American Movie 2: The Mark Borchardt Saga Continues

By Collin Souter
Posted 07/25/01 09:06:00

(NOTE: I wrote this about a year ago for a class. I drove out to Menominee Falls, WI and hung out with Mark Borchardt for an afternoon.)

“Northwestern" could very well be the geatest movie ever made. It has gray skies, black and white cinematography, dead trees, blue-collar working class derelict characters and a great American success story. When filmmaker Mark Borchardt had been asked to name his top five favorite films, he named “Northwestern” as his favorite. Never heard of it?
“You will, man,” says Mark. “You will.”

“Northwestern” has been Mark Borchardt’s dream project ever since he could remember. Mark, 34, to this day still talks about filming it, but these days people listen. He made one movie, “Coven,” which he filmed in his hometown of Menominee Falls, Wisconsin. David Letterman named Mark his favorite guest of 1999 after Mark appeared on Letterman’s show promoting “American Movie,” a documentary by Chris Smith about the making of “Coven.” Mark has since become a regular feature on Letterman’s show. On May 3rd Mark made his debut as Letterman’s “Political consultant.”

Hearing Mark talk about the story of “Northwestern,” you get the feeling the project has more to do with Mark’s catharsis than about just making a great movie for everyone to see. With his long thinning brown hair, goatee, glasses and 6 foot 4 inch stature, Mark talks as if standing behind a podium selling himself as a passionate politician who can’t stand still until every possible word has been spoken on the subject at hand. He paces, gesticulates and speaks fluent Wisconsin-ese.

“On the surface story, (“Northwestern”) is about a dude who’s been working on a junkyard for a couple years, drinking every day, hanging out with these dudes and he has to get out of that lifestyle,” Mark says. He steps off the barstool and continues.

“He gets kicked out of his girlfriend’s apartment, he gets fired from the junkyard, he’s living with these dudes in a duplex and it’s hopeless. What he does is he has talent, he has brains…” Now, Mark paces and talks as if pitching the story of his life to a Hollywood player.

“He literally writes his way out of the junkyard. It’s an amazing American success story. Then he meets this writer chick out in the sticks who’s got her own set of problems and challenges.”

There exists a parallel between Mark’s protagonist and Mark himself. Although Mark never worked in a junkyard, he has done his share of working-class jobs, or shit-ass, drubby jobs, as he likes to call them.

“I had a paper route with my little green cart and a bottle of old Thompsons whiskey. Each and every day, a drunk paper boy.”

Mark’s un-lucky job streak continued. While he struggled for two years making his short horror film, “Coven,” he worked as a custodian at a cemetery. In the documentary, “American Movie,” Mark relates one of his job experiences as being particularly profound.

“I was called in to the bathroom to take care of something,” he says. “Right in the middle toilet there, somebody didn’t shit in the toilet, that shat on the toilet. They shat on the walls, they shat on the floor. I had to clean that up, man, but for about 10-15 seconds, I just stared at someone’s shit…I was thinking, I’m 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds I’m gonna start cleaning someone else’s shit, man.”

Experiences such as that drive Mark to his dream. He cannot bring himself to live his life as a full-time 9-to-5 working-stiff zombie. He wants only to make “Northwestern,” and have enough money to support himself and his three kids (Dawn, 11, Steven, 9, and Dara, 8), who live with Mark’s ex-girlfriend, Alissa. “Northwestern,” Mark’s American Dream, began filming in 1990 and ceased shortly thereafter.
“If you take a day off to fantasize, and a day after that and another day after that, next thing you know that day turns into years.”

Although heavy drinking, delinquent child support payments and outrageous credit card bills kept Mark from developing his project, he nevertheless kept the dream alive. He would hang out at the University of Wisconsin just to get his hands on some film equipment. He would bring his kids with him on location scouts. He even went to the Sundance Film Festival to try and raise funds. Nothing came of it.

Mark made a rash decision: Raise money for a shorter, cheaper film, sell 3,000 VHS copies of it for $15 each and use the money from video sales to finance “Northwestern.”
“Check it out, dude, if you’re, like, say, a normal person, you could get a good job out here, have a family and change your life around,” Mark says. “All you gotta do is join Quad Graphics, or something, and your whole life is revolutionized. You have a job, your girlfriend has a job, you get a house and apartment and everything’s fine. But, see, I couldn’t do it that way. I had to make a film.”

Mark grew up in a household consisting of his parents, Monica and Cliff, and two brothers, Chris and Alex. Monica speaks with a Swedish accent, and helps Mark out whenever she can by running the camera or being an extra.
“He vas ol-vays talking about making moo-vies. Ol-vays.”

At age 14, Mark had already started being a filmmaker. With his Super-8 camera that barely focused, Mark and his friends would film such cinematic masterpieces as “The Mad Doctor’s Monster,” “I Blow Up,” “The More The Scarier” and its two sequels. They may not have been award-worthy, but they separated Mark from the rest of the neighborhood. He actually had inklings of ambition.

In Chris Smith’s documentary, “American Movie,” Mark’s two brothers seem bewildered by Mark’s ambition. Chris Borchardt states that Mark’s “greatest asset is his mouth,” and Alex contends that Mark would be much better off working at a warehouse. Cliff, Mark’s stern father, would not help out with the films simply because of the swearing and violence that took place within them.

“My parents were against basically everything I wanted to do,” Mark says in describing his home life. “And it was pretty wild, man. It was like…No one was getting fucked up the ass, or nothing, but psychologically, it was kinda demeaning growing up, and shit, and turning to alcohol and all that kind of crap. (My parents) would bicker and fight 24 motherfucking hours a day, and still do.”

In “Northwestern,” Mark’s protagonist hangs out with the kind of crowd Mark used to hang out with.
“So I would go down the street with the drinkers, 12 years old on up,” he said. “And I had my own family apart from my mom and dad.”

Even after the success of “American Movie” and Mark’s hilarious appearances on David Letterman, Mark continues to run into his friends from the neighborhood, like Ramus. They talk as if nothing has changed.
Mark: (Rolls down his window) “What’s up dudes?”
Ramus: “What’s up man?”
Mark: “We’re working on a story and heading out to the sticks. What’re you guys up to?”
Ramus: “Drinking.”
Mark: “Yeah, man. Drink some beer, man. You’re already beatin me. Alright, man. Seeya’ guys.”
Mark used to hang out with these guys on a neighborhood street corner and get high with them behind his parents’ garage.
“The thing about hanging out with those guys is that even though they’re funny and humorous, they get into crack and all that stuff, eventually, and I don’t get into that stuff…But it’s fun to hang out with them if you’re drinking. But that’s all they do all day is party and drive around.” This backdrop would also serve as inspiration for Mark’s other film, “Coven.”

“Coven,” which, according to Mark, must be pronounced COVE-n so it won’t rhyme with “oven,” tells the story of a writer, played by Mark, who has a drinking problem. His best friend urges him to join a self-help group, which doesn’t turn out to be that helpful.

“A lot of my friends are hardcore alcoholics, man,” he says. “They’d always be coming back from these self-help groups with charts and graphs. I remember one time one of them holding up a bottle of vodka in one hand, and a chart in the other, and saying, ‘look, we’re at target number 17 out of 26 in our alcoholism,’ and I always though that was funny because I knew they didn’t give a damn about any of that shit.”

Mark, like his protagonist, has the talent and the brains. Whereas, the main character of “Northwestern” writes his way out, Mark filmed his way out. Thanks to the enormous success of the documentary “American Movie,” more people know about Mark and his dream. The documentary begins in 1994 as Mark tries to begin the filming of “Northwestern,” depicts Mark’s insane struggle to film “Coven” and ends with the Milwaukee premier of “Coven” in June of 1998. Mark still hopes to sell his 3,000 VHS copies. As of this writing, “Coven” has sold about 2,700 copies.**

“I would sell 3,000 to get the money together for ‘Northwestern,’ so that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “The reality of money like that is, like, maintenance money to finance more copies of ‘Coven,’ more t-shirts, living expenses, business expenses. Plus I’ll get some equipment out of it for ‘Northwestern’…Every time you wake up in the morning and open your eyes, it costs money, so all the sales of ‘Coven’ help keep this dream running.”
“Coven” can be purchased from for $15.

The parallels between the “Northwestern” character and Mark stop at one particular point. Mark has yet to meet the “writer chick who lives in the sticks.” Although he has had many female acquaintances over the years, the Writer Chick fits into Mark’s vision of his American Dream.

“Oh, man, I can see it,” Mark says. “I’d be, like, with this beautiful long-haired, light-skinned black chick going outside a bar in Menominee Falls on a sunny day, and she’s got a totally great personality, and we’re working on a script together, or something like that. That’s where I gotta be, man, that’s where I gotta be…That’s the pinnacle of the American Dream.”

Mark tells everybody that “Northwestern” will be a couple more years in the making. Just don’t expect “American Movie II or III.” “Northwestern” should be smoother sailing for Mark. He has proved himself to those who never believed in him. Both films have given him national exposure and credibility. People now want to work with this passionate, funny, intelligent filmmaker. Just don’t offer to pay for it.

“Anytime you sign a contract, you can kiss your vision goodbye,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, well, you know what? I’m gonna give you $100,000, and I’d really like you to consider your film be shot in color,’ or ‘it’s a great film and all that, but some of these shots run way too long…it doesn’t have the rhythm of a normal film.’ Screw that shit…This is like making a poem.”

Even without “Northwestern,” Mark has two films, “American Movie” and “Coven,” that tell his legacy. If he died, Mark would want his three kids to learn this about him:
“That he tried, God, he tried, man, to live the life that he saw fit, and he came in conflict with the norms of society, and he really wanted to become a better person and he really wanted to explore life, and he may not have…he may not have done the best that he could have, but he tasted a little bit of what he wanted, man. And maybe as his kid, I’d like to fulfill my life as much as possible, because, dude, a lot of people don’t, man, a lot of people don’t.”

**--According to the American Movie web site, Mark has sold 4,622 copies of "Coven." (7/25/01)

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