Milwaukee's Finest

DURING THE Q&A after the first screening of American Movie at Sundance, director Chris Smith hailed his subject Mark Borchardt as "the ideal independent filmmaker"--which, in many ways, he is. For one thing, it was Borchardt's persistent entreaties (rather than Smith's reputation) that pushed his 40-minute, $13,000 horror flick "Coven" into a coveted midnight screening slot in Park City midway through the festival. And the $3,000 fellowship award Borchardt won last year from Milwaukee County--beating out Smith, as it happens--was enough to help subsidize his latest round of rewrites on Northwestern, a highly personal project that defies his Super 8 splatter-movie roots along with any commercial considerations you'd care to name.

"Every time I rewrite it," says Borchardt, sipping black coffee in an upscale Milwaukee beanery, "I can see just how a Hollywood structure would give easy outs for everything. It's all these corny, hackneyed ideas that have infiltrated movies over the years, with people walking into the sunset or dying of cancer or what have you. I get a lot of my dialogue from real people and real incidents, and then I have to put it all together into a cohesive narrative--so it's a real bitch."

In person, Borchardt's playful flair for descriptive dialogue is immensely entertaining--proving again that the comedy of American Movie derives not from the cheap thrill of laughing at some poor buffoon, but from the intimate proximity to a wonderfully charismatic character with an unbridled gift of gab. Amid the film's many accolades, it shouldn't be forgotten that while Smith's work is a documentary, Mark Borchardt is its (uncredited) screenwriter and lead actor, a performer who seems to script his own life as one of his (as yet) unfilmed movies.

Doing his own thing: Filmmaker Mark Borchardt (right, with his mother, Monica Borchardt, and Mike Schank) in American Movie
Doing his own thing: Filmmaker Mark Borchardt (right, with his mother, Monica Borchardt, and Mike Schank) in American Movie

That Borchardt talks about his American Movie "character" in the third person ("The scenes when he's with his mom are pretty shocking," he says) bespeaks his dual interest in claiming authorship of what's onscreen while maintaining exclusive rights to his own personality behind the scenes. "The movie is only one side of me," Borchardt says. "I can be like a more morose, intellectual, quiet person, you know--but to get the job done, you have to put on this more bright, hustling, social, humorous persona. That's not me 24 hours a day. I think people can sometimes freak out when they expect me to be like I am in the film, and then that ain't sometimes what I am." For instance, some Movie viewers may be surprised to learn that Borchardt holds great admiration for Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee, while taking issue with the highbrow British journal Sight and Sound for its decision to put the art-house hit Central Station on the cover. ("Dude, it's like, what are you gonna say to analyze that Central Station movie, man? There's a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that's it.")

In the weeks after what Borchardt recalls as a "really warm, intimate experience" at Sundance, the lanky, long-haired filmmaker, age 32, has gone back to his daily routine of turning the ringer off on the phone and hitting the keyboard at his apartment in the northwest Milwaukee suburbs. As Borchardt's autonomous manner of working appears to stem from personal choice more than professional circumstance ("People are coming to me with ideas for projects and it's like, 'Hey, man--I'm trying to write a film here!'"), American Movie hasn't so much given him a leg up as it has simply shed light on his fierce devotion to the craft. Still, Borchardt credits Smith's choice to film his life story with providing a little well-timed moral support. "It really validated my struggle, the fact that Chris wanted to document it," says Borchardt, wearing a gray Wall Street Journal sweatshirt over blue jeans, a white baseball cap covering not quite half of his stringy brown mane. "I felt respected and vindicated--like I was doing the right thing by trying to make this movie."

And just what kind of movie is Northwestern? Borchardt draws a deep breath before beginning to speak in a near whisper, making clear the degree of his personal investment in the material. "Around the time when I started making 'Coven,'" he recalls, "I encountered straight people for the first time--people who didn't drink, people with jobs. It took me a couple of years to adapt to that. My whole upbringing and the people I knew, all of it revolved around drinking, and yet those [heavy-drinking] people had an extraordinary set of values and beliefs: They had real character, they were cool and intelligent and helpful to other people. Their environment was what I think of as a kind of Wild West, where people who didn't go along with the system could do their own thing with no adherence to jobs or education or what have you. I thought, 'What a beautiful, unknown culture this is, one that has never made it into movies.' So Northwestern is about people trying to do their own thing--an alcoholic dude working in a junkyard and this manic-depressive writer chick whom he meets out in the sticks--and how they try to find their own kind of happiness. It's all about trying to do something creative in a world that's totally geared toward capitalism and going to work every day."

I mention to Borchardt that he seems to have just summarized not only the central themes of Northwestern and "Coven" but the basic principles of his own antiestablishment m.o.--a trait further shared by both Smith and the subtly subversive, clock-punching protagonist of his debut feature American Job. Borchardt agrees immediately, citing a scene from Smith's 1996 mock-doc to complete an invigorating picture of community among like-minded Midwestern iconoclasts. "It's like in the first scene [of Job] when the employer dude is showing Randy [Scott, played by Randy Russell] around the factory, and Randy kind of strays off the path and starts looking around on his own, and the dude says, 'No, no--stay with me.' That'd never be in a Hollywood film, man."

Borchardt's own tendency to stray from the expected course of his life seems just as ingrained. "I've resented authority ever since I was a kid," he says. "And it's not like some liberal-ideological kind of thing--like, 'Oh, I'm not going to be told what to do, just on principle.' For me, it's like, I don't even care about making movies if somebody else is gonna tell me what to do. So at this point it's strictly about achieving what I want to achieve--and that's not arrogance or anything, it's just the truth. I really don't like people telling me what to do. I want to find myself through my films, and I'm not going to let anyone's interference dilute that process in any way."

VHS copies of Mark Borchardt’s “Coven” can be purchased through his Web site at www.northwestproductions.com.

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