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“We Question Together Hyper-Masculinity in Life as Well As In the War Movie Genre”: Roberto Minervini on The Damned

The Damned

In The Damned, Roberto Minervini embeds us with Union Army soldiers ranging across the Western front in 1862, far from the battlegrounds in the East but no less at risk. But  when you direct a Civil War movie in 2020s America, it can be hard for audiences to view it as solely a fictional matter, especially when you’ve previously directed two of the most revealing documentary cross-sections of the United States in the last decade, The Other Side (2015) and What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire (2018). It’s possible to watch The Damned as a rugged journey with a rank-and-file company of bewhiskered volunteers, who trade marksmanship tips and tin-pot coffee in an isolating wilderness. But it’s perhaps inevitable that the underlying tension of that era’s schism doesn’t feel especially far from today’s feeling of mounting volatility, the not-so-calm before a bigger storm.

Premiering at Cannes in Un Certain Regard (as did The Other Side), The Damned punctuates the routines of Army service and violent eruptions of wartime with the soul-baring conversations of Minervini’s nonfiction. Those chats (about war, religion, being a man) feel unnervingly candid, like reading someone’s journal from the time, probably a direct result of the collaborative techniques Minervini preserves from his work with his subjects in documentary. Shooting on an ARRI Mini-LR with vintage Canon Rangefinder lenses, the director keeps us close by and closed in with his soldiers, and the vastness of the countryside (traditional fodder for the West in cinema) is firmly superseded by the immediacy of the soldiers’ experiences.

Minervini, who moved to New York after 13-odd years in Texas, spoke with me on the eve of The Damned’s premiere about applying techniques from documentary (and war reenactment) and getting inside his soldiers’ heads.

Filmmaker: The Other Side was a big Cannes memory for me—especially since that movie’s ornery dispatch became almost like an election prophecy, or a preview.

Minervini: Oh my goodness. Yeah, hopefully this one won’t be…

Filmmaker: What sort of research did you do to root the film in the time period, in terms of reading books or journals, for example?

Minervini: I do a lot of research. This probably took a couple of years—a lot of books, a lot of journals. A lot of my early readings were around the figure of General Custer, just because of how controversial he was, this American general stuck between two Americas: the values of the past, still an economy of barter and using free labor, and at the same time looking toward the future of the new capitalist economy. Custer embodied that kind of schizophrenia. That all started getting intertwined with the frontier territory where economic interests were gathering and converging with the discovery of gold. In the end, I settled on 1862, when the gold rush started in Montana and the central government, through the U.S. Army, started getting involved.

Filmmaker: From what I understand, that year was a turning point, with General Lee taking over the Confederate Army and fighting pushing into the North. What attracted you to the war out West?

Minervini: I decided to bring all the people participating in the film with me [West] to put them far away enough from all the signifiers of the Civil War. By that I mean anything that could trigger the factual truth to kick in and prevent them from re-interpreting and re-inhabiting a space and a time. So doing this in Virginia would have been a totally different thing because the weight of history would have been too heavy for them to withstand, and they would have become almost a caricature of themselves and just perpetuated the same history over and over.

But here it was about the experience. I needed them to be at the margin of the experience, at a lookout point through which we can see the history. So to be really at the fringe was a conscious choice: to put them somewhere where the Civil War barely reached and where the army went for different reasons, economic reasons. Once we’re there, we’re observing. I was also interested in these people being stranded in a very hostile environment. Since we were going to be stranded for a couple of months, I thought that would probably create a very unique experience based on which we could develop a story.

Filmmaker: Can you break down the production timeline? Did you have them living out there for a bit as part of preparation?

Minervini: I started working on the film in 2020. Toward the end of 2021, I started casting. I made my first trips to Helena, Montana, and met with some members of the National Guard, because some of them actually lead the reenacting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn every year. So I had them and a few people who I knew, some of them worked with me in the past, some of them in the film world, actors and filmmakers. I held a public meeting in Montana and invited everybody to participate, to be part of an army. The prerequisite was just that you wear a uniform, which we would provide, and if you brought a horse, you were cavalry; if you didn’t bring a horse you were infantry. And that was that—open-door policy, free to come and go. In a way, desert or die. I liked the idea of a shapeless group, the namelessness or the facelessness, people coming or disappearing. So that was the starting point.

Then like in an army, we all get to know each other. We set up permanent camp in a land that was accessible through all-terrain vehicles, part of a large property that’s been there for centuries and non-buildable. There are buffalo and elk, some live there or pass through. So we spend every day there—the core group always and the other ones, the locals, free to come and go. Everybody would just meet there in the morning and we would go at night, and then decide what to film or who to film with. People knew that there was coffee and water and wood for fire. There were a few tents, and that was it. And that’s how we worked. Then as we got to know each other, some relationships formed, and we decided who would continue day after day, and who would find their filmic death. And I would tell them, “You’re done.” So that created some tension.

Filmmaker: So it sounds like you didn’t have a traditional screenplay ahead of time. What was the writing process like?

Minervini: I wrote my notes based on research. As far as story, I didn’t write a single thing. I knew one thing for sure: the film is completely improvised. Methodologically, nothing has changed in my cinema. It’s still a cinema that is highly experiential, and this time the premise of the experience is not so strictly related to them within their own environment and who they are. But other than that, the most important thing is that I wanted to break down war into “before and after”: war as a series of battles, and after each battle, something always dies. I knew that would be the structure: before the battle, the battle, and after the battle. And what came after would be influenced by the effects that the filming of that battle would have on people.

As you could probably see, I always film chronologically and usually the editing process reflects that. It’s a journey: reaching camp, setting up camp, the battle happens, and then the decisions are made. So the writing process is on the fly as usual. I am becoming very familiarized with the process, and I feel I’m in total control of this writing process despite its immediacy.

Filmmaker: You’ve definitely gotten the hang of it.

Minervini: [laughs] I got the hang of it, yeah. I remember when we were maybe 30 horses and people, the traveling that you see in the beginning, and I was saying to people: “Some of you have never seen me. I’ve never seen you. This is what we’re going to do.” And I really felt like, I got this. I can’t wait for this to start. This is exactly how I want it to be,  and this is exactly how I’m going to write this film. And I just felt extremely empowered by that, what other people call uncertainty.

Filmmaker: At the same time, the camerawork and compositions have a definite and consistent strategy. What sort of feeling did you want the camera to have?

Minervini: I’ve always been very rigorous and disciplined about the aesthetics of the film and my approach, so there is a lot of research in terms of the shooting format and the lenses we used. I ended up using two lenses for the first time—vintage lenses with incredible, dramatic chromatic aberrations and out-of-focus aberrations, which I knew I was going to mainly frame in the center. So I knew that my composition was going to be somewhat solemn, somewhat classical in a way. I wouldn’t call it referential, but it opens a dialogue with a genre that tells stories of the past, the war genre. I’m the main operator on the film and I knew how I would frame, and the level of steadiness that I wanted from the image would be superior to some of my previous films. This time I’m going wider, and I use the tripod. There’s no panning from one character to another ever.

Filmmaker: Very often the movement of the action was into the background of the frame, not so much traversing the landscape left to right. It feels like we’re just going deeper into the wild with the soldiers.

Minervini: You’re absolutely right. I had two core camera operators, a little younger than me, and I was always telling them: look at the diagonal, look at the lines that we’re drawing, they’re converging in terms of depth toward the center. So always look at these diagonal lines and where they bring you before you compose and settle for a position, a frame. And yeah, they kind of push through the image.

Filmmaker: It matches the experience of what they’re doing, which is that they’re pushing ahead into the unknown.

Minervini: Exactly. In grading we also enhanced the bokehs, or the out-of-focus aspect, of the background. We even darken the background sometimes to make it more impenetrable, to give that sense of this inability to see the horizon, the end of it all, the end of a space, and the loose perception of space and time.

Filmmaker: It’s also a realistic war drama in the sense that there’s a lot of waiting and grunt work.

Minervini: Yeah, absolutely. If we adopt a humanist point of view, which was my goal, the worst that can happen in war is combat. And war is notoriously 95 percent waiting and 5 percent combat, because combat just could mean the end of it all. The army is a well-oiled machine, and you see the processes that are highly controlled when there’s no combat. Once combat happens, everything is thrown out of whack. You don’t know where the shots are coming from, and that is an account we find everywhere, in literature and also for contemporary war veterans. That is even more true in a 2-D war—the fact that you can never see the horizons. And something else I knew was that there was not going to be a build-up to a battle, or an inciting incident where they would see the battle coming. Instead, the battle will just happen. The prep work and just being together, that’s part of being in the military—and then there’s an attack. So the wait and the staying with it and feeling the tedious aspect was very important.

Filmmaker: There seems to be a lot of care put into the costuming, too. And those poker cards! Do you still have those?

Minervini: [chuckles] We do have the poker cards. The re-enactors helped us a lot. And Jeremiah Knupp, the main actor, is a historian. He has a story credit along with Tim Carson, the father of the family of Stop the Pounding Heart, who’s the bearded man in the film. Because they helped me a lot with the research. So we were prepared. That’s another thing that I like to do—use people who can bring a lot to the table—and I love to delegate, in fact.

Filmmaker: Another important aspect are the conversations between the soldiers, where you get a glimpse of what they’re thinking about and feeling. How did you create those scenes? Did you have conversations with the cast that would give rise to these conversations?

Minervini: It’s always a combination of things. I demand an active participation of the characters even during the writing process. I usually trigger conversations by asking questions. There’s something very participatory in this process, very convivial. Just because I’ve been doing this for a while, I know I can trigger a thought process, so I do that, and then we turn on the camera. That’s also part of how I select characters: their availability or their willingness to be in touch with themselves, who they are, to bring themselves to the table.

Filmmaker: What’s one way you might prompt an actor?

Minervini: For example, the conversation with Jeremiah, the main character, with the red hair, he’s a journalist, an actor, a historian, and also a skilled hunter, and we were talking about that. He was telling me about his experiences with his father, and I was asking him about what it all meant to have this archetype of the male hunter in the Midwest ingrained in him growing up. He told me a story about when he was a child. And I said, okay, we’re going to film that, I want you to talk about that, but I want you to talk about that now as a soldier, as somebody at war. And he made the dialogue exactly like that: he says I remember that I was a child, and that’s what the army does with us. So he transposes that experience and brings it into the film.

Another example is [the scene] about how to be a man, what it means to be a man. In that case, it’s René [Solomon], he’s a filmmaker, and he talks from his own experience. “I spent all my life trying to be a man, and then all of a sudden something happened, like war.” But he doesn’t say, “It’s like war.” He refers to his own inner war. Something like that happened, and then you spend the rest of your life understanding who you are, trying to get back, trying to get back to who you really are. And he talks about himself.

Those are conversations that I constantly have with them. I try to trigger catharsis. And then I ask them to stay in the present moment, to remember that they’re wearing uniforms, to remember that they are there in a situation that is beyond their control, and to relate to their character as well. So it’s their own dialectics between who they really are or were, and who they are at the present moment. Those who are in the film, the conversations that are in the film, are the success stories of this process, where they’re really feeling who they are at the present moment and they’re bringing everything that belongs to them, their own personal history.

Filmmaker: Religion is another layer to their conversations, and I was almost surprised when it did or didn’t come up. In one scene it almost feels like the younger, religious soldier is the exception among them, which I hadn’t expected.

Minervini: President Lincoln, at some point during the beginning of the Civil War, talked about the Christian God as the God of the United States. That’s where In God We Trust comes from. He needed the message of unity, and he found it through religion. But at the same time, there is a contemporary aspect to their story, a contemporary twist, because that dissonance among them has something to do with who they are and where they come from. The young guy who’s religious is from the South, and it was very common that people from the South would just join the U.S. Army for a paycheck. So it’s interesting that the kid coming from the South is the one who’s bringing his own faith to the table. And that is what I was talking about before: not feeling the need to abide by the precepts of written history, but being somewhere at the margins of it all—where who you are is worth just as much as history the way it’s written. So the fact that a young kid can see a godly reason for war because he’s from the South, and the fact that the other ones bring their own skepticism, agnosticism, and even atheism into the picture, are because these interpreters of these characters are free to be who they are. And they made this history, this story and therefore history, much more relatable to them. It’s also a reflection of the discrepancies among Americans based on where they’re from, which is very “of now,” as we know. Like the new debate around nationalizing or centralizing Christianity that’s happening in America again. All of that was very interesting for me to make that discourse more contemporary than historical.

Filmmaker: It’s also interesting because it’s a volunteer army, so we’re hearing people’s reasons for joining up.

Minervini: Exactly. And it was common to have a volunteer company. It’s also within an army that was mainly mercenary, and in the case of the Union, highly untrained.

Filmmaker: In your work you’re always looking to bring out how people are really feeling, and that’s what makes The Other Side or What You Gonna Do such special records of life in America. Since you bring up the contemporary aspect, what did you learn from hearing from people who are in the film?

Minervini: Well, all my films have this subtext of my own experience and my own need for experiential knowledge, especially in the United States, my country of adoption, where everything I learned, I learned firsthand, including the language. One of the things I learned right away, and something that tortured me throughout the process, is the fact that in order to make the film relatable, I needed to violate something sacred for the Army, which is their jargon, the language. I can’t use those codes, which we hear in the beginning a little bit. At some point I said, “I can’t continue this way.” So they told me, “So you don’t want us to speak like soldiers, and yet you want to make a film about war?” It’s because that jargon is highly unrelatable. And I struggle with the fact that I knew that no matter what, I was going to completely romanticize the language of soldiers by ditching the code, the “yes, sir” and “left, right” and all that. So I needed to desecrate that in a way. Does that mean that the story is based on a lie in a way, that this is just a romanticized pantomime of war? No, it does not. I think what I understood is that in the end this is the cinema of experience, and the only truth is that experiential aspect of what we felt and created together. There’s nothing more, there’s no higher truth than that.

And if I look back at The Other Side and Stop the Pounding Heart, they were all built on the same principle. That the films were meant to deliver only the sense of an experience, nothing truer than that. Nothing absolute that came out of those films. That’s why people call me a non-judgmental filmmaker. It’s because I’ve always told stories of first-hand experience. That’s all based on spurious data, which is only the data we collected there. I realized that in the end, that’s our experience as people who are not trying to replicate soldiers, we’re not replicating war. We’re just questioning ourselves, and we put all that into context in the moment. We question together hyper-masculinity in life as well as in the war movie genre. We question the sense of it all in terms of whether we want to think that there’s a higher power or not. We questioning why we’re there freezing our butts trying to go through an experience without seeing the end to it. So all of that is part of the experience, which is in a way very primordial.

Filmmaker: You start with this very strong image of wolves eating a dead deer. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, and then I began to think: is that our country, or is this just nature?

Minervini: I think that is the beauty of only approaching the problem with total openness, and I’m perceptive of all the elements that I can see, sense, or smell around me. I get to know people, and get to a place near Canada where a man lives in a 30,000-acre [estate] at the top of a mountain, where there are about 28 wolves. And through an alignment of planets, I manage to go there and film those wolves and dead deer. And then after the fact, I can think about a meaning. For me, the film begins the way it ends. It is a little bit of decomposed humanity, and if you could smell it, you could probably understand how badly decomposed humanity can get when it gets to extreme situations.

Are we headed there? I don’t know. War is the most inhumane thing there is. Perhaps we’ve been there for a long, long time. At least since I’ve moved to America, we’ve been at war, and the headcount has been really high, and I think that has informed my experiences in America very heavily. Ten months after I moved to America, the Twin Towers came down. So for me as a European from a country like Italy that is more pacifist, it’s been a rude awakening. And now, 24 years later, yeah, I smell the rotten flesh. I smell the carcass eaten by wolves. And when I filmed there, I thought, that’s the end of the film for me, and I’m going to deliver that punch right off the bat.

Filmmaker: You mentioned September 11 as being a kind of formative experience, and in our current era, January 6 seems to be another one. This film seems to tap into feelings around the uncertainty of our present moment.

Minervini: Yeah, absolutely. That’s why I say it with the joke in the beginning: I don’t know about civil war, but I know enough to think that America will continue to be at war with others and with itself.

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