operation avalanche interview

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.

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