Q&A: Chris Smith of American Movie
The filmmaker looks back at the documentary on its 10th anniversary
It’s been 10 years since American Movie was the hit of the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category. Following Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he tries to make an independent movie on a shoestring budget, American Movie struck a chord with anyone who’s had a dream and only limited means to make it come true. Director Chris Smith has stayed busy since American Movie, making the documentaries American Home and The Yes Men, and winning another Sundance award for The Pool, which took home the Special Jury Prize for drama at the 2007 festival. Smith recently shared his memories of American Movie with Decider before Thursday’s 10th anniversary screening at the Oriental Theatre.
Decider: How did you meet Mark Borchardt?
Chris Smith: I think it was in 1995. I had come to Milwaukee from Iowa to edit American Job. I was working down at UW-Milwaukee and it was summer, and it seemed that Mark was the only other person down there. And it was in the basement, so basically, if you didn’t go upstairs you didn’t see the sun all day, and consequently, you’d end up taking breaks going out to get fresh air. Because Mark was the only other person working down there, we’d sort of end up talking just because there was no one else to talk to. Through those conversations he told me he was going up to the Toronto Film Festival to try and make connections to make his next film. The way that he described the trip sounded incredibly interesting to me, so I asked him if it would be alright if I tagged along and filmed his journey there.
D: Was he making Northwestern or Coven at that time?
CS: At that time he was making both, but he told me he was making Northwestern. In the beginning when I started talking to him, he was talking about making this film Northwestern.
D: What was your first impression of Borchardt?
CS: Upon first meeting him, Mark had a very overwhelming presence. We’re going back a ways, so it’s hard to remember someone how you first saw them. I will say that there were probably some stereotypes I put on Mark when I first met him, and I think what made me want to make the film was that he broke every one of them as I got to know him better. When you first meet him, you think he’s some stereotypical horror film fanatic who’s just interested in blood and gore. As you get to know him, you realize there's so much more to him—cinematically from a film perspective, and as a human being. He’s very well-versed in cinema, but the fact that he had three kids at the time I met him, worked with his family and friends, and was very close with his parents, and he took care of his uncle who was quite a bit older, it was those things that continued to keep us interested in making a film about him, because they weren’t things that were apparent on the surface level.
D: There’s a scene in American Movie where it’s Thanksgiving, and Mark turns to the camera and asks “What do you think, man?” and you say “About what?” Then he rips into a turkey leg and the scene cuts out. What was going through your head at that moment?
CS: I think I felt bad for Mark. He had a lot he was trying to juggle and it was all coming out through drinking. He was struggling and really trying to make something out of his life, and he was having a lot of challenges at that time, and dealing with it partially by drinking. I felt bad for him because I really cared for Mark, and you want people you care about to do well, so that was challenging. During that we really tried to stay impartial and not get involved or affect what was happening.
D: Have technological advances like digital recording phased out the indie filmmaker culture that was shown in American Movie?
CS: People are still shooting on film, but on a documentary or an independent film, it definitely makes more sense to shoot on digital, just because it’s economically more feasible and it’s much easier to manage and use. So I think those days are over in a lot of ways. Mark and I both grew up with an appreciation of film, and we’re committed to it from an artistic standpoint. I think as time has gone on, the practicality of the whole thing, for me, making a documentary I would definitely choose to shoot on digital next time. But we just did an independent film in India that we shot on 35mm film. I think it’s sort of a case-by-case basis, but on a purely independent level and from an economic point-of-view, digital makes the most practical sense.
D: Is it true that you sold American Movie to Sony for $1 million?
CS: Well, we didn’t actually sell it for $1 million. That’s what’s been reported, so I’ll leave it at that.
D: I read that on that IMDB.com—
CS: I never mentioned it, so I don’t know where that figure came from. I really don’t think that’s anyone’s business. I tried to get them to fix it but they don’t want to. It kind of doesn’t matter ultimately, but I can tell you it wasn’t for $1 million. It was less than that. If people want to believe that, it’s fine.
D: What else stands out from the 1999 Sundance Festival?
CS: It stands out in that it was a really great experience in the sense that we went into the festival with a very low profile and it was one of these things were people started seeing the film and reacting to it very positively and it sort of built over the week. Everyone that worked on the film—Mark and Mike Schank and a number of people from Milwaukee—came out, and it was really rewarding to see something you put that much work into get that kind of attention.
D: How do you see American Movie fitting in with your overall body of work?
CS: It’s one of the more ambitious projects. It’s something I feel very proud to have worked on. I think it really documented a time and a place. I feel lucky that I ended up in Milwaukee at that time, and to meet Mark and capture what was happening. With everything that I work on, I just try and follow my instincts and find things that are interesting to me. In general, I find characters or people that have some enigmatic qualities that draw you in, and the unique ways they look at the world. Those are the people that I find the most interesting in life, and it’s something that I try to do with all my films, just so audiences can see what I see interesting with those people.