Chris Smith

Perhaps the defining moment of American Movie, director Chris Smith's remarkable documentary about aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt, comes near the end. Recording sound effects as one of the final steps toward a project's completion, Borchardt needs to capture the sound of a man being dragged through muddy woods, so he has a group of friends record the noise made as they actually drag him through the woods. Whether that decision is a sign of commitment or folly is left up to the viewer. Based, as he has been his entire life, in a remote northwest suburb of Milwaukee, Borchardt has been making films since childhood. For the past few years, he's worked on his dream project, Northwestern, a film based on his Milwaukee background. To finance it, Borchardt decided to complete an unfinished short horror film titled Coven (which he pronounces "coa-ven"), to be marketed directly to horror fans. During this two-year process, Smith and producer Sarah Price, using equipment and a budget of only a slightly higher grade than their subject's, followed Borchardt and his circle of family and friends, all of them unlikely filmmakers. These include Mike Schank, Borchardt's musician sidekick, now proudly sober after a drug-darkened past; Borchardt's elderly uncle Bill, a difficult, pessimistic man who might be able to finance his vision; and Borchardt's sweetly supportive mother, who occasionally serves as his camera operator. Smith and Price have made a film in the best tradition of Errol Morris' work, finding a small, unchronicled part of the world and extracting from it something universal. They've also made a funny, unexpectedly moving, extremely effective movie that, if it's not nominated, will indicate a serious flaw in the Academy Awards' new documentary-selection process. The Milwaukee-based Smith, whose previous credits include the film American Job and working with Michael Moore on The Big One, recently spoke to The Onion.

The Onion: Watching your movie, it took me about 20 minutes before I really started to get comfortable with it. I wasn't sure if you were being condescending or not.

Chris Smith: You are not alone. It's anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. Our intention was never to be condescending, and when we finished the final edit, we didn't think it was. But we've accepted the fact that people watch the first 15 minutes and they're on the fence, they're feeling uncomfortable, and they're not sure if they're laughing with them or at them. I think if you watched the film once and then went back and watched the first 10 minutes, you'd look at them totally differently because you know the characters.

O: How did you find Mark Borchardt?

CS: I had done a film called American Job, which went to Sundance in '96. But before that, I was in Iowa working on American Job, where I kind of exhausted my ability to continue working on it. I had graduated college and was doing it using university equipment, but they didn't know I was making the film, and when they shut down over the summer I was without a place to work. We had a visiting artist from Milwaukee and she said, "You've got to come to Milwaukee. It's a great place." I had nowhere else to turn, and I knew there were flatbeds and equipment there. The guy who ran the department [at the University of Wisconsin&shyp;Milwaukee] loved the film. I was up here for about four months, living in the editing room and working where Mark was working when he was doing Coven. And near the end of that process, I have this vivid memory of walking down the hall one day, and the entire cast of Coven was down there with Mike [Schank] and everyone you can see in our film. And I just remembered thinking... It was completely overwhelming to me, this sense of, "I don't even want to know what's going on there." And I mean that in the sense that I had my own problems to deal with, and here's this other group of people making another bad movie, and I didn't know who they were. I just went back in the editing room and shut myself off from it. It was too much to take in because it was Mark and the community that supported him, which has so many characters in the sense of original, genuine people who are unique. His mother has retained her Swedish accent. His uncle is... A lot of people have told me that the people in American Movie seem like these stereotypes of the stoner or the curmudgeon uncle. But I'd never met anyone like Mark and Uncle Bill and Mike. You think you know versions of these people, but this exact group I'd never seen before. Later that summer, Mark was working on Coven in the film department, which is in the basement. So it's very often that people will walk up and sit on the front steps and get some air. It was a sunny day at the end of summer, and Mark and I were both sitting on the front steps. And Mark told me about this film he was going to make. And he had this passion and enthusiasm for the film that just seemed so rare. You see people with a passion to become independent filmmakers, but the way he articulated his vision for what Northwestern would be was just completely intriguing to me. Further along in the conversation, he told me that he and his mom and dad were going up to the Toronto Film Festival, and that he was going up there with three objectives in mind: One was to have lunch with Roger Ebert, two was to make connections, and three was to raise money for Northwestern. After talking to Mark for about 20 minutes, all I remember thinking was that I had no idea whether any of these things would actually happen, but all I knew for sure was I couldn't count him out. Because it seemed like with Mark, anything was possible. It seemed like an exciting thing to film. I hadn't shot anything recently, so for me it was exciting to think, "Wow, I'll just go up for the weekend and make this film, a short film of this guy from the Midwest, kind of an outsider, and his experiences of going to Toronto."

O: And none of that is actually in the final movie.

CS: It was in the movie days before we locked picture. But we felt like other scenes did the same thing, showing Mark as an outsider to the film world at large.

O: How did that trip go?

CS: Mark said somewhere that it was just a drunken haze. And the other quote was that it was "a lot of wanderin' around." It went good and bad. It went badly in the sense that none of the objectives were fulfilled, but it went well in the sense that Mark got energized. He was beaten down in a sense, but he got energized to go back to Milwaukee and make his films his way. He realized that there wasn't this world out there that was ready to embrace him and help him make his films, and if he was going to do it, he was going to have to do it himself.

O: You made American Movie over the course of two years. How much time did you spend with Mark when you were making the film? Did you check in periodically?

CS: The first year was basically event-based. The first nine months were very sporadic. If Mark was doing a casting session, we would show up and film. Later we would check in on Mark in the morning, and unless we were sure it was going to be a completely uneventful day, we would kind of tag along. There were days when we would go and wouldn't film a thing, but we would kind of be with him the entire day. With Mark, you never knew. We got burned a few times, and that's kind of why we developed that pattern. We would talk to him the day before, and he would say, "Oh, nothing's going on tomorrow." And then we'd talk to him the next day and he'd be like, "Oh, Mike Schank was breaking glass on my head." And his whole face would be puffed up and red because he'd been filming the cutaway shots for the drive-in attack in Coven. For him, it had to be real. I was glad we weren't there that day, because if we had I would have told him not to do it. It's a terrible thing to do. There were two or three things that happened like that. There was this woods-attack scene where he had everybody dragging him through the swamp, and it wasn't going well. After eight hours, he figured out that the reason it wasn't going well was because it was fake, so he had everyone try to beat him up for real and drag him through the swamp. After two or three things like that, we decided we couldn't trust him to let us know what was going to happen. Because he just doesn't know. He's a very impulsive person.

O: Did you see any parallels between Mark's group of friends and your own group of filmmakers?

CS: Yes and no. They're both communities based around friendship rather than business. Everyone wants to help on these projects because they believe in what's being done. But in Mark's case, it's more people who believe in Mark, and they want him to achieve his dreams. If Mark wasn't making movies, I don't think his mother, his uncle, or Mike Schank would have been coming downtown trying to find productions to get on.

O: How do you think American Movie will affect Mark's future as a filmmaker?

CS: I think people will be impressed with Mark based on what he was able to cobble together. For us, both Sarah and I feel Mark is a talented filmmaker. I think that's demonstrated to a fair degree in American Movie. I think when you see the scene at the beginning where he's talking about the scarecrows, and he's saying that it's going to be part of the opening credits, and there's going to be this music that's like, "waaooowwaa..." He's telling Mike and the audience what the shot of the scarecrows is going to look like. I think a lot of people are skeptical. They're not sure if he's for real or what he's talking about.

O: But the actual shot is good.

CS: Yeah, that's what I mean. And for us, when you see the montage at the end, for us it answered a lot of questions as far as Mark's ability goes. There's not really enough of Coven to give a sense of what the film is like. I've overheard conversations coming out of American Movie where one guy will say that it's sad, that his movie looks terrible. Then the other guy will be like, "Really? I thought it looked like it would be really good." It's this interesting dynamic where we've never been able to predict who actually thinks Mark has talent and who doesn't. We found that more people than not who actually saw Coven thought it was better than they imagined from watching American Movie. Which I feel a little bit bad about in the sense that I thought it was a fair portrayal. But I still think Coven is what it is. It's a psychological thriller that Mark was making just to get it done, and I think he learned a lot in the process. If you looked at my first film that I created on 16mm, and you put it up to the scrutiny that Coven is going to receive... It was never meant to be reviewed in that way. But Mark's attitude is great. He got some scathing review in Toronto and said in his diary on his web site, "Well, if you get in the ring, man, you've got to take the punches." He's ready for what's to come. I don't think Coven is a disaster. It's a film that shows the promise and talent of a first-time filmmaker.

O: You also don't get a great sense of what Northwestern is about in American Movie.

CS: It's hard. Basically, it's the life-and-times account of his experiences growing up on the northwest side of Milwaukee, documenting the group of friends Mark had that dropped out of school in ninth grade and went on to spend their days drinking and getting into trouble. I grew up in a fairly middle-class environment where the norm was to go through high school and graduate, and then most of the people went on to college. I feel that if Mark can actually get his vision of Northwestern across, he has insights that most people making films don't have, coming from an environment where most of his friends are dead, in jail, or outlawed from Milwaukee or Wisconsin. I don't know what got into Mark at 14 that made it so he had to become a filmmaker, and that to me is strange, to see that a guy from his neighborhood decided to make films. I think that in a lot of ways, American Movie is a version of Northwestern. Originally, we called our film The Making Of Northwestern, and that's the subtitle now. Northwestern is supposed to be about a guy from Mark's neighborhood who's trying to do something else with his life but has all these things weighing him down. In our film, you see Mark, as a guy from his neighborhood, trying to make something of himself. But he has all these external forces and roadblocks: He drinks too much, he's got child support, he's got three kids to try to take care of and spend time with, he's got troubles with his relationship, and he's stuck in his parents' basement with very few resources and very little faith from his immediate surroundings. Everyone is like, "It's great that Mark's trying to fulfill his dream, but do we actually think he's going to be successful? Probably not." There are so many people I know who have turned 25 or 30, who went to art school or film school, who had the intention of going on to do other things. But right now they're just doing their day jobs so they'll have enough money to save up and do what they want to do. I've met people who are 40 years old and have that same attitude. There are so many people who will tell you they're going to make a movie. What's inspiring to me about Mark is that he's someone who was actually making films, and he was going to make it come hell or high water. I don't think you can pinpoint Northwestern with a one-sentence description. It's almost like poetry to me, the way he describes it. I think Mark has this ethereal idea of what Northwestern is, and if he can put it on paper and actually get it on film, it's going to be a really interesting film that will be shown at Sundance and Toronto and get out in theaters. But I think he realizes how difficult it is, and it's very important for him to actually get this world on film accurately.

O: He's right when he says that neighborhoods like his don't get portrayed in films.

CS: Mark has talked about how big an impact Close Encounters had on him, because it was the first time he ever saw a ranch house in a movie. I think that's also what he liked about Night Of The Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that they had an element of realism he didn't find in Hollywood films. I don't see people like Mark and his family in films. You see versions of them. If Mark can get that vision on the screen... For instance, there are so many movies about drug dealers who move $100,000 worth of cocaine through a network. There's a scene in our film that got cut where Mark mentions that Northwestern isn't a film about guys with Uzis in shades; it's about a guy banging on somebody's basement window looking for five dollars of weed. It's about small-time drug dealers on the northwest side of Milwaukee and guys just trying to get by.

O: Is Mike Schank really that serene in person?

CS: He is that serene and he is that calm, but he's actually like... If you ask him a question, he's got an opinion and an intelligent answer. Someone at Sundance was trying to ask Mike if he realizes people are laughing at him. And his answer was really great because he said something like, "Look, we made this movie and we understand why it's funny. We don't have a problem with it and the people who made it don't have a problem with it, so if you're looking down on us, that's your problem." And everyone started cheering and clapping. Somebody at Toronto asked Mark, "Are you familiar with the work of Ed Wood?" And he answered, "Well, I'm familiar with the Johnny Depp flick," and talked about what he thought about that movie. And at the very end he said, "By the way, I know what you're getting at. Just wait for my next movie." They're not stupid. That's why Sarah and I both felt comfortable making the film, because we thought Mark could take care of himself and that they all knew what was going on. We showed them the film first. If they had felt uncomfortable with it, we wouldn't have released it. The relationships we had developed after two years were more important than what the film became.

O: How difficult is it to market American Movie? As a documentary it's tricky to begin with, and while it's funny, there's also a good deal of pathos in it. It looks like you're consciously trying to play up the lighter aspects of the film.

CS: Sony's idea has always been to market it like Wayne's World, and when the audience gets there, they can see what it's really about. At first, we were like, "Wayne's World?" Their attitude is, if we can get people to the theater, that's the bottom line, and what you do with them when they get to the theater is where you specialize. We felt like that was fair. In the end, I think the ad campaign and the marketing has been pretty true to what the film is. If you watch this movie with the audience, there's a lot more outright laughter than you find at most Hollywood comedies. I think the difference is that in the parts in between, Mark hits some pretty low points. In a Hollywood comedy, it's basically just a matter of keeping it running as light as you can and having these points where people are "hysterical."

O: Mark's drinking plays a major part in the film. Do you think that's under control now? Or do you think it was ever out of control?

CS: I think it goes in spurts. I think the drinking is in control sporadically. He hits these bouts where the stress of everything hits him and it's his escape. I think if drinking did for me what it does for him, I would probably be an alcoholic. It puts him on a plane that allows him to escape the pressures of daily life. Mark has a lot of external forces where it would be much easier to go into the factory and send the check to child support every week. Where he's coming from, trying to make films is a lot harder... One comparison I always make is that we maxed out nine credit cards and ended up $28,000 in debt. But we were in the position where we could get credit. It just wasn't an option for Mark. He had to do it the way you see it unfold in American Movie. One aspect of the film that you don't see that I think is a little bit misleading is that after the Super Bowl scene, where he was drunk, he pretty much drank only two or three times from then to the end of Coven, which was five or six months. He hits this period where he kind of hits bottom and then goes head-on into doing what he wants to do. He quit for four months while he was working in the factory. He would work during the day in the factory and go home and work on the script at night. He goes in spurts where he's able to quit for months on end, but I think there are periods when he kind of drops off and ends up drinking more than he should. I think it's unfortunate that he's got to do one or the other. Mike Schank, on the other hand, has been clean and sober for four years. I think you have to do what's right for yourself, and I think Mark understands that drinking is counterproductive. It's a thing [Borchardt] tries to moderate, and I think he does it to a 90% success rate. But as bad as things got when he was making Coven, the next morning he would always wake up, buy a large cup of coffee at SuperAmerica, and get back out there. Sarah and I both thought his resilience is what most impressed us. What we hope people will take away from American Movie is a story that's inspirational. It was inspiring for us to see Mark persevere in trying to make his film.

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