Menomonee Falls, a suburb of Milwaukee, is the unprepossessing setting for American Movie, a wry documentary about filmmaker Mark Borchardt's struggle to complete Coven, a horror short. Borchardt, a high-school dropout, may be the least likely director imaginable, and as the film opens, the prospects of his ever completing a movie look hopeless.
While Borchardt's goals may seem modest-he's trying to finish a half-hour exploitation piece for the video market-his problems are the same ones that vex big-time directors: not enough money, not enough time, and an endless array of technical and personal snafus. Borchardt's eventual triumph should be inspiring to filmmakers and filmgoers alike.
We follow Borchardt as he tries to assemble a cast and crew for Northwestern, a feature-length horror film. Borchardt's passion, and his ability to communicate it to strangers, are the only tangible elements driving the project, which soon falls apart from lack of money. Borchardt decides to go back to Coven, a film he started in 1995 and never completed. (In one memorable moment, Borchardt learns that he has been mispronouncing 'coven' for two years.)
Much of Borchardt's work entails trying to find funds, mostly from his elderly uncle Bill, whose sour asides can be priceless. Scenes of Borchardt filming are at times preposterously funny. Props fail to function, notably when Borchardt (who also stars in Coven) repeatedly tries to smash an actor's head through an unyielding kitchen cabinet. At one point, he importunes his mother Monica into operating the camera. In take after take of her work, we see how tantalizingly close Borchardt comes to getting what he wants, only to run out of time, patience and film.
Borchardt's directorial methods turn out to be basically the same as any filmmaker's: Get the shot, any way, anyhow. As he reshoots the kitchen scene yet again, he faces every director's nightmare: 'It's 11:30 in the morning, and we have until six tonight to get 52 shots.' Another test: pulling a performance out of recalcitrant Uncle Bill. By take 30, Borchardt is still gamely trying to summon passion and 'fluidity' from Bill.
Against all odds, Borchardt moves into an editing room, trying to finish a cut of Coven in time for its premiere at a local theatre. Two days before the opening, he's scrambling to find lost frames, exclaiming that his film will be ruined without them. It's clear that the filmmakers think that Borchardt is fighting the same battles that Hollywood directors face, and deserves the same respect, if only for his commitment and perseverance.
Director Chris Smith, who made the sharp, mordant American Job, stumbled across a dream subject in Borchardt. Smith treats Borchardt with compassion, but doesn't shy away from showing possible reasons for his problems, or the absurdity of much of what he is trying to accomplish. Despite some lulls in pacing, American Movie ends up an inspiring and very entertaining look at a true dreamer.