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To the Moon Via Stanley Kubrick: Matt Johnson on Operation Avalanche

Matt Johnson and Owen Williams in Operation Avalanche

Nothing on screen is ever fully truth. Even in the most honest and seemingly unbiased documentaries, manipulation and subjectivity reign. That caveat is accepted when there is explicit knowledge that one’s watching creative content, but blatant deceit is a much dangerous affair. In Operation Avalanche, director Matt Johnson travels in time to 1967 to ingeniously recreate and humorously speculate about some of the most divisive footage in American history, moving images that surely change the landscape of what humanity was capable of. For some, however, the moon landing is an orchestrated sham built on the artifice of moviemaking.

Johnson’s sophomore feature follows Matt (Johnson) — yet another fictional version of himself along the lines of the Matt that appears in his exquisitely assured debut The Dirties. Here, he’s an ambitious and narcissistic CIA agent who drags his best friend and co-worker, Owen (Williams, who also appears in Johnson’s previous effort playing himself), into convincing their superiors they can create a believable film that will, at least in the eyes of the world, put a man on the moon and defeat the Soviets in the space race. In this fake documentary about a fictional conspiracy related to a real event, the divide between artifice and fact becomes indistinct blend of Super 8, 16mm stock, and modern techniques with a tip of the hat to Kubrick’s revolutionary techniques in 2001: A Space Odyssey – a conspiracy theorist staple.

Filmmaker: Both The Dirties and Operation Avalanche are films about a friends making films.In your latest project the stakes are even higher, but the concept is rather similar. Can you pinpoint what fascinates you about creating films about creators?

Matt Johnson: I think it comes from that idea of writing what you know and exploring themes that are personal to you. It’s not like I’m obsessed with movies the way that my characters are, but I really understand what drives people to make movies that way, to give up everything for their ambition. And I think that transcends filmmaking. I think that characters who believe the ends justify the means, and just have to work really, really hard, and do whatever they can to make something work, is something that is relatable to all young people. Whether you’re a filmmaker, or a doctor, or whatever it is you want to go into, it’s easy to relate to somebody who’s trying to do the impossible. In both those films, especially in Operation Avalanche, it is a character who is trying to do something that nobody in their right mind would do, because it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. I guess selfishly, because I am a filmmaker, it makes it a lot easier to relate to these characters, because I’m just playing myself.

Filmmaker: Would you say there is an element of obsession in your characters, particularly in both versions of “Matt”?

Johnson: More than obsession, I’d say narcissism, but yeah, they’re connected. But when you think about it, what is Matt obsessed with, really? I don’t think he could even put his finger on it. He doesn’t care about America landing on the moon. He doesn’t care about success against the Soviets. These things are meaningless to him. What he cares about is becoming a Big Deal. He wants to be a big spy; he wants to become a movie character. From the very beginning, his ambitions are much greater than his identity. Obsession is different. He’s obsessed with his own success, but he’s not obsessed with the details of filmmaking, or Stanley Kubrick as a filmmaker, or even film history. These are just things that he really likes, and it becomes a great narcissism. The Dirties is the same way. You could say both characters are obsessed with pop culture, but really what they’re obsessed with is an identity outside of themselves. How can I be an important person? How can I be a filmmaker? How can I be a great actor? They just want to be things that they’re not.

Filmmaker: So, thinking of that, when you’re writing your films and creating the screenplay for this, how much do you channel through them, and how much is a fictional version of things you’ve noticed in yourself?

Johnson: I don’t write scripts for my films. My friends and I, normally Josh Boles and myself, will make an outline, which is a vague idea of what the story could be, and then we just start shooting. In shooting we do our writing. For example, on Avalanche, we knew these guys were going to try to break into NASA as documentary filmmakers, and that would be their cover, so we just went and did that, and then figured out what the story would be around that once we got home and looked at the footage. In terms of how much of my actual self I put into the character, I try to be myself all the time — turned up a little bit, because I know I’m in a movie, but I respond the way I would actually respond.

Filmmaker: Is it terrifying to go into making a film without a screenplay and what that entails or is it always just exciting because of the possibilities?

Johnson: It’s not scary when you shoot, but it’s really scary when you start editing. In fact, it’s horrifying, because then you’re faced with reality. It’s almost like the characters in my movie — in fact, it’s exactly like the plot of Operation Avalanche. An ambitious, optimistic guy who thinks noting could go wrong; they shoot a bunch of stuff, it’s great, and then horror descends upon him as soon as he realizes what he’s done, because you get the footage back and you’re like, oh shit, there’s no movie here. And then it becomes a struggle to try to figure out where the story is in what you shot.

Filmmaker: Would you say Operation Avalanche is a departure for you as a director? It’s a period piece with a much more ambitious vision and has a larger scope.

Johnson: Yes, definitely, but I think a lot of it was misguided. If I had been honest with myself, I wouldn’t have tried to do something so ambitious, because it took away all the things I was really good at, like shooting in the real world, shooting with real people, being able to shoot without a plan. A lot of that worked much better on The Dirties because we could just go out and do it, where here, it was like my wings had been clipped. So it was a departure in that sense, but formally, you’ve seen The Dirties  — obviously, it’s identical. It’s a movie made by an author, and the author is the protagonist, and it’s a story of his ambition, and he’s basically leading you along as best he can. There’s a lot more moving pieces, and it’s much more technical, because the moon landing is a very technical problem to solve, which I didn’t realize it was going to be, so it was only a departure in terms of scope. I think in terms of form, they’re basically one and one; they’re identical.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the research involved to present this hoax in its more plausible version? Conspiracy theorists might find the film rather reassuring.

Johnson: A lot of it was me and the writer Josh Boles looking at what conspiracy theorists had said about the same topic. A lot of that research was done for us, in a way, because most of these conspiracy theories worked with the timeline, and what happened when, and why it was confusing and scary and all that kind of stuff. In terms of the technical side — of how the CIA worked, how NASA worked — that was just reading books about those days. But the good thing about making a movie in this style, in a documentary style, is that most of that information comes across visually. We didn’t need to explain the logistics of who these guys are at the CIA, what department this was, what it was they were doing. A lot of that history you just get from seeing the images.

Filmmaker: Rumor has it that you actually went into NASA to shoot several segments without permission. How did this come about?

Johnson: Yeah, that’s really true — everything that you watch that has us at NASA, talking to NASA staff. Let me put it to you this way: there’s no way we could fake that, and it would cost us way too much money to recreate those sets. It would have been impossible. At the time I was a film student in Toronto, and I just applied as a student to go to NASA to make a documentary, which is what we said, and while we were there, we just shot as much of this movie as we could.

Filmmaker: Reality and fiction blend very seamlessly, wouldn’t you say?

Johnson: Yeah, in fact the cover that our characters take is identical to the cover that we took in real life —pretending to be a documentary film crew to get access into NASA.

Filmmaker: You have archive footage blended with the images that you created, creating a retro film look that truly feels like it  has emerged from a secret can found decades after. Can you describe that process? How difficult is it to make it seem seamless?

Johnson: It was very difficult, and in fact, the only way we could do it was by having a film artist do a very, very time consuming 16mm print of absolutely every single frame of the movie. It was hugely challenging, especially for him, because he had to make film stocks and match grains all the way through. We did print after print after print. We were testing this process, which had never been done before, a year before we started our post process. I can’t take credit for that because that was all our cinematographer and our colorist who made that work. I was just the guy being like, “You’ve got to make it look good.”

Filmmaker: What kind of conversations did you have with the team working on the visual aspects of the film, and what references or influences came into play when you decided on this look?

Johnson: Maysles Brothers documentaries, specifically Gimme Shelter. If you watch Gimme Shelter, you’ll see them editing on Steenbecks, and filming Keith Richards watching Steenbecks, which is something that we wanted to do in this movie. Matt watching Steenbecks, Owen watching Steenbecks, those images were important to us. We wanted to mimic that top light look. We also watched a documentary called An American Family, which was a PBS television series that came out around the same time, 1966, which was basically a verité doc following a family as it was falling apart. An incredible series, and we stole tons of shots from that. In fact, the entire barbeque scene in our movie is stolen from that. And F for Fake, the Orson Welles documentary, made slightly later, about both an art forger and the guy who faked the Howard Hughes biography. That was another major reference for us, and also in terms of content. So those were visual touchstones, but it didn’t stop there. We also would steal shots from old movies, like literally just stole the footage and put it into our movie. We stole a ton of footage from old National Film Board of Camera movies shot in the 1960s, and we put that in our movie. Haskell Wexler movies as well.

Filmmaker: We see your character trying to figure out how Stanley Kubrick did those effects back then. In making Avalanche you’re essentially doing something similar by trying to figure out how create a singular aesthetic. Did you feel there are some parallels between your discovery of a cinematic effect and what he was doing way ahead of his time?

Johnson: I wouldn’t dare put myself anywhere near that level, especially since our effects are more low-fi, where we’re tying to make something look bad, and he was trying to make something look perfect. So there’s a real different there. But Stanley Kubrick was obviously a big inspiration, in terms of his dedication to craft, but it’s funny that here we are, trying to make our film look terrible, and he’s trying to make his stuff look flawless. I think, if Stanley Kubrick was alive and saw Operation Avalanche, he would say, “Ugh, disgusting, this is terrible.” Although, he could not deny that he looks pretty good in it. He would be shocked at how we were able to make that stuff work.

Filmmaker: How amazing was it to get an autograph from Stanley Kubrick on screen?

Johnson: It was crazy. Obviously that didn’t happen, but just the feeling of watching that for the first time was one of the greatest feelings of my entire life.

FM: Can you talk about your relationship with Owen? I’m sure that’s a very particular friendship, which evolves from The Dirties to this new project. How does that friendship work in front and behind the camera and how much of what we see on screen is banter from reality?

Johnson: It was much more so in The Dirties. One of my biggest regrets in Operation Avalanche is the friendship between me and Owen really suffered through a lack of shared history. What I mean by that was, because all of a sudden we were playing ourselves in the 1960s, and we didn’t have the same cultural touchstones that we had when we were playing ourselves in the year 2012. Because of that, it was a lot harder for us to relate to one another, and I think that really hurt our friendship, believe it or not. Now, Owen and I are dear friends in real life, and I love him, but it was very hard to make that come across the way we wanted to in this film, which I regret.

Filmmaker: He seems to always be the more centered one.

Johnson: That’s him in real life. He really is that.

Filmmaker: Being the director and the lead character in the film, how does that affect your process? You’re acting and creating this world as you go at the same time.

Johnson: I see it as one and the same thing. That’s sort of how I began professional work, which was a web series I made in Toronto, and I find it a lot easier, cause of the way we shoot, to make the things I want happen when I’m acting as opposed to when I’m directing. I think I have a much better voice as a character than I do outside of that role. When I’m at NASA, and I’m talking with people who don’t know they’re in a movie, how can I do that as a director? How can I influence somebody to say certain things that I need them to say without tipping my hand that they’re in my fiction film if I’m behind the camera telling them to say things? It’s so much easier for me as an individual, and the subject of that fake film, to get people talking to me, as opposed to talking to the camera or talking to another character. So I think it was bit of a necessity that this happened, but I couldn’t see doing it any other way. I think it would be impossible.

Filmmaker: Since there are no rehearsals, what sort of direction do you provide your actors with?

Johnson: It’s improvised, but of course, when something’s not working, we stop and talk about it. Rhat’s one of the things about working with your best friends: if I hire Owen, I’m going to get Owen, and Owen is going to be himself in all of these moments, and I know how I want him to react. So it’s easy for me to say, “You’d feel more like this or you’d feel more like this,” and then we’ll stop and start doing it over and over again. That’s very easy. That’s much different than if I was directing someone who I didn’t have that relationship with. That’s something I’m less experienced with, but one day I’m sure I’m going to have to do it more.

Filmmaker: In terms of the themes of the film, would you say that in Operation Avalanche movie magic is being used for deceit and evil in a sense? This artistic endeavor is being used to create images meant to deceive Americans and the world.

Johnson: Yeah, and I would say, what really is the message there? The idea of media lying to you, images lying to you, institutions lying to you — I don’t necessarily see that in people, but what I think is important is to be armed with the knowledge that an image is not the truth. Don’t be fooled by the things that you see and the things you are told, because everything has an agenda. That’s what I think is so cool about Operation Avalanche — even though I don’t believe the moon landing was faked, certainly political power and political directives were behind the images that were sent from the moon. Fake or not, the images are images, and they have political weight, and that political weight is being used to shape a culture. So to watch them devoid as of any political influence whatsoever makes you completely unarmed. I being armed and knowing “Ok wait, there is a message to this, even though it’s not obvious,” I think that is important. So when you watch Matt’s movie, about how he faked the moon landing but had to give up everything, hopefully in those final images you’re thinking, “Oh wait a minute, this could also be a lie.”

Filmmaker: Will there be more films with Matt and Owen, these time travelers that seem to appear in different films as similar characters?

Johnson: Yeah, it’s sort of like Abbott and Costello. I don’t know for sure, but I know Owen and I really want to make a third part of the trilogy, and then I think we’ll stop. It will be a movie about the history of H.P. Lovecraft, about the true story of his father being kidnapped by a cult in Canada in the 1800s. That will be a fake documentary set in a time when there were no cameras. I’m not quite sure if we’re going to make the time travel movie about killing Hitler.

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