Stories about filmmakers in their early days have become a part of Hollywood legend. Sam Raimi and his friends got lost in the woods on their first day of shooting The Evil Dead. Kevin Smith sold his comic books and maxed out ten credit cards to finance Clerks. Paul Thomas Anderson dropped out of NYU after only two days and used his college fund to film Cigarettes & Coffee. These stories are charming, funny, and encouraging for aspiring filmmakers. But for every apocryphal story about a celebrity’s climb to the top, there are hundreds of stories about those who didn’t make it. American Movie is one of those stories. Sort of.
In 1996, Mark Borchardt began production on his short film Coven in the working class town of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. The plan was to use Coven to inspire investors to fund Borchardt’s feature film, Northwestern. Documentarian Chris Smith, fresh out of film school, chronicled Mark’s year-long struggle to finish his short against all odds. With only friends, family, and townies to help him finish his film, Mark faced a stoned crew, a stubborn uncle, and stiff cabinetry in this hilarious, yet oddly inspirational documentary.
Filmed five years after the release of Hearts of Darkness, Chris Smith didn’t have the luxury of a famous subject like Francis Ford Coppola to reel in his audience, and yet American Movie is somehow just as engaging. Part of the sadistic humor of the film comes from the fact that Mark and his troupe of amateurs will never make it out of Wisconsin. Their production from start to finish is an inevitable failure, a train wreck in slow motion through which we can only laugh uncomfortably. Subsequent documentaries about failed productions, like Lost in La Mancha and Jodorowksy’s Dune, are about successful filmmakers who, at the end of the day, can rest on their laurels. The Coven team, however, will always be a blip on the radar.
But not for lack of trying. Mark does his best to corral his ragtag team while exuding a sense of professional know-how through his fast-talking auteur persona. The crew can’t seem to keep up with him, so they default to trusting him. But there’s also that Hollywood allure of appearing on film that keeps calling them back. Since no one on the project has any experience, they all end up looking like they’re playing pretend. They’re just playacting how they imagine the movie industry works, making their attempt all the more laughable.
Though there’s a lot of talk about Coven in the documentary, we never actually get a sense of the vision that Mark is working toward; even the crew seems to be kept in the dark. Smith doesn’t supply the audience with a synopsis or a trailer or even any character names. Moreover, you’d have to buy the DVD with Special Features or search YouTube just to see the finished short. As a result, Mark himself seems less focused on the film than on chasing the American dream, and in no uncertain terms. Multiple times he invokes the big “American Dream,” and judging from the looks of Menomonee Falls, you start to believe that this really is his only ticket out, as quixotic as it may be.
If Mark is Don Quixote, bending at the windmills of cinema financing, then Mike Schank must certainly be his Sancho Panza — and not just in looks. Despite all the hot air that Mark musters for attention, we are inevitably drawn to his mysterious and simple-minded best friend. I use “simple-minded” generously, as Mike seems to have literally lost considerable brain cells to underage drinking and drug use. But by the filming of American Movie, he’s sober and chock-full of wise words, able to put Mark’s struggle into perspective as economically and monotonously as possible.
After completing American Movie, Chris Smith went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Mark, on the other hand, failed to gain funding for Northwestern, but the documentary did grant him more than just fifteen minutes of fame. He appeared in a few B-flicks, TV shows, including a run on Late Show with David Letterman as well as a cameo on Family Guy with his good buddy Mike, and now appears in his own web series, Out and About. He never did make it out of Wisconsin, but seemingly by his own volition. One can’t help but think that, had he been born a decade later, he’d use every digital tool available to today’s young filmmakers and would have made it big. And yet, I prefer him just as he is, a townie, untainted by fame, always the hero of Menomonee Falls.