Winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for his hugely entertaining documentary American Movie doesn’t seem to have changed Chris Smith–or his reputation as a Very Nice Guy From the Midwest. Case in point: Smith’s FedEx package to this Milwaukee-bound interviewer includes a hand-drawn map on an index card marking "Lake Michigan" (complete with squiggly "waves"),"I-94" from Minneapolis (my point of departure), and a twisty "river" near his office space in the city’s Third War–evincing the indie director’s pride in this Midwestern burg where he has chosen to remain even after hitting the jackpot in Park City.
As you may have heard, American Movie sold to Sony Picture Classics for a million bucks, and yet Smith picks me up at the train station in the same car he’s 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 the head and tail leaders for his 1996 debut American Job; the film can in which he personally carried the American 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 (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 a truly independent filmmaker made by a truly independent filmmaker, American Movie testifies doubly to the indomitable spirit of the low-budget auteur. Of course, as Smith’s career has been variously supported by the likes of John Pierson and Jim McKay (the latter of whom invested in American 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 American Movie, whose impoverished subject owes child support and back taxes along with credit card debts incurred as a result of his efforts to get his feature-length dream project in the can. [For more on Bochardt, see sidebar] 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 nothing if not 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.
"When we first started the project, I felt I had never met anyone like Mark," Smith says 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 horror short, Coven, and sell it on video in order to earn financing for the longer Northwestern. "Otherwise," Borchardt claims, "I’m not gonna be shit." The steep climb to Coven’s completion eventually finds Borchardt sleeping on the cement floor with his three kids in the editing room of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s film departmen–which, ironically, 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 down-to-earth approach to filmmaking remain–most charmingly in their jerry-rigged Avid 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, 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 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 co-edited 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. (Price also road-managed the indie film FUEL Tour in ’97, in which American Job was featured.)
As for Smith, the Michigan-born filmmaker financed his first movie by winning $10,000 in a Hostess Twinkies contest, 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 seemingly dead-end positions. Affecting the style of cinema verité, the film follows the stonefaced, laconic Randy (actor/cowriter Randy Russell) through his subversively brief stints as janitor, clerk, and fry cook. In American Movie, Borchardt’s own resistance to clock-punching conformism 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 feels having to clean a hellishly fecal toilet stall. ("I’m 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds I gotta start cleanin’ up somebody’s shit, man.")
"I think the two films are definitely influenced by my growing up in the Midwest," says Smith, "working crummy jobs and having similar thoughts as Randy and Mark. 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."
As a film financed independently and styled with the utmost iconoclasm, American Job is the opposite of what you might call "an assembly line movie." Therefore it’s no wonder that when Smith first met Borchardt four years ago in a film class Smith was teaching at the 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 follow-up. "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 deadpans.
Price thinks there’s a regional aspect 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 the coasts. "Living here, there’s not as much pressure to make it,’ " says Price. "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 resume.’ It’s more like, Now I have this idea, and I’m gonna start working this idea out.’ 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 sort of 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 has just signed with 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.
From American Job to American Movie to American Splendor, Smith has somehow managed to expand his horizons while staying put. Ironically, in matters of career development, the independent filmmaker has retained the sensible outlook of a factory boss: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The main thing that encourages Smith 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 coop’s basement, this tight-knit group of cineastes rents equipment to other filmmakers at affordable prices. Not surprisingly, Smith can often be heard enthusing about the coop’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 10 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 coop’s resources."
In a way, the River West coop, with its A/V thrift-store mise-en-scene 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 art work: the 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 American 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 American Movie DVD.
And then, of course, there are the movies of Mark Borchardt, including the impressively bare bones Coven, which Smith would like to see included as a midnight attraction at the theaters screening American Movie. 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 . . . ." 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 auteur trails close behind with his microphone. Do such Oscar-nominated "independent films" as Shine and The English Patient even begin to compare to Borchardt’s in terms of being "unusual" or "risky"? Would Borchardt ever want his intensely personal Northwestern to be included with the corporate likes of these?
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.