An original mix of faux-documentary, improv comedy and historical commentary, Operation Avalanche (2016) follows two young CIA agents (Matt Johnson and Owen Wiliams) who infiltrate NASA, pretending to be documentary filmmakers. As their scheming pulls them deeper into government secrets, the characters get caught up in a plot to fake the moon landing.
On the surface Operation Avalanche is a fun, zany comedy, but it contains layers on top of more layers of mind-bending truth and trickery. Director Matt Johnson stars as a version of himself, transported to 1967, who lies that he is a filmmaker (which of course he really is). The film combines real archival footage, controlled fictional scenes and improvised situational experiments. During production, the filmmakers worked their way into the actual settings of NASA and Shepperton Studios and interacted with real people in character, then repurposing that footage to make it appear to come from the 1960s.
ScreenPrism spoke with Johnson and producer Matthew Miller at the SXSW premiere of Operation Avalanche.
ScreenPrism: How did you come up with the story idea?
Matt Johnson: We came up with it together when we were flying home from Slamdance in 2013, when we’d just premiered our first feature The Dirties (2013). We were trying to figure out how we could make a movie in the same style except about something slightly bigger, and we were looking at historical moments that we could make a fake documentary about. And the moon landing just seemed so catchy and interesting that as soon as we started talking about it we had, like, 200 ideas, basically, on how to make the movie that you saw.
Matthew Miller: It was of those ideas that we were shocked nobody had done it like this before.
SP: How did you did you conceive of the layered style and the idea of using yourself in the movie?
MJ: All those things we'd developed in our first movie, so those are holdovers from [The Dirties]. So it was a given that I was going to play myself, and there were going to be lots of tricks and lots of lies and things like that, and because we were already comfortable working in that style, we applied all those things instantly. In fact we never even really talked about them from a creative point of view. It was more like, Oh, it’ll be so cool that those things are going to come up. But it’s not like we were making those discoveries because we had already discovered those things.
MM: But we didn't quite know, for instance, that the movie was going to be about Matt pretending to be a filmmaker sneaking into NASA as his cover and us basically doing the same thing in order to pull it off from a production standpoint. Those are some things that, as we were figuring out how we were going to make the movie, we stumbled onto that were very cool.
Operation Avalanche (2016)
SP: How did you sneak into NASA and Shepperton Studios?
MJ: It’s mostly what you see in the movie. In both cases, in fact, what we show the audience is more or less what we did. With NASA, we went in posing as a documentary film crew saying that we were from a film school in Toronto, which we both were at the time. And we said we were making a documentary about the Apollo program, in the exact same way the characters say they’re making a documentary about the Apollo program.
And then at Shepperton, we did more or less what the characters do there as well, which is we just showed up. That was different because it was a private studio, but nobody kicked us out right away, and so we just went in and shot as much as we could before they did throw us out. They were filming The Avengers 2 [Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)] at that studio at the time. And when they did finally catch us they thought we were paparazzi trying to film Chris Evans or something.
SP: Have either of them found out since about the film and what you were really doing?
MJ: No, we haven't heard from either of them, but we reached out to NASA because obviously Galveston is not too far away from Austin [where the film played at SXSW], inviting the people from NASA to come to the screening, but we haven’t heard anything yet.
SP: How did you make current interviews feel like they were coming from the past?
MJ: We shot a lot that didn't get used. So what you're seeing is just the stuff that really worked. But we did a bunch of different tricks. So one of the things that we did is we brought clothes with us when we were at NASA, and when we were interviewing people, sometimes we would ask them to wear the clothes that we brought, and they did. They didn’t really ask many questions about it.
MM: They were down to, like, role-play a little bit. So these were real NASA employees pretending that it was 1967 and that they hadn't gone to the moon yet and that they were working to get to the moon. They didn’t ask too many questions about, "Why do you want me to do this?" Because they sort of understood what we were doing—they just didn't know that it was going to be repurposed for a film about faking the moon landing. Which is something I think they're quite touchy about — rightfully so. People died sending man to the moon. It's a big deal to them.
And we think they did it. We don't think it was faked. But we think it's fun to imagine how they would have faked it.
SP: So in imagining that it could have been faked, what is your larger goal?
MJ: You mean, thematically, what it is we’re trying to do with this film? That’s a good question because I'm sure it could get misconstrued that we think that that this is almost like a proof of concept that the moon landing was faked. And because you put so much work into this film and we want audiences watch it, it’s almost like we're trying to create a thesis that this is how it happened, and you should believe this. But really that’s a very surface reading of what this movie’s actually about.
Really it's about ambition and power and a massive sea-change that we both think happened in the American government around the time of the moon landing, which is much less about, in my opinion, the silliness of getting to the moon, which is neither here or there — if the Americans hadn’t gone to the moon, I don’t think it would have affected the world one way or another. But what really did affect the world in a massive way is the political change between sort of an ethical and transparent treatment from programs like the CIA and the F.B.I. and big government, and a much more we know what’s best, the end justifies the means, if we think what we're doing is right then we should be allowed to do anything mentality, which is I think ubiquitous in American government and big government around the world now. Which is to say that someone like Matt at the C.I.A, you can very easily see that exact same type of character coming up with ideas like the shelling of Mainila, the beginnings of the Iraq war, things where it’s like, we need something to happen; therefore we're going to create a story that is going to help us convince people that this is what the policy should be. I know the movie’s fun, but that’s what the movie is getting at, is the personalities behind these government institutions that really do have massive power.
MM: And very much inspired by something like Wag the Dog (1997) or JFK (1991). Those were movies we’d look at a lot.
MJ: And Dr. Strangelove (1964).
MM: The absurdity of big government.
MJ: And of people having so much power. In our film, two guys essentially are changing history because the C.I.A thinks that's going to be good for the Cold War, not really seeing the ethical dilemmas that Owen keeps bringing up during the film. And of course because Matt cares about nothing other than his own self-promotion, he doesn't ask those questions of himself at all until the very, very end when he thinks, “Oh wow, maybe I shouldn't have done this. Maybe the costs to success are higher than I had first thought.”
But we're not trying to convince anybody that they didn’t go to the moon. That’s just kind of a funny side effect.
SP: So you were attracted to this time period because you found the shift in government full of absurdities to draw out?
MJ: Well, yeah, and it's such a great time because it's the high watermark for American culture in a many ways. The Apollo program and touching foot on the moon and beating the Soviets and winning the Cold War — so much was wrapped up in that it's kind of funny to point out that this was also the beginning of a bit of a new low era for just how dangerous the government can be.
MM: And four years later you had Nixon resigning on the White House lawn.
MJ: For exactly the same thing: a guy thinking that he's allowed to do whatever he wants so long as what he's doing is furthering his own agenda. And then him being faced with the exact same thing that Matt is faced with on a smaller level.
MM: It’s a great subject for an election year.
MJ: But I don't think many people watching the film are going to read those things instantly. Because on the surface it's sort of a conspiracy thriller, as opposed to a criticism of government.
SP: I saw that you don't write a script but you work from a detailed outline. What’s the role of improvisation in your filming process?
MJ: It’s a necessary evil for us because we shoot so much in the real world that it would be very difficult to have a fully formed script before we went to a place like NASA, working with real people who didn't know what the context of the film was. So that is just really a necessity.
And then, because we shoot so much like that in the real world, it makes sense to apply that when we're shooting on set or in a controlled space because then the energy is the same. And because me and the other actors know vaguely what the story's going to be, we know what a scene is going to be about and where we're trying to get to, and we have so much practice with one another — we’re all very close friends — it’s actually a lot quicker than having a script on the pre-production side. It raises a bunch of problems, like it's harder to budget and it's harder to get other crew members on the same page. But we work with the exact same people in the exact same roles on everything we do, so it’s not like anybody has to get caught up to speed or somebody is confused. And it also helps the camera, too, because they don't know what's going to happen so the cameras can react much more like they're shooting a documentary. At every level, it makes production easier for us. But it makes editing and post a huge challenge because then you're trying to piece together a story from disparate scenes that may or may not have any connection whatsoever. It becomes a huge challenge.
MM: And I think the most important part of the process is the editing and the post-production process because that's where the biggest difference lies. Because we're not afraid to reshoot stuff, and we always afford ourselves the opportunity not even to reshoot but to shoot new things. So something will happen in the real world. We’ll edit that in, we’ll line it up with the stuff that we knew was going to happen that we sort of plotted out, and we’ll be like, 'Oh to set this up, we need this scene of Matt and Owen discussing X, Y, and Z.' And then we’ll go and shoot that. That's a hugely important part of process.
The Operation Avalanche (2016) Team at the Sundance Premiere
SP: Are you influenced by documentary? How did you arrive at this style of filmmaking for The Dirties?
MJ: Specifically with The Dirties, we more or less lifted the whole format from a Belgian film called Man Bites Dog (1992), which won the Palme D’Or in 1992 and is an amazing movie about a serial killer (our first movie is about a crazy killer). But it's not like we stole everything from it — we made a web show before that that was a fake documentary following two musicians in Toronto that was just a stupid comedy that starred me and my friend. And we developed a lot of that language of always having the cameras rolling and how Matt interacted with the cameras. We’d been doing it for three years before we made The Dirties. Then we made The Dirties for a year and the half. So by the time we made Operation Avalanche we'd had a huge history of having me in a situation with two cameras filming and me trying to make a story happen. So the technique, it was definitely trial and error but just lots and lots of practice telling stories in this format.
We love documentaries, and documentaries definitely influenced this movie more than fiction films did.
MM: Especially [documentaries] from the period, especially the look of the film, all those seminal docs from the 60s.
MM: Anything by the Maysles brothers, specifically Gimme Shelter (1970). An American Family (1973) was a huge influence, especially on our one cinematographer, Andy. I watched Salesman (1968) a bunch of times. Those were our big influences.
SP: How did you create the 16mm look to make the footage feel it was from the 1960s?
MJ: Yeah, that was pretty complicated. And that was the biggest challenge technically going into this movie was to make it look like we shot on 16mm. So we did everything. The opening of the movie is actually shot on black-and-white 16mm film. We had a really smart film artist named Pablo Perez do a frame-to-frame transfer of the entire movie to 16mm in a really, really dirty lab in Toronto.
MM: But it started on set with the lenses. We used these old French lenses that were period. The baseline was we knew we wanted to use stock footage, and if we didn't treat our footage to make it look like that stock footage, then you would have been able to tell every time we use something archival. So we were always trying to match to almost the lowest common denominator that we had going in.
MJ: And that actually made it easier because it was like we had a bit of a map. This happened very late in the process, but we had to reach a certain point before the film was even releasable. We did so much work with our colorist Conor Fisher, so much work with the effects guy Tristan Zerafa. We did so much work with these guys simply because we couldn't get away with anything. At some point the movie is going to cut from our footage to NASA’s footage from the 1960s and then back to our footage. That has to happen, so we needed to match the before and after of those shots; otherwise there’s no movie. So it’s not like we were flailing around in the dark. We had very specific archival shots that we were using, for sure, and Pablo and the guys just worked and worked and worked until there was a seamless transition from one to the other.
MM: And that’s something we had to fight very hard for because everybody’s like, “Do it digitally. It’s so much faster. It’s so much cheaper.” Which I actually don’t think is true. And it never would have looked the way it looks. In hindsight, it was a lot of fun. But man, it was hell. Because the movie was done, and then we had another three months of work just to achieve that. So we fought very hard to keep that.