Over the Moon: An Interview With 'Operation Avalanche' Matt Johnson and Matt Miller
Johnson and Miller talk about the long hours and dodged bullets behind the making of Operation Avalanche, a film that's "like The Dirties on acid."
Filmmaker Matt Johnson follows up his breakthrough debut feature, The Dirties (2013), with Operation Avalanche, a fake documentary set in the late ‘60s that follows a duo of rogue CIA agents (Johnson and co-star / friend Owen Williams, playing heightened versions of themselves as they did in The Dirties) who conspire to fake the US moon landing under their bosses’ noses, filming the entirety of the operation to use as proof and leverage. A light character comedy at the outset, the story evolves into a paranoia thriller that examines in detail what it would have taken to pull off one of the biggest conspiracy theories in US history.
The footage Johnson and producer Matt Miller were able to get is as improbable as any lunar footage you’re likely to see. They snuck into and filmed at NASA, broke into Shepperton Studios to illegally shoot scenes with a digitally constructed Stanley Kubrick (who moon-landing conspiracy theorists widely believe helped fake the landing), and shot an impossible looking car chase scene that will stump even the most avid effects aficionados. On top of all that, the crew had to create a convincing ‘60s setting on a low budget.
Operation Avalanche is fascinating on several levels, and we spoke with Johnson and Miller during their visit to San Francisco to get insight into the hardships that came along with making a fake documentary, the challenges of playing a heightened version of oneself, and the long hours that went into the film’s visual effects.
The movie’s a lot of fun, and I imagine you had a fun making it, as well. What was the most fun production day you can remember? Also, which day was a complete car crash where nothing was going right?
Johnson: We shot for so long that I can’t even think of a single day that stands out. When you work like we did, production is actually not as much fun as it looks. Post production is fun, when you’re putting together the stuff you just got.
Miller: It’s so funny; I feel the exact opposite. Post production was hell! Those shoot days were fun! The pool party scene was really fun.
Johnson: I did not find that fun at all. You know what the most fun moment for me was? When we finished shooting at NASA. We knew we’d gotten what we needed, and we left. That drive away from NASA was like, “Oh my god. We got away with it!” All of us were staying in a cheap, disgusting room in Galveston, and it was the best.
When we shot the car chase, that was a really hard day. The cars all kept breaking down because they were vintage. The car that was chasing me completely broke after three takes. We had to send out to another city to have them truck in a different vintage car. That was really, really scary.
Miller: We also shot in some dodgy, old motels, like the motel Matt’s character lives in. We had this neighbor, this old guy, who kept blowing an airhorn [while we were shooting]. He lived there, and it’s like we were invading to shoot our little movie.
Was he trying to sabotage the shoot?
Miller: Big time. Absolutely.
Johnson: In the grand scheme of things, these are small problems. Nobody was killed, we never lost an entire magazine of film... there were no major disasters.
As a movie lover, I get annoyed when people watch a movie and get hung up on tiny lapses in logic and what they deem to be “plot holes”. Found-footage movies and fake documentaries like yours seem to invite that kind of inspection and critique.
Johnson: In Both of our films, what we’ve tried to do is set up a narrative device wherein it helps to self-perpetuate its own production. In The Dirties, we have a film in which Matt is making about himself as he plans a school shooting. The film is going to be his magnum opus, and when he shoots these kids, the film will be there to explain why he did it. That’s why everything is shot the way it is.
In Operation Avalanche, we got to do the exact same thing. Matt is telling a story about himself, but the movie is also proof against the CIA to protect him later. There are a hundred arguments you could make as to why they would film certain things. But to us, all of that gets nicely glossed over by the fact that these guys all know they’re setting up a con on their bosses. If they miss a central part of the story, it’s not going to be as compelling a case against the CIA.
Miller: We learned a lot on The Dirties about this specific thing. We spent almost all of act one trying to establish who the people behind the camera were while we were editing the movie. It just wasn’t taking off.
Johnson: It was boring!
Miller: We got rid of it all. Literally lopped off the first act of the movie. Maybe we never explained who was shooting the movie, but it really doesn’t matter. We have to be with Matt and Owen, and if we understand why they’re filming it, I think it’s okay.
I think it’s so interesting and fun the way you’ve plucked Matt and Owen, the same characters from The Dirties, and plopped them in this new scenario in a different time period.
Johnson: I thought we’d never get this opportunity again, to take these same characters and put them in a completely different situation and continue, thematically, a lot of the things we dealt with in The Dirties. It was just too juicy to give up, and I’d never seen it done before.
Did the idea live up to its potential?
Johnson: That’s hard to say. I think we started making a very different movie than we wound up making. We thought it would be a much more relaxed buddy movie that focused on the relationship between Matt and Owen, but me and Owen’s relationship had changed so much in real life, and the movie was so technical to make, that that aspect took over a lot of the space that was meant to be for the friendship between these guys. I think we made an extremely, extremely technically sound document on how to fake the moon landing, for what that’s worth. But I think we’re saddened by the fact that it wasn’t the same friendship story that The Dirties was. Ultimately, we’re fine with it.
Is it fair to say that your character is an amplified version of your real-life personality?
Johnson: Matt is shaking his head “no”, but I would say yes. I’m playing myself as a teenager in The Dirties and a CIA agent in Operation Avalanche, and I’m neither of those things. Aside from being an optimistic, loud person who believes he’ll be forgiven for all of the terrible things he’s done, there are a lot of differences between me and my characters. The energy is the same, but I certainly wouldn’t say or do a lot of the things I say and do in the movies.
The television series we’re making right now is that times ten. It’s the same character but trying to become famous as a musician, but it’s a pure comedy. It’s like The Dirties on acid. That’s what it is. It’s about two characters who are completely out of their minds but in the real world.
Because the character is so informed by your real-life personality, I think you could riff on it forever. You’ll change as a person as time goes on, and the character will obviously be affected by that.
Johnson: Yeah, and I think TV is a great space for that. We’re going to make one more movie where I play myself to complete this trilogy, and then I don’t think we’ll do it again. It’s just so much work. It’s so hard. We made this movie for two years, working non-stop, all day, everyday.
Now my first question feels silly!
Johnson: We do it because it’s obviously the best experience but my god, man... I look at the movie poster and I think, if only it could show the pain we went through to make this movie! [laughs]
Miller: At the same time, we’re not curing cancer here. We work with our best friends making these funny little movies. We have it pretty good.
You guys pull off a lot of amazing things in this movie. There’s the terrific car chase visual effects, the Kubrick footage, the vintage aesthetic. On a low-budget scale, does it require a measure of tenacity to pull things like this off?
Johnson: Dude, it’s the production triangle. Do you know it? It’s true with all filmmaking. There are three points on the triangle: Good, cheap, and fast. You can always only pick two, and that’s true with anything you want to do in filmmaking.
Miller: So which two did we pick?
Johnson: Good and cheap! Those effects took a year in post-production. The Kubrick sequence took six months. So yeah, “tenacity” is the word.