Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank
Director:  Chris Smith
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  May 23, 2000

Film ***1/2

We’ve seen what the right filmmakers can do with a measly budget.  We think of films like Clerks or The Blair Witch Project, each made for a paltry sum of about $25,000.  But what if your budget was considerably less than that?  Say…about $3,000?  Well, you couldn’t pay very many people a wage on that, so you’d better hope that your spirit, leadership, and dedication are up to the challenge.

American Movie is not that low budget film I mentioned, but rather, a very compelling, interesting, and funny documentary about a fellow trying to make said film.  That man is 30 year old Mark Borchardt from Wisconsin, who’s spent his entire life trying to make movies.  He’s a long way from Hollywood, in more ways than one.

In the opening titles, this picture purports to be about the making of a feature film called Northwestern, which is Mark’s dream project, and probably a semi-autobiographical film.  But there’s no way he can realize his dream on such a pittance of money to work with.  His entrepreneurial idea, then, is to finish a short horror film that has been on and off the burner for several years, a black and white 16 mm picture called Coven, which, according to him, rhymes with “woven” instead of “oven”.  He figures if he can sell 3,000 copies at $14.95 apiece, he’ll make enough to pay back his Uncle Bill and begin work for real on his feature.  (In case you’d like to see how well Mark is doing, go to www.americanmovie.com for up to date tallies on his video sales!).

Mark’s Uncle Bill is a trip.  He’s an old fellow with a supposedly rather large stash of money that he’s not to keen on parting with.  Mark makes the sales pitches with enthusiasm to him, as though his uncle were some Hollywood magnate. 

So, how do you go about making a film with so little cash?  Get all your friends and family to pitch in and help.  Most of who end up in the picture include Mark himself and all those who happen to be around him.  His stoner buddy Mike plays the music.  His mother often ends up working the camera, despite her protests that she has other things to do.  It’s not the ideal way to realize your vision, perhaps, but when the circumstances call for it, the determined people like Mark make do, and make it work the best they can.

Some of the glimpses into Mark’s personal life are fascinating, too.  In his room are books and videos by his favorite filmmakers, including Kubrick and Bergman.  He knows his art form.  Apart from his passion for making movies, we also learn that Mark has plenty of other financial troubles.  Bills piling up, credit card debts, owing back child support.  He feels this picture is his last chance, and he adamantly claims, “I will NOT fail.”

Mark, however, may be one of those hapless many who’s passion far outweighs his actual talent…I’ll let you be the judge of that.  But as far as this documentary goes, you can’t help but be caught up in the saga of the little film that could, and the heart of the man trying to overcome all obstacles to get it done.  I cheered for him, and I’ll bet most audiences will do the same.  We all want to believe that hard work and dedication can make our dreams come true despite all odds.

Video ***

This is a full frame presentation, and though not meant to be reference quality, plays out with no real complaints.  I noticed nothing in the way of compression or color bleeding, and only small instances of grain, common with low budget film stock.  The look is not the attraction here, but it serves the mood of the movie well.

Audio **

Again, the soundtrack is not meant to be reference quality.  It is a simply Dolby digital stereo mix.  Music and dialogue are always clear, and that’s all you can ask for.  There’s really not much in the way of dynamic range or channel splitting here.  In other words, no major complaints, but nothing to get excited about, either.

Features ****

The best feature on the DVD is the inclusion of the short film Coven, which you’ll definitely want to take a look at after seeing the main attraction.  On top of that are several trailers for this and other films, an audio commentary by the filmmakers with Borchardt and Schank, and some deleted scenes. 


American Movie is a testament to that drive to succeed when failure seems eminent, and the unwillingness to back down or give up simply because the road to completion is lined with quicksand.  Mark Borchardt may never get to finish his dream movie Northwestern.  But if he doesn’t, we’ll all know that it took a hell of a lot to beat him down from it.