'American Movie' -- the real sequels

CATCHING UP WITH ... CHRIS SMITH AND MARK BORCHARDT

Filmmakers are enjoying a little fame. They're still working on the fortune.

February 13, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

It's been almost one year to the day since Chris Smith's "American Movie" took grand jury honors for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

You might expect that kind of exposure would catapult the film's principals into stardom -- in Smith's case, into the kind of fame and fortune every young director dreams of; in the case of Mark Borchardt, the struggling filmmaker Smith chronicles in "American Movie," into a production deal for the movie he so desperately wants to make.

So did 1999 change everything for the two young men? Yes and no.

It was unsettling recently to be given, not just a cell phone number for Smith, but one with the dreaded 310 (read: Los Angeles) area code. But fans of Smith -- who at 29 is already emerging as a remarkably observant and humane champion of the common man -- will be relieved to know that he hasn't gone Hollywood.

"I'm doing a commercial for Pacific Bell with a budget of five times what our movie cost," he explained from his hotel room last week. "It's the first commercial I've done, and it's been a year since Sundance, so I wouldn't call it an immediate fallout."

Smith added he's enjoying the change of pace. "It's the type of thing where you work a few jobs a year between features, and it's good because it keeps you shooting," he said. "But then again, on the flip side, it would be easy to lose sight of what you really want to be working on, because the money's really good."

A struggling filmmaker

"American Movie" (currently playing at the Charles Theatre) traces the inspirations and tribulations of Borchardt, a struggling filmmaker living in Menomonee Falls, Wis., whom Smith followed for two years. Borchardt, now 33, was trying to make what he hoped would be his life's achievement: a drama called "Northwestern," the script of which Borchardt was agonizing over when Smith caught up with him.

Realizing that he needed more money to realize his vision for the film, Borchardt decided to resuscitate an abandoned project -- a cheap slasher flick called "Coven" -- and sell it as a video to fund his next film.

"American Movie" traces the director's tortured and circuitous journey, along the way documenting with extraordinary grace and compassion the web of family and friends that supports Borchardt's quixotic journey.

If "American Movie," which recently opened in eight cities, has created new revenue streams for Smith, it has been both a boon and a bane to Borchardt, who spoke between filling orders for "Coven" (available via www. americanmovie. com). In "American Movie," Borchardt estimates that, at $14.95 a copy, he needs to sell 3,000 copies of the video to reach his goal. So far, he and his mother have filled orders for 1,700.

"What with 'Coven' orders and merchandise, it's a full-time job, but what's great about that is, man, by next week I'll be caught up," Borchardt said, his voice rising to the fulminatory tones that give "American Movie" so much of its impassioned verve. "Too, socially, man, everybody comes out of the woodwork, but I'm not going to let nobody rob my time. ... What am I? Man, I'm 33! For 30 years I've been socializing! I've gotta make another film here!"

Still humble

Borchardt has been approached by David Letterman to cover the Wisconsin primaries in April and after the talk show host recovers from open-heart surgery. And while doing publicity for "American Movie" for eight weeks last year, he had his share of meetings with the New York and L.A. types most independent filmmakers would sell their mother to stand next to in an elevator. But Borchardt's head is not turned.

"I think they said Einstein could retain a single thought for three seconds or so because of his concentrative powers," Borchardt said in a typically rambling digression. "I don't think I've entertained a thought of Hollywood for more than a split second. And with all that's happened this year, going to New York and L.A. and meeting people there, the idea of not having anything to do with it has just been solidified. It's just foolishness! I can't be involved with that -- unless they give me money up front to make my movie."

Borchardt is on the fifth draft of "Northwestern," which is about a man working at a junkyard who writes his way out of a dead-end lifestyle. But, just as in "American Movie," he is still dissatisfied with the way "Northwestern" is going. "I'm not at all happy with it," he admitted bitterly. "But it takes time to get into the world of a film. That's why I'm working this weekend on these 'Coven' orders."

Once caught up on "Coven" business, Borchardt intends to begin scouting locations and looking for cars for the production. "I'm trying to make it as real as possible," he explained. "This is like a poem. To me, this is art I want to do."

"Keeping myself open"

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