Mark Borchardt: The (Other) Indie Prototype

During the Q&A after the first screening of American Movie at Sundance, director Chris Smith hailed his subject Mark Borchardt as "the ideal independent filmmaker"–which, in many ways, he is. For one thing, it was Borchardt’s incomparable DIY persistence (rather than Smith’s reputation) that allowed his 40-minute, $13,000 horror flick Coven to earn a coveted midnight screening in Park City midway through the festival. And the $3,000 fellowship Borchardt won last year from Milwaukee County–beating out Smith, as it happens–was enough to help subsidize his latest round of rewrites on Northwestern, a highly personal labor of love that defies his super 8 splatter-movie roots along with any commercial considerations you’d care to name.

"Every time I rewrite it," says Borchardt, sipping black coffee in an upscale Milwaukee beanery, "I can see just how a Hollywood structure would give easy outs for everything. It’s all these corny, hackneyed ideas that have infiltrated movies over the years, with people walking into the sunset or dying of cancer or what have you. I get a lot of my dialogue from real people and real incidents, and then I have to put it all together into a cohesive narrative–so it’s a real bitch."

In the weeks after what Borchardt calls "a really warm, intimate experience" at Sundance, the lanky, long-haired filmmaker, 32, has gone back to his daily routine of turning the ringer off the phone and hitting the keyboard at his apartment in the northwest Milwaukee suburbs. As Borchardt’s autonomous manner of working clearly stems from personal choice more than professional circumstance ("People are comin’ to me with ideas for projects and it’s like, ‘Hey, man–I’m tryin’ to write a film here!’ "), American Movie hasn’t so much given him a leg up as it has simply shed light on his fierce devotion to the craft. Still, Borchardt credits Smith’s choice to film his life story with providing a little well-timed moral support. "It really validated my struggle, the fact that Chris wanted to document it," says Borchardt, wearing a grey Wall Street Journal sweatshirt over blue jeans, a white baseball cap covering not quite half of his stringy brown mane. "I felt respected and vindicated–like I was doing the right thing by trying to make this movie."

And just what kind of movie is Northwestern? Borchardt draws a deep breath before beginning to speak in a near-whisper, making clear the degree of his personal investment in the material. "Around the time when I started making Coven," he recalls, "I encountered straight people for the first time–people who didn’t drink, people with jobs. It took me a couple of years to adapt to that. My whole upbringing and the people I knew, all of it revolved around drinking, and yet these people had an extraordinary set of values and beliefs: They had real character, they were cool and intelligent and helpful to other people. Their environment was what I think of as a kind of Wild West, where people who didn’t go along with the system could do their own thing with no adherence to jobs or education or what have you. I thought, ‘What a beautiful, unknown culture this is, one that has never made it into movies.’ So Northwestern is about people trying to do their own thing–an alcoholic dude working in a junkyard and this manic-depressive writer chick whom he meets out in the sticks–and how they try to find their own kind of happiness. It’s all about trying to do something creative in a world that’s totally geared toward capitalism and going to work every day."

I mention to Borchardt that he seems to have just summarized not only the central themes of Northwestern and Coven but the basic principles of his own anti-establishment m.o.–a trait further shared by both Smith and the subtly subversive, clock-punching protagonist of his debut feature, American Job. Borchardt agrees immediately, citing a scene from Smith’s 1996 hybrid doc to complete a rather refreshing picture of community among like-minded Midwestern iconoclasts. "It’s like in the first scene [of American Job], when the employer dude is showing Randy around the factory, and Randy kind of strays off the path and starts looking around on his own, and the dude says, ‘No, no–stay with me.’ That’d never be in a Hollywood film, man."

VHS copies of Mark Borchardt’s Coven can be purchased through his web site at

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Rob Nelson is the film editor at City Pages in Minneapolis.