Tonight’s film is American Movie, which was released in 1999.
It’s a documentary that follows a fanatical independent filmmaker through the production of his short film Coven. The goal is to produce and distribute the short then use the profits to finance a feature film.
For those of you who were here for Tampopo, you’ll know I’m in love with the amateur. This film continues that thread.
Mark, the main character, is an absolute amateur. A total outsider. He lives with his parents near Milwaukee, delivers newspapers, and works at a cemetary. His only film education comes from watching movies and reading books.
He wills his films into existence on the thinnest possible budget. The cast and crew are all volunteers. The shots are outside or in friends’ houses.
And it’s the people, not the plot, that make this movie great.
Christoper Guest could have written them. They’re the salt of the earth and totally hilarious.
But, this film isn’t about making fun of small town America. It’s actually the opposite. It’s about making due with whatever you have to pursue a goal.
So here’s American Movie.
That was American Movie.
So American Movie ended up winning the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1999. Later that year IndieWire interviewed Mark and here’s a brief excerpt.
IndieWire: 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
Mark’s still active in the film industry. He’s gone on to produce several shorts and build a career as an actor. Northwestern is still listed as “In Production” on his Wikipedia page.
Mark’s pursuit of the American Dream is relentless. On one hand you have to love his enthusiasm, on the other you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy who refuses to play by the norms so much so that he limits his own success. It’s something I’ve thought about myself more than once.
And so to close this out, here’s Mark talking to IndieWire about his American Dream:
IndieWire: 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. […]
IndieWire: 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 and I’m gonna keep going.