Milwaukee director Chris Smith's reputation as a Very Nice Guy From the Midwest didn't change much a year ago when his hugely entertaining documentary American Movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Case in point: In the blush of victory last February, Smith's FedEx package to this Milwaukee-bound interviewer included a hand-drawn map on an index card marking "Lake Michigan" (complete with squiggly "waves"), "I-94" from Minneapolis, and a twisty "river" near his office space in the city's Third Ward--evincing the indie director's intimate knowledge of this Midwestern burg where he has chosen to remain even after hitting the jackpot in Park City.
American Movie (which opens in Minneapolis this week) sold to Sony Classics for a million bucks, and yet Smith picks me up at the Milwaukee train station in the same car he has had for years: a run-down '85 Prelude with a busted door on the passenger side and a chaotic interior whose contents tell the story of his great success and hectic lifestyle. Among other things, there's a 16mm roll of film containing snippets of his 1996 debut, American Job; the film can in which he personally carried the Movie print to Sundance in January; and the current edition of Milwaukee's weekly newspaper, whose cover is graced by the lanky, red-haired Smith and his cherubic producing partner Sarah Price. Noting the Prelude's broken window sealed with Plexiglas (evidence of a recent sound-mixing trip to the Big Apple), I jokingly suggest that just as American Movie documents the struggles of an indie auteur, so might some other enterprising young director make a movie about Smith's travails. "Uh, no thanks," he says with a laugh, not wishing to extend any further his film's already ample hall of mirrors.
A movie about an independent filmmaker made by an independent filmmaker, American Movie testifies doubly to the sneakily persistent spirit of the low-budget artist. Of course, as Smith's career has been variously supported by the likes of Split Screen host John Pierson and Girls Town director Jim McKay (the latter of whom invested in Movie through his C-Hundred Film Corp., co-run by Michael Stipe), the filmmaker within the film faces tougher odds, to say the least. "Kick fuckin' ass--I got a Mastercard!" exclaims Milwaukee director Mark Borchardt at the start of Smith's hilarious and harrowing Movie, which follows its poor subject through the countless travails--overdue child support, back taxes, and credit-card debts--endured in his efforts to get his feature-length dream project in the can. Using his mom as camera operator and black-hooded extra as the situation requires, working a literal graveyard shift in an attempt to fend off a steady stream of bills, and borrowing money from his ancient, trailer park-residing uncle Bill in trade for bathtub washing sessions and shots of peppermint schnapps, Borchardt is abundantly dedicated to his craft. And it's precisely this passion that makes Smith's movie sweetly funny rather than caustically so--in addition to complicating its serious query of what constitutes success.
Portraying the artist as a master in his own mind, an unpaid comedian, and a repository of infinite pain, American Movie is strikingly of a piece with the likes of The Cruise and Driver 23, to name two other recent, low-budget studies of unconventional artmakers. It's also, on the surface, a film that lends comedy and drama to the clichéd reality of indie filmmaking as a noble, often lonely, but exceedingly righteous struggle, with a phenomenal payoff that most creative masochists will never see. Yet part of what distinguishes Movie is its vivid, lovingly rendered milieu, one rarely if ever projected on the art-house screen: the working-class Midwest of suburban ramblers, freeway strip malls, family cookouts, lotto tickets, wide-open spaces, and, principally, dreams. And at the center of it all is a dreamer, Mark Borchardt, American Movie's wonderfully hammy star and uncredited screenwriter--an almost mythic embodiment of dogged Midwestern self-actualization and a damn canny packager of his life as a Sisyphean drama peppered with laughs and pathos.
"When we first started the project, I felt I had never met anyone like Mark," says Smith, slumped on a couch in his cluttered office during a break from making a few final trims to American Movie. "But gradually, over the course of two years, we started to see his many layers as he went through the highs and lows. My opinion of Mark kept going up through the entire process of filming, seeing what he went through. I never really saw him lose his temper. He was always calm, even when things were falling apart around him." Some of what falls apart for Borchardt, at least temporarily, is his faith in his debut feature, until he hits on the idea to finish his earlier short, "Coven," and sell it on video in order to earn financing for his debut feature Northwestern. "Otherwise," Borchardt claims in the film, "I'm not gonna be shit." The interminable schlep toward the completion of "Coven" (rhymes with "Rovin'," which is to say it's pronounced with the longest conceivable o) finds Borchardt sleeping on the cement floor with his three kids in the editing room of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee's film department--which is where Smith had surreptitiously spent time in '95 while struggling to cut American Job.
These days, the work space Smith shares with Price is considerably cushier, although evidence of their modest approach to filmmaking remains--most charmingly in their jury-rigged computer-editing system that includes a vertically stored Macintosh with its top off, cooled by a nearby electric fan (lest some squiggly lines appear on the monitor). Smith, age 28, and Price, 29, met about eight years ago in a 16mm class at the University of Iowa, discovering they had a similar vision of documentary filmmaking as well as a total lack of interest in Hollywood. Price had been sufficiently turned off by a catering stint on Ghostbusters II, and since hooking up with Smith has coedited American Job, produced American Movie (and recorded its sound), and nearly completed Caesar's Park, a documentary named after an eccentric senior citizens' section of her Milwaukee neighborhood. (In 1997 Price also road-managed the indie-film FUEL Tour, which included American Job and a handful of other undistributed features.)
As for Smith, the Michigan-born filmmaker financed his first movie by winning $10,000 in a Hostess Twinkies contest in 1994, coming up with the best short about those lard-filled treats. His animated effort starred two Twinkies who heroically flee their bakery-plant captivity to start a new life. Evidently the American Everyman's longed-for escape from his hourly drudgery has been a Smith preoccupation from the start.
If Smith's trademark is his droll yet sympathetic portrayal of peculiar laborers, he patented it with the $14,000 American Job, a brilliantly fabricated study of an hourly wage worker's progression through a series of dead-end positions. Affecting the style of cinema verité, the film follows the stone-faced, laconic Randy (actor/co-writer Randy Russell) through his brief, almost subversive stints as janitor, clerk, and fry cook.
In American Movie, Borchardt's own resistance to clock-punching conformity can be found in his insistence on following his muse in his own way, free of either patronage or compromise (a strategy not to be confused with failure). In order to pursue his dream, however, Borchardt has to put in time as a cemetery custodian, at one point regaling Smith's camera with the near-philosophic description of how it felt having to clean a hellishly fecal toilet stall. ("I'm 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds I gotta start cleaning up somebody's shit, man.")
"I think the two films are definitely influenced by my growing up in the Midwest, working crummy jobs and having similar thoughts as Randy and Mark," says Smith, whose own ambition can be measured by the slight squint in his eyes on occasion, as if he's intent on registering your comments as advice. "I believe strongly in a lot of what both of them say in those films, their general attitude toward working. Like that scene in American Movie where Mark is driving into the cemetery, talking about how the boss had said to him that he was looking forward to a long relationship--and how that 'scared the hell' out of him, cause he can't see how people could want to work for someone else day after day after day. In a lot of ways, that's very much in line with the thinking we had when we were making American Job."
Nevertheless, Smith's latest film has been criticized by a few reviewers as a work of class exploitation--a charge that the director has met head-on ever since Sundance. "The people who think [American Movie] is exploitative are the people who would never dream of coming up to Mark and talking to him," says Smith, whose piercing blue eyes and floppy red mane seem to take on extra wattage when this subject comes up. "We have this history with Mark that we were very careful to try to convey through the editing," he says. "That's why it took more than a year and a half to edit the film. We'd show a rough cut to somebody and they would come away saying something like, 'Man, what a loser'--which showed us that they just didn't get the film. We'd think, 'Well, there must be something in the edit that's not right.' It was about finding the right balance between the comedy and the drama, and about putting it all in context. When we finally showed the film to Mark, and he told us that he liked it, to us, that felt really good."
When Smith first met Borchardt four years ago in a film class Smith was teaching at UW Milwaukee, Borchardt expressed his great admiration for American Job--without yet knowing that he'd soon be the subject of Smith's thematically similar followup. "It's kind of amazing to me how compatible the two films ended up being without really intending it--and one is a narrative film and one is a documentary," Smith says. "To me, that's kind of reassuring, the idea that I could move to another genre and maybe still be able to keep some consistency. I don't consider myself a documentary filmmaker or a narrative filmmaker, but just a filmmaker, you know? And as far as any future projects, I mean, I would love to make..."
"Armageddon?" jokes Price.
"Well, no, probably not," Smith says.
American Movie's great success among the industry players and bottom feeders at Sundance probably had a little to do with the apparent subject of "making it" in the film world, although it bears mention that "making it" isn't Borchardt's goal per se, nor is it the principal focus of the documentary. To its credit, American Movie is more generally about the burden of dreams, as documentarian Les Blank once defined Werner Herzog's herculean struggles--that is to say, it's about the personal costs for a man whose life has not equipped him to achieve his vision without tremendous sacrifice. In this sense, the film could just as easily be the portrait of a wood carver, a notion that Price shares. "To me, watching somebody who has a passion or a drive for anything is exciting," she says. "I would love to see a story about someone who has a passion for, you know, racing cars--somebody who really knows the ins and outs, somebody who has a philosophy about what they do. I just find that really exciting. As far as documentaries about artmakers, it's always a struggle to create, and so it's interesting to see somebody go through that process and come out the other end--emerging either as a better person or, like Mark says, 'with something under your belt.'"
Regarding the particulars of this process, Price thinks there's a regional dimension to the creative freedom that she and Smith (and, for that matter, Borchardt) have been able to maintain. After all, Milwaukee is safely located halfway between either coast, and well out of meddling range. "The approach in the Midwest is about doing what you think is exciting--whatever opportunity presents itself with people you like," says Price. "Living here, there's not as much pressure to 'make it.' You're not necessarily pigeonholed or pressured into saying, 'Okay, now I want to do an action thriller' or 'Now I need to do a romantic comedy to complete my résumé.' It's more like, 'Now I have this idea, and I'm going to start working this idea out, and this person is inspiring me and maybe I can do something with it.' It seems like that's sort of the way Mark is working, and that's the way our other filmmaker friends in Milwaukee are working--and it's how we got into American Movie, following Mark around because he was interesting. Living in a place that's not very glamorous or sexy gives you the time and space to do what you feel like doing."
As it happens, what Smith and Price feel like doing next is a project that again deals with the plebeian working world: The pair recently signed with the indie outfit Good Machine to make American Splendor, a fictional film based on Harvey Pekar's long-running cult comic-book series about (what else?) a man's philosophy of his ordinary American job as a hospital file clerk. As Pekar himself has been a defiantly independent character for decades, even the short item in Variety that broke the news of Splendor in mid-May couldn't fail to note the perfect consistency of Smith's third American movie. The article quoted Good Machine's Ted Hope to the effect that, just as Pekar has kept his civil servant job in Cleveland long after earning wide acclaim as an artist, "'Chris Smith lives in Milwaukee and he has no plans to move into the L.A. hurricane.'"
From American Job and American Movie to American Splendor, Smith has somehow managed to expand his horizons while staying put. The main thing that encourages him and Price to remain in Milwaukee is the continued presence of fellow filmmaking friends Xavier Leplae, Didier Leplae, Peter Barrickman, and Brent Goodsall, who run the River West Film and Video cooperative (formerly known as Pumpkin World) on a burgeoning boho block of the city's Locust Street. In addition to cutting their own low-budget movies on an ingeniously ad-hoc editing system in the co-op's basement, this tight-knit group of cineastes rents equipment and tapes to other filmmakers at affordable prices.
Not surprisingly, Smith can often be heard championing the co-op's alternative definition of the American job. "It's like a living version of Three's Company over there, in the sense that they all spend a good portion of their time together, collectively making the rent. They sell pop and beer to the people who hang out there, marked up ten cents or whatever. They're all in bands, and now and then they shoot weddings and industrial videos. The goal is to make their living as much as possible through running the store. We all hope that one day there'll be enough equipment there for all of us to collaborate on an in-house movie using only the co-op's resources."
In a way, the River West co-op, with its A/V thrift-store mise en scène and abundantly creative vibe, is the concrete realization of the communal artmaking ethic embodied by Smith's films. Stemming from American Job and American Movie is a veritable family tree of artwork: the no-budget satirical comics with which American Job's Randy Russell established his character; the acoustic guitar playing of Borchardt's lotto-loving buddy Mike Schank, which supplies American Movie's alternately glum and galvanizing score; and Smith and Price's bands the Friday Knights and Competitorr, respectively, which played at Sundance to celebrate Movie's success. "In fact, everybody connected with [American Movie] was doing their own form of art," says Smith, who hopes to collect some of this work on the Movie DVD.
And then, of course, there are the movies of Mark Borchardt, including the impressively bare-bones "Coven"--which, at Smith's insistence, is being included as a midnight attraction concurrent to the run of American Movie (it plays at the Uptown Theatre on Saturday, January 8 at midnight). Smith is effusive in his praise of Borchardt. "Mark has kept up the same level of ambition since he was 12 years old making short horror films," he says. "When I went back to find archival material to pull from his movies, it took days, because there were literally hundreds of Super 8 films that he had made over the years, and they were all incredible. I mean, sure, they were in the horror genre or whatever, but the cinematography and the editing and the framing was just so impressive, and to see his development over the years has been great. He completely knows what a good film is, and he wants to be able to make that film.
"That was one of the things that really intrigued us over the course of making American Movie: Where does Mark's passion come from? I mean, this isn't somebody who's jumping on the bandwagon of independent film. Whether this whole indie film resurgence had happened or not, Mark would have still been there in Menomonee Falls making his films."
And so he might remain, but by choice. One of American Movie's many indelible scenes has Borchardt and his then-girlfriend staring cynically at the 1997 Oscars telecast, as the tuxedoed Billy Crystal rambles through his fatuous monologue about "the year of the independent film," with "great films, unusual films, risky plots, great direction, great..." On those words, Smith cuts to a particularly unglamorous shot of Borchardt's mom and three loyal crew members dragging a ponytailed young man through the muddy woods of outlying Milwaukee, while the director trails close behind with his microphone. Could such lavishly produced, Academy-endorsed "independent films" as Shine and The English Patient have involved anything like the tireless passion of the "Coven" crew?
The title of Smith's film suggests it as an emblematic American movie, and indeed it is. No less than any of Frank Capra's John Does, Mark Borchardt is an American Everyman who, through infinite hard work and dedication to his principles, emerges as a hero--in his own mind, certainly, and Chris Smith's, and perhaps in yours.
American Movie is playing at Lagoon Cinema.