American Movie
directed by Chris Smith
(Columbia TriStar, 1999)

All you aspiring filmmakers, take note: Get thee to a video store and pick up a copy of American Movie. Watch it. Watch it again.

It's a documentary, a record with an eye for the telling detail, about the efforts of one filmmaker, Wisconsinite Mark Borchardt, to bring his dream movie to the screen. Watch American Movie to learn what faces you if you're not, say, Tori Spelling, with a father willing to bankroll your career. Watch to see what kind of dedication it takes, and what kind of sacrifices your family and friends are making for you to realize your passion. But, just as much, watch to learn from producers Sarah Price and Chris Smith, who follow Borchardt with a mix of frustration and affection, as he stumbles around the filmmaking process.

Borchardt is one of those guys whose skills sometimes are thwarted by his love of the bottle, by his abrasiveness, by his refusal to pursue anything but his cinematic dreams. His three kids, who live with their fed-up mother and her new boyfriend, interact with Daddy through movie-making. His father and uncle have bankrolled him for years. His mother wields the camera when no one else is available. He is, in fact, his own best subject.

A little background: Borchardt, several years ago, started on a 35-minute black-and-white short, Coven. It sits unfinished until he needs to complete it and earn some money from it to finance Northwestern, the film he's always meant to make. So, even though American Movie is subtitled The Making of Northwestern, this is more about the blood and bucks that go into Coven.

Lots of the bucks belong to Uncle Bill, a man with nearly $300,000 in the bank, saved dime by dime. He's a cantankerous, sometimes addled old guy who gets his name listed as "producer" and delivers Coven's opening line in exchange for his patronage -- patronage finally pried loose when Borchardt shows him photos of young women who are auditioning for the film. Even as he's loaning the money, he's ridiculing the idea he'll get anything back.

Lots of the time and manpower come from friends of Borchardt's, including buddy Mike Schank, who provides much of American Movie's soundtrack. He's in some ways the quiet heart of the movie, and very often unintentionally roll-on-the-floor hilarious. After a youth spent in drug-and-alcohol haze, Schank's trying to stay sober -- without much help from an ecstatic or depressed Borchardt.

Nobody really thinks Borchardt has what it takes to be successful -- not his parents, his brothers, his Uncle Bill or, in his darker moments, himself. But he keeps at it, rewriting scenes while he sits in his car at the local airport (few distractions), and bemoaning his writer's block: "There's some corny dialogue that would make the pope weep," he despairs. When auditions roll around, it's not much better. "They're making a theatrical mockery of my words, man," he complains to Schank. And he's more than a little panicked when the time comes to start filming Coven: He spends the night before "sucking down peppermint Schnapps and calling Morocco at 2 in the morning."

Smith and Price handle it all without once ridiculing Borchardt's insecurities, and events like the Thanksgiving dinner Borchardt hosts for Uncle Bill and his friends are heartwarming in an uncontrived way. And they handle family tensions with a deft touch, acknowledging the strained Borchardt relationships but never exploiting them. Infuriating as he can be, the garrulous, drinking, swearing, stubborn Borchardt has the single-mindedness someone needs to overcome his odds. "This time," he says, "it's important not to just drink and dream, but rather to create and complete." From what we know of its production values, it's surprising when we do see a bit of Coven at its premiere: There's lots of blood, but it's hardly the schlock you almost expect it to be.

Producer Smith met Borchardt in film school at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and both Coven and American Movie played at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. American Movie won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, and Sony snapped up the rights for $1 million. No word yet on distribution of Coven, but you can get your own copy (and help finance Northwestern) through

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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