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‘Operation Avalanche’ Director Matt Johnson Talks the Future of Fake Documentaries and the Perils of Big Budgets

Written by on September 22, 2016 

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One of the biggest conversation starters from this year’s Sundance Festival was Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche, a fake documentary that recounts four men’s attempts to stage the 1969 Moon landing. Playing on one of the biggest conspiracy theories of the past century, the film is as enamored with the possibility of toying with history as it is with the rigorous aestheticism needed to convincingly depict the time period of the 60s.

Employing the same narrative format as Johnson’s previous film, The Dirties, Johnson and his team, including writer and creative partner, Owen Williams, cast themselves in this reproduction of alternate history. The result is a fascinating comedy-thriller, that also serves as a meticulous love letter to both the technology of the time period and cinema’s ability to obscure our perception of time and space.

In time for its expanded limited release, we had an expansive conversation with the director that spanned everything from the untapped potential of the fake documentary format to the creative importance of low-budget filmmaking and the shifting definition of documentary in 2016 after films like Kate Plays Christine.

The Film Stage: You’ve spoken in previous interviews about how you came up with the premise for Operation Avalanche because you wanted to play on one of the biggest events in history, and just find a way to tell the story of an ambitious, delusional filmmaker. But the film is so enamored with myth making and conspiracy theories in general, did you have a personal passion for these subjects before making the film?

Matt Johnson: Conspiracies, definitely yeah. I was interested in the moon landing conspiracy as a very, very young kid. And I loved things like that. At a certain level, my first film is kind of playing with this stuff a little bit. I think those were just the original stories that I heard that I thought were really, really exciting. The “things are not what they seem” style conspiracy. It wasn’t something that I realized I was so into until we started making this movie. But it’s obvious when I think of influences. There’s that movie, F For Fake, that Orson Welles movie, which is a huge influence on this movie. It was very much about what you think is true is not really the truth and the idea of one individual knowing the truth, and slowly letting you know – but also lying to you. All that stuff is wrapped up in the notion of conspiracy that I find very, very appealing. Those stories are tough to ignore for me. My favorite movie when I was growing up was JFK, which is another conspiracy movie and a huge influence on Operation Avalanche. I think if you asked me four years ago, “Are you really into conspiracy theories?” I probably would have said no, but it’s because I would just be in denial of knowing my own subconscious mind.

Was there kind of a shortlist of historical events when you were developing this project, or did you know that you were going to do a film about the Moon landing from the beginning?

No, I knew almost immediately that that’s what we were going to do. It was on the flight home from Utah with my producer after we just premiered The Dirties. And we were like, we need to make another fake documentary right away because we love this language so much. We just loved it, and we did not realize that we were biting off way more than we could chew with this particular project. We made this movie, and figured like it would be so quick and so cheap to do. We did not realize the rabbit hole we were about to enter.

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You’ve talked quite a bit previously about how you had to use guerrilla filmmaking techniques [Johnson and his crew filmed inside the real NASA headquarters under the guise of a documentary crew] just because of resources, but what was your philosophy about how you wanted to approach history? Were there some things you thought about where you said, this is too far?

Do you mean in terms of what we were willing to shoot, or what we were willing to do with other real people legally, or in terms of the story we were trying to tell? Because, from a narrative point of view, we were trying to keep it as “realistic” as we could. I mean, as realistic as a movie about faking the moon landing could possibly be. So we were trying to keep that in the real world. But in terms of what we were willing to shoot, I have no ethical boundaries whatsoever when it comes to that kind of stuff. Mostly because, outside of making people really uncomfortable or really doing something to a stranger that is hurtful, I’ll film more or less anything if I think it could make the movie better because you have to think that way. Or at least, one person on set has to think that way, because otherwise, you’re not really going to push it. Later on, we might not use the footage or something might not work for the film, or we can have decisions concerning taste in the editing room. But on set, we’ll shoot just about anything.

With the question I was talking specifically about historical license. I appreciate that tangent though because I was curious about whether there were things that you felt uncomfortable with given the fact that you were in a real place. But I can understand where you’re coming from.

Well, I always felt uncomfortable. There’s a real difference between a ethical comfortability and a physical comfortability because you’re worried that you’re going to get caught, or you’re going to get into trouble, or you’re not going to know what to say. Or god knows, you’re going to be put into an awkward situation. That’s extremely uncomfortable, but I think our whole team understood that this is how the movie was getting made, and we thought that this movie was important on some level, so we were willing to do a lot of corrupted things to make that happen.

Throughout the film, there’s just as much an interest in the granular specifics of audio and video. There’s a few scenes that feel like intentional nods to The Conversation or Blow Out as Owen [Williams] and you are listening in to phone calls or combing through videos frame by frame. Were those ideas baked into the premise from the beginning, or were those things that evolved?

Oh, definitely. You think about it, this is a movie about the aesthetics of film. The Moon landing is so heavily mired in the aesthetics of what kind of images you could create in the 1960s. To avoid the nitty gritty of how those images and sounds are constructed would be…that’s the whole fun of the movie for us as filmmakers. We’re trying to put ourselves in the same technological space of our characters. We all went to film school and learned on a lot of those Nagras and the devices you see used in the movie. That’s the kind of stuff, at least in my experience, I used all that stuff on my undergrad movies. So it was awesome to get to mess with it again. And also that played so much into the thematic space of the created image. How sophisticated is an image? And who creates an image? And what goes into an authentic image vs. an inauthentic image? And characters, people who understand that, can use that knowledge to fool people and make them think that something authentic is inauthentic. For us, we spend so much work trying to get the images looking right. It’s why we did things like trying to put Stanley Kubrick in the movie. We all wanted to do all these tricks, all these little games that make you think that the inauthentic is authentic and vice versa.

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What was the biggest difficulty in replicating that feel then?

No individual piece was so difficult that it destroyed us. It was just huge amounts of time, so we spent tons of time in the lab figuring out exactly what film stocks to print to, figuring out what process we had to take with our footage in the lab. We had to grade the footage before it went to 16 mm. It was just all extremely labor-intensive, and then you realize what you want to do. You make your transfers and all of a sudden, you’re sitting there with your negative, and you decide all of a sudden, you want to edit something or make a change. That was hugely difficult because then you had to make the changes on film. It was awful. It was very, very hard.

I think it looks really great. There really is that feel of authenticity. It’s very strange that we’re talking after Blair Witch just came out because i was definitely thinking about the original Blair Witch Project while watching your film. You have had some strong opinions about terms like “found footage,” and you prefer terms like “fake documentary?”

You know, when it’s appropriate. I think there are legitimate found footage films. I think the Blair Witch Project, the original, is a great example of that. But yeah, I find it frustrating that journalists and film critics haven’t figured out how they want to talk about fake documentaries yet. And I think it’s doing such a disservice to audiences, and even to filmmakers in trying to describe their own work. I know I certainly suffer from this in that there is a whole different set of codes that apply to fake documentaries that do not have anything to do with found footage movies. And the media literacy associated with understanding those differences is important and would just be so much cooler if we had clearer and more universal terminology for that style of filmmaking.

I think that’s definitely fair. I’ve definitely seen some writing that treats documentaries or fake documentaries with the same language and toolset that they’re using when they’re critiquing a narrative film, or something that’s created with a complete level of artifice without even trying to be authentic. But I did want to go back to make a baseline definition. You were saying something like Blair Witch Project, but that is also a fake documentary within the internal context of the film, is it not?

Absolutely, you’re completely right, except the authorial voice of that film is not those characters. Ok, so those protagonists. The people filming that footage may as well be security cameras inasmuch as they…well, that’s not completely true because they’re making active decisions as to how they’re covering things and where they’re pointing the camera. But the author of that movie is not the people filming that footage. The difference is you look at Timmothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man vs. Werner Herzog, who is the author of that movie. There’s a world of difference between those two things.

That definitely makes sense. I just wanted to see specifically where you were coming from when you were saying that. This is the second film where you’ve used this kind of filmmaking style. And you’ve said how you used this for its ease and its budget. But in terms of general philosophy, do you think it’s a style that’s been undervalued as a medium for telling a story?

operation-avalanche-3Yes, but I think that is because it’s sort of birthed from the reality TV movement. The process of making movies like this… although you could have been making movies like this at the dawn of cinema. It’s not like we have any new technology that’s making it easier, but I just think that reality TV has made it so that that language of Handicam narrative storytelling is so much more palatable. And this generation of filmmakers grew up exposed to that in such a major way that it’s starting to become easier. Also, it seems as though this moment in time is very interested in the authentic. And the documentary has so much fake authenticity to it. But I think it’s a critically underused format, but I don’t think it will remain that way. I think a lot of people will start making movies in this style, just because there’s so much untapped territory behind the protagonist-driven narrative movie where the protagonist is also the author. I just think that’s so cool.

Is it something that you would like to continue in your career even after doing two films in this style?

Well, I’m making a television series [Nirvana The Band The Show] right now that is in a somewhat similar style. I say, “somewhat,” because the protagonists are not actually making the movie, but they seem to be somewhat involved in it. And, after that, I’m not sure. I will definitely make a third film with Matt & Owen that is a fake documentary at some point. I’m not sure if I’m going to do it next though.

You and Owen have both been in The Dirties as well as Operation Avalanche? Do you like being in your own films, or is that just something that’s a necessity given your resources? Or, do you like the control that comes with being an actor in your own film?

I think that goes hand-in-hand with it just being a necessity. We talked about trying to do things another way, but it’s impossible – the notion of getting someone to commit that heavily to a role like this, to do insane things like break into NASA with us. I would just never ask someone to do that. I’m not going to ask somebody to drive a car that way, that unsafely, and then at the same time, be so into this character that they’re willing to shoot over the course of a year a completely improvised story that they’re going to keep in their head. It’s not tenable. It would need to be somebody like my brother, or like, who else can I ask for that kind of commitment from? And because the character is sort of an ambitious, foolish filmmaker, it’s just a very good fit for me. We planned the character around my personality. And while it made things easier from a production point of view, it was also a strong character decision. But I’m not sure if i’m going to keep doing that. I think I may just be in this one last movie with Owen, and then that’s it.

It’s interesting too to look at an earlier project this year like Kate Plays Christine, which is already something that’s such a hybrid in terms of being a documentary as well as a narrative film, as well as an exploration of performance itself. I wouldn’t say Operation Avalanche would be…obviously it has the trappings of a documentary, but it’s especially this year, it feels a lot closer to a documentary than a narrative film, which it might be more easily identified?

I know it. And it’s so funny because even from a commercial standpoint..I think a lot of people would think, “Oh yeah, the story is so interesting,” and it’s trying to act like a thriller, and all of these other things. Why not just make it in a traditional way? I don’t resent that because I think it’s a valid question. But if we were to do that, it’s like, all of a sudden we’re giving up so much of what’s so thematically interesting about this form which is, in authorship, the author of something like this complicates it. It really complicates it in the same way that Orson Welles complicates F For Fake just by him being in control of it. I just hope that isn’t lost on the people who like the film.

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Can you see yourself going in a direction that would be even more in the vein of documentary. I guess specifically something like what Robert Greene has done? I know that’s a very specific vision. I’m not trying to lump you two together. I’m just speaking generally in terms of your interests, whether you like that fake construct?

Yeah. More than anything, I like it when we can put real human behavior on screen. I like that the most. I think that’s always the most interesting stuff in any of these films or in this television series. The show that we make is much closer to documentary, much, much closer to documentary. When you get a chance to see it, it uses many more of the tropes from reality television and sort of Maysles brothers vérité documentaries. I wouldn’t really say they’re vérité, but they get quite involved. Yes, I think we’re getting further and further from doc, and closer and closer to our own style, but i’m not sure when that will stop. I’m not sure when we’re going to be like, okay, let’s pull this back.

To go back to found footage and the Blair Witch Project, I wonder if there’s going to be a problem with the increasing budgets of found footage films. As these films become more high-tech, there’s a bigger emphasis on monster closets or CGI than the visual immersion…

They were so restricted by money with the Blair Witch Project. It’s almost like you have all the same tricks of these low-budget movies, but the studio pressure of conforming to the same narrative timeline that a big budget Hollywood movie, which is, as you say, naturally at odds with the aesthetic, which is ok. We can’t show anything because we have no money, but I don’t think it will reach a breaking point. I mean, the fact is, it will go as far as audiences will accept it. Whether that means these movies from the script stage, start to completely resemble normal narrative movies, and yet they are presented in a found footage style. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing on its own. What’s bad is if the form stops experimenting and people stop doing new things. Because at the beginning, people were doing found footage because it was a new way to tell stories, and more so than it just being a cheap way to tell stories, it was just exciting and dynamic because people hadn’t seen that formal approach before. Once you do it 10, 20, 30, 500, you just abuse the language for no reason. That is happening already, but hopefully the good ones will maintain a healthy experimentation. I know that we try like hell to do that.

If a big studio came to you, and said, we want this on a much larger scale, would that worry you? If they wanted your sensibility, but they were going to give you a bigger budget. Would that feel like a restriction to you?

I think it’s a problem and I’ll tell you why. The restrictions that you get from not having resources force you to do more. I’ll give you an example. This is something I talked about with this movie. Let’s say, we’re making Operation Avalanche, but we have $20 million dollars rather than one. Why would we break into NASA to film in mission control when for a million dollars or less, we could just build mission control, hire all those actors, and do it in a studio. We wouldn’t need to go through any of the headache and extremely, extremely perilous work we had to do. Like, why would we do that? We just wouldn’t, and then all of a sudden, the things that this form and having these constraints are forcing you to do, which are new and really exciting like shooting that car chase all in one take with no stunt driver for real, we would not be able to do that with $20 million. So while I think that making a really expensive movie is a really exciting idea and something that my friends and I would definitely do. We would not do it in this same way. You’re given a set of tools when you have a low budget, and you decide to do a fake documentary, and one of those tools is the very restrictions that you place on yourself.

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Operation Avalanche is now in limited release and expanding.


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