Video Days: on Tenement, Wisconsin, and Aesthetic Rebirth

Mark Borchardt (American Movie) talks his foray into directing music videos.

I didn’t grow up watching TV, and I didn’t grow up being exposed to popular culture like most people; I just wasn’t into it. I wasn’t into MTV and music videos. I was into my own things, and I had to learn about making music videos later.

The music video form is the equivalent of a short film. It’s a medium where it’s this nexus of finite possibility. You work in a small space for heightened results. What that means is: the whole is apparent almost immediately. Instead of this expansive foray into an infinite landscape, your beginning, middle, and end is readily apparent. You have to know where to begin, and you see it evolve almost in real time. Every shot in a music video is a building block of the narrative. Each shot is thematically concise, and it conveys the theme in a way a longform film can’t. There’s sometimes a redundancy of visual ideas in a film in order to get through the dialogue, but in a music video, each shot is usually an immaculate contribution to the overall idea in a very immediate sense.

The first video I ever did was either Bayside’s “Masterpiece” or Big D And The Kids Table’s “Deadpan.” I don’t remember which came first; it was a long time ago. What happens is that, someone says, “Hey, we want to bring your talents to the table.” So then you have very purposeful aesthetic interactions and very purposeful interactions about intent, and you have this whole world that everyone invests in. You’re working with productive people and your aesthetic contributions are being utilized.

Connecting the artist’s vision and my vision is a natural symbiosis. I’ll listen to them, they’ll present the ideas and the overall vision of what they want to accomplish, and then, inherently, I have my authorship in it when I pick up the camera. What you want to do with any project is bring something dynamic to it.

On music videos, they are looking for my creative input and they’re willing to listen to what I have to say. They may have the basic idea and the content, but then the aesthetic context becomes larger than the content. I provide the aesthetic context, and they always want to know what I am going to come up with. They are just as interested in what I am going to bring to the table as what they are bringing to the table. It’s not like they have it mapped out and are saying, “This is going to happen and then this is going to happen”—they bring a basic concept and say, “What can you do with it? We’re open to any customization you can provide us.”

It would be disingenuous to preclude the fact there’s an economic interest in directing a music video. People never bring that up; people frame it all as if everything just appears in their lives and that everything they do is for fun, and there’s no economic reality behind it. In anything, that’s a primary interest unless you’re being financed by some invisible hand. You move through life with an economic interest, but the things you get involved with should be rewarding to you. Doing music videos is very rewarding, because it calls upon your aesthetic interests, too.

Wherever you decide to film it, there’s a sense of place and there’s a sense of spatiality. Tenement approached me with an offer to direct a video for them. We met, and it was just a basic concept: they wanted to capture the Wisconsin landscape. We went to various locations with very existential ideas. We didn’t have this huge outlay of what needed to be done, but we went to a particular park and would just see what would happen and what we could film. It was beautiful and, instinctively, we did our thing.

Wisconsin has always been a silent influence on my work. Wherever you’re born in the world, that’s what you’re familiar with; that’s what you work with, and that’s what inspires you. To say that this, that, or the other thing is because of Wisconsin… It’s like, look man, there’s a whole world out there. There are thousands of cities and everyone believes that their special place is unique. In shooting in this part of Wisconsin, I don’t have to create a fantasy—it’s the area I’m familiar with. It’s a place I dearly love.

For instance, on a recent video I was working on, the band said, “We want a scene where this guy is playing his instrument and this other guy in a costume runs past him.” I had just gotten a new fish-eye lens, and I knew it would work wonderfully filming this guy playing in close-up. I also knew this great stretch of land off the lake that’s unimpeded by any and all distracting objects. I knew where to go to film it, and I knew how to film, and how to have those elements work together.

With Tenement, we began in autumn, and we shot all this beautiful footage. But, the band had to go on tour, so we weren’t communicating every day. Time does its thing and marches on, and then we filmed more a winter or two later. They rented this land and built these huge letters in the real bitter cold. That was a different season in a different year, and then we went out another time and just hit the road. We filmed some stuff out in the country by Appleton; we did Milwaukee, we did Madison, and we did this all throughout the march of time. This wasn’t a huge production. It was just organic. It’s a looser environment—you’re less restricted, and you can all go about your business. It becomes a bit of a temporary family.

The artistic expression always occurs on the days you are filming. I’m not sitting there with huge blueprints and maps on the wall. It’s like, “Let’s go out to the country and let’s film.” You go out to a location and just get a vibe for the visual possibilities, and that’s what you work with. Instinctively, you know what shots to do. The artistic freedom is granted on those days.

What’s very important is to work with people you wouldn’t have worked with before. To put yourself in challenging environments and then accomplish something, you’re walking away having completed a new purpose. Being around creative individuals creates a kind of energy and inspiration. There’s always something good that comes out of working with productive people. You take that energy and that ambition with you. It’s very good to be exposed to people who have this central focus of creating music in their lives. And then, to be able to use your craft in a different situation is very important. To go out there and do your thing, you walk away with a sense of accomplishment and an aesthetic rebirth. It’s fulfilling.

As told to David Anthony.

Mark Borchardt is a writer, director, and producer living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is best known as the subject of American Movie: The Making Of Northwestern, which documented the three years he spent working his short film, Coven.