One of the best films to come out of Slamdance in the last five years, THE DIRTIES, introduced the world to Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson, writer/director/actor, whose guerrilla style comedy involves shooting without a script and often without the knowledge of all the participants. Three years later, Johnson returns to Park City with co-star Owen Williams, co-writer/star Josh Boles, cinematographer/star Jared Raab, all of whom play, as in “THE DIRTIES,” basically versions of themselves, only this time the year is 1967 and they are part of the CIA’s best and brightest. A Russian spy has infiltrated NASA to gather intel on the moon missions, and the CIA sends in the team, posing as documentary filmmakers, to find the mole. However, Matt and his team discover an even bigger conspiracy – Nasa is poised to fail in their mission. Matt then pushes one step further, they will help the US save face and ensure that we beat Russia by helping to fake – and film – the moon landing.
“The moon landing, oddly, means very little to me,” Johnson says, “[I’m a] bigger moon conspiracy fan … like, I think the moon landing is interesting, as a story moment, but I am not interested in space travel. Like, I like the concept of it, but really just as a like an imagination exercise.” For me, OPERATION AVALANCHE is an interesting exercise in science fiction, because a big part of science fiction is alternate history, but for the moon conspiracy theorist, it’s like someone is finally telling the truth. “When I was growing up in the ‘90s, nobody was talking about space,” the director clarifies, “nobody cared. I liked STAR WARS, it was the greatest movie ever made. But actual human space travel is something that was just so not a part of my childhood. What I loved is stories about people tricking other people. So like, JFK, the moon landing conspiracy, that story is way more interesting to me than a bunch of people working really hard and completing the goal.”
I am sitting down with Johnson in Park City, the day after his film world premiered at Sundance. The film is a triumph. It’s funny, and fun, and really nails the mood of the space race. Even more ridiculous, it was shot at Nasa, at places like mission control, without the government ever really even knowing what they were doing. “NASA was a long process,” Johnson explains, “because we’re Canadian citizens. We had to go through our embassy, as students, which we were. We let them know as much of the truth as we thought we needed, which is that we were making a fake documentary about NASA in the 1960’s, and we want to shoot there and could we come take a look at the place?” This is all … technically…. not a lie. NASA was very accommodating, and gave the filmmakers amazing access to the Apollo program archives, talking to people who had worked on the program. “It was more of like a research trip than anything,” he says, “when we came back we were like, ‘I can’t believe that we got this incredible footage.’” In fact, a few months after Johnson and his team were there, NASA disbanded their archive, making the photos and videos open to the public and transferring the materials to the National Archives.
The footage inside NASA is unbelievable, and the way it cuts together with the rest of the film, it is impossible to tell what was shot on the fly and what was shot in a more controlled environment. “I was thinking that we were getting nothing when we were there,” the director says about their time at NASA, “when we shot that mission control scene, that was really exciting, because literally our tour guide was out the door, and there was a bunch of kids watching us through the viewing area, and I was like, ‘If we get this scene, it’s a miracle.’ That whole sequence was shot in probably 20 minutes.” Another institution that makes a reluctant appearance in the film is the famous Shepperton Studios, where Matt’s team goes to research the methods Stanley Kubrick is using to synthesize a realistic moon base for 2001. “Shepperton, that was just a hardcore break-in,” Johnson says, “there was no talking at all. That was just a full-on, like, we broke into the place and shot before they found us and threw us out.” At the time, Avengers Ultron was shooting and so they just thought Johnson and his team, posing as Matt and his team, were enterprising fan boys looking to break comic book spoilers.
The methodology for shooting Operation Avalanche is quite similar to THE DIRTIES, but the comparison goes much deeper. “I thought that in terms of my career as a filmmaker I wasn’t gonna get another chance like this to basically make a spiritual sequel to a film with the exact same characters,” he says, “it’s something I’d never seen a contemporary filmmaker do before, in a way that I thought I just had to do it.” In that first film, a student filmmaker (named Matt) sets out to make a film about his epic revenge on the school bullies, a story that becomes all too real as they film. The project strains friendships and questions of ethics and safety. Essentially, Johnson lifted the characters from high school, aged them a few years, and sent them back though a time portal 50 years or so to see what they would do in this new environment. The thematic bones remain the same according to the director, “a narcissus trying to make a movie about himself, trying to show that he’s the greatest, that he can do anything, that he has impunity so long as he succeeds.” Anyone who hasn’t seen THE DIRTIES won’t even notice, because the practical requirements of storytelling in “Operation Avalanche” were so much more complicated, the film is not a beat-for-beat retelling. “THE DIRTIES could focus on character the whole movie because understanding a school shooting is so simple,” he says, “Josh [Boles, co-writer] and I both had no idea how much time we were gonna have to spend explaining, like, the nuts and bolts of this conspiracy.”
However, for those who have seen their first film, Operation Avalanche can be enjoyed on a whole nother level. “We tried to steal as much from The Dirties as we could- we’d steal lines of dialogue and scenes,” Johnson says, “we wanted to do that, like, wall to wall, but we couldn’t do it to the level that we wanted to, but that’s okay, I think.” The most enjoyable part of knowing both films is thinking about the characters’ personalities, and getting to the basic level of who that person is, because they act a certain way under any circumstance. It’s almost as if Matt is fated to carry out this one goal through film over and over again, no matter what year it is. Matt, not not Johnson. “I just figured that opportunity was not gonna happen again,” he explains, “with your second film you kind of have – not a blank slate, but definitely the stakes are not quite as high on your third and fourth movie. That’s when you sort of, I think, historically anyway, need to start making movies that are conventional.”
OPERATION AVALANCHE may not, however, be the last film we see with this character. “I may make one more movie like this,” Johnson says, “probably not even my next film, and then I don’t think I’ll act in my own movies anymore.” The director calls himself ‘not actually a great actor’ and that he can really only be in the moment. Sanford Meisner would call being in a moment is actually the best acting that you can do, because it’s real. “But I can be really only in moment as myself,” he laughs, “and I don’t know how many movies I can make about a narcissist trying to make a movie about himself, right?”
It’s interesting that this Canadian has made a film about one of the most defining moments of America, and corrupting it for his own purposes, so I just flat out ask Johnson (like Stephen Colbert might), ‘why do you hate America?’ “I actually think America’s wicked,” he says, “but, it’s wicked in its sense of creating incredible stories.” One thing the film captures so well is not that it was a race to the moon, it was a race to beat the Russians. “This is why this conspiracy is so rich,” Johnson says, “you take the greatest American achievement of all time and you say, ‘You know, what? In fact, it was just another cynical ploy to fool the American people by big government, and everybody fell for it, and this Golden Age that people like Donald Trump and Republican politicians talk about so much was, in fact, just a complete fabrication by the media,’ and that’s just such a juicy idea that you just will have to believe it, right?” What the film is most critical of, is a certain steamrolling over the facts and safety that becomes evident when someone gets in over their head, which I think it is fairly clear the space program probably was in the sixties, desperate to catch up to and surpass the Russians. “It’s critical of people thinking that they can be the best, which is what Matt embodies,” the director says, “a guy who thinks that ‘I can be the best, and I’m gonna be the best, and when I’m the best, everybody’s gonna forgive me for all the things that I had to do to get here.’ Which, I think, is a great light to cast that moon program into.”
Of course, if we did pull off the moon conspiracy and fake the landing (possibly several more times), wouldn’t that be just as big an accomplishment? More even? “Which is what I love about filmmaking, right?” Johnson says, “if they did do this, that is way better than if they had actually flown up there and just done a bunch of boring math and really sent a bunch of like, military guys up there to walk on the moon, blah blah. That’s kind of meaningless in many ways to someone like me. I would much rather the story of like, the four scrappy guys who figure out how to do it with a 16 millimeter film camera.” It sort of reminds me of the Apollo 13 mission, which was much more interesting, from a story perspective, than 11 or 12, because of how much went wrong. That’s why there is a movie about that one. That and Apollo 18. “This is what’s so great about America,” says the director, “the story seems to be the most powerful thing, right?” In fact, if you break it down, we didn’t really get much out of the moon landing. A couple of museum rocks and bragging rights. For billions of taxpayer dollars. “And yet the story of it is so powerful that it inspired a whole generation of people to become scientists, to work hard, to be honest, to try to be their best,” says Johnson, “like even now – just the image of Neil Armstrong as this great American hero – we have that great documentary about him in the film, where they talk about him as the type of guy that a Hollywood screen writer couldn’t even come up with – that’s what’s powerful. The story is what’s powerful.”
OPERATION AVALANCHE world premiered at Sundance and plays SXSW starting on March 13th. THE DIRTIES is available to stream on Netflix.
Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival. His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.