Early in the process of research for Men Go to Battle, my co-writer and producer Kate Lyn Sheil and I took a trip to the small central Kentucky town of Perryville.
The story we were working on follows two brothers from 1861 to 1862, as one of them, Henry, haphazardly ends up as a Union infantryman in the middle of the Battle of Perryville. It was one of the largest battles of the Civil War to that point, and Henry finds himself on the front lines.
Perryville itself is a tiny town, but outside of it is a wide expanse of fields and woods that has been preserved as a state park, complete with a small museum dedicated to that one day in October. Every year the Friends of Perryville Battlefield put on some kind of reenactment on the original site—and the upcoming 150th anniversary meant that instead of hundreds of reenactors, there would be thousands. (That’s what they call a “national,” meaning reenactors from all over the country attend.)
I told Joni, the lady at the museum’s front desk, that I was from Kentucky and that we were there doing researching for a small independent film. I gave her my usual speech about the humbleness and purity of our intentions, and asked her if she would be interested in letting us film during the reenactment. She said no.
Kate and I went home to finish the script.
The film we were writing was based loosely around my family’s history in rural Kentucky, but as we did more archival work, it took on a life of its own. Part of the excitement of making a DIY period piece was not necessarily the fight against our limited resources (which was rarely thrilling), but upending the aesthetic expectations of the genre. So many period pieces—many of which I love—feel as if the crew are wearing the same delicate gloves as the actors. We wanted our film to feel rude and alive, like the narrative could switch to any of the background characters and follow their lives with the same intensity. Where most period pieces, and narrative movies in general, demand control over their environment, we wanted the chaos of life out of frame to inform and interfere with our story. All this is why shooting at the reenactment was vital to us.
For months I called Perryville and the state government asking to let us shoot there. They said it would be too expensive for us, that it would be an insurance liability, etc. They suggested we shoot from the sidelines, since after all the battle reenactments are public events. But we wanted to be in the camp, spending the entire weekend with the soldiers. And so General Chad Greene—the designated commander of the Union camp—finally told me the real reason they didn’t want us there: We would be a distraction. These men (and a few women) spend a lot of time and money getting their outfits and camp gear and drills right. They are in the “hobby” to live in a different time—at least for a few weekends a year—and every time the organizers had let a film crew in to camp, that illusion was shattered miserably.
But, I asked, what if we looked like everyone else? No: “We can’t have soldiers who don’t march in line.” But what if we dressed like civilians? Wouldn’t there have been reporters covering the proceedings?
General Greene said, “Maybe.”
I told Brett Jutkiewicz, our cinematographer, that “maybe” was good enough for our purposes. He asked another friend, Chris Messina, to be our AC for the weekend. I bought an insurance policy to rent some equipment and the four of us drove from New York to Kentucky to meet actor Tim Morton, who would play Henry. He had a friend who used to be a reenactor and said we could borrow some outfits.
Morgan Raque is an individual who wears cowboy boots every day of his life and smokes about a thousand cigarettes a day. When you ask how he’s doing, he responds with, “Capital.”
Tim looked capital in his private’s uniform. The rest of us looked a little strange, like we didn’t know whether we were going to a renaissance fair or a cabaret lounge. Along with the other women, Kate wouldn’t be allowed inside the soldiers’ camp.
We gave Tim a selection of scenes we might be able to film at Perryville. Brett wrapped the Alexa camera up in burlap, so that from every angle but the front it looked like he was carrying a sack of potatoes. The sound kit and lens bag were stuffed into period-appropriate haversacks. None of us had ever been to a reenactment before.
The original Battle of Perryville took place on Wednesday, October 8, 1862. The weather was unseasonably hot, and there had been a draught all summer that left the land parched, ready for the fire that would eventually overtake the hillsides to create a true hell on earth. One of my sources, Johnson W. Culp, said his ration was, “Two crackers.” By the end of the day there were nearly 8,000 wounded or dead.
The 150th Battle of Perryville took place from Friday, October 5 to Sunday, October 7, 2012. It was brisk during the day and near freezing at night, with rain. We ate at Wendy’s on the way down. I had a spicy chicken sandwich. No one was wounded or killed, to my knowledge.
On Friday afternoon I found General Greene at Union headquarters, discussing battle plans with the rest of the army brass and surreptitiously communicating through walkie-talkie with his Confederate counterpart about some issues the civilian camp was having with the porta-potties. War may be hell, but so is event planning.
I approached him cautiously in my 1860s civilian outfit. He stood about 5’8” but was still the most impressive fellow I had ever seen. His splendid uniform and facial hair adorned a man forged by years of tough decisions and state park bureaucracy.
“Not bad,” he said looking over my clothes.
“My shoes aren’t right but I couldn’t find any that fit me.”
“Better than some of these guys.”
“I want to thank you for this opportunity, General Greene. I won’t let you down. You’re not even going to know we’re here.”
“One of my lieutenants says there’s another group trying to make a documentary here.”
My heart sank.
My heart hit the ground. “French?!”
He nodded. “You all do the first wrong thing and everyone has to go. I don’t want to see you all on the battlefield.”
“This is the last time you’re going to see me.”
We found a group of younger soldiers who were willing to take Henry into their company. They taught him to drill, march and load a rifle. We couldn’t find an appropriate gun for Henry before we got there, but one of the soldiers was sick so he let us borrow his. Fortunately Tim was a preternatural recruit. The sergeant was happy to have an extra man on the field who could march and shoot. Several times over the weekend we would have as much footage as we needed, but Henry had to keep up with the regiment so he would go off to drill for another couple hours.
That night, after we had gotten enough footage of Henry at the campfire cooking bacon with his company to make a whole feature film, I went out into the camp to record sounds on my own. A voice behind me called out, “Civilian, what are you doing in my camp?” I turned around to see a gentleman with a sword attached at his waist.
“I’m… here on orders of General Greene. I’m a reporter, sir.”
“A reporter? You look more like a spy. Let me see your orders.”
This is it, I thought. The whole movie would be about cooking bacon.
“He’s all right,” said another voice, one the army brass. “General Greene knows he’s here.”
“Don’t let me catch you out here alone again.”
We weren’t allowed to stay the night at camp, so we packed out and headed to the Hampton Inn in Danville. It was late so the only restaurant open was O’Charley’s. Chris, a vegetarian, found out that every salad on their menu included some form of chicken and that, no, you can’t get it without chicken because it’s pre-made.
We were back at camp before dawn the next morning. It was about 35 degrees and had rained overnight.
“Did it rain through your tent?” I asked one soldier.
“This regiment wasn’t issued tents until 1863. We slept under our blankets.”
I didn’t mind that we weren’t allowed in the actual battle reenactments. We mainly wanted to film Henry’s life in the camp, surrounded by thousands of soldiers. The scenes of Henry marching into full-on warfare required control that we could not expect from this shoot. Maybe we would stage it at another reenactment down the line, where we could convince a group of soldiers to do the traditional “action… cut… reset…” kind of filmmaking.
Instead, we had given Tim scenes for Henry within the camp life. We would approach a group of soldiers who looked right for the world of the movie, tell them the gist of what we were filming, then rub some dirt on Tim’s face and throw Henry in to create a scene we needed from the script. In a sort of 1860s Maysles fashion, Brett would point the camera at me, I would tap the mic for sync, then he would focus on Henry and try to frame out any anachronisms. Chris would swap a lens and we’d get coverage until the other soldiers got sick of us or they had to go drill or cook.
By Sunday we were giddy with the energy of the experience. We had not been able to film everything we wanted, but we had footage that was beyond what we had hoped for. And somewhere between the quasi-direct cinema camera approach and Henry’s face among the crowd of soldiers, the imagery was more sincere and cinematic than we had expected.
The final battle was that afternoon and then everyone would be packing up and leaving. Brett, Chris and I followed Henry as he marched in line toward the battlefield. And when no one stopped us from following them on to the field, we stayed with him to the top of a hill where the company fell into formation. Officers on horseback were riding between regiments, dispensing orders for where they would meet the Rebel line. The infantry stood still, waiting to meet their destiny that day. We moved into the tall grass to get a wide shot and avoid detection until I saw a colonel on horseback talking to his lieutenant, pointing at us. He rode over in a panic.
“What are you all doing out here? You’ve gotta go! Head down that hill right there!”
Dejected, we slowly walked down the hill into a small patch of trees as the brigade marched past us into battle. Brett took the camera off his shoulder and we waited for the thing to be over. We heard cannon fire blasting from over the hill in front of us, followed by the pop muskets. But just as I was thinking, “Didn’t the Union have to retreat in Perryville?” a line of a hundred soldiers came running over the hill, heading straight for us.
Brett scrambled to get the camera up. I screamed, “There’s Henry! You got him?”
Henry spotted us and ran with his company into the clearing next to us. The captain screamed for them to regroup and prepare to fire. We were five feet away from them as they saw the Confederate army approaching over the hill.
“Ready! Aim! Fire!… Reload!”
The Rebels fired back. A couple of our men went down. We got off two rounds before the Captain called for a retreat. The casualties waited for a few moments before rejoining the company. It’s not as fun being dead.
We ran through the cornfield behind us, marking Henry as he fled through the stalks, up another hill. His division was staging a final stand behind a split rail fence. As the Confederates shot at us from the field, I realized this was as close to war as I ever wanted to be. Brett was perched over Henry’s shoulder as he fired down on them. A lieutenant ordered us back further, across another field. We were running ahead to get Henry’s company coming toward us when General Greene appeared on horseback.
“What the hell are you doing? I told you all about this! Get the hell out of my army!”
Now we really ran, all the way back to camp where we stored our extra batteries and filters. Some of the dead soldiers were already back, cleaning their rifles and packing up.
We got a few more shots of Henry packing up with his company before the pickup trucks started to pull into camp, eliminating our angles. The sun was setting anyway and everyone was exhausted.
I saw General Greene over in headquarters, issuing his post-battle reports. I walked up to him with my head hanging low.
“I’m sorry about that, General. We landed right in the middle of it and felt like we had to to keep filming.”
He smiled wide.
“I didn’t mean to curse y’all out. I probably would have let you stay but I had just kicked out them French fellows. They had a man in uniform with a camera and I couldn’t allow that. That’s just disrespectful. So I might have taken that out on you. Did you get anything useful?”
We were saying goodbye to our company, talking about upcoming reenactments—the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War meant that almost every event was not to be missed—when an infantryman walked up to us. “I’ve been doing this 20 years, and I’ve never seen a camera crew that was as respectful and hidden as you. If I hadn’t known what you were doing, I would have thought you were part of us. You coming out to any more of these?”
This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2016 issue.