Chris Smith was an unknown would-be director attending film school in Milwaukee when he met a fellow would-be filmmaker named Mark Borchardt, whose career could not have looked very promising. Smith wisely made the decision to make Borchardt the subject of a documentary, and the result is a movie that succeeded artistically and financially more than either of them could have imagined: 1999’s American Movie (sometimes listed as “American Movie: The Making of Northwestern”).
The documentary follows Borchardt’s painfully unsuccessful effort to make “Northwestern”, which he envisions as a cinematic masterpiece. As the shoestring production collapses around him, Borchardt decides instead to resurrect his half-finished horror film “Coven”, the proceeds of which he hopes will finance his dream project. With money from his dotty Uncle, and, volunteer acting and production by his family and aspiring local actors, Coven fitfully begins to turn into something of which Borchardt hopes he can be proud. Meanwhile, the rest of his life is a mess. He is unemployed, lives at home with his parents, drinks too much, and is estranged from his children. The emotional anchor of his life is less so his family than his best friend Mike Schank, a recovering alcoholic with a taste for gambling and a peaceful stoner/Buddhist-esque demeanor.
Never mocking or exploitative, the movie takes its subjects seriously just as they take themselves and their art seriously. As with Hoop Dreams, the families involved gave a remarkable level of access to the documentary makers. The affecting result is a true slice of American life, as lived by white lower middle class people in Milwaukee.
And remember, “Coven” does not rhyme with oven. Should’ve kept the umlaut….