Many filmmakers can probably relate to one of the opening scenes in American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999) as Mark Borchart sorts through bills and collection notices. As the amounts add up, he comes across a new credit card and momentarily gets excited about it.
American Movie follows Borchart’s passion project in the making of the short film Coven as a step toward funding and finishing his feature film Northwestern. Borchart is an intelligent visionary with a strong dedication and a decided eloquence but sometimes a lack of focus and definitely a lack of money. He remains undeterred, however, as he continues filming Coven, recording the dialogue, creating the sound and visual effects, editing the final cut, and all the while trying to get enough money together.
Interviews with friends and family reveal Borchart’s lifelong passion not only for film, but specifically for horror film. While they like him as a person for the most part and they respect his passion to a point, they remain skeptical of his plans to finish Coven. One of his brothers raises the question of what makes these films so special, while his father cuts off funding altogether.
American Movie also is a portrait about Borchart himself. We learn about his upbringing, his education, his Army stint, his cemetery job, his children, and his girlfriend. We see him take care of his Uncle Bill. Throughout all of that, of course, is the driving passion to make films and the anxieties about that passion at the same time. At one points he says, “Why, every time they talk about making a film, do they talk about ‘dream?’”
For anyone who has never worked with physical media, American Movie is interesting in that it shows the “old school” process of independent film production, right down to the editing by hand frame by frame.
Overall, American Movie represents Borchardt as a likeable man with admirable dreams who does the best he can to make them happen.