WHEN CHRIS SMITH and Mark Borchardt met in Milwaukee in 1995, they were just a couple of filmmakers trying to get ahead. Fresh out of film school at the University of Iowa, Smith was teaching an independent-study class at the University of Wisconsin while putting the finishing touches on "American Job," a shoestring black comedy about working that would eventually take the first-time director to Sundance.

Borchardt was in that class, and when Smith asked the students to screen samples of their work, Borchardt dragged in a Super 8 projector and "The More the Scarier III," a short about a bunch of teenagers who go out to the woods where, one by one, they get killed off. "It had the cliche ending of so many student films," says Smith, "where the killer pulls off a mask and it turns out to be one of the friends."

"Still," he continues, "I saw that Mark was at least talented, that he knew how to edit and how to put things together so they moved." In fact, Smith was so taken by Borchardt -- and his thwarted, tortured efforts to complete "Northwestern," his own first feature -- that he decided to make a movie about him. That film, made with Smith's old Iowa classmate Sarah Price, became "American Movie" (see review, Page 45), a wry documentary about pursuing cinematic dreams while living a low-rent nightmare.

What the audience doesn't see in "Movie" is how Smith and Price's struggle to complete their own project paralleled (and diverged from) that of Borchardt -- despite financing from director Jim McKay ("Girl's Town") and R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe.

"It's not like all of a sudden we had a funded documentary," says Smith. "I had $28,000 on credit cards, and we couldn't develop our film until four months after shooting. We were constantly running out of stock. We thought we'd get other investors. What I didn't realize was that the combination of "American Job" -- with its six-minute takes of some guy working -- and making a documentary about an unknown filmmaker in Wisconsin was about the worst pitch line you could have."

Where Smith and Borchardt part company is that Smith's film got made and distributed, while Borchardt is still hammering away at his (learn more about the plans to resume filming next year at www.americanmovie.com).

"People compare Mark to Ed Wood," says Smith, "but if he was Ed Wood he would have made `Northwestern' by now and it would have sucked and he would be on to another bad film. People compare him all the time to Ed Wood and Orson Welles, and I really do believe that Mark is somewhere in between those two people."

* LOCAL DIRECTOR Rock Savage may be our home-grown version of Borchardt, with a filmography that includes such Super 8 classics such as "Mummy a Gore Gore" and "Maxx Bloodd, Vampire Spy." Savage, which is the pulp-inspired pseudonym of 37-year-old cable TV design engineer Jose Behar, will screen his new documentary, "Mondo Pagan," Tuesday at 8 at the Lucky Bar, 1221 Connecticut Ave. NW. Admission is by suggested $2 donation.

"It falls somewhere between the lurid and the educational," says Behar, who videotaped his "politely voyeuristic" documentary during this year's annual Free Spirit Gathering of witches, druids and neo-pagans at Camp Ramblewood, Md. For screening information, call 202/331-3733. To find out more about the Savage Film Group catalogue, visit www.erols.com/rocksavage/.

* FILMGOERS who were turned away from the overcrowded National Gallery of Art's East Building auditorium for Luchino Visconti's restored 1963 "The Leopard" last weekend, snarl not. An additional screening has been set for this great classic at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The movie, starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon, has a running time of approximately three hours and is free. Call 202/737-4215 for more information.