‘American Movie’: How the failed ‘Blair Witch Project’ predicted the future

For a brief moment in Chris Smith’s stark 1999 documentary «American Movie,» Hollywood glamor seeps into the film’s wintry Wisconsin gloom. Billy Crystal monologues on TV at the 1997 Oscars, a broadcast that saw the likes of «Shine,» «Fargo,» «Secrets & Lies» and «Breaking the Waves» jockeying for top awards. «WHO they are you guys?” Crystal cracks a well-deserved laugh from an industry crowd unaccustomed to so much neglected independence.

Mark Borchardt, divorced, divorced and on the verge of 30, watches from his mother’s couch, exhausted but somehow engaged and not exhausted. He’s the only one in the movie to dream big: He initially wanted to write, direct and star in a personal-sounding drama called «Northwestern.» Now, the aspiring auteur has turned to making a horror movie that’s really in his bones, «Coven» (which he mispronounces in a way that rhymes with «woven»). Borchardt is spectacularly untalented. It does not matter. Seeing his eyes light up makes you want «Coven» to happen.

Animated project logo from 1999

Project from 1999

All year long we’ll be commemorating the 25th anniversary of the pop culture milestones that reshaped the world as we knew it then and created the world we live in now. Welcome to The 1999 Project from the Los Angeles Times.

«The American Movie,» which premiered 25 years ago this week at the Sundance Film Festival, took Borchardt’s aspirations and molded them into something more suggestive, crystallizing the moment when the gates of Hollywood’s castle stormed independent films. It’s worth going back Crystal’s monologue, in which he fondly calls this year’s Oscars «Sundance by the Sea.» The idea of ​​such intruders ever taking over the film industry’s big night seemed mildly amusing to him at the time; now that moment drips with irony.

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Mark’s librarian groans under the weight of self-taught zeal: screenplays by Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh; Eleanor Coppola’s «notes» on her husband’s disastrous «Apocalypse Now» shoot; several creased Hitchcock and Kubrick studies. Soon to be published is John Pierson’s 1996 hit «Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes,» which chronicles the rise of independent outsiders who make their journeys seem replicable by anyone, you or me. (Pierson, along with stalwarts John Sloss and Micah Green, would eventually turn into an «American movie» themselves. into hot real estate.)

Bill Borchardt (Mark's uncle) and Mark Borchardt "American movie."

Bill Borchardt (Mark’s uncle) and Mark Borchardt in «American Movie».

(Sony Pictures Classics)

But Mark doesn’t fit the mold. While he seems busy involving family and friends in his plans — including his best friend, the late Mike Schank, who has a fatal burnout — you don’t expect the next Martin Scorsese to talk to a fat Milwaukee trumpeter or work. day job vacuuming the cemetery.

That was part of the wit of this documentary. Smith and his co-producer Sarah Price, who began watching «Coven» as a two-man crew, had a hunch the real story wouldn’t be on the page. The relentless Sundance-ification of young hopefuls began, and it was quite material. Thousands of dollars in debt, Mark fears he is «nothing». His desperation turns the film into a paradox: a warm tragedy touched by tender benevolence.

Before the «American Movie», the anti-genius genre was on the rise. Tim Burton’s 1994 «Ed Wood» remains a hallmark of its director, always more comfortable in the gothic company of the misunderstood. (That movie’s writing team, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, had another movie at that weird 1997 Oscars, «The People vs. Larry Flynt.») And we can look ahead to decades of reality TV for countless examples of the magnetism of the less-than -gifted.

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So let’s call it dark fate that the «American film» ended up at Sundance, where Borchardt’s dream of discovery came true – but for someone else. Grossing nearly $250 million worldwide, “The Blair Witch Project” was DIY horror at its most concentrated and inventive. She turned Sundance into a launching pad for the genre in a way it hadn’t been before. Basically, it was “Coven” done right.

Mark Borchardt, right, and Mike Schank sit in lawn chairs  "American movie."

Mark Borchardt (right) and Mike Schank in the 1999 Sundance documentary «American Movie.»

(Bluemark Productions)

Both films are strikingly similar in strategy and potency. At its heart, «The Blair Witch Project» is a story of sad obsession: the headlong rush into the haunted woods of a dreamer who hasn’t thought it all through. Doomed characters turn the camera on themselves, hinting at a future meta. (1999 would be as meta as years go.) «American Movie,» meanwhile, suggests dark horror in a distinctly indie myth of the hot new. Borchardt’s status at the end of the film is vindicated and in ruins. To this day, he still hasn’t finished «Northwest». Maybe he gets lost in his own forest.

The «American Movie» is both a dream and a nightmare – what did it cost Mark to make «Coven» in the end? — and that’s one of the reasons it still feels significant. Director Smith has since found plenty of self-delusion in the many projects that followed: 2019’s «Fyre,» the most harrowing retelling of the implosion of that fake festival; 2020 «Tiger King» Comfortable Watch; and 2022’s «Bad Vegan» are his. He has a new film at Sundance this year, “Devo,” about the iconic new wave.

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I hope Mark Borchardt is doing well. I hope his three children, now grown up, are all right. Laugh at him if you must, as Crystal did, from a studio perch that was already falling apart. But both «Coven,» a disaster, and «The Blair Witch Project,» a blockbuster, expressed the same desire for authenticity that drove — plagued? — industry ever since. And success, whatever that meant in the new millennium, was a shifting metric.

Cast "Coven," from left, Miriam Frost, Mark Borchardt, Robert Richard Jorge, Sheri Beaupre and Tom Schimmels.

The cast of «Coven,» from left, Miriam Frost, Mark Borchardt, Robert Richard Jorge, Sheri Beaupre and Tom Schimmels in «American Movie.»

(Sony Pictures Classics)

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