Indie director Zachary Treitz chats about his Civil War-set feature debut, Men Go to Battle

For his award-winning feature debut, the Kentucky-born filmmaker reached back to his family’s past.

Joshua Rothkopf

A sensation at 2015’s Tribeca Film Festival, Men Go to Battle is an arrestingly smoky and understated period piece (read our review here), one that quietly charts the failing relationship between two brothers whose farm falls into disrepair during the Civil War. Writer-director Zachary Treitz, 31, shared its genesis with us.

Where are you now, geographically?
I’m in Chinatown. It’s actually the old place where Frances Ha was filmed. Remember that apartment she lived in?

Seriously? that must be wild. You worked on that film a little, and you’re a new York guy. So why is your debut a Civil War film?
I’m actually a Kentucky guy at heart. That’s where I’m from. The background of the story was based in my family’s history: I grew up hearing about how they’d been a part of the westward expansion and, by the 1860s, how they’d become prosperous. And by the end of the Civil War, they were decimated. That was a romantic story I’d grown up hearing.

Most filmmakers would have gotten to work on a documentary, but you’ve made a piece of fiction, very nearly a Western. Was that always the plan?
Kate [Lyn Sheil, Treitz’s cowriter,] and I—our idea was to peek behind the mythology. So we did a lot of archival research into diaries and letters. We ended up going pretty far afield. Neither of us even has a brother.

Still, it sounds a little like genealogy.
Somewhat ironically, I get really bored with people who are fascinated by their family’s genealogy. They try to conflate greatness into some sort of origin story. Maybe that’s why we made it fictional.

Kate’s also an actor, recently in House of Cards. Did that help?
A lot about working with actors I learned from Kate. It’s all about clarity and not being mushy or ambiguous. You can have a “magical and ambiguous” vision, but that’s certainly not going to help anybody on set if that’s all you’re trying to articulate.

Along with Robert Eggers’s The Witch, it seems like you’re a part of a new wave of heavily researched Americana.
There’s something about world building that makes it less of a burden for the actors. When I saw The Witch—especially being in those candlelit rooms—I started to have post-traumatic stress from shooting our own movie!

It's tempting to look for a current political read on your movie, given its subtext of a nation tearing itself apart.
It's less about overt politics and more about personal politics—the politics of a town, of class. We tried to represent human dynamics, which are strikingly similar to then. But yes, there happen to be a lot of parallels between the 1860s with the Know-Nothing Party and, for whatever reason, right now.

You won the Best New Narrative Director award at Tribeca. How has that helped you?
Obviously, I became sort of a megalomaniac and a monster [Laughs]. Seriously, though, it raised the awareness of the film, which is great. This is a DIY period piece, so it was definitely a surprise that we won. But I go into pretty much every situation with unrealistically high expectations.

Men Go to Battle is now playing at Anthology Film Archives.

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