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Mr. Smith Goes to Milwaukee

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Borchardt (right) and Schank endure the rigors of filmmaking.
  • Borchardt (right) and Schank endure the rigors of filmmaking.

Things have a way of spinning further out of control the harder you work on them. What was supposed to be for director Chris Smith a short side project "about an unknown filmmaker in Wisconsin" turned instead into a four-year project that resulted in a feature-length documentary, American Movie. Or take the subject of American Movie, unknown Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt, who was supposed to be filming his feature film, Northwestern, in six months, but instead took a three-year detour to finish his short film, Coven.

"We felt like we couldn't turn away, because we'd discovered this gold mine," Smith says of Borchardt's unique processes, which soon engulfed the lives of Smith and his partner, Sarah Price. "If we didn't want to make this movie, or we didn't want to spend time with these people, we wouldn't have followed through. We truly enjoyed their company."

Which is understandable, since Borchardt and his family and friends come across like the cast of a sitcom whose lives are one long madcap frolic, despite the obvious hardships. Differing personalities collide to high comic effect, and Borchardt's quixotic filmmaking journey with best friend Mike Schank takes all involved far beyond the humdrum existence of suburban Milwaukee.

"When you meet Mike and Mark, it's like they walked off the screen," explains Smith. "They're like a classic comedy team -- it's just how their relationship is. We just tried to make [the film] as fair and accurate to what we felt like we went through while we were shooting."

The editing of American Movie took as long as the shooting. Smith admits gravitating toward the funniest scenes, simply because it's boring to watch a guy do things without a hitch, but he stands by his claim that the results are accurate, and Borchardt himself seems to agree.

"There's degrees of manipulation," Borchardt says in his normal loquacious way. "But unless it was some invisible camera following you around, it's the only true documentary that could be made. Coven -- look, man -- was three years of a lack of discipline, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, working off a rough fourth draft. But I'm a fighter, man, and that takes tears, it takes struggle, it takes all of that crap, but if you're incensed with the flame of life, man, by hook or by crook, you'll do it. All you have to concentrate on is your one life to live. I don't care if you get into Jesus or Buddha or any crap like that -- that may be true, you may come back as a frog if you're lucky, I don't know -- but right now, you have this one life to live."

It's this passion -- this undying drive simply to finish his films his way -- that propels not only Borchardt, but also American Movie. It shows how Borchardt's style of independent filmmaking requires a new subcategory of the do-it-yourself genre, one so far from the Hollywood system that it's unfair to connotatively link both processes as "filmmaking."

"I could give a shit about it," says Borchardt of doing films the "right" way, despite offers from Hollywood to come out and meet with people about making his feature, Northwestern. "Look, goddammit, I can get my money here, I can get my fucking investors here, and I can make every frame how it should be made right here, and it's just going to be a goofball situation out there."

Some see his attitude as pigheaded, while others hold up Borchardt as a pillar of the truly independent spirit, the flame of artistic expression having somehow ended up in the hands of a working-class man in Milwaukee, vying for attention against a can of beer. Still others have twice booked him as a guest on Letterman.

"What's the fate of all this?" posits Smith. "My whole theory is that, in about a year, people are going to be like "You know that guy who's on Letterman? There's a movie about that guy.'" -- Powers

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