Making an independent film is hard. Very hard. You have no budget, limited resources and limited time, the sum of which is often fairly shambolic despite the best efforts of the creator. Everyone in their time has picked up a camera and thought about making a film but few really commit to it. One man who can say with his hand on his heart however that he tries his best is Mark Borchardt – the star of American Movie which chronicles his attempts to make a feature film on a shoe string budget with no professional training.
In North-West Milwaukee, 33 year old borderline alcoholic Borchardt lives with his parents in a dead end town with no prospects. He dreams of making it big in the movie business and despite some false starts and unfinished projects behind him, he is focused on making ‘Northwestern’ – a feature length film for which he is writer, director, producer and star.
Over a period of many months, American Movie follows Borchardt and his best friend Mike through the process of scouting locations, casting, pre-production and raising funding for the film. Perhaps predictably as day one of the Northwestern shoot approaches things are not going to plan and with lack of funding causing a major problem, Borchardt decides that he needs to change tack and finish ‘Coven’ – a horror short started three years previously. It is his belief that by finishing Coven and selling enough units he can fund the Northwestern shoot.
So with Northwestern on hold, reshoots on Coven begin during which we get to meet the weird and wonderful people who surround Mark and provide varying degrees of assistance as members of the cast and crew. It is the wide array of characters that make American Movie so great as you can scarcely believe that some of them can be real.
Mark’s best friend is Mike Schank who is possibly the world’s greatest accidental comedian and the real highlight of the film. With a history of serious drug and alcohol abuse, Mike is reduced to a combination of the village idiot and a sniggering real life version of Butthead but nevertheless is incredibly likeable. His loyalty to Mark is unparalleled and their conversations are often inadvertently hilarious as they are on completely different mental wavelengths.
The other supporting cast which include Mark’s disapproving dad and weary supportive mother are slightly more normal but the overall feeling is of a heavy and depressing small townAmericawith little hope for anyone.
Perhaps the most poignant moments of American Movie come via the interaction between Mark and his uncle Bill who is in his twilight years but who having built up some wealth in his working years is potentially the main financial backer for the film. Whilst Mark’s intentions are ultimately good, it is hard to watch him try and milk his vulnerable uncle for money to fund his dead end project.
American Movie is just about the perfect character study and deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. That it would be so successful just adds to the irony of the subject – that a struggling director would end up making his mark in the film business not through his own creation but through his failing efforts being chronicled by his peers. That Northwestern is still listed ‘In production’ 12 years on speaks volumes.