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NORTH BY NORTHWESTERN
With his debut feature, American Job, filmmaker Chris Smith spun the tedium of Midwestern minimum-wage labor into a minimalist masterpiece. Now, Smith and collaborator Sara Price are back at Sundance with a poignant and offbeat documentary that adds a reality-base to American Job’s emotional themes. Mike Jones talks with Smith and Price about their new American Movie.

Mark Borchardt and his Uncle Bill
Mark Borchardt is the subject of a documentary by Chris Smith and Sara Price called American Movie – a film about filmmaking that, at its core, has almost nothing to do with filmmaking at all. For Borchardt, an aspiring feature director, filmmaking is the only a pathway to the proverbial American Dream, and it is his remarkable journey, replete with emotional crisis, financial trauma, and unexpected setbacks, that provides the film’s real-life drama.

As the film begins, Borchardt is living a dreary life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he sees time and circumstance weighing against him. He drinks too much and owes money all over town, including hefty chunks to child support and overdue taxes. His part-time maintenance job in a cemetery is, literally, a dead end. At one point in the film he motions to a mess smeared all over the cemetery restroom’s walls — "I’m 30 years old and in ten minutes I gotta clean someone else’s shit."

His solution to life’s travails is where American Movie’s narrative starts. Borchardt decides to finish and sell video copies of his short, 16mm film, Coven, in order to finance his magnum opus, a feature-length horror film titled Northwestern. Through Mark’s marathon efforts to reshoot and edit Coven in time for a local debut, Smith and Price draw a detailed portrait of a man both flamboyant and complex, grating and oddly personable.

Borchardt’s story reads like every other film school student’s admission essay — he’s been making Super-8 films since he was ten, casting his friends in neighborhood homages to ’70s slasher films. At 30, he’s still making films and still living at home with his folks.

While the usual course of events for aspiring filmmakers is to stretch their themes out of their hometown with eyes toward Hollywood, Borchardt continues to draw on his working class background. Featuring a core group of friends and Northern Milwaukee staples of beer, cars, and loneliness, Borchardt’s films are firmly rooted in his blue-collar neighborhood. One neighborhood friend is Mike Shank, a musician whose wild history with drugs and drinking serves as a harsh window to Borchardt’s youth.

Borchardt’s forte is his mouth. He has a knack for speaking dynamically, as if composing scenes in a film, and, like any good director, is able to convince those around him that his ventures will be successful. For financing, Borchardt courts his 82-year-old Uncle Bill, a mobile home resident who has over $200,000 locked tight in the bank. Though he tires of Borchardt’s salesmanship, the lonely man looks forward to the companionship the young man offers.

The intimacy with which filmmakers Chris Smith and Sara Price chronicle Borchardt’s quest couldn’t have been accomplished without patience and a deep sense of understanding. Though seen from a different set of eyes, the setting and tone of Borchardt’s journey is starkly similar to Smith’s own narrative meditation on the alienated Midwest American workplace found in his debut feature, American Job. Originally intending a fly-on-the wall approach, Smith and Price – who have collaborated on a variety of projects since American Job – discovered themselves growing much closer to Borchardt’s world and soon became accomplices to his high-energy plan to be a successful filmmaker.

So, while attorney and producer’s rep John Sloss and the Jim McKay/Michael Stipe-backed C-Hundred Film Corporation work with Smith and Price to find a distributor for American Movie, you’ll also spot Borchardt himself at Sundance. He’ll likely be networking the slopes pitching projects before and certainly well after his own short, Coven, debuts in Park City at the Egyptian theater.

 

Filmmaker: Where did you first meet Mark?

Chris Smith: Mark was in a class I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. One day I saw him outside of school. He was drunk, and he said "I ain’t on your list, but I come to your class. Check your class list. I dropped your class, but I still use the equipment." I looked and sure enough, although he was the best student in the class, he wasn’t registered.

Filmmaker: He still used the equipment?

Smith: Well, they caught him, and then they made him clean the warehouse for 80 hours.

Sara Price: It was the equivalent of community service.

Filmmaker: How did the idea of filming him come about?

Smith: I was talking to him one night, and he said, "I’m going to have lunch with Roger Ebert at the Toronto Film Festival. Me and my mom and dad are going up there." I asked him if I could go along for the weekend. We had ten rolls of film left over from American Job, and we thought we’d go up and see what happens. The experience was daunting. [Mark didn’t meet Ebert.] The film festival environment isn’t as open as it seems if you’re not connected to somebody someway. It wasn’t the solution to his problems.

Filmmaker: Why did you keep filming?

Smith: I thought we were just going to shoot the weekend trip to Toronto. But it kind of snowballed. I had no desire to make a documentary at all. I was interested in trying to do another narrative film after American Job. This was going to be just a short film or side project. But slowly one thing led to another.

Price: It’s also easy to get wrapped up in that energy. Mark has a million things to do, and he’s going to accomplish them in a day. It was easy to put everything aside and follow him.

Smith: It was such an amazing unfolding of events as far as the people we met through Mark and the things he was trying to do and how things were lining up in the two-year period [over which we shot the film] with his deadlines and personal crises. We couldn’t stop. We got in too deep, and there was no turning back. We also wanted to see how everything was going to work out for him. When you get into a project like this, it’s reassuring that when you dig deeper you find that all the different threads check out. Everything keeps building on itself and confirms what you had hoped for in the first place. By the end, we were all worn out. It had been two years of shooting almost every day, and financially I don’t think we could have gone on longer. But I think we had the story by that point.

Filmmaker: What is the story?

Price: Mark’s life and what he’s grown up around.

Smith: A lot of what Mark is trying to put on film, the whole idea behind Northwestern, is documenting his experience growing up in that part of Northwestern Milwaukee. It would be sad if people come out of the movie thinking Mark is a horror film director and that’s all he’s interested in. I think the whole idea behind Northwestern is that it’s not a horror film. It’s more of a life-and-times film about growing up in his neighborhood. To him, horror films are more realistic than Hollywood films. He looks at the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as being real.

Price: Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a pivotal film for him because it showed the first ranch house he had seen in films, a ranch house like the one he grew up in.

Smith: Mark’s work has taken a huge change in direction from age 12 until now. If you look at Coven, on the surface it looks like a horror film, but it really isn’t. It’s more of a psychological drama. It’s got these elements from Mark’s upbringing — things that he was attracted to as a kid — but they’re combined with some of these higher ideas that he has.

Price: It’s a section of life that isn’t portrayed in films. That’s how he has explained it to us.

Smith: And he’s right. I think Northwestern is a real insider’s view on — how Mark puts it — someone banging on a basement window looking for a $5 bag of weed. Mark’s always trying to find the beauty in ordinary things, like a guy fixing his bathroom tile. Really boring, mundane things but very real and very Wisconsin. He started making films in Milwaukee, and I’ve never heard him have any desire to work up the ladder to Hollywood. He’s comfortable where he is.

Filmmaker: You feel that he’s trying to build on things he been doing for years, but in your film you also get the sense that time is running out. Money, age, kids…

Price: He has his personal deadlines. When we started filming he was almost 30 and had been drinking a lot of the time and making movies but never finishing them. That eventually caught up with him.

Filmmaker: His relationship with Mike Shank is particularly interesting. Mike is very loyal to him and a good friend, but he’s also an example of what could happen if Mark went a little further with drinking and drugs. It’s a bizarre and sweet relationship.

Smith: It’s interesting to see that Mike is straight now and Mark isn’t. I think Mark is interested in filming what he doesn’t want to become.

Filmmaker: How did you get so close to him?

Smith: Early on in the film, there was this one day where he looked in the camera and said "This isn’t really a movie about making a movie, is it?" That was the only time he addressed the subject and from then on it was pretty much an open door policy for anything. Patience is really a two-way street. He was under incredible stress trying to make his own film, all the while having to deal with us. We spent so much time over at Mark’s parents house, where he was living, that we became a part of the family. When they made dinner they’d make it for us, too. It grew into a really interesting dynamic.

Price: They were also used to having cameras around because of Mark. It made our jobs easier. Mark also had an instant trust with Chris.

Smith: Mark had seen American Job and he trusted that I knew what I was doing. He was willing to go with that for the two years that we filmed.

Filmmaker: Is there a relationship between your American Job and this film?

Smith: It was amazing to see, as we got the film done, the number of similar themes running through both American Job and American Movie – the lottery, crummy jobs and living in the Midwest and trying to get by. American Job is about minimum-wage jobs in middle American and the toll they can take on the people working them. American Movie is about friendship and compassion – a group of people who are trying to get by while also getting something done.

Price: American Movie is also about a person’s sense of mission in life. Mark could have been doing anything. It didn’t have to be filmmaking.

Filmmaker: With this subject in other hands, I could imagine a film that perhaps made fun of Mark and his friends as typical Midwestern losers.

Smith: Our goal with the film was to have people coming out of the theater feeling about Mark the way we feel about him. It’s a complicated relationship, but I think Mark is a good person who is trying to do the best he can given his situation. Sara and I both had a lot of faith in him as a person. I don’t think either one of us would want to spend two years making fun of somebody.

Price: But we also didn’t want to buffer him or sugarcoat him to the audience in any way.

Filmmaker: You showed some scenes on "Split Screen" [producer’s rep John Pierson’s TV show on the Independent Film Channel]. How did that help you?

Smith: We got some money which we bought film stock with. We were still shooting by that point. It was a desperate measure. We were doing anything we could to get film. The amount of money John Pierson can pay is small by TV standards, but when you apply it to a low-budget independent film, it’s a lot. For American Job it would have been half the budget.

Filmmaker: When did C-100 come into the picture?

Smith: Really early. Jim McKay and I were on a panel together, and he was questioning me about the budget for American Job ($14,000). He couldn’t believe you could do a film that low. We got to talking afterwards and got along really well. He fell in love with the footage and immediately started to help us out. He instantly charged film onto his credit card. We were running out of film halfway through scenes. Jim has since come on as co-producer, and we’ve turned over all the business duties to him. It has been so great to work that way. After doing American Job on our own it’s been nice to defer a lot of that work.

Filmmaker: Sundance is screening Coven?

Smith: Yeah, it has its own screening at the Egyptian Theater! We couldn’t get a screening at the Egyptian but Mark can – the irony of it all! But I would prefer him to get that screening. I think it would the best thing to come of all this. Everyone’s going. Mark, his mother, Mike Shank… I don’t think he’s going to be there for business. In the two years we’ve been doing this, I think he’s become wise to the way things operate and what to expect out of certain situations.

Price: But he does plan on bringing a lot of copies of Coven so he can sell them. And Mike’s bringing tapes of his music.

Filmmaker: Is Mike excited that his music is the soundtrack to your film?

Smith: You know, Mike is excited to get some scratch-off tickets. His name is in the Sundance catalog, but I think he could really care less.

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