After making a name for himself in the independent film world with The Dirties, Canadian director Matt Johnson is back with Operation Avalanche, a faux documentary about four CIA agents who go undercover inside NASA, where they make a startling discovery about the space agency’s ability to put a man on the moon.
And the way they did it is some real tinfoil-hat stuff: Johnson and his cohorts told NASA they were student filmmakers looking to do a documentary on the Apollo program. NASA was all too happy to oblige, giving them access to NASA officials conversations that were recorded and edited to fit the secret concept and facilities.
Operation Avalanche debuted at Sundance earlier this year and has been making the rounds at film festivals. Lionsgate Premiere releases the low-budget thriller (the largely improvised film is presented in grainy 16mm to make it feel more authentic) on Friday, and it’s worth a look, if only to see how Johnson and his collaborators talked their way inside the hallowed walls of NASA.
Johnson spoke with Mashable in the days leading up to the film’s release, so read on to learn how he managed to hoodwink some of the smartest people on the planet.
And be sure to watch an exclusive clip from the film (below).
Tell me the genesis of this project and how you reverse-engineered the story.
The main idea was, we wanted to make a fake documentary like the films of Peter Watkins, which are set in the 1700s (see: Culloden) and are very boring, but formally they’re great, and we said ‘We should try to do that.’ Me and my friends realized we wanted to make a film about filmmaking, and the most famous movie in the world, even though you dont think of it as such, is the moon landing footage. We wanted it to be about a filmmaker who tries to make the most famous movie of all time by faking the moon landing, and from there it was like opening Pandora’s Box. Once we started learning about all the conspiracy theories, we realized there was so much fertile ground for storytelling.
Of all the conspiracy theories out there surrounding the moon landing, do you have a favorite? How plausible do you think the plan in this movie is?
All of our favorites are in the movie. Theres no unified vision for how it would have happened. Not one conspiracy theorist has put forth the one definitive theory. Some people believe Stanley Kubrick shot the moon landing in a studio and sent the footage up with astronauts, who beamed it back. Now, its not possible to pre-shoot this footage, but that’s the big idea, with James Webb (the second administrator of NASA) resigning and retiring right before they go up. But its so confusing how the moon landing wouldve been faked by 2 or 3 guys in a small office in Texas.
I staunchly believe we went to the moon and think its impossible to fake the moon landing, because I tried. You couldnt shoot slow-motion footage on video at that time. Unless NASA developed cameras that were 10 years ahead of their time. But whats compelling about it is these guys believe its possible, and we tell it in such a way that you think it could happen.
Explain the decision to star in your films. Is it because you have the movie in your head, so who would know better what to give you, as the director, than you?
Practically speaking, its the only way we could make a movie like this. The commitment it would require for an actor to know this movie well enough to break into NASA and improvise would be pretty high. Id be asking a lot from somebody and wouldnt want them to risk the things I had to risk. We did some crazy illegal stuff that I wouldnt let somebody else do. Its too scary. Were Canadians. We broke into Shepperton Studios in London and did the same thing at NASA.
Were you ever scared at all?
I was really scared. There were takes of that car chase where we crashed and the camera broke. Sometimes the car door wouldnt even close. It was crazy, and sure it was scary, but it paled to the horror of being caught in a government facility in Texas. Thats way scarier.
What were some of the technical challenges in terms of shooting a period movie like this, which looks like it was really shot on film.
Well we did shoot a lot on film but we also shot a lot on a RED camera outfitted with old lenses. We had to, because there were places we couldnt get all that film equipment to. Plus, we wouldve needed hundreds of pounds of raw negative in order to shoot certain things, so youre watching a bit of a mix.
Was it tricky shooting inside NASA, considering the staff couldn’t know what you were working on?
It was hard as you think it would be to shoot the center of the movie inside Mission Control at NASA. There were like, 40 people watching us through soundproof glass while we were on a tour, and nobody could know thats what we were shooting, so we had to sneak into rooms and rejoin our tour group before it moved on. I cant describe how intense those scenes were, filming during a behind-the-scenes tour of Mission Control. While the room is pretty well preserved, it also has a lot of modern signage, so we had to disassemble stuff with screwdrivers and then put it back where we found it.
How has NASA reacted since the premiere at Sundance? Did you hold a screening for their employees?
We tried to. When we screened at SXSW, we invited them. People talk about NASA as if they have one singular leader, but there isnt one individual who represents the organization. The people we worked with in the Apollo photography department are gone because their department has been closed, so our production company is the worlds largest private owner of Apollo 11 footage.
There has been zero response from NASA, but what would they really be responding to? I dont think anybodys going to be demanding they say anything. If anything, it portrays them as kind of cool. A lot of people dont talk about NASA and the Apollo program the way they used to. Hopefully this movie looks at what used to go on in the best way, and the folks at NASA have a sense of humor about what we did. But if they dont, thats OK too.
This is a Lionsgate Premiere release, so I’m curious how interested you are in going the Hollywood route, or if you’d prefer to continue making films with your friends?
I think that those arent mutually exclusive. More and more these days, people are bringing their teams with them as they move on to bigger productions. Just look at the Duplass brothers. In terms of my own work, Im making a TV series (nirvanna the band the show, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week) with Spike Jonze and VICE that comes out in January, and after that Im going to keep making the movies and shows that I like. It doesnt matter to me whether thats in a studio environment or not. As long as I get to make films in Toronto and make films with the people I know. As for the bigger picture of whos funding it, I dont really care. It doesnt matter.
Where do you see independent film heading next, in these days of streaming services and digital distribution?
For me, it seems as if film festivals have taken up the space that independent cinemas did before. A lot of the public around the world is seeing indie cinema at festivals, and then theres streaming. To me, it seems like my friends are watching 90 percent of indie film content online, through streaming services that are slightly more catered than Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, though theyve been getting into more niche programming. Amazon was making massive purchases of indie films at Sundance, so its really great. Im hoping that the theatrical experience doesnt disappear. I dont think it will. Its a real vital reason why people get into making movies in the first place. Most people who saw The Dirties saw it online or downloaded it and watched it on their computer. I enjoy the power of watching movies on my laptop where I can start and stop a film as needed. It’s a space I really like, because that can be a rich and uniquely powerful experience on its own.