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Amateurs, Con Artists, and Vanishing Movie Stars: Inside the World of Chris Smith’s Documentaries

The director of Netflix’s ‘Fyre’ doc was a Sundance wunderkind-turned-commercial director extraordinaire. Now he’s returned to the documentaries and themes that brought him to movies in the first place.

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Exactly 20 years ago this month, Chris Smith’s American Movie was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary competition and the type of distribution deal that was virtually unheard-of for nonfiction films. At its center was a force of personality named Mark Borchardt, a Milwaukee-based independent filmmaker whose long-shot dream of becoming the next George Romero runs against the stiff headwinds of mounting debt, personal foibles, and, perhaps, his own artistic limits. Subtitled “The Making of Northwestern,” after the long-gestating personal project that Borchardt has yet to bring to fruition, American Movie is actually about the finishing of Coven, a black-and-white horror short that he’d been patching together over the previous three years. (The quirky pronunciation of the short, “COH-ven,” is the one case where Borchardt succeeds in bending reality to his will.)

We never learn enough about Northwestern to know what it’s about. On one of several appearances on David Letterman over the following year, Borchardt described it as the story of “a dude drinking in the junkyard who writes his way out of it,” which sounds about right. In American Movie, Borchardt and his affable sidekick, Mike Schank, are standing in front of the junkyard as he gets introspective about a particularly regrettable night of drinking: “Is that what you want to do with your life? Suck down peppermint schnapps and call Morocco at two in the morning? That’s senseless.” Writing his way out of that situation will take draft after draft after draft—amended in his favorite writing spot, the airport parking lot—and even then, his tenuous source of financing is his demented Uncle Bill, who mostly scoffs at his nephew’s aspirational soliloquies. And yet, for all of Borchardt’s stops and starts, he isn’t so different from Werner Herzog in Burden of Dreams or Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness, two directors whose grand visions are a hair’s breadth away from folly. It’s highly unlikely Northwestern would have been Fitzcarraldo or Apocalypse Now, but Smith’s documentary celebrates the same audacious impulse.

At first glance, there seems to be very little connecting American Movie with Smith’s new documentary, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, which premieres on Netflix this week. American Movie was a vérité-style portrait, winnowed from a few years and 70 hours of Borchardt’s life as an on-again/off-again auteur and full-time barstool philosopher. Fyre is a glossy feat of quick-turnaround journalism, chronicling the flameout of Fyre Festival, a millennial Lord of the Flies that unraveled over social media in late April 2017 and continues to unravel in the court system. Originally conceived to promote Fyre Media, a company pitched as the Uber of event booking apps, Fyre Festival was billed as an exclusive event where attendees would stay in luxurious “geodesic domes” on Pablo Escobar’s island in the Bahamas and party on the beach to the music of Major Lazer, Blink-182, and a host of other acts. What they got instead was an unfinished lot near the Sandals resort in Great Exuma, rain-soiled disaster relief tents left over from Hurricane Matthew, and, most notoriously, a gourmet meal of plain bread, two slices of cheese, and a dressing-free salad.

The journey from American Movie to Fyre speaks to the transformation of the indie film business over two decades and to Smith’s own viability as a working director, but they’re not entirely a study in contrasts. Both are about improbable enterprises that never get off the ground and both are about charismatic dreamers who are much better at selling their vision than realizing it. The founder of Fyre Media, Billy McFarland, could only successfully book at six-year stint in federal prison for wire fraud, but even scam artists are still artists. He and Borchardt probably wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything—McFarland, an East Coast entrepreneur who trades in penthouse exclusivity, has none of Borchardt’s deeply Midwestern humility—but they’re great talkers who know how to rally people behind them. It isn’t until the bitter end, in fact, that the fullness of McFarland’s fraud is apparent to those closest to him; before then, his positivity and drive had torn down countless red flags. Borchardt and McFarland inspire a kind of shared delusion.

Smith acknowledged the connection. “There’s definitely similarities in the sense that they’re both intensely focused on trying to achieve some quixotic dream,” he said. “And I think that’s what makes [them] so engaging and enigmatic and interesting. I’m interested in the journey that they’re undertaking. But in terms of who they are and their character and where they come from, they’re so far apart.”

Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank in American Movie
Bluemark Productions

“When somebody starts something like an independent film,” he continues, “there’s a number of people who will give themselves over to a project, for different reasons. Sometimes they’re getting paid. Sometimes it’s a life experience or opportunity. And if you’re an outgoing, charismatic person who can talk the talk, there are people who will sign up to help you. That sounds like a negative thing, but it depends on the intention of the person doing the talking. Borchardt was genuine, whether you like his films or not. He was genuine in what he was trying to achieve.”

Then again, a person’s perspective on Borchardt’s behavior can shift over time. When you’re a young person, American Movie is the inspiring story of a filmmaker who’s determined to blow past every obstacle and make something of himself. When you’re older, it’s the story of a single father of three who refuses to square up to his debts, his drinking problems, and the related burdens he saddles on those closest to him.

“I remember being in my 20s and working on American Movie,” says Smith, “and I don’t think we were unaware of the resonance and sort of the bigger things that existed in the movie, but I remember seeing it again like 10 years later, and my perspective on the movie had changed dramatically just based on being older. Something you seen in your late 30s looks very different from your late 20s. You bring your own personal experience to it. If you wanted to make movies or had some dream that was unrealized and you were older, it could affect you in a different way. Or if you had adult responsibilities. At the time we were making it, I didn’t know how it would look in the future looking backwards.”

Raised in Okemos, Michigan, a modest suburb east of Lansing, Smith didn’t have much exposure to cinema at home, but there were just enough art films circulating through Lansing to keep him and his high school friends busy. He saw The Thin Blue Line and Total Recall at the Frandor Shopping Center, and he recalls feeling inspired by the success of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, which brought attention to Flint, Michigan, a city less than an hour’s drive away. (Smith would later serve as Moore’s cinematographer on The Big One.) Catching up with Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise at a college repertory theater in Madison, Wisconsin was particularly revelatory. “They gave me a different perspective on what a movie could be,” he recalls.

There’s an unmistakably Jarmuschian feel to Smith’s first feature, 1996’s American Job, a deadpan comedy so attuned to the workaday drudgery of a minimum wager that it’s often been mistaken for a documentary. With a mere $14,000 in hand, Smith and his co-writer/star, Randy Russell, leaned on favors and old contacts for casting and locations, including a couple of places where Smith was once employed. (“I worked at Arby’s, which we made into a chicken restaurant, and we were shooting while they were open. Then I worked at a plastics factory, so we were able to shoot there as well.”) As Russell’s blank hero gets knocked around from one menial job to another—fired from some, quitting others—the film captures the mundane, absurd, and tenuous essence of the unskilled laborer’s life, one memorable anecdote at a time. At the plastics factory, his boss makes him fire himself for breaking a machine; during a 3 a.m “lunch” break at a third-shift inventory job, a co-worker explains how 2-liter plastic Pepsi bottles could be carved into a matching set of bowls. Smith was doing for the Midwest what Jarmusch had done with a layabout Brooklyn apartment-dweller in Stranger Than Paradise: making a movie about characters and lives who no one would think to make a movie about.

It was while finishing American Job in the editing bays at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee that Smith met Borchardt, who naturally made quite a racket. When he finally sent American Job to festivals like Sundance and TIFF, everyone rejected him, until a one-time screening at MoMA in New York in 1996 roused enough attention to get the film invited to Sundance the following year. Critics of American Movie tend to talk about how much Smith condescends to Borchardt with funny scenes of him on set, like driving a man’s head through a poorly scored kitchen cabinet or dragging his mother to reshoots. But at the time, they were fellow travelers: American Job and Coven had virtually the same budget, and neither director had proven himself at anything but being able to hold down shit jobs.

American Movie hit the Sundance lottery like no other film that year save for Happy, Texas, a forgettable William H. Macy comedy for which Harvey Weinstein grossly overpaid in a bidding war. Even still, Smith says the cost of finishing it and delivering it to Sony Pictures Classics limited much of the money they made on the film—“though to make any money off an independent film seemed like a win.” Asked what it might have been like for young indie filmmakers coming up then versus now, Smith feels more optimistic about the possibilities today.

“For me, being in the Midwest, you’re trying to make this movie, and you just like put it in a box and label it ‘Sundance Film Festival’ and send it,” he says. “And you get a form letter back. And that was your access to trying to find an audience. Now with YouTube and social media, you can have an audience instantaneously and there’s no barrier, other than maybe oversaturation. It’s still going to be very challenging, but in terms of making a name for yourself and gaining an audience, that’s viable now in a way that it wasn’t 20 years ago.”

Smith’s feature career post–American Movie has moved in fits and starts. His next film, the charming hour-long 2001 doc Home Movie, was commissioned by a dot-com company, Homestore, that gave him access to five unusual residences and their owners, from an abandoned missile silo converted into a New Age refuge to a couple that had turned their home into a playground for dozens of cats. From there, he tried his hand at guerrilla filmmaking by following political pranksters in 2003’s The Yes Men, traveled to India for the immersive 2007 slice-of-life The Pool, and interviewed Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD officer turned conspiracy theorist, for 2009’s Collapse, which warns of what will happen when the bubble bursts on the oil market. Smith wouldn’t direct again until Spike Jonze approached him with hours of behind-the-scenes footage of Jim Carrey acting in character as Andy Kaufman on the set of the 1999 biopic Man on The Moon. With Carrey as his sole talking head, Smith and his longtime editor, Barry Poltermann, turned out the 2017 Netflix doc Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a prismatic look at the madness and uncertainty of the creative process.

Jim Carrey in Jim & Andy
Vice Films

During these stretches of inactivity, especially the 11-year gap between Collapse and Jim & Andy, Smith has quietly carved out a sterling reputation as a commercial director. His very first commercial, a minute-long spot for Pacific Bell’s DSL service, is a pristinely orchestrated short comedy, imagining the chaos that consumes a neighborhood where everyone has to draw from the same internet connection. He’s done memorable Geico spots with Burt Bacharach and the late voiceover artist Don LaFontaine, an Esurance Super Bowl ad with John Krasinski and a pile of cash, and a couple of Cingular Wireless dropped-call bits. To the extent that gun-for-hire work on commercials can have a style, Smith seems to specialize in the funny and offbeat, a carryover from his feature work. He says that ad agencies tend to hire directors based on the commercials they’d done before, so he’s been sort of typecast as a filmmaker who’s good at comedy and dialogue.

“It’s funny, some people are like, ‘You must hate having to do that, you know, when you just wanna make movies,’” he says. “But I just like being on set and learning and trying different things. You can work in different genres, and you learn how to communicate a number of things in one shot. So I feel very fortunate to have been able to fall into [commercials], because I feel like it’s helped me become a better filmmaker.”

Though Smith originally imagined himself as a fiction filmmaker, his career has mapped itself out a little like Errol Morris’s, in that his commercial work helps make his feature work possible. Twenty years after American Movie, he’s still an independent filmmaker who’s pursuing work outside the studio system, supporting himself by bobbing from gig to gig like Randy Russell in American Job. (Albeit with more prestigious bullet points on the résumé than guessing people’s weight and age at Cedar Point amusement park.) Fyre is his second film in three years for Netflix—“a natural home,” to his mind, for a story that’s rooted in the clickable culture of social media.

Though Fyre has nothing in common with the deadpan aesthetic of his earlier work, it does have the same interest in labor, which emerges as its surprising central theme. Rather than indulge in the same schadenfreude that lit up social media as the festival collapsed in real time, Smith focuses on the good-faith efforts of Fyre Media organizers, local construction teams and vendors, and other professionals trying to make the impossible possible. (Jerry Media and Matte Projects, two of the companies involved, are also partners on the documentary, which has posed an ethical quandary.) While Fyre is still a gobsmacking picture of late-capitalist decline, there were many decent people who believed in McFarland’s vision and are still paying a price for it.

“I wanted to put a human face to a story that was looked at as a very superficial one-off, you know?,” says Smith. “Otherwise it wouldn’t have been that interesting to me. If it was just a movie about bad people doing bad things, there’s only so long that you’ll be engaged. What compelled me was all the thoughtful, hard-working, caring, sincere, earnest people were brought into this orbit and ultimately tried to make it less of a train wreck than it was destined to be.”

Toward the end of American Movie, Borchardt is outside working at a cemetery, rolling up American flags. He gives a monologue about being asked to clean up the middle toilet in the bathroom, where someone had shat on the seat, the wall, and the floor below, and it was his job to clean it up. “To be honest with you, it was a really, really profound moment,” he tells the camera. “’Cause I was thinking, ‘I’m 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds, I got to start cleaning up somebody’s shit, man.’” In Fyre, an amateur pilot with some knowledge of Pablo Escobar’s island warned of its lack of basic infrastructure. “Instead of models,” he says, “You have to be thinking about toilets.” He was kindly asked to leave.

Shit may not be the grand unifying theme of Smith’s career, but there’s another side to the dreamers and visionaries that populate his films, a more practical and humbling reality that has its roots in American Job. You can see it in McFarland, Borchardt, and their disciples, who fall short of their aspirations. You can see it in Michael Rapport in Collapse, a title that refers as much to the personal tolls of his paranoia than the coming global meltdown. And you can see it in Jim Carrey, who risked losing his friends, his reputation, and himself by trying to become Andy Kaufman. It’s perhaps the Midwesterner in Smith who keeps thinking about the practical side of attempting something big.

As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the boy.

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