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Chris Smith's 1999 documentary American Movie introduced the world to tenacious Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt, an irrepressible, magnetic outsider hell-bent on finishing his forever-in-the-works feature debut, Northwestern. During the course of American Movie, Borchardt decides to finish his low-budget horror short Coven instead. A sort of heartwarming comedy of errors, American Movie was criticized by some for a perceived condescension toward its subjects; filmmaker Todd Solondz directly questioned its ethics in his 2001 film Storytelling, even casting Borchardt's friend and sidekick Mike Schank in a small role. But those made uneasy by the film's portrait miss its natural humor and humanity: Both Smith and Borchardt know that the latter is an unusual character. Borchardt himself doesn't seem to care what people think, and he's driven to finish his movie regardless. In addition to working on his pet project, he's since acted in other people's films (including a cameo in the big-budget action movie The One), begun work on a comedic horror film starring himself and Schank, and started writing poetry. From his current home base of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, Borchardt spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Northwestern, his side projects, and "the goal of self-control."
The Onion: What was the immediate fallout for you after American Movie?
Mark Borchardt: Because of American Movie, the eyes of the media saw me, and because you are known and because you're in a motion picture, you become a commodity. People want you in their films, and people want to interview you. Let's say there's a hundred drunks on Wisconsin Avenue, and they all fall flat on their face on a Friday night. Rosie O'Donnell's crew comes by, arbitrarily picks one of 'em and puts him on the show, and says, "Hey, Joe, why'd you fall flat on your face on Friday night?" That Tuesday morning, that drunk is a celebrity, a commodity, for doing nothing other than being arbitrarily picked by Rosie O'Donnell. He's still absolutely no different than those other hundred drunks on the street.
O: So you're a little cynical about your taste of fame?
MB: My career is my life. I really don't care about outside events. That's just like winning the lottery or manna from heaven. My career is not in the entertainment field; my career is the goal of self-control. It's opened me up to film projects, made me known. If I write something, people will want to take a look at it. A lot of people have asked if I want an agent to aggressively seek projects, and I've said "No," because I've got my own life to live. It was never my goal to pursue a career as a filmmaker, and I've had many opportunities, many offers, and I'm still walking on the sidewalk here in Wisconsin, headed to the Liquor Lodge. But I'm in control, baby.
O: What would you be doing today, or for the last two years, if American Movie had never happened?
MB: I always think about that. Let's go back a little bit. Before American Movie, I won a Milwaukee Art Futures fellowship, got 3,000 bucks off that, for making Coven. I never was with the artsy crowd, so that came as a total shock, and kind of started bringing me into the fold of that world. It's just a fascinating question, man. I have an energy, so something would have happened to elevate me out of the doldrums of the regular life anyway. Coven would've kept creeping, kept getting into the tentacles of magazines, all that stuff. I started getting reviews off of it long before American Movie. Something still would have happened, man. Not at this scale, of course, but something along those lines in a more microcosmic sense. Nonetheless, I would have ultimately achieved my happiness. So American Movie is a major event, but it's not a defining event by any means whatsoever. I redefine and define myself, man. Because remember, it can't make me write one word better, it can't motivate me any more, or anything like that. It's a blessing, we all worked hard on it, it paid off, and now it's 2002, walking down this sunny sidewalk.
O: How do you feel about it as a movie? Do you ever watch it?
MB: No. I was so involved with the process that I never show it to people, and I never mention it, only during interviews and all of that stuff. Otherwise, it's something that occurred years ago. I'm proud of what went into it, but I don't go bandying it about.
O: When American Movie ends, you're about to make Northwestern.
MB: I've been working on that since '84, so that's 18 years now. I have no obligation to do anything, man, but breathe. But I have a sincere feeling that I'll be shooting it this fall, because I'm almost done with the fifth draft now, and it's just one of those things. I'm working on it. When you came over today, I was working on the script. I don't care about making a movie, but I care about making a good movie that's spiritually satisfying.
O: Can you elaborate on what it's actually about?
MB: On the surface, dramatically, it's about this dude working in a junkyard who literally writes his way out of it. It's not autobiographical by any means, but it deals with the phenomenon of coming from nowhere and doing something with your life without going through a pattern-istic set of circumstances, such as graduating from high school, going to college, getting a job, working your way up a so-called ladder. It's coming out of nowhere, out of anywhere, and achieving what you want to achieve by the sheer brute force of self-motivation and self-delight. It's like cinéma vérité, where I'm trying to make the dialogue as real as possible. At the same time, I'm shooting it like a very stylized film, with great care in all of the camera angles and that. So there's a great irony in the juxtaposition about how it is framed, compared to what's in the frame. I'm making a very stylized film, and yet the dialogue and characters should be pretty real. I'm trying to avoid using any actors at all. I don't want their looks, I don't want their dramatic mannerisms or anything like that. It's like still photographs. When we want to go to Appalachia and take photos of the hillbillies, we don't hire Hollywood actors, because that just wouldn't cut it. This film is a motherfucking poem, man! It's not a piece of canned dramatics. I've got people who wanted to get involved with it financially, and all of that. They see it as a commercial vehicle that needs to be altered. Instead of black and white, they want color. I stopped negotiating with them. It's like a poem, dude: "My girlfriend punched me in my right eye, broke the glass coffee table." That can't be altered. No one co-writes that with you.
O: Do you have a clear picture of Northwestern in your mind?
MB: I'm working on it, because one thing I understand is that when you're actually shooting a film, you lose almost all control. Instead of this fantasy you've created in the script, you have real people to deal with, real weather to deal with, real technical challenges to deal with. So the best bet is to have it as well-prepared as possible beforehand, because once you're on the set, you basically lose control of your vision. I'm trying to work on blocking the shots, the lighting, all of that stuff, way beforehand. I'm not interested in Hollywood films or independent films. People always think that I'm this independent filmmaker, and I sure as hell am not, man. I make personal films, and that's completely different than independent. Independent is no different than Hollywood. Independent is just using a little less money and a little more quirky material, that's all.
O: What else do you want to say about Northwestern?
MB: Unless it's during an interview, I can't communicate what Northwestern is about, because it's unfathomable. Filmmakers generally make movies about movies. Rarely are they inspired by their own lives or real life in front of them. They can never describe their film without immediately in the next sentence making reference to other films or other types of media. They're all making homages to someone other than themselves, and I cannot stomach that. It makes me want to vomit. Northwestern is my fantasy, my experiences, and there are no references to any other films or any other type of media. When people make films about white-collar people or blue-collar people, they just use caricatures. Like, if it's a blue-collar guy, they'll put a yellow helmet on him or put a beer in his hand. Someone observed that in film, people don't even drink beer properly. The sip is so quick that you realize it is completely unrealistic. John Cassavetes strayed away from trying to use people as chess pieces, and he tried to make them seem alive, which Hollywood films do not. Northwestern is about a particular neighborhood, environment, and ideology from when I was growing up, which is foreign to most people. I've had some people from Hollywood approach me: It wasn't flippant offers, but people that go out of their way to say, "Look, we're interested in doing this." But I know that if I would accept that... Laying in my grave, a tear would roll down the side of my face, knowing I never really did what I needed to do. There's no amount of money or anything that could ever be worth that. Doing anything Hollywood would only be for the ego, would only be for the women, and for the money. But since I'm married, the women thing is out, so there's now nothing that can be provided by Hollywood at all. What good is the ego if you can't have women?
O: But you've done some Hollywood things.
MB: I acted in a new film called Britney, Baby, One More Time, and I did it for the money. It paid rent and child support. I got a decent check, and Mike and I star in it. I didn't really give a damn what the film is about, as long as it's not debasing to anybody or to anybody's ideology. I'll do it, and I do it for the money. I don't do it like, "I'm an actor!" I'm a human being, and I'm getting paid. I don't go to a factory for its aesthetic virtue; I go to get that check on Friday. I did a small cameo in The One with Jet Li. I've got a movie called Samhain coming up with the porn stars Ginger Lynn [Allen] and Jenna Jameson and what's-his-name, Richard Grieco from 21 Jump Street. Again, I'm doing that for the money, not for any aesthetic longing or anything like that. All of it actually becomes material for some work I'm doing for another film, because its real value in my life is that it shows me a different world and becomes another work. Like, Northwestern was a particular experience at a particular time, and with this other thing I'm doing, it's all of this other experience. I'm not going to let it go to waste, I'm going to use it. There's so much interest in the Mark-and-Mike connection that we're working on the Mark And Mike Comedy-Horror Movie. There is actually backing there, where are waiting to put money into it. I just have to keep working on the script. Mike and I also just did a featurette for the Jason X DVD release, where we talk about the Friday The 13th series. Mike's in there saying he likes to see the nice-looking girls get killed, and wishes they'd take off their clothes more, and all of that stuff. When Mike overdosed, he lacked the ability to be clever like me and you. We speak in metaphors, and we're very kind about our questions and our answers, but Mike Schank basically says things bluntly and truthfully. So I think that when he's interviewed, that makes it interesting, because he's able to be quite frank where most people are more guarded, and customize their responses and thoughts.
O: What's your dream for your finished film?
MB: No, no, no, my friend, the dream in my mind is self-control. And self-control brings alleviation of debt, peace of mind, and ultimate happiness. This is not a fantasia we're talking about. This is our lives. My dream... I'm just about there. My dream is not to be on some damn beach with an umbrella in my drink. That's not my dream, my friend. My dream is to be content and in control. I never felt like I had to fight the world. I've always been my own worst enemy, and that's one hell of a fight. My films and writing are an exploration of my existence and a heartfelt thank-you for my existence to whoever or whatever has given me life and this great blessing. My whole thing was never to get into any business, or to be like anyone or anything. My life is a sheer blessing, and I'm just trying to complement and explore it through my work.
O: Are you going to make the whole thing with your own money, then?
MB: Yeah, because it really doesn't take that much money. That's another myth. Of course, it ultimately does, but once you have the film shot, there'll always be completion money. And with completion money, the damn thing's already shot, and they can't alter what's in the frame.
O: A lot of press you've gotten paints you as a dreamer, implying that you'll never finish.
MB: Absolutely. Some of the damage that can occur when you do a lot of dreaming is that all of a sudden, real life slips by. But I think I've invested enough time in the writing and conceiving of this that I'm gonna be doing all right, man. That's another thing, too: All of these little filmmakers or artistes all search to be accepted by somebody else, and since I've already accepted myself, I don't need anyone else's approval, ever. Never be so modest that you want to make another person puke. When you see a prizefighter in the ring, do you see him with his head down, saying, "He's a good fighter, too, and who knows if I'll win"? Have you ever heard a prizefighter talk like that? Hell, no. Making a film is such a vast struggle, this kind of aesthetic war, that you have to have confidence. We don't want that confidence to bleed into arrogance, but we do need full-blooded confidence, and that's what many people lack. They're so pathetically damn modest. And they don't inspire anyone to do anything, God help 'em.
O: Are you hard on yourself? Do you end up throwing a lot of writing away?
MB: Physically, I throw nothing away. Do I throw the material and concept away? Almost all of it. Almost all of the dialogue I write is garbage. About 95 percent is humiliatingly laughable. I'm trying to write realistic dialogue, and only real people can speak in realistic ways, so I'm just trying to emulate them and get a little bit of a blueprint. I would never show you my notebooks, because you'd laugh all the way home. I have written some decent stuff, but to try and write for five or seven people ain't gonna work, so I go back to my old neighborhood in Milwaukee and actually do field research. I get some of the most beautiful, intriguing dialogue, and incidents that I could never, ever conceive. We went over by my old neighborhood a couple weeks ago, picked up a couple friends, ran into some other friends, drank over a case of Pabst, and just had a really good time. We had to stuff one of the guys into the car because he refused to go, but we got him back home. I got a lot of material for the film. When I was delivering newspapers and living in my parents' basement, I wanted to get the hell out of that neighborhood in Milwaukee. I used to deliver papers out in the Falls, and I'd say, "Someday, I'm going to live out here," and everyone laughed at me. And dude, check it out now. Let me point out to you the green grass, the beautiful trees, the beautiful homes, the water, the rock bed right there, the gazebo, the beer in hand, talking to you. You see? I did it.
O: Do your friends feel like you're taking notes on them?
MB: A lot of them are not even aware of it. At least a couple of 'em are so alcoholically, permanently inebriated that concepts like that just don't occur. They're just having a good time, and they don't realize that I'm taking it all in. This is a really interesting thing, because people think that I would hang around with filmmakers and talk about film and that, but I swear to God, when I hang out with people like that, I wanna shoot myself in the head. When I'm with my friends from back in Milwaukee, it's the greatest thing of all, because they're not aware of the media or anything like that. They're into what's happening that very second as they drink. Otherwise, everyone is involved with dreams and the media, and it's boring. It makes you want to vomit and commit an early death, man.
O: You like to have a little distance between yourself and the material, though, right?
MB: If I lived in Milwaukee, I could never get anything done. There'd be people at the door on a daily basis. And because of the drinkingthose dudes start partying in the morningit would be so destructive. I have a sense of survival and I know myself, so it's very good to be isolated like this, where people can't get at you.
O: That seems like part of your story and the Northwestern storyyou're part of it, and yet you're separated and trying to get out of it.
MB: That's interesting that you said that, because that's the way the script is turning out. You do the field research for years and actually become involved yourself, but there's a point where you have to displace yourself from the situation, so you can actually think about the experience and record it and cultivate it. Because if you're in the experience, you really can't do anything about it creatively until you get away from it and reflect back on it, you know? The basic premise is that you go in, do additional field research, come back out, and put it in the script. But to live there and actually get the thing done properly would be next to impossible.
O: What was your take on Todd Solondz's film Storytelling?
MB: I liked Storytelling a lot. I think that it was very well-written. I know that there are people who find the film mediocre or don't think much of it, but I think highly of it. Of course, people thought Storytelling was making a mockery of my efforts, because they had this guy doing a documentary, but I don't think [the film] was trying to be exploitative. I think people, when they see my character in American Movie... And I will call it a character, because once the camera's on, everyone changes. So they go and see American Movie, and this guy Mark is not the perfect human being. In fact, he doesn't have a regular job, he has these desires that are beyond normalcy, such as making films and that. So when they see a film being made about him, they feel like, "We're exploiting this erratic character," and some of the audience becomes rather... I don't know what it is. They think, "I'm glad I'm not like him. I'm a normal human being." So if a person makes a film about a character like that, they must be exploiting him for entertainment. That never was the case with American Movie, because I was who I am, amped up a little bit because the camera was rolling. Also, that was a particular circumstance in my life where I was in a desperate situation, making this film Coven, so I was acting a little desperate and erratic. It just went with the territory at the time. So when I read reviews of Storytelling and some people thought that it was a sinister allegory to American Movie, I said, "No way, man." There's nothing wrong with American Movie, and there's nothing wrong with Storytelling. Nobody was exploited, or anything like that. It just went above and beyond the arena of normalcy, and if I was a normal person, they never would've made a documentary about me.
O: So you recently moved into writing poetry?
MB: Along with film, writing, and music, I've always been very interested in poetry. This is where I've differentiated myself from other people: I've always thought that life was a beautiful gift. There are all of these ways you can complement your life, whether it's drawing, or writing, or music. These wonderful complements would extend your inner thoughts, your feelings, your emotions, and your experiences. Poetry to me is a bad definition of what I do, but ultimately that is the only definition we have for these short, short stories. I was seeing so many bits of dialogue, so many events just blowing past me that I wished I could have recorded and brought to life. So the poetry is the ability to capture smaller bits of dialogue and experience. Dude, I'm not trying to have a goatee or a black beret or nothing like that, with a quill pen. It's just a way to capture shorter bits of dialogue, experience, feelings, and thoughts. I began a couple months ago seriously doing it, and I will obviously now do it for the rest of my life.
O: Where does that outlook come from? American Movie certainly gives the impression that you weren't encouraged to pursue your artistic side. Did you get a lot of "you can't do that" growing up?
MB: My friend, that's all I faced. I had to do this: It wasn't an ideology, like I wanted to rebel. It was always in my blood, always in my soul, to express myself. There was no running away from it. I was born with this instinct, for whatever reason. I can even remember back to 5 years old. The second I audibly expressed my interest in using my life as a form of expression, I got condemned and ridiculed from every angle. There was absolutely no room in my environment for any self-expression whatsoever. I turned to drinking and all of that stuff, but the fire within would never cease, so I've pursued it and made good of it. There was no appreciation or acceptance for it whatsoever. It was like, "How dare you try to be different?" In my mind, I said, "Bullshit, you will not break me." I was never broken.
O: How long was it before people started accepting it as viable?
MB: At the age of 14, I got my first Super-8 movie camera and started making films. I went into the Army when I was 17, drank the next three years away, and got out when I was 20. I wasted more years drinking vodka on a daily basis, blacking out and all that stuff. In late '93, I realized that my life was getting nowhere, and I had to do something to change it. I was living in my parents' basement, getting drunk every day. I decided to get out of the situation. I started writing Coven and started filming it in May of '94, and there was a certain energy. There were many people that came to help, came to act in it, and a great energy started. I became a tornado, and there was such force that people were either blown out of the way or sucked into what was happening. When I would speak about something, people would condemn and ridicule, but when I actually started doing it and they saw tangible evidence, they were all on board. God says it himself, or somebody says it, "Ye of little faith." That's all it comes down to. These aren't my dreamsI dream at night. I work during the day, and I make these things happen.