INTERVIEW: Made in America, Chris Smith and Sarah Price on their "American Movie"
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.
“American Movie” is director Chris Smith’s second film. The first, a stunningly depressing narrative film called “American Job,” also premiered at Sundance and was critically well-received, but did not garner the money or publicity now coming “American Movie”‘s way. In the modest melee of a documentary press tour, indieWIRE grabbed interviews with director Smith and producer Price, as well as with the subject of “American Movie,” the one and only Mark Borchardt (profiled in yesterday’s indieWIRE).
Since Smith has directed two movies with the word “American” in the title, we can rightly assume that he has some specific ideas about his country. Both films present views of American life generally ignored by our entertainment industry; the films are portraits of lower middle class young men living in the Midwest (where Chris was born, raised, and currently resides), struggling through humdrum everyday life. In our interview, Smith and producer Price discuss their original American movie about American original Mark Borchardt.
indieWIRE: So what’s everybody asking you on this publicity tour?
Chris Smith: How we met, what was it like filming Mark and his family, um… what’s happening with “Northwestern,” how many tapes of “Coven” has Mark sold? You hear them so often I honestly think I block these questions out.
iW: Have many people asked you whether you think the film is condescending?
Smith: We don’t get that a lot, but it’s nice, because it’s usually with Mark and Mike present. We can address it and they can address it. I think that when people actually see them in person… it’s nice to let them speak for themselves. That’s been the nicest thing about this press tour: it’s not us on the road talking about them while they’re still in Milwaukee. They’re actually out on the road with us.
iW: What do you think of that question?
Smith: It’s a fine question. You know, we would have never spent four years making a movie that we thought was condescending. We became friends with Mark and his family and we started the project and continued it because we have respect for them. Not only for Mark as a filmmaker, but Mark and his family and friends as decent human beings who were completely genuine people, completely honest and open to us. If anybody is that open and sincere I don’t see how you could look down on them for just being who they are. But there are a handful of people who just have that attitude that Mark comes from a lower middle class background and he somehow isn’t quite as intelligent as they are. I don’t know what it is, because I think that Mark is one of the most creative, original, intelligent people I’ve met in my life. He just cuts through the bullshit, he doesn’t try to dilute things with ulterior motives and neither does anyone else in the film.
That’s something you just don’t see that much anymore, especially people being open and honest in front of cameras. Everyone is so conscious of their appearance and Mark and his friends and family just don’t give a shit. Most of them don’t know what “Pulp Fiction” is and couldn’t care less. People bring baggage into the movie and I think there could be an element of people feeling threatened by this guy who just says, “Fuck everything. I’m just going to follow my dream and I’m going to try to hold on to this dream before I die,” in the sense of taking some shitty job and throwing in the towel and going until he retires.
Sarah Price: That kind of reaction is pretty rare. Most people react to the movie the way we hoped they would. They’re inspired by Mark, they love Mike, and they come out of the movie feeling like they know these people, rooting for Mark. They want to know how “Coven” is doing, how “Northwestern” is doing…
Smith: They line up to buy his tapes. Even after they’ve seen “Coven” they still buy the tape to support him. That’s the reinforcement that we’re getting on the most part and it’s encouraging.
Price: When people feel that it’s condescending, it’s a disappointment because I feel like they just didn’t get it. For whatever reason – judging a book by its cover or the idea that if there’s humor in a documentary, it must be condescending, it must be making fun of somebody. As opposed to laughing because these guys are funny.
iW: Two documentary portraits I can think of that were accused of condescending to their subjects are “The Cruise” and “Crumb.” Each of these films is a portrait of an eccentric man. How do you make a film about an outsider without treating him like a caged animal? How did you think about the responsibility of framing Mark, your subject, at the outset?
Smith: In shooting the film, we would see plot lines developing, relationships that were important between Mark and Mike, or Mark and his uncle, or Mark and his mother, and Mark’s quest to finish the film and also his personal life as it marched on. When you’re filming you see these areas of interest forming but at the same time you’re really just trying to capture everything. It really comes down to the editing process, where for us, it was an effort to try to make it as fair and honest as we could to what we went through in the two years that we were filming it. I think the ultimate test was to show it to Mark before we picture locked it and asked him if he felt comfortable with the film and if there was anything he wanted to change we would have changed it. In a sense, Mark had final cut for the movie.
iW: Do you feel that it’s the responsibility of the documentarian who is doing a portrait to include the subject in the final cut?
Smith: No, I don’t. That’s just how we wanted to do it, but I don’t think so. I think the responsibility in this case came in the editing process, trying to create something that was fair and representative of the two years and that didn’t give people false impressions of what it was actually like.
iW: What do you see in Mark? They say every portrait is a self-portrait…
Smith: I think in Mark you see the struggles of any independent filmmaker who has been working without any support from the filmmaking community at large. There was nobody out there waiting for Mark Borchardt’s film. With Mark it’s a very lonely road he’s traveling down. He was making “Coven” with the intention of completing it and putting it on video and selling it in the back of these genre magazines to enable him to make “Northwestern.” Whereas even after “American Job,” even though people weren’t knocking down our doors to invest in “American Movie,” they still were keeping their eye on what we doing next.
iW: I told Mark that a lot of independent filmmakers are interested in “American Movie” because he stands for their struggle and he told me that he doesn’t like that idea and doesn’t associate himself with that at all.
Smith: The film isn’t about filmmaking so much as it is about Mark and his life and relationships. If the movie took place on the set of an independent film it would have been very film-centric, but this was more about Mark’s relationships with his mother and his uncle and Mike Schank and his kids. It just happened to have this through-line of independent filmmaking, but it didn’t rely on that and it wouldn’t matter if he were doing demolition derbies or anything. It wasn’t a movie about filmmaking.
Price: You could say that his struggle has similarities to a certain type of independent filmmaker. It’s such a huge catchword. You have independent filmmakers who have money, resources, friends, cameras, whatever. His type is out in the wilderness, just doing it by himself. That is a certain type of independent filmmaker. His struggle is very different from a lot of people’s, because I don’t see a lot of people living in their parents’ basement with kids and back payments to the IRS. His struggle is with being an adult and taking on those responsibilities and yet not giving up the idea that all he really wants to do is put his vision on film.
iW: It did so well with the audiences at Sundance and of course, much of the audience is made up of independent filmmakers. Have you been pleased with the reactions of lay audiences so far?
Smith: A nice thing about finally traveling with the film and going to Chicago and New Orleans and Denver is you find a lot of normal people who come up to us and say, “I love this movie. I related to it on so many levels,” and they are normal, working class people. They are people from different backgrounds, and it touched them not because they are filmmakers, but because of the struggles Mark has gone through and the dreams he has. A lot of people have some dream in their life, and if you ask them, “Are you doing what you want to be doing?” a lot of times they aren’t. “If money wasn’t an issue and you could be doing anything you want, would you be working where you’re working now?” It’s rare that you find a person who’d say “yes.” Mark is doing what he wants to be doing. He has to take on an occasional odd job. When I met him he was still delivering the Wall Street Journal from two to seven in the morning so he could work on his film during the day and that’s what he wanted to be doing. He was making that a priority, where I think a lot of people I’ve met in their twenties or mid-thirties they say, “Well, I’m just doing this temporarily until I get back to doing what I really want to do.”
iW: Do you see the story of the American Dream as a comedy or tragedy?
Smith: I think there’s something beautiful and romantic about the American Dream and that’s what I’m interested in. It’s got elements of everything – there’s heartbreak and pure joy. There is this mythology of the American Dream that anybody can rise if you have hard work, determination, or even just a good idea and some dumb luck. You can change your life in 24 hours, figuratively, you can take control of your life and change direction at any moment.
iW: Do you think Mark’s story is comic or tragic?
Smith: It has elements of everything. When he takes a step back and kind of laughs at himself in our film a few times you get both elements in one breath – laughing inside…
Price: Anybody’s life has both comedy and tragedy. Both of those factor into his life, but if there’s one lesson to be learned from Mark, it’s about getting up the next day and starting again, never giving up. That’s both comic and tragic and you have to have a sense of humor and roll with the punches. You might be knocked down, but you might also get to where you’re going and I don’t think anyone has achieved success without taking a couple of hits along the way.
Smith: And now he’s traveling around the country and booking his film at Landmark Theaters. You tell me if that’s comic or tragic.
iW: Both of your films have the word ‘American’ in the title; both are about guys from the same place economically and geographically. Is the life of the lower middle class Midwesterner particularly American to you?
Smith: No, not really. I based “American Job” on a magazine that Randy Russell wrote and published in 1987. It was called “American Job” and it was a magazine, or a zine, those Xeroxed magazines. It was pretty widely distributed – to prisoners and anyone else who ordered it – and it was quite well known in the community of people who read that type of thing. It was a collection of stories about minimum wage jobs in the U.S. In the movie “American Job,” I tried to recreate the atmosphere of the writing featured in that magazine. “American Movie” is not just a story about filmmaking or the jobs Mark takes. It is about this community that exists – family and relatives – where he comes from. And it’s about the pursuit of the American Dream. So the two movies cover different aspects of American life. If I’d thought of a different title for “American Movie” I would have used it. I’m not trying to make a huge commentary on America.
iW: Mark and Randy, the character in “American Job,” resemble each other in many ways but Mark’s passion for film is almost the opposite of Randy’s vapid emotional life. Is there a thematic connection between Mark and Randy in your mind?
Smith: I wanted to do something different from “American Job” with “American Movie.” In “American Job,” we stripped all individuality away from Randy to make him an Everyman doing these jobs. I see Mark and Randy as related in some ways, but I feel like “American Job” leaves you with a feeling of emptiness, and “American Movie” is inspiring. It’s about going after your dreams, while “American Job” is about getting so beat down by the system that it’s not even worth trying.
iW: Your first film was a feature and this is a documentary. Did you enjoy the process of making a documentary? Will you ever make another documentary?
Smith: It was a great experience, but I would not be interested in doing a documentary again because you lose sense of your personal life. It takes so much time and effort to do a documentary of this nature. We basically were filming almost non-stop for the last year of the two years we filmed. We rarely saw friends and family during that time. Then, editing was extremely time-consuming and now, since the film is done, we spent four months in New York, we have a two month press tour. Your life is pretty much put on hold.
iW: For a documentary only?
Smith: Maybe it’s for anything. But the way we did this documentary was extremely time-intensive. I’ve been out of touch with family and friends to more of a degree than I would like to be.
Price: It’s a different lifestyle. You’re living and eating and breathing this thing and there’s no end in sight. You can’t say, “Oh, Christmas is coming up and I can make plans. . .”
Smith: Because you have to film Christmas.
iW: Sony Pictures Classics is pushing this movie pretty hard, unusually hard for a documentary.
Smith: I think this movie has narrative elements that people connect to and that audiences found it entertaining and funny and those are marketable attributes for any film. There’s the potential that it could cross over to a larger audience because there is a marketing angle to get people in the audience: humor and horror. If you make the funniest movie in the country for $2,000, whether it’s a documentary or a narrative, people are going to want to see that movie and the same is true for horror. Humor and horror are universal concepts and I think that is a large part of why the film was acquired.
Price: Also, people love good stories about an underdog. Time and time again, people love to see somebody go from nothing to something. And this is real.
iW: What was your shooting schedule like?
Smith: We shot for two years roughly and edited for around two years. The second year we shot almost every day of the week. Mark was on this push to finish “Coven” for over nine months and he was working every day. When he wasn’t working on his film, he was going to his job at the cemetery.
iW: What was your editing process like?
Smith: We had a number of people help in the editing, but basically, it was like tag team editing. One person would work for twelve hours and then I would come in at ten or eleven at night and work for twelve hours. We had three associate editors, three main editors, Sarah did a lot of work on it. We had to get this huge amount of footage down to under two hours.
iW: At what point during the editing process did you realize you had a good movie?
Smith: It’s hard to tell. We had to get a cut together to show the guy who was loaning us an Avid for one month to try to convince him that the project was worth giving us the Avid for longer. We still have the Avid after two and a half years, because he loved the film. When we put together that cut we felt we had a movie, but it wasn’t the movie we wanted. We still had to fine tune it to make it fair and accurate.
iW: How did you fund it?
Smith: We were running out of money and film on a daily basis. We were unable to develop our film until four months after we finished shooting. Most of the people in the independent film community are looking for films they feel will be theatrical and make their money back and traditionally, they don’t see documentaries as theatrical films. But we did get financing from Jim McKay and Michael Stipe, who have a company called C-Hundred Film Corp. They saw footage early on. There was another company called Civilian Pictures; they introduced us to John Pierson way back during “American Job” and continued to support us not only with money, but also with facilities and connections. Both of these companies aren’t corporations; they are friends of ours. We’re Bluemark Productions, whatever that means.
Price: They gave us investment money. Then, there were credit cards maxed out and we worked on “The Big One“…
Smith: I shot a lottery commercial, of all things. We did any kind of work that lasted a short period of time, but paid very well during those two years.
iW: It’s great that you could afford to shoot on film. With all this talk of digital revolutions, it’s rare to see documentaries on film these days.
Smith: I don’t really know how to shoot on video, only on film, and strangely enough, we had better access to a film camera than to any sort of video camera at the time. The system that I was comfortable with on “American Job” was already available so I shot “American Movie” with the exact same technical equipment. More importantly, I felt like film was more appropriate to the subject matter. This is a story about cinema and Mark’s conviction and passion for movies and I was trying to show what I consider to be Mark’s talent at composing on film. It seemed unfair to translate that to video. Mark and Mike on video might look like someone’s home movies; film adds validity to an image, the idea that the people you’re seeing might be important.
I guess the most important thing is that shooting on film forced us to edit as we went along. Film has a magical quality because when you’re shooting you know how expensive it is and it adds to the drama of the whole thing. With video, you can get lazy because you don’t have to make as hard decisions. You can shoot everything. When we started, Mark told us that shooting his movie, “Northwestern,” would only take six months. We thought we wouldn’t end up using more than 100 rolls of film. We shot “American Job” on 35 rolls of film, and that’s what we were basing our estimate on for “American Movie” and now, I realize that for documentaries that is a ridiculous idea. We ended up with 440 rolls of film, or 70 hours of film, and I honestly think that if we had shot on video, we would have ended up with at least 200 hours. That would have cost us so much more time and money in the back end during the editing process. The bottom line is that I love film and love shooting film. It’s just fun to me and I was interested in making a documentary that was theatrical, so I wanted something that would look good in theaters. That’s not to say I’d never shoot on video.
iW: Who gave you all that film?
Smith: I had ten rolls left over in my fridge from “American Job,” but we basically bought most of it. Any of the money we got in those two years went to film.
iW: What was the moment like when you realized that you were going to sell the movie?
Smith: It was surreal. After doing American Job and working on this for so long I never thought a day would come when I made money doing something I enjoyed.
[Check out the interview with Mark Borchardt at: http://www.indiewire.com/people/int_Borchardt_Mark_991103.html]
[Keep up with the filmmakers and participants of “American Movie” on their website at: http://www.americanmovie.com]
[Amy Goodman’s last article for indieWIRE was a roundup review of the documentaries at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. She is currently traveling in Thailand.]