One of my favorite selections at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival was Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson’s follow-up to 2013’s critically acclaimed indie The Dirties which follows a pair of CIA agents as they plot to fake the 1969 moon landing. Filmed with the same improvised style as Johnson’s debut, Operation Avalanche has become somewhat infamous for including footage shot on location at NASA, and interviews with real-life NASA employees – none of whom realized they were being featured in a narrative piece.
Much like the characters they portray in the film, Johnson and his team gained access to NASA under false pretenses – they posed as a documentary crew shooting a film about the Apollo missions. When you see their onscreen counterparts inside Mission Control, those aren’t sets – they’re the actual locations, and in most cases the crew had only a single take to get the scene just right. The result is an engrossing and entertaining film about one of the oldest conspiracy theories in America, and the ambitious CIA agents who managed to pull it off.
With Operation Avalanche opening in limited release last weekend – and expanding into more theaters tomorrow – I spoke with Johnson via telephone to get his thoughts on the film’s reception, his current relationship with NASA, and the new series he’s been working on for the past year. Enjoy the interview below.
Hey man, good to talk to you again!
Matt Johnson: Yeah, I’m actually at Fantastic Fest right now.
That’s awesome. The very first time we spoke was right after Fantastic Fest.
Matt Johnson: Yeah, that would have been 2013, when we were here with The Dirties. That’s a very fond memory of mine.
We spoke at Sundance just after the premiere of Operation Avalanche, but you’ve been on the festival circuit for quite awhile now. Have you noticed any trends or similarities with the way audiences react?
Matt Johnson: Well, what’s occurred to me are two things. One – and this is more light-hearted – is the number of people who believe the moon landing is fake is way higher than I thought. Way higher! We’ve screened it at so many festivals around the United States – even recently on this press tour, screening it for the first time with people of all ages – and without a doubt, there are always three or four people at the end of each screening who want to talk with me.
Even after the Q&A, where we said “we don’t believe this is true and we’re doing it because we think this is fun, it was great juice to make a movie out of” – and they think that we’re lying. They think that we’re somehow communicating in code, and we did make this movie because we wanted to prove that this was faked, and we aren’t willing to admit it. I’ve seen that amongst multiple people who did not know one another, and that’s been crazy.
But in terms of seeing the movie over and over again, and seeing what it’s been like, I think it’s been really remarkable that people are finding it as accessible as they are. I think when we make movies like this, we think we’re making them just for ourselves and our friends, and people who kind of get this style of filmmaking – when in fact, I think maybe because it’s set in the 60s and maybe because the material is slightly more universal than The Dirties was, audiences are just being incredibly positive about it. In a way, I thought there were going to find it inaccessible, so that’s been wicked.
Well, in terms of being accessible, The Dirties was released on VOD and streaming platforms, and Operation Avalanche is coming out in theaters. So that’s gotta be a huge difference, just in terms of the number of eyes on your film.
Matt Johnson: Very much so. We’re releasing in like 30 cities in the United States. That’s the kind of release I dreamed I would have for maybe like my fifth feature. I can’t believe it – it’s a world of difference, and the fact that you can’t even get it on VOD until January is crazy. I feel like I’m back in the 90s.
So you guys are at Fantastic Fest with Nirvana the Band, the TV project you shot for Vice, correct?
Matt Johnson: Yeah, we’re here right now. Our first screening is tomorrow.
You mentioned this very briefly at Sundance, but we didn’t get into details. What can you tell me about this series?
Matt Johnson: Well, it’s a show that we’ve made for Viceland, and our executive producer is Spike Jonze, and we’ve basically been given cart blanche to take all of the weird tricks and things we’ve learned making these features – in terms of fair use, shooting things illegally, shooting things in the real world – and apply them to television. And the combination of those things has been like dynamite. We’re all so proud of this, and we cannot believe it’s gonna be on TV.
When we first started making Avalanche, we were like “oh yeah, this is gonna be a challenge, legally as well as technically.” This goes way beyond that. I mean, when we were at Sundance with you, we were shooting an episode where we were filming scenes with movie stars, a hidden camera and me pretending like I was… it’s like everything that was happening was all for the show, that entire festival was all for the show, and we didn’t think that would be releasable. But it’s about to be shown in 24 hours.
I’m glad you mentioned shooting illegally, because one of the most interesting pieces of Operation Avalanche is that you guys went into NASA under false pretenses, and shot a bunch of footage that ended up in the film. At Sundance, they hadn’t really commented on that – but between then and now, have you heard from them?
Matt Johnson: There’ve been two developments, and one of them just happened a few days ago, which is amazing. So no – we invited them to our Sundance screening and to our SXSW screening, which we thought might get some reaction because they’re so close, but [we got] no response. Then Wired ran a piece maybe two weeks ago about the film, and they got a comment out of NASA where they were just saying “yeah, we’re disappointed that they did that,” but they had no real comment on the movie because they haven’t seen it.
But what’s amazing is that in Austin when we did our press screening on Monday, there were a bunch of NASA staff there! And a bunch of NASA staff that knew the NASA staff who were in the movie! So during the Q&A we were talking with them, and they were going crazy – they loved this movie. These are guys who worked during Apollo doing technical jobs – one of them was the sound engineer who was responsible for getting and cleaning up the audio of recordings that came back from the missions. And he worked side-by-side with Mike Gentry who, I don’t know if you remember from the film, is the guy who tells us where on Earth we can photograph things that look like the moon.
So he called Mike after the film to say “hey, I just saw this” and he gave him my phone number. So I’m hoping the individuals at NASA get a chance to see it and have the same response that these guys did, because they went wild. It was awesome.
The one thing I really like about Operation Avalanche that really kind of sets it apart from other indie flicks is that it feels like a lot of indie directors are trying to go for this darker, nihilistic or pessimistic tone, and there’s such an air of optimism in this film. Especially with your character – no matter what obstacle you put in his way, he’s going to get it accomplished, which – after speaking with you a few times – seems like just an extension of who you really are.
Matt Johnson: Well, I think that’s the only way you can get a lot of independent films made, is by having an attitude like that. I think cynicism is useful, and nihilism too, but if you’re trying to do something impossible like we were trying to do with this movie, or like we were trying to do with The Dirties, you have to be your own biggest champion. You have to be the guy that’s more excited about it than anybody else – because if you’re not, then you’re not gonna be able to convince the people working with you to do things that maybe don’t sound smart, like break into NASA and film there.
It’s very hard to convince people of that when you’re dreading the result. And in many ways, Operation Avalanche talks about where that can lead, and the really dark, awful places that can take people like me. Which it did – the story of that movie is very much the story of that movie getting made. But I think that real life is pretty optimistic and buoyant, and when movies come out that try to say it’s not, I try to reject that.
I know we don’t have a lot of time left, but I’m always interested in what you’re doing next. At Sundance, we talked about this time travel flick, and you were hoping to have it ready to go shortly after you finished shooting for Vice. Is that still on track?
Matt Johnson: Yes, it’s going to be our next project, but the development was that Vice bought many more episodes of Nirvana the Band, so our production schedule has been extended by like a year. So yes, that is the movie we’re gonna make next, but we’re gonna keep shooting this show just because we’re having so much fun. We love making this show, and I think when you see it, you’ll see what I mean. There’s something about it that’s just one of a kind. Not to say that movie’s not going to be amazing, because it will be, but we’re okay waiting another year to make more of this show.
So you’re premiering Nirvana the Band at Fantastic Fest, but when does it go out to masses? When can people who aren’t at the festival get a chance to see it?
Matt Johnson: It’s gonna start airing nationwide at the end of January, so if you live anywhere in North America you can catch it on Viceland at the end of January, and then Season 2 will be coming shortly after that.
Awesome, man, I’m glad things are going so well. Operation Avalanche was one of my favorite films at Sundance, and I’m glad it’s getting a theatrical release. I’m excited for you, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to chat again soon.
Matt Johnson: I can’t wait, dude. I hope we get to see each other soon.
Take it easy Matt.
Operation Avalanche is currently playing in limited release through Lionsgate.