INTERVIEW: "American Movie"'s Mark Borchardt, An Inspiration for Filmmakers Everywhere
by Amy Goodman
Chris Smith, Sarah Price, and Mark Borchardt are on a tight schedule. In mid-October, they swooped into Manhattan at the very beginning of a dizzying, one month-long, twenty-city publicity tour to promote “American Movie,” the documentary portrait that won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film for somewhere between $750,000 and just shy of one million dollars.
In the modest melee of a documentary press tour, indieWIRE grabbed interviews with director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price, as well as with the subject of “American Movie,” the one and only aspiring filmmaker, Mark Borchardt. Borchardt is accompanying the filmmakers on their grueling press tour because he is as disarmingly charismatic in real life as he is. . . well, in real life on screen. “American Movie” is about Mark’s passionate desire to be a filmmaker and make his movies, while living an otherwise minimum wage existence in his hometown, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
At Sundance, Mark was a flash of the purest desire for artistic integrity in a town full of comparative darkness; he reflected the filmmaking audiences’ innocent, film-loving, sellout-hating side, and his story was a big hit. While we decipher our own opinions of characters in documentaries, it is always revelatory to find out what the subjects think of their portrayal. Here’s what Mark has to say on independent film, his goatee, the American dream, his short horror film “Coven” and struggling to make his debut feature “Northwestern.”
indieWIRE: Do you like what Chris has done…
Mark Borchardt: Well yeah, I’m sitting here talking to you, man.
iW: What’s happened to you since the film premiered at Sundance?
Borchardt: Well, I started working in a factory 10 hours a day designing shutters for the outside of windows, man, out where I live. Hell yeah. For four months straight out where I live, man.
iW: How much an hour?
Borchardt: Uh, eight and a half. And I had to do it to pay bills. So, after Sundance it went back to normalcy again, but when we went to Toronto, I quit my job a week or two before we went and it’s all been going uphill since Toronto. So, it’s not since Sundance, it’s since Toronto that this has all kicked into high gear.
iW: When you say that things have really picked up do you mean for you personally or for the film?
Borchardt: No, for the film, not for me personally ’cause nothing’s picked up at all for me, really. But for the film, yeah, you could feel the energy and the vibrancy and the momentum that it’s producing.
iW: Do you hope or expect that anything will happen for you and your filmmaking out of this?
Borchardt: No, I just want to be responsible for my own actions and start on my own film. I think it will be a little bit easier to get people to help, to scrape up money, definitely. But see, I’ve gotten dozens and dozens of business cards from film companies, and people have actually approached me on the street, saying, “Hey, you need money for your next film?” I’ve never taken it seriously, because I know that they’re offering money to get money returned to them and then some more on top of that. So it becomes my responsibility, then, to make a film that makes money, and not a film that I want.
Again, man, I’m 33 and I don’t have time to lose on that stuff. There’s more than enough people that make films for other people for money, I think. I want to make money too, but I really want to do something more with my life at the same time that’s a little bit more important. See, the only reason I would make a film for anyone else would be for women and money, and that’s all. I don’t take anything that Hollywood makes seriously. Life’s about women, life’s about paying the bills and maybe getting some new shoes and crap like that and getting nice stuff with money. I really don’t care about material stuff, and I wouldn’t take the film too seriously. Of course, I’d do a good job and all that, but those two factors would be my main two goals for doing anything outside of a personal film.
iW: So, do you identify yourself as an arch independent filmmaker?
Borchardt: No, not at all. Every time I hear those words -“independent filmmaker” – it freaks me out because I don’t want to have nothing to do with that kind of mentality. To be an independent filmmaker and to be against the Hollywood system doesn’t matter to me. I just want to make films. I grew up studying Welles and Polanski and Kubrick, Scorsese and Allen, Fellini and Bergman and all of that stuff. That’s all. I just want to make good films and I don’t give a damn… But wait, I don’t mean to slur this whole interview by saying I don’t give a damn about independent filmmaking and Hollywood filmmaking, but I don’t give a damn in my mind. I just want to make good films.
iW: I’m sure you’re aware that many people see the film, as an indieWIRE editor said to me this morning, as “every independent filmmaker’s grand metaphor.” How do you feel about that?
Borchardt: The only reason I wear a goatee is because I don’t like to shave, man. That’s how I feel about it. Somebody else can do that cause for independent filmmaking. I just want to make good films, personal films.
iW: So, what is “American Movie” about in your eyes? It’s your story. Do you see it as your story?
Borchardt: Yeah, I do, and I’m glad they documented it. It’s like a Christmas gift, man, to have your life documented and playing at the Film Forum. When I look at the screen I don’t see me as I’m talking to you right now. I see this other character in making a film. I see a really ambitious guy doing his thing that will inspire me the next time I make my next film. I also see a community of these valuable people who helped me achieve that goal, you know. And I’m deeply indebted to them for that.
iW: Do you have any idea what affect you will have on audiences?
Borchardt: That’s really important to me. The movie won’t affect everybody the same way. The people struggling to achieve their goals, I think they’ll come away a little bit more inspired and a little bit more determined. That could be a great blessing that the film could provide to a handful of people – to stick with what they need to do and to not quit.
iW: One of the strongest themes in “American Movie” is the American Dream theme. Do you interpret the story of the American Dream as a comedy or a tragedy?
Borchardt: Oh, it could be both, man. Because for the lower man on the fiscal totem pole who engages in, like, what I did, of course it becomes comical because you have to use other means other than monetary means to make things happen. Like tricks. Also, it could become tragic because you could destroy yourself in the process of trying to achieve it, never having accomplished nothing. Then yeah, you’ve got the third element, and that’s achieving the American Dream. There’s comedy, tragedy, and actually achieving it. So there you have it: a three-act structure all wrapped up.
iW: Which one of those three elements does your story fit into?
Borchardt: I think all three. There’s the comedy of the situations I create, there’s the tragedy of alcoholism – and that could be a real life pain in the ass if something bad happens – and there is the achievement of the goal because I’m here. I’m gonna keep going, I’m gonna get every god-