Moviemaker Debrief: OPERATION AVALANCHE
For those who saw Matt Johnson’s breakthrough debut, The Dirties, part of the framework of his sophomore film may seem familiar. Operation Avalanche is shot in found-footage style and centers on two friends, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, who play versions of themselves in a satire that starts out fun and gets increasingly dark. However, the context couldn’t be more different. The Dirties brought you into a modern-day high school and took a unique look at bullying and school shootings. Here, the year is 1967, and it’s up to Matt and Owen to fake the moon landing. Partly shot at NASA, where Johnson and co. were allowed to visit under the pretense of making a documentary about the moon landing, the story follows two unlikely employees taking on a secret mission after discovering that their country’s astronauts are going to be able to make the lunar contact the U.S. desperately needed.
At first a gleeful endeavor, the project eventually tangles Matt and Owen up in a conspiracy plot of government espionage, secrecy, and betrayal. Aesthetically ambitious, Operation Avalanche has an authentic retro look and feel, with several incredible sequences that transplant the same dynamics at work in The Dirties into a convincing late-sixties environment—and when things begin to go awry, there’s a real sense of stakes and danger. Essentially the same character, Johnson again creates a deluded fiction of self-fulfillment and gratification, and the implications leave a startling impression.
I was able to talk to him at Sundance after the film’s world premiere, where the conversation inevitably had to begin with mention of his recent critical statements regarding Telefilm Canada, the country’s main funding body for filmmakers, who refused to fund Operation Avalanche on the grounds that because it was sold to Lionsgate, it wasn’t Canadian, regardless of the fact that no Americans were in involved in its making.
Adam Cook: You’re Canadian, I’m Canadian, but because this interview is at Sundance ... I guess Telefilm will consider it American? [Laughs.] That conversation has taken center stage with you lately, and seems to be accompanying your film here.
Matt Johnson: I don’t even think of it in terms of the movie. The interviews I did with Calum Marsh and Radheyan Simonpillai, I wish they didn’t include press on my film because it’s now angled the story so it seems as though I’m talking about my own career in relation to Telefilm. I’ve made out fine; I just understand that system because I went through those things.
Cook: It is frustrating that all of us critics are familiar with this problem in which Telefilm supports canonized directors past their prime instead of supporting new talent, and yet it’s not something we write about publicly. Classic Canadian passivity.
Johnson: I think it had to start as something linked to a new film, but hopefully the conversation keeps going.
Cook: Operation Avalanche feels like a sequel to The Dirties.
Johnson: Absolutely. Because of the attention The Dirties received, I was given a strange opportunity that I never thought I’d get again. I had made a film that was about my own life and my friendships with people I grew up with and when I was asked what I wanted to do next—I had just never seen a filmmaker take the same set of characters and just move it into a new place and still have it be thematically about similar things. Now the pressure to do something in a bigger, more Hollywood space is much higher, but just coming out of film school at that moment it was a dream situation. And it was just too funny, to make a movie where it seemed like Matt and Owen went into a time machine back to 1969.
Cook: It’s a variation on the same core dynamic, where it comes down to their relationship. Matt being delusional, narcissistic, and Owen is the moral compass who is betrayed.
Johnson: He just can’t live in Matt’s world. In both movies.
Cook: And here faking the moon landing isn’t really what it’s about.
Johnson: It’s a means to the end. The conspiracy is implausible but one percent of you believes it might be true. I was at NASA, and they were showing me shit they literally dragged off the moon. I guarantee they landed like they said, but that young rebel in everybody says, 'no they didn’t.' It all came from what was the situation where Matt can just be loving every minute, and it was creating this story of landing on the moon, which is similar to me making the movie itself. It was easy to pivot five degrees and have that resonance be the resonance within the film.
Cook: And you have some fun playing with the Kubrick mythos.
Johnson: As lightly as we could. What I didn’t want was for him to be a character in the film and have someone play him, it would be so hokey—but as soon as Tristan Zerafa was like, 'I can just make him.'
Cook: It looks incredible.
Johnson: That was his big project, he did all the VFX, there are about 200 effects shots in the film, but that was his baby. We had already gone to Shepperton Studios and broke in and shot those scenes illegally. That was the first film we rolled, was us breaking into that studio. We shot it when we were over there for the UK release of The Dirties. We shot as many plates as we could of the actual 2001 set, and me doing all these crazy things, as much narrative stuff as we could, and brought it back and were like, 'OK, can we recreate this, what can we do?' Tristan found this archive of unreleased photos of Kubrick, and suggested he could just build it from hi-res stills. It took him like five months. The photos were in 4:3 and we realized we could do a format change and do it on Super 8 to make it work. All that got converted to Super 8 rather than 16.
Cook: And the film was shot partially on both?
Johnson: Not the whole movie, but some. When we’re doing long shots of improv, the Shepperton stuff, that’s all on small digital cameras, or a Red with very old zoom lenses that are a bitch to shoot with because they’re so slow, like f3.9, so dark. But in the end everything got laid out onto 16mm by Pablo Perez. Thanks to Niagra Custom Lab, which made things so easy, they notoriously print very dirty film, and it was exactly what we needed for the look of the movie.
Cook: What do you have to consider when approaching found-footage form?
Johnson: What I hate in found-footage movies is the labor taken to explain the presence of the camera. I feel like I’m sophisticated enough to understand that. In The Dirties and Operation Avalanche specifically, I’m making movies about narcissistic characters who are obsessed with themselves and trying to lionize themselves to the highest level. In the movie I’m always like, 'film me,' 'get me,' 'look,' almost acting like a movie character simply because the camera is on him. That’s one of Matt’s problems: He thinks he deserves more because of the existence of a camera.
Cook: It enables him, and he’s always the one acting for the camera. And Owen is trying to get away from it.
Johnson: Which is a great dynamic that we have in real life as well. Matt always finds the cameras, knows where they are, and directs people around. He can’t separate himself from the story he’s in. If you look at the footage of us at NASA, when people are saying really good shit, I’m actually laughing in reaction. With a guy who’s always filming himself, there’s so much there, there’s such fertile ground.
Cook: Well, look at Grizzly Man.
Johnson: Perfect example! Timothy Treadwell is the ideal narcissist always filming himself. He plays it so great because he’s always talking about how beautiful and humble the world is, and he’s literally telling you the opposite of what the context is telling you.
Cook: It’s what reveals his delusion.
Cook: You were saying your relationship with Owen in real life is similar as in the films?
Johnson: Identical. One of the goals of Operation Avalanche was to show our relationship, how it actually is. The Dirties is more how I saw it, my dream friendship I had with people in high school. I had just met Owen that year. Everything was new and funny. But our real friendship is in Operation Avalanche, where I think no matter what I’ll do he’ll forgive me, no matter what I want him to do, what I get us is really for me, and he sees it for what it is, and he’s wary of me, and he doesn’t get too close to me, in real life and in the film. That’s our real friendship, which is sad for me because the move is about a guy who thinks that this guy loves him when really he’s nothing like that at all, he couldn't care less. As soon as Matt betrays Owen and seems dangerous, it’s over.
Cook: There’s a new element in Avalanche because Owen has a family, and a couple of times Matt invades their space and doesn’t understand he’s not welcome.
Johnson: Yes, and that’s why we never show Owen’s life without me, he’s never filmed without Matt.
Cook: What films served as inspiration? Obviously, conspiracy movies like The Parallax View...
Johnson: And The Manchurian Candidate, and we stole dialogue from Capricorn One as a joke, a lot of Owen’s lines. And the set that they build is basically our set. Those are all literal.
Cook: I also thought a lot about Woody Allen’s Zelig.
Johnson: Of course, we had a whole scene in the movie where we hid a camera in the closet, basically the Zelig camera. The Kubrick stuff, me in old footage, repurposing of NASA archives, that was all straight up from Zelig. The three big movies for us were Zelig, F for Fake, and JFK we stole from top to bottom.
Cook: Can you talk about the chase sequence? It belongs in the pantheon of great movie car chases.
Johnson: I don’t know if I agree with that. In terms of chases done for real, yeah, but it’s nothing compared to Hollywood films.
Cook: You’re underselling it. People were reacting viscerally to it next to me, it feels so real and those gunshots made people jump—
Johnson: —because their perspective is fixed, that’s one thing I thought the scene would have over other movies. We spend the whole film establishing the point-of-view, so putting the camera in a dangerous situation, and improvising a car chase… I thought it would be so cool to shoot it for real with Andy Appelle, our DP, in the backseat. He’s a madman, willing to do anything. This is he and I in our dream situation. I love driving like that, and I’m not afraid to get hurt, and he’s the same. We just said, 'How can we shoot this without it costing a lot of money, and it will look real?' We had a guy chasing me who is a stunt driver, and I just tried to get away. We knew we had the road closed off and a certain space, but not specifically where we’d go or what we were doing. We knew one moment where I was going to stop and he was going to shoot at the car. The take in the film has me driving backwards, and you can see in my face I don’t know what I’m doing. Andy says 'they’re right in front of us!' and I answer way too calmly, 'I know.' I’m not even acting; I’m just focused on the driving. Afterwards we handed it to our VFX supervisor who was like, 'You fucked me because there’s no tracking information, no way I can do this.' It was another six months for that job. The only reason he could do it was because there was a chip in the glass that he could track.
Cook: Are you going to continue working within the found-footage genre?
Johnson: Not the next one. I’m trying to make a movie that’s kind of like The Bourne Identity meets the video game Castle Wolfenstein—basically a time-travel movie about a Mossad agent who travels back in time to kill Hitler, shot like Son of Saul, but an action movie like The Raid. I want to do it all from the perspective of the assassin. But in Canada the next movie we’re making is the third piece to this trilogy, if we can do it. It’s set in the 1850s about a conspiracy involving John A. Macdonald and George Brown building a railway across the country.
Cook: Macdonald, an infamous drunk!
Johnson: It’s going to be insane. I’ll play Macdonald and Owen is going to play George Brown. If we can do it.