American Filmmaker

Texas Documentary Tour: Chris Smith and American Movie

Filmmakers Sarah Price and Chris Smith
Filmmakers Sarah Price and Chris Smith

Chris Smith didn't set out to become a documentary filmmaker. But he's willing to do whatever his subjects require. When Mark Borchardt wandered into Smith's life, there was little question in his mind that Borchardt's drive and passion was something that needed to be documented. Perenially broke, periodically drunk, and permanently possessed, Mark Borchardt is a distinctive American character, one who defies all obstacles (external and internal) along his path to making his great (as yet unfilmed) American movie, Northwestern. The Milwaukee resident decided to resume production of his short horror film, "Coven," and use those profits to get Northwestern going. It is this process that Smith records in American Movie, which was filmed over a two-year period. During this time, Smith and his filming partner Sarah Price had incredible access to Borchardt and his family, crew, and investors (usually one and the same). American Movie went on to win the top documentary award at this year's Sundance and will be released nationally in November. Smith, Price, Borchardt, and Borchardt's friend and collaborator Mike Schank will all be in Austin for the two screenings of American Movie and a midnight screening of "Coven" at the Alamo Drafthouse on Wednesday, October 22, as part of the Texas Documentary Tour. Smith has been making movies since he was a teenager. His first feature was American Job, a low-budget, independent narrative film made for $14,000 with nonprofessional actors and a volunteer crew. The story follows the working career of Randy Scott as he downwardly spirals from one minimum-wage job to the next. Played by Randy Russell, who also contributed greatly to the script, which was based on his comic books, the character moves through life with posture stooped similarly to that of cartoonist R. Crumb and is someone who would probably feel familiar in the drudge-work world portrayed in Harvey Pekar's American Splendor comics. Thus, it's not surprising that Smith's next project may, indeed, be a film adaptation of Pekar's comics. Somehow, Smith always finds himself preoccupied with issues of the workplace in the American landscape, whether his subjects be wage slaves or bureaucratic drones -- or inspirational Don Quixotes like Mark Borchardt.

For futher background on Borchardt, Schank, and Chris Smith and Sarah Price's films, see the American Movie ( Web site. Borchardt is keeping an online journal of the publicity tour, which swings through Austin this week, and tapes, T-shirts, and other goodies are available. We recently caught up with Smith, who hurriedly talked with us in between screenings in New Orleans.

Austin Chronicle: How did you discover Mark Borchardt?

Chris Smith: There's the long story and the short story. The short one is I had finished American Job on video and I was trying to cut it on film and I was in Iowa and I ran out of facilities (which is another long story), but basically, I didn't have any place to edit, and through a friend of a friend I sent this rough cut of the movie up to Milwaukee to the guy who ran the film department there (just because there was no money and there were not that many options). And he loved the tape and said, "Come on up and make your film and we'll figure out the logistics of it all later." So I went up to Milwaukee, and where I was editing American Job was where you see Mark editing "Coven."

AC: And sleeping on the floor --

CS: We were doing the same thing. I lived in the editing room for about four months. I was sleeping on the cement floor behind the flatbed and hiding out from janitors and whatnot. Anyhow, as that was wrapping up, I entered a rough cut into the Toronto Film Festival and didn't get in, and I was disgruntled -- even though I kind of expected as much.

The film department's in the basement down there. Often people just go upstairs to get some air. It was this sunny day at the end of summer and we were sitting on the front steps of the university and Mark was talking about Northwestern -- the film he was going to make. And it was the passion and the energy for it -- it just seemed so rare to see people that inspired about what they're trying to do. That was really exciting to me. But the concrete future that was in front of him was that he and his mom were going up to the Toronto Film Festival to try to raise money and make connections for Northwestern. And after not getting in and being slightly disgruntled about that I thought, "What better way to get back at them than to go make this movie about an outsider from Milwaukee, a guy who by all counts is just doing his best to make his film, and to show that there isn't time for people like this at these festivals." It was one of those things where I felt like whatever happened would be interesting. There are so many independent filmmakers who are trying to look cool, and here you've got Mark who's bringing his mom and his dad up with him. And he's using his mom as Partner #B. He would be talking loudly about a $40,000 sum, and she was supposed to nod and agree with him so that someone would overhear them talking and get interested. That was the plan. I thought it was just so great. It totally made me realize who Mark was and that he does things his own way. And I think that's why the film succeeded. He's someone who's completely unique and original. And he's got his own way of going about doing things and it was exciting to see that he wasn't just another guy who saw Slacker or Clerks and decided to go make independent films. He's been making them since he was 14. I think he's getting a lot from the film. I feel like he's getting credit for being who he is. I think they all are. His mom was at Chicago selling T-shirts in the lobby last night. Michael Stipe was selling tapes in Toronto.

AC: At what point did Michael Stipe [film producer and REM frontman] and Jim McKay [film director (Girls Town) and producer] become involved?

CS: Jim, I met at a panel I didn't want to go to in Chicago. And Jim at that point was very upset about the myth of the $7,000 movie and how people were thinking that they could go out and make one by putting all this money on credit cards. And I had reportedly made American Job for $14,000 and so he was very happy to try to get me to explain exactly how we made a film for $14,000. And when I was actually able to explain it, it seemed like we had something to talk about. We got along great from that moment on. I had just started shooting American Movie, and I had a 25-minute trailer that I made from this Toronto trip and I had it with me in Chicago. I was going over to a friend's to look at it, and Jim came with us and totally loved the footage. So I sent him American Job, and he loved that. So he said, "Look, I've got this company called C-100 with Michael Stipe. I think we want to do this. I've got to show it to Michael and we're going to talk about it." They sent us a check the next month. Before anything -- after Roll 13. We shot a total of 450 rolls of film. And they got on right away. And I went, "Wow, this is going to be easy to raise money for it." But it gave me false hope in a way, because what we didn't realize is that we weren't going to be able to develop our film while we were shooting. It quickly became apparent that we were lucky to have any film to shoot at all. Basically, anytime I got a new credit card or got money from anywhere it went to buying raw stock. With Mark and Mike there was always something happening, you know. So for Sarah and me both, it was so frustrating. People ask us this in question-and-answer sessions: How did it feel making this movie on this guy scraping to get by and you're shooting this big documentary? Well, you have to realize at the time it wasn't a big documentary. By most people's count it was a waste of money. And so we weren't able to develop over 90% of our film until four months after we were done shooting because we just couldn't get any money. I had 300 rolls of film on my porch for over a year. It was hidden there, rotting. I'm such a technical perfectionist that it just killed me to know that I couldn't develop this stuff. But between shooting more film or developing it, I had to go with shooting more film.

AC: Over what period of time were you shooting?

CS: We shot for two years. We shot from September '95 till August '97. But again, the first year wasn't nearly as intense as the second year. The first year was really kind of a base. We filmed Mark going to Toronto, Mark doing a radio show, Mark doing these production meetings. It was very much Mark doing something that was in the public eye and us tagging along and filming it. And at the same time, at the beginning of the film I think you see Mark putting on a show for the people in the meetings and doing his thing. I think once he got to know us after a year those walls started to come down and I think that's when the film really gets interesting because you start to get the trust that developed between Mark and his family and his friends and us. They really gave us access to these intimate moments that we never would have been able to get had we tried to shoot that way right at the beginning.

I don't feel like this movie is a one-man show. I think if I had seen it going in that direction I would have made a short film. What was interesting is how Mark impacts the lives of those around him. Everybody he gets to help on his project is such a unique individual in their own right. And they've all retained their own identities and personalities.

AC: What's the attraction to working in Milwaukee?

CS: I'm attracted to Midwestern stories because it's what I know best. I feel like it's material that I'm comfortable with and stories I can tell accurately. I find the people I've met and made friends with in the Midwest are fascinating personalities. They do things their own way. I think that these people exist in every community, but, for me, I feel more in tune with the people from the Midwest.

AC: So why do all your movies have the word "American" in the title?

Mark Borchardt (r) with his executive producer, Uncle Bill
Mark Borchardt (r) with his executive producer, Uncle Bill

CS: Because I can't think of a better title. American Job was based on Randy Russell's comic American Job that he wrote in 1987 so there I didn't really have a choice. We kept trying to think of titles for this new film and it just seemed like American Movie was broad enough to cover all the different themes and not pigeonhole it into one thing, because actually it touches on the American Dream and filmmaking but also this whole idea of America and what it means to be successful in the United States. Again, there's this idea of the lottery [also present in American Job], not only Mike Schank doing scratch-offs, but the idea that independent filmmaking has become sort of a lottery where if you can put the right 90 minutes of film together you can be the next Kevin Smith or Rick Linklater. You think you'll be going to film festivals and parties and meeting people and making millions and millions of dollars.

AC: How did you segue into documentary filmmaking?

CS: After American Job I had all these plans of doing these narrative films. And then I met Mark Borchardt and four years later I'm here.

AC: So, now you're a documentary filmmaker?

CS: No. Not any more. It way too much time. You lose your personal life in the process.

AC: How so?

CS: It's just so time-intensive. We spent two years filming Mark, and the second year was almost every day, if not every other day. And we were working 14-, 16-hour days. We were spending so much time with Mark and everybody and I'm so compulsive in the sense of wanting to capture everything and to do the best you can on a documentary, you should be filming all the time. My only times off were when Mark was sleeping or I knew that he was going to be in front of the word processor thinking things up for 24 hours.

The thing that made Mark a great subject of a documentary was that he wasn't thinking about what would be a good scene for our film but he was just doing his own thing. But consequently there were times in the first year where Mark -- I'd see him one day and his face would be all puffed out and red and I'd say, "Mark, what happened to you?" And he's like, "Man I was doing the inserts for the drive-in attack and Mike Schank was breaking glass over my head for the cutaways." And I was like, "You used real glass?!" And he said, "Yeah man, it's gotta look real." Not only did that reaffirm my sense that Mark is definitely "for real," but it also just seemed completely insane. There were scenes like that we missed two or three times. When Mark went over and got the $3,000 from Uncle Bill we weren't there because we asked him that day what he was doing and he said, "Oh, I'm just going to work on the script today." And then we'd talk to him the next day and he'd say, "Man, I got fed up. I knew I had to take action. So I went to Uncle Bill's and we had a talk, man, and I wasn't leaving there till I had $3,000, and Bill is now the executive producer on my film." Two or three things like that happened. After that we checked in with Mark every morning and kept really close tabs on him and, by the end, we were basically just going over to his house every morning and tagging along for the whole day. Consequently, we barely had any personal lives. And after we got done shooting, it was two years of editing.

AC: How did you organize that many rolls of film?

CS: It was intense. And for us, there was no way to look at the overall picture, the whole film, because it was too overwhelming. So what we did was break it down to scenes. -- And you'd have these building blocks and then at that point it was like we had all these short films, and we were able to assemble it putting those things in chronological order. When we did that we had a four-hour movie. Then it went back to trying to find out what scenes were redundant and how things were affecting the audience. At that point, the last six months of editing it really came down to doing all these small test screenings with three or four friends of ours where we would show them the film and ask them questions about how they felt about Mark and Mike and the relationships that Mark had with his mother and his kids and his uncle and whether they thought Mark was talented or that he could succeed one day or not. And when their answers started lining up with how we felt about Mark and his situation and his family and friends, we actually, honestly, felt we felt like we were getting a fair and accurate portrayal of what we had experienced in those two years. That's basically how we went about it, but it sounds easier than it was. There were two years of hell.

AC: You also did a few other projects in-between.

CS: Yeah, I had to make money. So I shot Michael Moore's film The Big One. I did some BBC shooting. I really tried to do anything that paid well and had a very small time commitment. I did a commercial for the lottery right at the end. If I hadn't done that we wouldn't have had a print for Sundance.

AC: How does the working partnership between you and Sarah Price work?

CS: It gets confusing. You have all these film terms of "director," "producer," and "co-producers," and everything else. And I think that those lines are blurry when you get to independent filmmaking, especially on the ultra-low-budget productions. Like, if you look at Mark's film, he was shooting stuff, setting up the recorder, and doing sound effects. We were doing the same things all the time. The reason we chose such a small crew was that we couldn't get help, but I don't think we would have wanted help even if we could get it. I think if we had walked into the house with a film crew it would have made an us-and-them situation where it's like, "Oh,the film crew is here trying to make their film," But with American Movie it was just me and Sarah going in there, and I had the camera and she had the sound equipment. They looked at us as friends rather than filmmakers, and if they were making dinner they'd set out two plates for us. It really felt like a home away from home in a lot of ways.

To answer the question, it was basically Sarah and myself for two years shooting the film, and we did everything. I did my own assistant camerawork and she did all of her sound work, then we would trade when we had to and I think that allowed us to get intimate moments because there weren't strangers on this crew that were shifting and changing and we didn't have to get the director of photography's approval to set up the shots. Basically, I had the camera on my shoulder, and when something happened, no matter how it looked, we had the roll.

AC: Do you plan to do more work together?

CS: I think we're at the point where we want a break. We just spent 24 hours a day together for four years. It's just very intense. Sarah has a film that she filmed three years ago that she never got to finish when this thing just kind of took off. So she's going back to that. And I'm either going to jump into Harvey Pekar's life, or I might just take some time off. I'm working on an Internet TV station right now. That's what I'm most excited about. [It's] called I don't know what it is yet. We'll figure it out as we go along. There's nothing up right now. It's just an idea we've been working on obliquely. It's just another outlet for all the stuff that we do that doesn't go into films that get released in theatres. end story

American Movie will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, October 20 at the Alamo Drafthouse, at 6:45 & 9:45pm; tickets for both shows are on sale by phone (322-0145) through Tuesday (10am-2pm). Tickets will go on sale at 6pm on the day of the show. Special admission prices are $12 for the general public; $10 for Austin Film Society and KLRU members and students. Chris Smith, Sarah Price, Mark Borchardt, and Mike Schank will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session after each screening. Mark Borchardt's 40-minute horror film, "Coven," which is profiled in American Movie, will screen at midnight; vouchers for free admission will be given to all American Movie ticket purchasers. For more about these films see The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, KLRU-TV, and SXSW Film.
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