Interview: How The 'Operation Avalanche' Filmmakers Faked The Moon Landing, Shot A Low-Budget Car Chase, And Snuck Into NASA

Operation Avalanche is one of the most pleasant surprises of 2016. What begins as a wickedly funny conspiracy theory comedy about a team of CIA agents who fake the moon landing in 1969 slowly shifts into a thrilling, paranoia-fueled thriller, shot and edited to look like a long-lost documentary secretly assembled by the man in charge of the project. The making of the film is just as fascinating as the final product: co-writer/director/star Matt Johnson and producer Matthew Miller not only had to create a convincing '60 setting on a small budget, they had to do it without much help from anyone who could have made it easy. This is the kind of production that involved everyone literally sneaking into NASA as part of a fake tour group to shoot chunks of the movie. Really.

I sat down with Johnson and Miller and they spilled the nitty-gritty details. What's it like to bump heads with Stanley Kubrick's estate? How to film a low-budget car chase inspired by Children of Men? How, exactly, do you define "illegal" when it comes to guerrilla filmmaking? They were more than happy to share.

Johnson: What's up? You from Austin?

I am, yeah.

Johnson: That's wicked. We love it here.

I was at the screening last night. It seemed to go over really well. People around me were really getting into it.

Johnson: I know! Weird, eh? I mean that sincerely. I think there's something about Austin. The vibe here. They dig conspiracies. We've screened the movies in a lot of cities and it's always gone well, but last night went really well. I wasn't actually in the screening, but afterwards, people stuck around and asked questions forever. Forever!

Was that the genesis of this? An interest in conspiracy theories? An interest in the moon landing itself?

Johnson: It was neither. It was a desire to tell a story about liars, fakers and the compulsion to fool people and where that comes from. Our first movie did a lot of that. In The Dirties...I think some of the most fun we had making that was taking reality and mixing it with our fake story and challenging the audience to figure out which was which. And oh man, [Operation Avalanche is] kids in a candy store compared to that. Because here, it's a movie about people making fake media and we thought we could combine everything we really like into one big project.

But whose idea was it? Did you come up with it together?

Johnson: We were in the same place. We were next to each other on the plane coming back from Slamdance, where we premiered The Dirties and we were immediately thinking about our next project. I don't think anything's ever come easier. It was a little aha moment.

About twenty or thirty minutes into Operation Avalanche, I realized this isn't a conspiracy theory movie. It's a movie about filmmaking. It's about how much fun it is to make movies.

Johnson: Yes, exactly.

In a way, this is a movie about the guy who made the greatest movie of all time.

Johnson: I say that line all the time! Did you steal that line from me?

No! I promise!

Johnson: Yeah, that's my favorite line! Because that moon landing footage is the most famous thing anyone has ever seen. We thought, wouldn't it awesome to tell that dude's story? The story of the guy who makes the most ambitious movie he can't take credit for and what that does to somebody and the type of person you have to be to do that. You're dead on. I say that to people all the time.

Matthew, what about this movie reflects the filmmaking process for you, as a producer? 

Miller: Everything! In the movie, Matt is the producer of that movie, almost more than the director. He's sourcing the sand that they're going to put down. He's talking to the investors, the CIA bosses.

Johnson: That's true!

Miller: The pitch that he gives, in the scene when he gets back from London and learns that they can use front-screen projection...the performance he gives there is not unlike the performance he actually gave to pitch this actual movie to Lionsgate. "This is what we're going to do and this is how we're going to do it and I know all of these things sound crazy, but trust me!" That's very close. On a lot of different levels, it's about those things.

This movie features one of my favorite kinds of characters – the goofy, enthusiastic guy who is never treated like an idiot and is actually really good at his job. What's it like to create a character like that?

Johnson: That's reality. For us, that's reality. I think that's I'm so close to this guy and oftentimes movies are so disparaging of a person who is so optimistic to a fault. I think that kind of optimism...we make the kind of movies about how that optimism can be dark and lead you to bad places, but I think that kind of optimism is also really positive and it's so cynical to degrade people like that! Because of course they're going to get it wrong and they're stupid and they're biting off more than they can chew, but we like making movies about that type of character succeeding. Because when they do, it gives hope to other people who try to do the impossible. And of course when you try to do the impossible, you're going to look stupid! You're going to look stupid because that is the very nature of trying to tackle something you can't do. You are going to fail and the cynicism of the individuals around you is very easy to succumb to if you do not have some kind of fire inside you saying, "Oh, I think I can do it anyway." But that's very important to us. I mean, to me specifically, that's my real life.

Miller: It's also the arc of the movie. From optimism to pessimism. When he realizes what it cost and what's been lost to get to this place.

Johnson: Exactly.

Miller: Getting what we wanted and realizing "Is this even what I wanted?"

Johnson: It's meaningless!

The movie does slowly transform from this silly and entertaining lark into a dark and intense conspiracy thriller. I didn't even notice it happening until it had happened! How do you pull something like that off?

Johnson: We always knew that the movie was going to end in a dark place, but we did the exact same move on The Dirties and I think it just comes from the character realizing his situation has changed and less so from the editing and the filmmaking making a tonal shift. We try to have the characters treat their surroundings and situation as real as they can. So obviously, with the cameras, if Matt or Owen are like, "Oh shit, we're in trouble" and things aren't as they seem, the cameras have real people behind them and they're also like, "Oh man, this isn't as fun as it used to be."

So a character's perception of their reality ends up affecting the people documenting them. So tonal shifts are quite easy. The filmmaking is subjective, unlike most movies, where there's a more objective look at how characters are perceiving their own reality. We don't do POVs. We don't do those kinds of tricks, but because it's all living, breathing people in a room with people behind the cameras, when they're thinking, "Oh, we're in trouble" or "Oh, I'm scared," it winds up having a ripple effect on the technique, for the lack of a better word, used to document them.

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.