One factor of the huge success of The Blair Witch Project is that it’s rendered suspect any entertaining documentary for some people. Leaving the theater after AM, I actually heard people questioning whether it was “real” or not (um, it is real, isn’t it? – Just kiddin’.).
Yes, American Movie is as real as a documentary can get, considering Chris Smith and his crew filmed the life of Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt, his friends and his family for around four years. Mark, after an aborted attempt to finish his long-running project Northwestern, comes up with a plan to resurrect his unfinished short Coven (pronounced “coe-ven”) and sell enough video copies to finish the feature. The truth is that Mark’s way too real – despite the reaction of all the mainstream press, there’s an army of Borchardts out there, every one of them well versed in all the details of how films like Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Blair Witch were made and grasping at Super 8 and video cameras with the idea of making their own horror classic.
For example, how does Mark stack up against our own local Ed Wood of the 21st Century, Mr. David “The Rock” Nelson? Here’s an ugly chart to illustrate the similarities and differences:
|Mark Bochardt||David “The Rock” Nelson|
|Lives in his parents’ basement in Milwaukee, Wisconsin||Lives in his parents’ basement in Park Forest, Illinois|
|Shoots on b/w 16mm film from his own script and storyboard. Edits using University of Wisconsin equipment||Shoots on camcorder – no script. Edits on vcr in basement.|
|Uses family and friends as unpaid cast and crew||Uses family and friends as unpaid cast and crew|
|Age: low 30s||Age: mid 40s|
|Dropped out of Army||Marine Corps veteran|
|Estranged from ex-girlfriend and children||Golden Gloves boxing champ|
|Plays the lead in own productions||Plays many roles in own productions|
|Tall, lanky, excitable and talkative||Short, brawny, excitable and talkative|
|Loves low budget shockers from the ’70s||Loves classic old monster movies|
|Prefers Burger King and Coke||Likes coffee and sausages|
Surfing around the web a bit, you’ll come across plenty of sites devoted to self-starter horror filmmakers all across the country. What separates Borchardt from most is that, despite the fact that he comes off as a total goof, he does appear to have a lot of talent and knowledge as to the technical requirements of cinema. I’ll have a better idea once my copy of Coven arrives, but the footage shown in AM looks promising.
Of course, it’s hard to gauge how much having cameras around affected the behavior of the subjects, but Smith seems to have tried to keep his interference at a minimum while also being honest about it. There aren’t any shots of Smith helping Mark carry equipment, but it would probably be difficult to spend so much time with these people without pitching in. The movie is very funny and there’s a lot of odd characters, but there’s also a great sense of the love and loyalty between them.
I know way too many creative people that are working long and hard to achieve something to laugh at Mark Borchardt without having it hurt a little bit at the same time. American Movie is as much a portrait of Every artist as it is anything else, and that’s the real horror story.
Order copies of COVEN and see what Mark and Mike are up too now at the American Movie website.