics and current events are in the conversations of the people all around them. We liked the idea that the world around the brothers is increasingly on edge, and that no one knows what is to come.

Henry and Francis are relatively uneducated, so we imagined that their experiences with outside culture come from the songs they have heard, the people they talk to in town, and maybe some traveling theater they might have seen when they were younger. Songs had a different and I think greater significance to everyday life at that time, and singing was a more public form of expression. Songs were little snippets of information that were easily transportable and easily remembered. This takes on a new significance as the Civil War brought groups of people from all parts of the country and even the world together, and later in the film you see this transmission and even perversion of popular songs from all over.

For the Small family, who are worldly and educated for that region, their cultural palette is different. They are highly literate, they own a piano (which was a big deal), and the songs we hear them sing are either popular chamber music from the time or more political and current “pop” songs of the day. We worked with a brilliant musicologist, Nikos Pappas, who had just finished a project on popular dance music from the mid-1800s and he selected and arranged these songs written by mostly forgotten Kentucky composers, which were based on popular romantic and classical music. And of course it was all centered around dancing, which is its own cultural, social, and sexual ball of yarn.

The recorded history is ingrained in as many parts of the story as possible, but hopefully it’s so deeply buried within the specific story and environment that it does not stand out and shout at you. The culture, the politics, the social stratification, they’re built into the everyday discourse, fashion, and actions, just as they are today. We wanted to level the big and small events so that they all fit together. This makes it more entertaining to experience, at least for me.

Did you do much research into the time period in order to figure out how to stage social interactions and customs, get speech patterns down? Or for any other purposes?

Treitz: The axiom is “write what you know,” and on an emotional level with the characters that’s where we started, but one of the adventures of this film was the challenge of writing what we didn’t know. For us that meant trying to dig into the conversational and social palette of the time, so we spent a fair amount of energy exploring unpublished diaries and journals from a few different archives. There is an especially strong collection in Louisville at the Filson Historical Society that we mined for unpublished firsthand accounts. We went through a lot of diaries from teenage girls, letters home from soldiers, remembered sermons, sheet music, and random scraps of paper, like what some guy spent on a horse that day.

This gave us a whole wealth of material and ideas for the language, and pushed us further into the quotidian treatment of our story. We would read whole pages of a girl’s diary devoted to the visitors of their house, what they were wearing, who she is courting, and the weather—so much about the weather—and that was followed up by one sentence about a pivotal battle that had happened nearby. We got a sense of how evenly people take major and minor things in life. Sometimes a fight with your sister is more important to you than the war raging outside.

The language in the script and in the performances was chosen so that nothing would feel superimposed, so that we’re not winking to the camera from the present day. Manners and style of the time were even more different from now than language. Our devotion to the research had less to do with being historically accurate and more to do with creating a framework that serviced the story and characters. We don’t pretend to be historians. Every detail we used from a source was one fewer that we had to invent, and the sum total was about creating the illusion of being in another time and place without it feeling strange. We wanted the characters and even the world offscreen to feel alive, and the research provided us with a rich texture more than anything else, which happens to be visually and intellectually stimulating.

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A question for Kate Lyn Sheil: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is your first credit as a writer (though I know you’ve improvised scenes and dialogue at various points in your career). I’m curious about that—especially because the main female role in the film is played by another actor, Rachel Korine. How is it different, writing for other performers? When you’re setting down words for other people to say, does your own experience interpreting characters help you to bring characters to life on the page, or do you have to stop yourself from writing the character as you would play it?

Sheil: This is the first of this nature, I think. I don’t have much of an interest in writing for myself. I’ve only got one life and one brain so, yes, I was mining some of the same territory in writing this as I have in acting but there was also a lot of research involved, a lot of first hand accounts, diaries and letters, that were drawn from to help create the characters. I love actors. I love watching them work, so writing material for other people to perform was a pleasure. There were moments when I would think we had written a scene that was difficult and fun to play, and then feel a kind of elated relief that I wasn’t the person who was going to have to do it. We were so lucky to have Rachel. She seemed to find the character and tone and to make it her own so effortlessly. She’s an amazing actress.

For that matter, does it change anything as an actor to be playing in scenes that you wrote, in a movie you’re producing? Or have you always approached scenes with a conception of your character’s role in the overall construction of the film?

Sheil: I mean, yes, I was probably far more aware of the utilitarian purpose that my character served in this movie than I have been in others. There were periods of time during the writing of the script when we had included a lot more material with the Small family which we later cut out in favor of focusing more heavily on the brothers, but because of all those deleted scenes I felt, as an actor, like I had secrets, which was nice. But, normally when I act I want (don’t ask for or get but want) take after take and in this, I knew when we had accomplished the task. Less ego maybe. The part is very small and I was more excited to watch other actors do their thing.

I was struck by the visual language of the film, which seems to line up with contemporary modes of American independent realism: a handheld camera; and the use of strictly natural sources to light scenes (though I suppose the frequent low-light situations are also evocative of a pre-electric past). Would you say you were searching for a “neutral” aesthetic for a story set 150 years ago—or that you sought out a visual scheme that would rhyme with our sense of how the past looked (which is really more a sense of how the past was photographed)? Or a bit of both?

Treitz: We spent a lot of time debating, preparing, and refining the look of the film. For us that did not mean pondering over the perfect composition. It was more about the interaction of the camera with the actors. We wanted a visceral closeness to the actors and to do this we needed to be able to move around with them in the spaces. Much of the story takes place at night, so it was an endless challenge to get the right amount and quality of light. When you’re filming at night way out in some cabin that has no electricity, the fact that everything is supposed to be candlelit becomes an asset (at least visually… comfort-wise it was freezing cold unless you were right on top of the fire). But the lighting is deliberately stylized. Just because you’re using candles does not mean it is “natural” in the aesthetic sense. Brett, our cinematographer, created these candle panels that we could mount anywhere inside the cabin to amplify the firelight and give it the necessary illumination and softness. We burned through a lot of candles. The floors were covered in wax by the time we were done.

Since the story takes place in pre-electric times, there were fewer illusions to hide behind. We couldn’t pretend there was a nearby streetlight, or unseen electric signage. We were left with the basics: sun, moon, fire. But rarely was the lighting natural by any means, because of the properties of photography and the aesthetics we had in mind. Outside at night we used big lights. There is nothing natural about the Arri M40 HMI. When you’re near it it’s like standing next to the sun. We had at most a two-man lighting crew so the throughline with other independent films is just being as resourceful as possible to produce the desired effect. The exception is the battle reenactment scenes, where we had no control over the lighting except for telling everyone to get painfully close to the fire at night.

We didn’t want sweeping tracking shots or to pornographize the scenery. We were often in really stunningly beautiful locations, and turned our back on the “perfect” frame in favor of the one that served the characters and the story. And to me this makes the footage so much more beautiful.

In terms of production design, it’s kind of funny to see bushy beards and straight razors and work shirts and suspenders restored to a 19th century context, but given that this must have been a pretty low-budget film, I’m curious about how you create a period atmosphere without slipping into feeling like you’re playing Frontierland dress-up, a doing the kind of micro-indie genre movie that’s more like a genre-movie re-enactment, where you’re trying less to suspend disbelief than to create this meta-discourse about the fictionality of art-making and history and life and whatever (to be clear, I really like a lot of these movies, like Impolex and Wild Canaries). What were the discussions you had about creating the Civil War environment in the production design; and what if anything did you do on set to keep everyone rooted in the past?

Treitz: I love period pieces of all shapes and sizes, but we were trying to avoid the uncanniness of many period pieces without giving in to the irony of making it all a joke. It would have been a lot easier to tear open the artifice and pretend that is contributing to a discourse on the creative process or something like that. That would be the cool thing to do. Fuck that. We went for sincerity. There is a healthy amount of levity and absurdity in the characters and their situations, but its not self-referential irony.

We talked a lot about the PBS look and how to avoid it, and it’s an elusive alchemy. It was a line we walked from the writing to the acting to the camerawork to the production design and into the sound design. Any time we looked at something and thought “old timey,” it had to go. For Jacob Heustis, our production designer, the basic formula for success was making everything feel new—the buildings at that time would be new with fresh paint, the ladies would be in the latest fashions—while keeping everything dirty. Dirt was a verb. Everything got dirted. We dirted the roads, we dirted the store, we dirted the actors. Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch was a beacon of dirtiness and roughness in a period piece. You watch that movie and you feel like his sister is going to spit blood on your shoes.

Did the shape of the film change a lot in the editing, versus what was on the page? I’m curious if the somewhat oblique plotting was something you set out for in the writing, or something you found in production and postproduction?

Treitz: When we were writing, we wanted it to feel like we were dropping in and out of these characters’ lives. Expository dialogue was the enemy. The story should tell itself, rather than the characters having to drag it along. We wanted the edges to be jagged and sharp.

When we shot it, we left out any establishing shots so that on a scene-to-scene basis, the audience was starting in medias res. There are so many visual cues in the shots (in the lighting, the location, the characters, the clothes), it felt like we could stand to lose some of the baggage of narrative filmmaking in favor of a more alert and caustic stance. So by the style of the storytelling, we gave ourselves room in the editing to change the flow of events and the dynamics between characters when we found a new or more powerful combination.

The story didn’t change, but as in any movie, characters and events were emphasized or cut out, relationships between characters were altered or enhanced. We liked the idea that the film could follow any character we see and he or she would have their own interesting story to tell, and in the final film you can see a fair amount of characters who seem important for a minute and are never seen afterwards. But there were many more moments and characters we loved because they ultimately weren’t serving the greater good of the narrative.

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The plot charting the rising and falling fortunes of the brother who goes to war, and the brother who stays home, is pretty classic. I’m curious about what you felt was worth revisiting about this story, what you felt you could bring to it?

Sheil: I wanted to engage with film history and play with a somewhat familiar framework but strip its main characters of any sort of heroism. I was curious to see what it would look like if you took the sweeping landscape of that period in American history and within that told a very suffocating story about two people who are not admirable, who exhibit some of the traits and tendencies that I fear in myself, carelessness, laziness, lack of engagement—things that the protagonists of many postmodern stories have grappled with but to see what that looked when it was couched in an epic setting. I wanted to create a feeling for the fragility, the loneliness and the failings of these two men through an exploration of the details of their lives. Maybe I wanted to create an expectation and then dash it. But it’s a brother story, yeah. Either it works for you or it doesn’t.

Treitz: I never felt like we were operating in overcrowded territory because so much of the dynamic between Henry and Francis came from my own experiences and knowing the actors playing them, who felt like brothers. If I had to pick a “classic” relation to the plot, it would be an inverted Cinderella story where the abused stepchild goes to the ball and everything goes to hell.