Sundance 2016: ‘Operation Avalanche’ Director Matt Johnson on His Unique Creative Process


Back in 2013, writer and director Matt Johnson turned heads at the Slamdance Film Festival with his feature-length debut, The Dirties, which followed a pair of teenagers who set out to make a movie about a school shooting, with one of them taking things too far. This year, Johnson returned to Park City for the world premiere of his sophomore effort, Operation Avalanche, at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

The faux documentary, about two CIA agents who go undercover at NASA in the late 1960s, was met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction after its debut. We sat down with Johnson later that weekend to talk about the creative challenges of trying to shoot a found-footage style film that’s also a period piece, and about the innovative approach he took to some of the film’s biggest moments.

When you and I spoke a couple of years ago for The Dirties, you told me that you were working on this idea and that you were going to shoot it in the same way. In the back of my mind, I was like “there’s no way that’s going to work…”

Matt Johnson: That’s what everybody told me! And that’s what I told myself, because I wanted to set us up with an impossible task. When I pitched The Dirties to people, they said the same thing: “You’ll never be able to shoot that in real schools, you’ll never be able to do that, it’s impossible.” And I think being told that, and feeling it myself, actually winds up giving my team a whole lot of energy.

Of course, doing something like this, with this budget – you would never attempt that. It’s a fool’s errand, of course you’re setting yourself up to fail. But because of that, people are willing to die to make it happen, whereas if we were making a film that was much smaller, and about contemporary things, you just don’t get as much passion from people. When you have ten guys and girls in Toronto, and they’re all working on something they they know is probably not going to happen, they bring out their best work.

It forces you to be more creative. 

Matt Johnson: Yeah! A great example is when we’re at NASA. We have one take for those scenes, so of course you’ve gotta be good – because if you’re not, there’s no movie. There were so many instances in this film where, if we didn’t cross this very narrow bridge, there’s no movie. And we had to cross that bridge 50 times.

So it winds up giving you a lot of motivation, it gives you power, it gives you the magic of movies to keep you going. Because it’s like “oh my God, if we do this, it’ll be so great.” It’s like when you get to prove your Dad wrong, it’s that same kind of feeling.

Going back to the NASA thing – you basically did the exact same thing as the characters in the film. You entered NASA under false pretenses to shoot your movie.

Matt Johnson: Well, we tried to make it resonant, because we knew we only had one shot. When you see us pulling up in that van, that’s us pulling up at NASA. When I say “God, I hope this works,” that’s real. When we’re walking around and telling people that we’re making a documentary, that’s just it. We had to align our characters with the reality of what was happening as closely as possible, because we only had one shot at doing it.

They didn’t give us permission to go and shoot a movie there – they agreed to give us a tour. So we said “can we film the tour?” And they said “sure.” So what you’re watching is our filmed tour of NASA that we were somehow able to put into the narrative structure of our film.

What was your backup plan? If the footage wasn’t what you wanted it to be, what would you have done?

Matt Johnson: Well, this is what I’m saying, when I say that you have to be making a movie that seems impossible. I guess the backup plan would have been to build sets and try to fake it, but it would have been terrible. So the backup plan was just to not have a movie, right? All the big scenes in the movie – if they didn’t work, you’d be watching a completely different movie.

That said, though, I think there’s something like 51 scenes in the movie, and we shot like 120 scenes. So it doesn’t work all the time. We had lots of things fail, we had lots of things that we tried to do that didn’t work, and what you’re watching is just the ones that worked.

The cast and crew of 'Operation Avalanche' at the world premiere.

The cast and crew of ‘Operation Avalanche’ at the world premiere.

You talked a little bit at the Q&A about everyone on the team really being creative because the budget was so small. What kind of budget were you working with?

Matt Johnson: Our loan from the bank was for $1.25 million, but a good 50 percent of that was earmarked for post-production. So what we were shooting with was between $500,000 and $700,000. But to be honest with you, it really works out to be much less than that, because when we’re actually shooting day to day, we aren’t really spending money – it’s basically just me, [Matt] Miller, the two cameras and Owen shooting in whatever places we can find.

Like that NASA shoot cost nothing, except the cost of the flights. The Kubrick stuff, when we’re out there in Shepperton, that was just the cost of the flights. So the actual shooting, we try to make it as cheap as possible, because we’re just doing it like a documentary. Most of the money was spent buying tons of archival footage, clearing all that music, paying our lawyers – the unsexy stuff. So that’s why the movie cost money.

The Kubrick stuff is amazing. The way you pulled that off, using still photographs and archived interview audio – did you know that you wanted to do it that way at the beginning? Or was that something that came together in post?

Matt Johnson: That was the first thing that we shot. When The Dirties was released in the UK, we already knew what [Operation Avalanche] was, vaguely, and I knew we could probably get into Shepperton to shoot on Stanely Kubrick’s sets. And that was way harder to do than NASA, because they didn’t know we were coming – it was basically, for lack of a better word, a break-in.

But once we were there, we shot for maybe five or six hours, and that was the first piece in that section of the film. So we had me at Shepperton, we had the stages, we had footage of me moving around. So once we knew that we had that, Tristan Zerafa, who’s basically the author of that entire sequence, started figuring out how we could fill in those gaps. So how do we show Stanley Kubrick? Is it possible to show him?

We asked these questions for months, and between an archive we got from the Prelinger Archive in San Francisco and a bunch of really old hi-res photographs that were taken of Stanley Kubrick – because there was basically zero 16mm motion photography of Kubrick at that time, we could only find very lo-res stuff that we couldn’t composite into the film – [Tristan] just worked on the stuff that he had tirelessly, until we had something.

Once we figured out the trick, then we knew we could rebuild these photographs and use them against the stuff that we got in Shepperton, we could build it piece by piece, and that’s what he did. But there’s no way that we could have conceived the final version of that from the beginning, because it was changing daily. It was just him, working by himself in our office on a computer, literally alone.

I knew that I wanted to have the real Stanley Kubrick in the movie, and I basically said “yeah, let’s just try to do it.” And that’s another time where you say “let’s try to do something impossible.” And because no one has ever done it before, and it’s inconceivable that you could do it, then people want to do it. So that’s why you get a guy like Tristan working at the top of his game, and that’s the kind of thing that motivates the team to just go for it.

The synopsis of the film sort of gives the impression that the two main characters go to NASA and discover this conspiracy to fake the moon landing. But in the actual film, that’s not the case – these guys become part of the conspiracy, which I thought was a really interesting approach.

Matt Johnson: Well, it had to be small, because the only way a conspiracy like this works – the only way any conspiracy works – is if it involves nobody. That’s when it’s fun. It’s fun when it’s the three of us sitting at this table and trying to figure out how to do something impossible.

That’s why the real story of the moon landing is so boring. 200,000 people and billions of dollars, working every day on mathematics. Yeah, of course it worked, but there’s no story there. It’s so much more interesting when it’s a small cadre of liars, who have different opinions on how to do it, are trying to do it the wrong way.

operation avalanche interview 02

Matt Johnson in Park City, UT at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

One thing that really stood out to me is that the character you play in this is very reminiscent of the Matt Johnson character in The Dirties. Was that a conscious decision, or is that just more a reflection of your actual personality, just amped up in front of the camera?

Matt Johnson: Well, I would say that it is sort of me at my worst, in many ways. But this isn’t the kind of thing that happens every day, right? You don’t get a filmmaker that’s allowed to make what is essentially the same movie in a different context. The Dirties and this movie are connected, and thematically the characters are going though a similar journey. And because I’d never seen that before, it just seemed so catchy. We were like “we have to do that,” because we knew we’d probably never get another opportunity to do something like this again.

But in terms of how I’m playing this guy, these are both movie nerds who are obsessed with themselves, and think that no matter what they’re going to be forgiven for the terrible things they do, so long as it works out. And that is very much the real me – which is kind of sad – but also, that energy and that mania comes from knowing that you’re wrong, you know what I mean?

In The Dirties and in Operation Avalanche, I think Matt knows that he’s wrong, and the reason he fights so hard and so loud is because, more than anything, he’s trying to convince himself that this is going to work. And that’s essentially the story of making both of these movies. There I am, in real life, thinking we’re doing is never going to work and that I’m just setting everyone up to fail, and I need to convince myself that it will work, and that when it’s done we’ll have a movie.

And I think that’s why the character comes so naturally to me, because it’s the same. Me making Operation Avalanche is the same as Matt Johnson faking the moon landing with his friends, and the character is going through the exact same struggle: this is really hard and we don’t have the skills to do this, but we’re going to do it, and it’s going to work.

You said that the idea of doing the same film again in a different context is something you probably would’t get another chance to do. So does that mean we won’t be seeing a Matt Johnson trilogy?

Matt Johnson: Well, I want to do one. I have a third version of this that’s set in the 1800s, and it’s a fake documentary, but it’s not about the construction of a film. It’s about a railway conspiracy – kind of like All the President’s Men meets Chinatown. It’s a political thriller about early government trying to unify a country just so they can build a railroad through it, and basically leading this conspiracy and fooling everybody so they can become massive billionaires.

It’s a long way out, I don’t think we’re going to be making that for about a year. But it will be the third piece of this trilogy, with me playing the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, and Owen playing the leader of the opposition, a guy named George Brown. They’re fascinating people, and they were best friends and also worst enemies.

So will you be approaching this the same way, in terms of having a rough outline to work from, or will this be a little more structured?

Matt Johnson: It’ll be more structured, definitely. I think as I keep making these movies, they get more and more structured, because I’m trying to do more complicated stories. Operation Avalanche was way more structured than The Dirties, and this movie would be even moreso.

I’m hoping we can start taking the tricks we’ve learned from making these fake documentaries, and using them in a much more controlled space, because one of the huge challenges of making movies like this is that it takes forever, and things can go so wrong so quickly. I don’t know if I could live the rest of my life like that.

sundance 2016 operation avalanche

Can you picture yourself, somewhere down the road, shooting something in a completely conventional way? Like shooting a studio film, or being hired for a comic book movie?

Matt Johnson: Well, I love comic books, and I hope one day I can make a comic book movie. But I think with my skills, they would hire me to make a very specific movie, right? I would get hired to make a movie that’s somewhat realistic, and funny, because that’s what I’m good at. I don’t know how good I would be at doing massive VFX battles, because I don’t come from that background and that’s not something I have a talent for.

Our next film, which is sort of an action Bourne-style movie, is a lot closer to that. It’s like Son of Saul meets The Raid, it’s set in a Nazi castle in the 1930s. It’s like the id game Escape from Castle Wolfenstein, mixed with the Westwood game Red Alert. That’s kind of what the movie is.

You’re speaking my language now – I’m a gamer.

Matt Johnson: Yeah? It’s about a secret program that Einstein ran during the 1930s when he worked for the Nazis, trying to build a time machine. Of course he can’t do it, and the Nazis are like “you suck,” and he escapes. And then when World War II ends, Einstein’s like “get me back to that castle where I built that time machine.” Do you like Primer?

I love Primer, it’s one of my favorite time travel films. 

Matt Johnson: Okay, so it’s kind of like that “you have to build the machine first” idea, where here’s the machine built in 1938 in a Nazi castle in Berlin, and then we go into 1945, and this machine does nothing. It’s useless. But when Einstein gets back to the machine in the 40s, he’s like :I think I can get this to work, I think I can send people back to when I first built this.”

So they start an assassination program with Mossad agents, who’ve been trained killing Nazis in Argentina, and he sends somebody back. And the guy that he sends back realizes that not only is he not the first one, but that Hitler knows about the machine and is kidnapping all of these assassins that Einstein is sending back, and torturing them for information about the battles of the second World War. And he’s destroying the Allies, because he knows the details of every fight – he knows about Normandy, he knows about everything.

And so our guy that we’re following is sent back and not only needs to undo every single thing that has been fucked up because the Nazis know the Allies’ entire plan, but he has to kill Hitler. And his family is in Auschwitz, he’s gotta get them out, too. But it’s an action movie, it’s like The Bourne Identity meets The Raid. That’s the tone of it, and it’s going to be very cool if you like video games.

When can we look forward to that one?

Matt Johnson: We’ve been shooting a TV show since October, for Vice, and it’ll be done in August, so we’re trying to have this movie ready to go in the fall. That’s when we want to start shooting. And we’re gonna shoot in real castles and shit. It’s gonna be cool. And if you like the Wolfenstein games, you’re gonna be like “yeah, this is the fucking greatest thing ever.”

Operation Avalanche will be released later this year via Lionsgate.

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