Operation Avalanche

One scene I really enjoyed was the car chase you guys shoot in a single long take. It’s just a really impressive and excitingly staged action sequence in a movie that otherwise doesn’t have a ton of action. 

Johnson: It’s very much what you see is what you get.

Miller: The only effects were the bullet holes, which were all put in after the fact. But other than that, it’s Matt driving and there’s a stunt driver in the car behind him. The car Matt’s driving is a car we bought for the production, that we owned, so we could fuck it up and do whatever we wanted with it. But it was basically rehearsing that all day and then shooting it when the light was really pretty before sunset. And then our VFX guys spent about three months putting in those bullet holes. To go back to Matt’s character as the pitcher, it was one of the first things we imagined for the movie. Matt was like, “Imagine a car chase where the camera is in the car and it’s all one take!” That became a staple. It was sort of like that and “Stanley Kubrick’s going to be in the movie.” Those were the two big things we had to figure out.

The trickiest thing for us was that we had no money, so we couldn’t shoot it on city streets with cars. So that’s how we got to the idea of buying that film in the field, because we needed the excuse to be somewhere isolated so that we could shoot that car chase. It was very stressful, especially for the guy who shot it, our camera guy Andy Appelle. But it was pretty fun. I think we knew right away that we had done something really cool.  We obviously love those sequences in Children of Men that go on for nine minutes. I think that people who don’t even understand movies the way you do can watch that scene and realize that it’s one take because the language of the movie up until that point has been instructing them. We even see the other camera guy at the beginning of that sequence run away.

I want to touch on the film’s visual effects. I understand that you weren’t working with a huge studio budget, but there’s a ton of visual effects in this movie. I’m assuming most of it involves inserting the actors into old B-roll footage?

Johnson: There’s tons of it. Most of the time when you see us in situations where we couldn’t have set it up, it’s like Forrest Gump. Us taking archival footage and putting me into it. The biggest ones are the ones with Stanley Kubrick, [where I’m composited] inside old photographs that were taken on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Miller: But there are hidden VFX shots, like when Matt’s in front of the Tower of London he’s holding a Blackberry in his hand just by mistake. So our VFX made it a chocolate bar. And removing some buildings that weren’t period accurate. Things like that.

Was the plan always to tell this story in the fake documentary/found footage format?

Johnson: Yeah, our first film was done in the same style and we felt that we could not only get away with a lot more, but it would really help this type of story. Not only is it interesting to tell the story of the guy who wants to make the greatest movie ever made, but it’s also interesting that he’s documenting his own process in a way that makes him look like a spy or a superstar. The type of egomania that’s connected to that…we felt that was really important to the story. It makes you second guess everything that you’re watching, because it’s like, “Why is this guy telling me this? Why is it important that this guy is filming everything that he does?” And I think there’s a great answer for that question.

Miller: The reason we made The Dirties found footage was because it’s so cost effective and I think that’s where the form really came from. Look at something like Blair Witch [Project], that really started the trend of these movies. We still didn’t have a lot of money, and to go back to that car chase, if we had tried to shoot it like a Hollywood car chase…we couldn’t have done it that way. It would have been so much more expensive. We would’ve needed coverage and inserts and things like that.

Has NASA seen this movie?

Johnson: Not yet. We’ve invited them. We invited them to SXSW and they didn’t come. In a Wired article last week they finally made a statement about the film, which they still haven’t seen.

Miller: They’re disappointed in us.

Johnson: They’re disappointed in us. But once they see the movie, I think they’re going to be really happy. We had some NASA folks at the screening last night and they went crazy. Like old time, Apollo-era NASA people who were friends with some of the people in the movie. [One guy] specifically said he couldn’t believe it, he was so happy. It made us feel really good.

In my personal experience, scientists and engineers often have really good senses of humor about their work.

Johnson: I think so, too. I think they’ll dig it a lot.

Did you have any experts helping you get everything right?

Johnson: Yeah, we had someone from [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] guiding us at the beginning when we were writing and once the film came out… By that point, we knew so much about NASA history that we felt pretty confident monitoring ourselves. But we showed it to a range of people, nobody from NASA, but people who were trying to make sure we got things right. We didn’t have a NASA technical consultant. We weren’t Stanley Kubrick. We didn’t have the NASA consultants that he had.

Speaking of Kubrick, was it hard getting the rights to use his image? And the footage from Dr. Strangelove?

Miller: They’re very different, the two things. The photographs were very, very challenging to get because their family was just not down with us doing any of it. But getting the footage of Strangelove was easy because we just made a fair use argument for it.

So what are you guys working on now? Another found footage movie?

Johnson: We’re making a television show in the same style. It’s playing Fantastic Fest this Friday. It’s called Nirvana The Band The Show. It’s sort of a combination of Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords. It’s basically about a band trying to get famous, but in the real world. It’s a documentary about them. It’s a comedy series that’s coming out in January on Vice, but we’re very proud of it. If you get the chance, you should check it out. The tricks that we made making these movies, in terms of doing illegal stuff, we take it to the limit in this show.

Can you define illegal? What kind of illegal things did you do to get Operation Avalanche made?

Johnson: I can define it pretty easily. It’s shooting with people in places without permission and involving people in a movie that don’t want to be involved. If that makes any sense.

Can you give me a specific example?

Johnson: We snuck into NASA. All of the stuff we shot there, we shot without their permission.

No shit? Really? 

Johnson: Yeah.

I didn’t realize that. That’s amazing. I honestly thought those were sets.

Johnson: Oh, yeah. We went there saying we were going for a tour and they said okay and we filmed the whole movie.

But…how did you get away with this?

Miller: Because they didn’t know we had done it until we were gone. And our lawyer said that once you leave with the footage, it’s yours. It’s the same lawyer who worked on that movie Escape From Tomorrow.

Johnson: Read that Wired article! It’s all about it.

I honestly had no idea that you actually walked into NASA for those scenes.

Johnson: It’s the real deal. Those are real NASA staff who don’t know that they’re in a movie.

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Operation Avalanche is in limited release right now and will expand to more theaters next week.

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