An Interview with Men Go To Battle Director Zachary Treitz

Writer/director Zachary Treitz and writer/actor Kate Lyn Sheil will be attending the festival for screenings of their fraternal Civil War drama, Men Go To Battleboth today and tomorrow. Read on for an interview with Treitz and be sure to check out the film.

NFF: What kind of research went in to creating the period setting? Do you feel like your film is entirely realistic to Civil War era Kentucky, or did you take any liberties in writing the script?

Zachary Treitz: We wanted to create the feeling of immersion, like we were dropped into an unfamiliar world. A large part of that meant being as specific as possible with the language, interactions, and physical environment, and the clearest path toward that was drawing upon first-person documents from the specific time and place we were capturing. So Kate and I spent our time in archives reading through unpublished diaries and letters written in 1860s Kentucky. Many of these probably had not been read since they were catalogued. We tried to use these sources to inform the tone and thought processes of the characters. We do not pretend to be historians, but we were probably much more literal and historically accurate than many period films just because we did not want to take liberties with the timeline or environment. We used the constraints and details we found in the research to bolster the narrative and create something we had not seen before. We were also working with people who take the history very seriously, and we didn't want them to cringe when they saw something anachronistic. But the idea was to create the illusion of a specific time and place. Whether its actually accurate is sort of beside the point for us.

NFF: You worked with professional re-enactors in creating some of your battle sequences. What was that like?

Treitz: Re-enactment for all of the people we worked with is a pastime. They call it the "hobby" and its one they enjoy like any other. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Working with them was a challenge of convincing them that we as outsiders could approach it as seriously and sincerely as they do, without being a distraction. We tried to be an asset, and even having one more soldier on the field with them (our character Henry) was appreciated because it turned out he was a good soldier. Calling it fun would belie how difficult those weekends could be, but it was in the end incredibly rewarding. It was our kind of fun.

NFF: Having undertaken an ambitious period piece for your first film, do you have the desire to do something much more contemporary for your next one?

Treitz: Yes. 1000 times yes.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo and Kyle Patrick Alvarez on The Stanford Prison Experiment

At the Sundance Film Festival, Dr. Philip Zimbardo and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez sat down to discuss the former's psychological experiments, which served as the basis for Alvarez's film, The Stanford Prison Experiment. 1n 1971, Zimbardo embarked on a study of power dynamics as he assigned 24 male Stanford undergraduates to the role of either prisoner or guard, with absolute power given to the enforcers, resulting in a very violent and tense experiment. Check out the video below to learn more from the pair.

Elizabeth Giamatti on A Woman Like Me

Diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, Alex Sichel decides to rewrite her life's script by casting Lili Taylor as a fictional version of herself in a film about a woman who surmounts the exact same illness. Piecing together that narrative with behind-the-scenes documentary, Sichel and co-director/producer Elizabeth Giamatti forge an entirely unique hybrid film about facing and overcoming one's fears in life and art. We spoke to Giamatti about their collaboration on A Woman Like Me and what it was like to finish the film after Sichel's passing.

NFF: What was your collaboration with Alex like on the film? Correct me if I'm wrong, but initially you started out as just the producer.

Elizabeth Giamatti: You’re right. I can tell you how it evolved, and I will, but really the most central and important fact about the collaboration was its joyfulness. It was a fantastic creative relationship, and it mostly felt completely seamless in terms of how we each saw the film and how those individual visions came together to form a collective vision that we both loved and understood the same way. Our individual ideas at the beginning fed one another, and the movie that evolved was something that we both would have characterized, I believe, as “ours” -- there was never a “hers” and “mine” thing, regardless of who was producing and who was directing. We always saw it as “a film by” both of us.

During the initial development stages, we didn’t have clearly defined roles, but when we were ready to shoot the fictional scenes, Alex said to me, “I think I need to be the director.” It was a great moment for her to say that, and I was in fact happy to have some definition for myself at that point as the producer.

Then, after we shot the fiction, we spent six months together watching our footage every day with our editor, talking about every frame, making notes, talking about what worked and what didn’t and why, and during that time we were still defining our roles as director (Alex) and producer (me). But when Alex got sick, we had to have one of those very hard end-of-life conversations. She asked me what I thought about finishing the movie without her. She wanted me to do it, and I wanted to do it, and at the same time I knew it would be an impossible task for me as producer – without a director -- to sit there and think, “Okay, now what would Alex do?” I told her that in order for me to finish the film I thought we needed to be co-directors in order for me to be able to make the thousand and one decisions one has to make in order to edit a movie. And she agreed.

NFF: Did you or Alex ever intend to make the narrative portion with Lili Taylor as a standalone film? Did you always know it would be woven into the framework of the documentary?

Giamatti: Initially, when we very first started talking about this movie, it was a straight up pure fictional film – feature length, narrative, etc. Though we were also, on a parallel track, talking about a documentary version – or rather, maybe a video diary that turned into a blog. We were starting small. So this hybrid form was something that evolved over time and many conversations, but by the time we wrote and shot the fiction we knew that it was going to be part of this hybrid movie and we designed it as such – even though we didn’t know exactly how they were going to be woven together.

NFF: Alex passed away before the film was completed. What was it like to finish it without her there?

Giamatti: Well, it was hard in terms of the personal loss of my very dear friend and collaborator, but it was also, strangely, okay from a creative perspective, because by then I knew – or at least I thought I did, which is all that mattered – what our collective vision for the movie was. Alex was very present inside my head by then, so I actually had very few moments of sitting there in the edit saying, “What would Alex do?” And that is lucky, because I think that would have been paralyzing.

NFF: As far as the formal aspects and hybrid nature of the film, did you draw from any particular influences?

Giamatti: Strangely, most of the movies that we used as references were more because of their thematic and tonal resonances than because of their formal structure – maybe because there weren’t that many hybrids to draw from, and also because hybrids are all so different from one another in how and why and how often they choose to incorporate fiction. We did refer often to an incredible film by William Greaves called Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, but then just as often we would talk about Day for Night or All That Jazz or The Wizard of Oz, which was a great parallel for us (in fact we had quite a lot of references to it both in the fiction and the doc that didn’t make it into the final cut – for good reasons, but the idea was incredibly helpful). Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes was also really inspiring – she’s so free in that movie to not follow rules, to tell her story however she wants to – and if a giant talking puppet serves her one minute, that’s great, but she doesn’t feel a need to return to it if it doesn’t serve her later in the film. That was incredibly helpful. Also, any movie that managed to treat heavy subjects with a certain kind of lightness and humor was helpful to us.

Franny Director Andrew Renzi on Making Narratives vs. Documentaries

Andrew Renzi's Franny casts Richard Gere in a majestic, gut-wrenching performance as the titular philanthropist, nursing a broken heart and morphine addiction following the death of his two best friends. In a bid for closure, Gere pursues a friendship with his friends' adult daughter (Dakota Fanning) and her husband (Theo James) that is both sweet-natured and accidentally meddling. We talked to Renzi about developing and casting the film and the differences between narrative and documentary filmmaking.

NFF: Much of the film deals with the desire to recreate the past, or at least the uphill battle toward righting one's wrongs. How did you devise the story and the character of Franny?

Andrew Renzi: My father passed away in my early 20s and I was very much caught in this weird cycle of trying to have everything go back to the way it was, even though I knew that was not going to happen. The story itself is fictional, but it was very much devised out of this personal experience. I guess it's kind of sensationalized version of my own response to grief. Very sensationalized.

NFF: You previously directed the great documentary Fishtail. Obvious differences aside, how did your experience working on the two films diverge? Do you have a preference to working in narrative or documentary?

Renzi: It's funny because these two films could not be on more opposite ends of the spectrum, one is a stark meditative doc and the other is a big flamboyant and colorful narrative, but in terms of my own experience making them, they really kind of achieved similar things for me. At the end of the day, both of these films provided me with vastly different environments to grow and learn as a filmmaker. On Fishtail, we had five people executing a very singular vision and on Franny, we had about 100 people executing a very collaborative vision, so I guess I feel like now, thanks to both of these experiences, I have the tools to make films under any sort of infrastructure and pretense. I'm definitely more motivated by narrative films, so I probably prefer them, but I'll definitely keep making docs as long my friends have their weekends free. Either way, I'm excited to do it again, because of how much I learned on both of these films.

NFF: As a first time narrative filmmaker, how were you able to attract such a cast to the project?

Renzi: I'm still not really sure. I got lucky. I think people responded to the script, and I also had a great team of producers that helped bring the cast together.

Brit Marling on What Attracted Her to The Keeping Room

At The Keeping Room's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Brit Marling (I Origins, Arbitrage) spoke about what attracted her to the Black List topping script, written by Julia Hart. Check out the video clip below to get some insight into this feminist-tinged, survivalist Civil War drama.

Jason Segel, James Ponsoldt and Donald Margulies Talk The End of The Tour

Check out this great video interview with the creators behind our Opening Night film, The End of The Tour, sponsored by Cape Air/Nantucket Airlines. At Sundance, Variety spoke to director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, NFF '13), screenwriter Donald Marguiles, and star Jason Segel about the process behind bring the story of David Foster Wallace and Jeff Lipsky to life. Get excited for June 24!