“American Movie,” the alternately hilarious and touching new documentary, involves two sets of filmmakers. First there’s the team of director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price, who spent four years shooting and editing the picture. And then there’s their subject, Milwaukee native Mark Borchardt, a self-taught, blue-collar guerilla moviemaker whose obsession to complete a horror short called “Coven” (pronounced “Coh-ven” for artistic effect) forms the subject of Smith’s story.
Smith met Borchardt while both were using the film facilities at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and eventually became fascinated with him. “I would never have tried to make a film about independent filmmaking–that’s like, you know, putting a gun to your head,” Smith said in a recent interview. “It’s a terrible idea for a movie, and I think everybody feels that way.”
But eventually Smith persuaded himself to record the story of Mark’s obsessive drive to complete “Coven” and use revenues from selling 3000 copies of it to undertake the project he really wanted to shoot, a coming-of-age, somewhat autobiographical feature to be called “Northwestern.”
“The idea was, we’ll follow Mark for six months and make the movie,” Smith said. But the project went on to include two years of shooting and two more of post-production work. The result, Smith said, “wasn’t just about filmmaking. It was about Mark and his family and friends, and the community that they’re part of.”
Borchardt, in a separate interview, spoke of the fame that has now come his way through the release of Smith’s documentary. “I’m very grateful and very blessed and lucky that happened,” he admitted. “But there ain’t no ‘American Movie’ without me and Mike [Schank, his closest friend and most dedicated helper]. You’ve got to come to terms with the fact that it’s a very opportune meeting of the waters, man.”
Borchardt was glad to be touring to talk about “American Movie,” but his particular goals at the moment are to sell copies of the completed “Coven” (available through the picture’s eclectic website at and actually to make his long-cherished project, “Northwestern.”
He actually fills all the orders for “Coven” (some 400 copies of which have already been bought) by himself. “Look, man,” he explained, “people pay fifteen bucks for them. I want to make sure the covers are cut right, the labels are put on right. And every time I got some assistant I’d look over and they were drinking vodka or something like that. I was like, ‘Look, no way, man. These people are paying money. I want to have something good come to these guys.’ So I fill ’em out myself, yeah.”
And as for “Northwestern,” he intends to begin shooting next spring, though the prospect is somewhat daunting.. “I can’t really wait to get back to Milwaukee and just live my own life and start my film,” he said. “That’s really the most important thing to me, man–to go back home and start that film. I’ve been working on it since 1984 and I just think it’s a special treat to be still alive and to be able to go back home and do that. ‘Northwestern’ is my film of films in my heart and mind. [But] I’m in the middle of the fifth draft, and I’m really scared, ’cause I’ve got to start shooting early next year. It’s about real people and all of that stuff. You can’t make that up and you can’t write that on a blank piece of paper and make up what people are thinking and live their lives. I really want to make a good film, but I’m trapped, man–’cause I’ve got to make a good film but you can’t just do it, it takes time–so what a dilemma! But no matter what, it’ll take a couple of years and it will all turn out. I’ll do the best I can, man.”
Meanwhile buddy Mike Schank, a guitarist who’s helped Borchardt with his films for twelve years, sat nearby, smoking and answering an occasional query of his own. When asked whether he could recall appearing in one of Borchardt’s early slasher flicks, “The More The Scarier III,” Schank admitted, “I don’t know. I did a lot of cocaine and acid at the time, so I wasn’t all there mentally, I don’t think.” He added: Worst move I ever made was going to see Cheech and Chong live. That got me started wanting to use drugs.” But Schank’s been clean and sober for four years
now, and is learning to play Bach on his guitar, as well as writing his own songs.
Still, it’s no wonder that when Borchardt was asked whether the footage he’d shot for an early, incomplete version of “Northwestern” years ago would be incorporated into his upcoming picture, he said no: “No flashbacks. I’ll leave that to Mike.”