The Los Cabos International Film Festival (www.cabosfilmfestival.com), held in Baja California Sur, México from November 9 to 13, aims to positively contribute to the growth of global film culture, focusing especially on Mexico, Canada and the United States, while supporting their filmmakers. One such film that’s being included this year is Operation Avalanche, from Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson.
As writer, director, producer and star, Johnson has utilized a found footage/documentary format to tell the story of two young agents on a mission to go undercover, posing as documentary filmmakers, there to capture NASA’s race to the moon. But they make the shocking discovery that the U.S. is not yet able to make it to the moon and instead might have to fake the lunar landing, creating a filmed version that could be broadcast to the world.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Matt Johnson talked about why he enjoys screening his films at film festivals, how the idea for Operation Avalanche came about, when he first learned about the theories that man never really walked on the moon, why the found footage/documentary style of filmmaking is a viable storytelling device, ending up with a lot of unused footage and cut scenes, including Stanley Kubrick in the film, and that his next film is a period piece about a time machine.
Collider: Operation Avalanche will be at the Los Cabos International Film Festival in November. What’s it like to hear feedback from audiences, when you screen your films at film festivals?
MATT JOHNSON: You never really know what somebody is going to be interested in, especially when you screen your movie in other countries. People from different cultural backgrounds just take the stuff that you do completely differently, and very differently than you would think, which I really love.
Your work is so interesting because you really have a creative freedom with what you do, that you might not be able to have, if you had a major studio telling you what you had to do.
JOHNSON: You’re probably right. I’m lucky, in that sense, at least at this budget level, that I can do things that are a bit risky. It’s a double-edged sword of wanting to try something new, but not alienate people and still release something broad. It’s very difficult to work in both of those places, at the same time.
How did the idea for this film come about? Is this something you’d been thinking about exploring for awhile, or do you tend to think of something and then jump right in without spending too much time over-thinking it?
JOHNSON: You know what? That’s actually very true. There’s a saying that I think a Japanese engineer in the auto industry has, which is, “Sometimes you need to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” That’s translated, but I think that’s very true, at least for me and the process I use. It forces me to come up with odd solutions and weird ideas to fix problems that I didn’t realize were going to be problems, and I’m working with a team of people that like that exact same kind of challenge. There was almost no time between Matt Miller, my producer, and I going, “Okay, let’s make a movie about faking a moon landing,” and the start of shooting. We were shooting a month and a half after we came up with the idea.
Do you feel like your first film, The Dirties, influenced and inspired this film, since you used a similar style and approach to it, or were you worried about using that kind of approach again?
JOHNSON: No, we were intentionally trying to cover much of the same ground as we had before, simply because we had learned so many cool things, and we were trying, for the first time in a narrative filmmaker’s career, to take the same characters and put them in a remarkably new situation and just see what would happen. That was very interesting to us. And in terms of form, what had us thinking about the moon landing was that we were thinking about other major moments in history that could involve filmmaking and that we could use the same style to explore. So, that was very much the intention.
You play with the found footage format, and people talk a lot now about how it’s no longer a viable storytelling device. Instead of just writing it off, do you think it’s just about finding new ways to work with a format that is otherwise stale?
JOHNSON: I think there’s still a lot of new ground to break with the fake documentary/found footage format. You’re completely right that what happened, especially in horror and thriller filmmaking, is that it seemed like there was a recipe for instant success, and so everybody started jumping onto it, mostly at the producer level, and less at the director/creator level. And so, of course what you saw was a lot of the same stuff. They just re-released Blair Witch and there’s nothing formally new there, at all, and that was released in ‘99. That’s a really, really sad state of events. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t new ways to tell stories using the documentary form, and that’s what I think is really interesting. Unfortunately, the work my friends and I do gets lumped in with that same style, and I think that’s because there are so few films and filmmakers that are breaking out of the mold of what this format can do. But I can predict that, as found footage horror becomes less and less prolific, you’ll see more films and more filmmakers in this style, using it to tell new stories. There really are interesting ways to tell stories with it. The documentary is such an old format, but the ideas behind it are very fresh. People are obsessed with documentaries right now. Documentaries are having a huge rise on Netflix. Reality television has laid this reality TV grammar that everybody knows. Filmmakers have a lot of these tools, in terms of audience recognition, but they haven’t started using them yet.
Operation Avalanche was done on a bit bigger scale than The Dirties was. What were the biggest challenges of pulling this particular film off, and was there anything you couldn’t do because of the fact that you weren’t working with a bigger budget?
JOHNSON: Budget wise, no. To be perfectly honest, I think that working with budgets as restrictive as they were gave us more freedoms, in weird ways. I don’t think we would have shot that car chase the way that we did, if we’d had more money. But that said, money for us equals time, and it would have been great to have had more time to make this film. That’s always the thing that we’re up against. A documentary filmmaker will often take years with his subject. They’ll collect footage, the world will change, the context will change, and the movie is constantly evolving. When you pitch a studio on a narrative feature, it’s very difficult to have that conversation where you say, “Okay, we want three years to realize this story.” We’ve found a middle ground between those two, but it really would have been helpful to spend more time doing in. So, in that sense, more money would have been better. But in terms of process, I love this process and I like working at this budget level, for what it forces you to do and come up with, as creative solutions.
When you’re making a film like this, do you shoot a lot of extra footage and then edit it all down, or do you have to be much more precise than that?
JOHNSON: We shoot it like it’s a documentary, in many ways. We’ll shoot, all the time, knowing full well that 90% of the footage we shoot and 90% of the scenes we shoot will often not be in the movie. That’s something that we know, going into it. Sometimes it’s really sad because we’ll spend a lot of time doing a scene or a sequence, and then the story will move away from that. But that happened on The Dirties and on Nirvana the Band the Show, so we’re used to that process. Once you give into it, it’s quite rewarding.
How much of a challenge was this film to edit into the cut you have now?
JOHNSON: That was, by far, the biggest challenge. It was unbelievably difficult. The more we shot, the more the story changed. You’d think you were on solid ground, but then you’d realize that the story was completely different than what you thought and characters would disappear. That’s part of the frustration of shooting a movie without a completely and totally defined script. It’s something that we’re very comfortable with, but combining that with a period film led to some unbelievable challenges. With The Dirties and Nirvana the Band the Show, we could go out and shoot whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, in the real world. With this film, we had to do a lot more planning before we could go out and start rolling cameras.
When did you first hear about the theories that man never walked on the moon and that it was really on a soundstage with visual effects?
JOHNSON: Living in North America, you hear that just as a kid, the same as you do the JFK conspiracy or that aliens exist. It’s all wrapped up in the same kind of X-Files, things are not as they seem, fun counter-culture that so many young people are exposed to. Even just superficially, every young person has heard some version of that. It’s not like it’s some secret, or you hear it and go, “Woah, this is privileged information.” It’s a ridiculous story. So, I knew it as a kid, and I thought it was fun and funny. And then, when it came time to think about what this movie we were going to make was, it just lined up so well. The idea that it was about filmmakers, history and ambition, and that Stanley Kubrick was involved, it had enough really vital pieces that it made sense for us to tell that story. Also, there’s the fact that it’s relatively untouched, as a story. There’s never been an Apollo 11 movie. People have done lots of work about the moon landing conspiracy, but never in this form. We were surprised that this film hadn’t been made already, which is always a good sign.
Did you spend time thinking about what would be the most plausible scenario to use for this?
JOHNSON: Quite a bit, yeah. The conspiracy that we present in the film is the result of all of the ideas we could find that convinced us the most, if that means anything. To the unscientific audience, which is basically us, it seemed like it carried some water. It made logical sense. It combined all sorts of versions of the conspiracy theory that we had heard on the internet or read about.
In order to make this, you had to go undercover at NASA, pretending to make a documentary. Were you ever worried that they might figure out exactly what you were doing?
JOHNSON: At the time, it was the first thing we had shot for the movies and we didn’t know exactly what the movie was going to be, at that point, so the stakes were fairly low for us. In the moment, there was a real fear of, “Man, I hope we don’t get caught!” But because we were improvising, we weren’t scared.
When you’re including the actual living, breathing Stanley Kubrick in your movie, did you have a back-up plan for what you’d do, if you couldn’t pull that off, or was this a situation where you were going to stop at nothing until you pulled that off?
JOHNSON: Like much in the film, you just shoot for the moon and hope to god we can get it. It may seem like everything we wanted to do worked and that we got everything, but what audiences don’t see are all the risks and things that we tried that didn’t work. There’s a lot in the film that we tried to do, but we couldn’t pull off. Stanley Kubrick is one of the more miraculous things that we did, but it’s one of about eight major things that we tried to do that didn’t work. You only get to see the successes.
What did you learn from making The Dirties that helped you on Operation Avalanche, and was there anything you learned on Operation Avalanche that you think will help on the next one?
JOHNSON: I think technically, we got the exact skills that we needed, in terms of documentary form and improvised shooting, and then creating a story out of improvised footage, that we needed for Avalanche. But more than that, it was just about learning to be cohesive with a team of people who are making something without a clear script. Getting people to trust you and trust in other people to deliver on something that doesn’t have a set boundary was the biggest skill that all of us, together, got from making The Dirties. And then, from this, we can shoot action now, pretty well, which is helpful. Our next movie is so different. It’s hugely different. So, I don’t know what exactly is going to carry over. The next movie we’re making is a period film set in the 1930s/1940s, and it’s an action movie, but it’s not shot like a documentary, so I’m not sure exactly what the transfer is going to be between those two.
Does the next movie you’re doing have a title yet?
JOHNSON: Only a working title. It’s about a time machine that Einstein built for the Nazis. And then, in the 1950s, gets it working to go back in time and kill Hitler. It’s cool. Some of it is shot in Brazil.