Mark Borchardt felt like a failure. However, with a beer in his hand, he started thinking about the great American script and the great American movie. The time for drinking and dreaming is over. It is time to create and complete. This will be his ticket out of failure, out of depression. Making a film will give his life meaning.
So begins Chris Smith’s funny and poignant documentary, American Movie. Smith follows Borchardt as he tries to finance, cast and make his independent film interviewing Borchardt’s actors, his crew, his family and his friends.
Borchardt is a fascinating character. He is endlessly eloquent and incredibly passionate about his film project. He is also, we suspect unintentionally, hilarious. His interactions with his best friend (a scene stealing Mike Schank) are beyond priceless. While never cruel, at times Smith’s documentary feels more mock than doc.
However, Smith never allows us to simply laugh at Mark and Mike’s adventures in filmmaking. American Movie isn’t the story of two deluded friends. We cannot help but admire Borchardt’s determination. The documentary is an exploration of the aspirational nature of filmmaking and an examination of the lives of its endearing characters - their frustrations, hopes and dreams.
In an interview with Disolve, Smith says that he didn’t start out to make a movie about filmmaking. “It was always a human story,” the director explains. “I was attracted to Mark, and the struggles he had, and the dream he was trying to pursue. For me, that was always at the heart of what we were trying to film.”
Smith adds that he was interested in Mark "as an individual, and his philosophical look at the world. He always impressed me and surprised me in the way he looked at things. His energy, enthusiasm, passion, and compassion felt so unique at that time, so it was something I was just very attracted to, in terms of seeing how that resonated through his life, and what he was trying to achieve.”
Based on over 70 hours of footage, American Movie was released in 1999 and it is very much a film of its own time. In the interview, Smith states that “this movie would have been very different today”.
He explains that “there’s much more self-awareness in terms of people’s interaction with cameras and knowing where that ends up in terms of reality programmes. What we would have captured would have been very different just in terms of self awareness. I think that it definitely was a product of that time in the best possible way.”
Filmmaking Documentary Recommendations
American Movie is part of the filmmaking sub-genre of Documentary 7.
If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
I would also like to include the following honourable mentions: Lost In La Mancha, Cameraperson, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films, Best Worst Movie and The Kid Stays In The Picture.
Do you have any filmmaking documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.