AMERICAN MOVIE interview with Chris Smith & Sarah Price
[Originally published in Macabre magazine #2, University of Queensland, Autumn 2000]
Andrew: I read an interview with you that said probably the worst review you've had was about two and a half stars.
Chris: Yeah, but that was until we saw this list of all the reviews from the year, and there were a few below that too.
Sarah: This one place, they had a range of solid stars up to... we got an empty star! Like, a hollow star?
Chris: But that was from Vogue magazine, I mean what do you expect from Vogue magazine? It's like, they're fashion, and then you have people like Mark and Mike, that are so real, and it's like two worlds, you can't expect for them to work together anyway.
They're staring at wall to wall flannelette shirts...
Chris: Exactly. Can you imagine the colour of their faces?
Although I did find the other night one review, from an Internet movie magazine, and they gave it a D-minus. Because they said Mark was just so...(long pause) They just didn't get it.
Chris: If you don't get it, it would be a painful experience. And I think it's that way with any film. If you don't buy into what the movie's about, and you don't understand where it's coming from or what it's really about, you're not going to ever come around to seeing it. And then I think it's that you're just wondering why you're watching this movie. I mean, if you look at any movie made, it's hard to find one that has a unanimous consensus, that this movie is good or bad. But in general the people that we met that liked the movie and we do interviews with, we find we get along with them well and they actually seem like interesting people in their own right. And it seems that like gravitates to like, in that sense.
It seems from what I've read that it's pretty much a universal theme, about a character trying to drag himself out of the shit.
Chris: I think it related to anyone who had a dream in their life and tried to follow it, has gone on that kind of journey that you take when you follow something like that, I think they can definitely relate to the movie in that sense.
Sarah: I think also because it's pretty contemporary, in the sense that this isn't something Mark did a long time ago. What people are finding really inspiring about him is that he's trying to lift, get over some of the personal flaws that he thinks he has, and then also juggle his adult life, having kids and getting money and paying the rent, with still being able to take that energy of when he was younger, going out into the woods and shooting Super-8 movies, maintaining that energy into his adult life, so that that's what makes him happy and that's what he wants to continue doing. I think people connect to that.
I wanted to talk to you about what you guys did before American Movie. Now, American Job, that was your first...
Chris: That was my first film. It was a narrative film that I did in the mid-nineties that had documentary elements in it. But it was basically a narrative film that was centered around working crummy jobs in the States and how that can kind of steal your soul and everything else. So it was a world that I knew at the time, and a lot of my friends were working for below five dollars an hour. So the movie was basically dealing with that. And American Movie was kind of in reaction to that. It seemed great because here you have someone who's in that situation but really trying to take control of their situation and get themselves out of that world.
You both worked on American Job.
Sarah: He did it, it was Chris's film, but I helped with the editing a little bit at the end. I was supposed to be in it, but I had to work. That's our big joke.
Were you guys were in film school together?
Sarah: Yeah, we met taking film classes. You were majoring in art a bit more, and I was majoring in film. But I was doing more experimental documentary type of stuff, just student work. But that was where we met, and we just started helping each other. That was in 1991. So we were friends for a long time before we moved up to Milwaukee. Chris moved up there to have facilities to continue or finish editing American Job, and I'd come up to visit a little bit. But we both had a professor, a visiting artist professor, who was from Milwaukee and was talking a lot about it, saying it was a great place, and if we wanted to stay in the mid-West and continue trying to do filmmaking that we should consider that as a place to go. Because it was a larger city than where we were at the time. And so Chris went up to finish that. I went up and visited, I liked the city and stayed doing some graduate work in film production up there. And that's where we started filming Mark.
So where was Mark at this time? Was he in a class with you?
Chris: I was actually teaching an independent study class; I wasn't really teaching, I was just chaperoning this group of people that wanted to use equipment over the summer. Because I was there working on my own film, and basically I just had to show up and this handful of oddball people from around Milwaukee would show up because they just wanted to use equipment, and somehow Mark ended up in this class. And ironically Mark was the student that showed up, and then couldn't afford to pay for the class so he dropped out, but his name was still on the register so I kept thinking he was in the class. But anyways... I saw him over that summer, working on Coven and doing his thing, and by the end of that summer he told me he was going to make this movie called Northwestern. And that's when I asked him if we could start, if I could go with him and start a documentary on his process.
So what started as a documentary on Northwestern ended up being a documentary about him finishing off Coven.
Chris: That's what it is on the surface, but really it's a documentary about his family and friends and their lives, more than either of the films in general, it's kind of about everything.
Sarah: And also in order to do that, Northwestern has always been his big dream film, that he's worked mentally on and in script form for fifteen years. So the idea that in order to do something, in order to approach your goal, you may have to finish other things or go through other things in order to get there.
On the strength of American Job, you were contacted by Michael Moore to work on The Big One.
Chris: Right, we both worked on that.
It just seems so perfect, because we've had The Awful Truth out here for probably going on a year now, and just about everyone I know is absolutely hooked on that show. From reading about American Job and then seeing the connection between that and The Big One, it seems obvious that Mike Moore saw American Job and went, "That's the sort of approach that I want to take."
Chris: Well yeah, but he did a lot for independent film in making Roger and Me, because it gave a lot of people inspiration to say, "I don't need to know anybody, and I can grab a 16mm camera and go out and make a movie that can get seen nationwide or around the world." And I think he gave a lot in that sense to the independent film communities. Especially with documentaries.
Sarah: He was Michael Moore before he ever saw American Job. But it was in his book, 'Downsize This', that he listed it in his 'Movies to Rent' - it wasn't actually available at the time, but he obviously saw the movie and really liked it. And it was the book tour for that specific book that he was going to go on and he wanted to document it, and we happened to have a friend that was working with him and she knew that at the time we'd already been filming for a year on American Movie, so she knew that we were working as a team and they were kicking around the idea of just having a team of documentary people OR having a larger crew, they didn't really know what. So she recommended us and then he remembered, "Ah, American Job, I loved that film." So it worked out well. But as it turned out there was a little bit of a larger crew. Quite interesting though.
So getting to see Mike Moore's guerrilla techniques up close in the flesh, that must have been -
Chris: Yeah, because you assume that he's so calm and collected while it's happening, and it's all just like routine, but every time we'd walk into one of those big companies it's like totally exhilarating and you never know what's going to happen and I think everybody's equally nervous about the whole thing and it was kind of an amazing experience to be a part of.
Sarah: But he plays it off so well, I mean that's what was so interesting to watch is, you don't know what you're going to get into and when you're inside this building, and here comes the security guard and there comes someone else, to see how he plays it off, to see exactly what he says and who he's talking to and how he gets himself in and out of these situations, it's really incredible.
Well, you get that just watching the TV show, you just get that RUSH following the camera following him through the building...
Sarah: Yeah. So that was interesting. People have asked about, did we learn anything in terms of style, did we take any of that style or whatever. But we've both always said that although we were both influenced by Roger and Me, The Big One was a very different film stylistically and had different motivations behind it. He's just a personality who has a lot of political motivations to try to right the wrongs. And whether he does that through films, books, TV shows, films are just another outlet for him.
So you guys are now a working team?
Sarah: For this film we were.
So you don't see yourselves as carrying on as a...
Chris: If the project is right. But right now we're doing different things. I'm setting up an Internet television station that's going to come up in May. And then doing some commercials in the States and different things like that. I think after doing a project this big we're excited at trying different things. So my energy is focused more at doing this website called Zero-TV, which is going to be kind of interesting and freeform. You know, things are going to have a quick turnaround, rather than something you spend four years on, rather something that you shoot in an afternoon, edit that night and post in the morning.
Sarah: And I'm finishing a film, trying to get back to editing, another documentary that we started shooting the first year that we were shooting American Movie, but this is one that I was doing camera on and Chris was doing sound on. So for one year we were a documentary team on two films, and then after one year of filming, that one was stopped, and I tried to do editing on it here and there, but it was pretty obvious that got pushed to the wayside, so now I'm going back and trying to, I haven't seen it in something like two years, but I'm going to try and finish it. And let it have its life!
You're trying to tie up all the loose ends as well.
Sarah: Exactly. It's more a closure for me rather than starting, I can't even imagine launching anything, I just don't have any, there's nothing that's new that's coming to me right now. And that's just because I need to dedicate my time and finish that film. For this film it made sense. We both said that everything had to fall into place with Mark and his friends and family. Had we met Mark two years prior, two years later, we wouldn't have got him at this point where he was 29 and on the brink of turning thirty and really was feeling an urgency, that he had to really buckle down and start creating his reality in a sense. He wasn't where he saw himself being. And Uncle Bill, he was there, everything had to fall into place in order for this film to become what it is. And I think that was the same with Chris and myself, we happened to be there, we happened to come together for this as well.
I think Uncle Bill was an important part of the film, too. Cos that really roots the character, it really gives Mark his humanity. No matter what his mouth is saying, there are those scenes where he's bathing his uncle in the bathtub. All that sort of stuff, it's really touching. And then that final card at the end, where it says Bill left him fifty thousand to finish Northwestern...
Sarah: It makes you tear up.
It does! Because the thing about the documentary is, it starts off painting Bill as a miser.
Chris: He IS a miser!
Yeah, but slowly, like the bit where he's dragging out his songbook, it turns you completely around.
Chris: It was amazing, he had all these love songs and he'd just start breaking into them while we were over there.
Sarah: And then also through that, the sense of humour that he had, it was like this amazing poetic touching love song that suddenly ended up in this very warped sort of place. But it was a sense of humour that both he and Mark shared together. We always said they were like kindred spirits or kindred souls, they shared the same ideas about life and everything.
When my girlfriend was watching it with me last night, she said it was really cool that Mark treated his uncle like a person. Instead of a problem, or a doddery old fool.
Chris: That was one thing that always impressed us, he treated everybody the same, whether you were his five year old kid or his eighty year old Uncle Bill, you still got talked to the exact same way. He talked to you like you knew what he was talking about, and you were a smart intelligent person, that was down with the program.
Sarah: And he'd call you "man" or "dude", regardless of whether it was Bill or his daughter. "Man, dude, what are you talking about?" He has a lot of real respect for everybody, I think that's also the feeling we got from Mark and what other people get when they meet him and hopefully that's what they got from the film, is that he respects everyone and he's respecting himself and he's respecting his times.
It must feel weird now that you don't have him in your pocket.
Chris: Well, it's nice not to have a camera on your shoulder. People have asked, are you continuing with this whole second part, the celebrity part of it. And it's something we thought about, before it started to happen, but then just... you can't continue doing that forever, it's just so taxing and it's just such a grind, to be on call 24 hours a day. So I think that that's someone else's movie, if they want to do it.
But that would turn into a mammoth series...
Sarah: Yeah! Maybe it could be like a 7 Up type of thing, every seven years check in. It'd be crazy. But that's what the website is for, putting on little updates and stuff of where he's at with Coven, where he's at with Northwestern.
From what I heard, it did really well in England as well.
Sarah: It hasn't been released there yet, supposedly.
Chris: It's played there a lot though, at a few festivals and stuff. Oh, it did actually go on that tour, it did go on a British tour too. But it hasn't been, the theatrical release hasn't happened. But it did go on that tour, so it has played there.
Sarah: They want us to do press they think in June for it. But yes, it's doing well on the festival circuits, internationally, and now it's still playing. It was released in the US in November, and it's now dying down a little bit, but it's still on in the US and Canada in what, fifteen theaters?
I first heard about it by seeing Mark on Letterman. And they played chunks of American Movie on it, this must have been last October.
Chris: November 13th. Or 17th, actually.
I was watching Letterman in the background, and then all of a sudden this character comes on. I was drawn to the TV. And I thought the amazing thing was, you know, he really kept up his end, and didn't let Letterman get the better of him.
Chris: It's funny how far reaching that show is.
Sarah: It's really nice, because we like David Letterman. But you know, people were worried because Letterman can be cruel to people. But he's only that way to celebrities that set themselves up in some way or other. So the only reason why Mark was even on is because David Letterman saw the film, he watched the tape and loved it. And I think he felt a connection, not just because he's from the mid-West, but because he ropes his mother into some of his stuff sometimes, like being a correspondent or something. But either way I think he felt very honestly and genuinely happy for Mark and wanted to help the film and so had Mark on, which was great. And that went really well, had him on a second time. And now he's asked him to be his political correspondent for the campaign elections! So when we get back to the US, he's leaving in about three days or something to go interview the candidates that dropped out and then work his way up to Gore and Bush. So that's the big thing, keep watching because it should be pretty hysterical. But guess the first thing he said - "We've got to get Al Gore in a Coven shirt, man!" Even the second time he was on, he wanted to find out when Sony was doing another push of the film and that's when he had Mark on again. So he really was helping in that way.
That's pretty cool, but that also marks the difference between the independent film scene in the eighties, around the time that Roger and Me came out, and now, where Sony can fork over money and say, "Here, we're going to push your film." And actually have it playing in cinemas, instead of languishing on the direct-to-video shelf.
Chris: I mean, it's amazing to think that a film like this would have a company like Sony and Columbia Tri-Star behind it.
But the whole studio monopoly thing of the eighties, that's just gone. Now you've got people like Miramax, who are competing with the big companies.
Sarah: And are becoming their own giants now, so you've got to have other upstarts now, filling it there. It's like a big circular wave of companies. That's cool.
What haven't you been asked about?
Chris: We've been asked about everything! It's been a year and a half.
Sarah: We've done a lot of press. The one thing, in the US we set up a six week tour for us. We were going to a different city a day, and there was one stretch in the beginning, like this eight or nine day stretch where we were literally flying to a different city every day, we had ten hours of press, radio, TV, we would go to a screening at night, then a Q and A, then they'd have a party, we'd go to the hotel and go to bed at two, get up at six and then fly to a different city. And we were completely out of it, but then it got a little easier. But that was with Chris, myself, Mark and Mike, the four of us were traveling together. Even when it was grueling, it was hysterical, I mean they're so much fun to travel with. So it was great. It just helps when you meet people, and you're able talk to them about the film, and especially with Mark and Mike, because everybody feels that they can ask them what their perspective is, having been followed around for a couple of years, what do they think of the final film. It's been lots of fun.
So what's Mike's reaction to the whole thing?
Sarah: He loves it. He's totally enjoying it. I don't know if you saw the website, there's a telephone number where you can call him, we put a phone in his basement, because he loves talking on the phone, so the phone number is 4-66-MIKE (laughs) and if he's home he'll pick up and he just loves people calling all the time, and he talks... He would have come here, but they pulled him at the last minute, I don't know why he wasn't able to come. But we had a re-opening in Minneapolis, so Mike went up by himself to do a Q and A and sign autographs and stuff. He loves it. He's having a really good time with it.
I think I read an interview with you where you said you weren't entirely happy with the marketing.
Chris: That was more with the ads. The poster we had a big hand in, it was our own photo shoot, Sarah picked the colour for the background, we worked with them and were involved with that. The problem we had at a few places were just with the quotes that they were putting on the ads, that painted it as this slapstick comedy, a hilarious movie, and we felt that it was much more than that and that people want to see an intelligent film that is funny but is also much more than that, and the marketing campaign seemed very geared towards, like they had "Hilarious" on there nine times.
So that's what you meant about pushing the freakshow angle.
Chris: Yeah, taking quotes like that is kind of disheartening when you think your movie is about so much more than that, and I know that personally if there's a movie that's billed as 'hilarious', one I know it's usually not funny, and two, that it's definitely not intelligent! And so it's like a little disheartening. But again it's like they do their job and we do ours, and you make that decision when you sell the film and you just have to go with it at that point. But they were open, if we saw stuff we didn't like we'd tell them and they'd try to switch it and so it was a push and pull in that sense. But definitely as far as the posters were involved we definitely got our hands into that, and the trailer.
Sarah: They actually cut the trailer, and we were preparing to cut a different one ourselves if we didn't like that, but actually they did a good job. That was pretty good. The only thing about the freakshow thing is that's not how we feel about anybody in there. I don't feel that any of those guys are freaks! I feel like they're my friends and neighbours. And they're just mid-Western, and we are too, and that's where we live.