‘Operation Avalanche’ Executes Delicious Cinematic Con Game
Filmmakers sneak into NASA to get footage for fake documentary
Friday, September 23, 2016
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The line between real and fake gets severely blurred in the new film "Operation Avalanche" (opening Sept. 23 at Landmark's Ken Cinema). It’s a mockumentary about a fake lunar landing. But the filmmakers infiltrated NASA to shoot footage for their film.
"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
"Dr. Strangelove" (1964)
"Capricorn One" (1977)
The line between real and fake gets severely blurred in the new film "Operation Avalanche" (opening Sept. 23 at Landmark's Ken Cinema). It’s a mockumentary about the U.S. government creating a fake lunar landing.
Matt Johnson starts with a concept most Hollywood filmmakers never consider: that filmgoers are smart and want to be challenged. That’s why he opens his film with President John F. Kennedy famously talking about the space race in newsreel footage.
We know that’s real. But how about what follows?
A scene with an enthusiastic CIA agent explaining, "The plan is to rent a studio in Texas, hire a crew and have them build our own lunar lander. We'll mix this practical set with Kubrick’s projection technique and presto, the illusion that man is walking on the moon."
All that about the CIA faking a moon landing, that’s all fake. Right? That's exactly what writer/director/actor Matt Johnson wants you to be thinking because he's interested in creating what he slyly refers to as "authentic but in manufactured way. We want the audience to think what they are seeing is real but at the back of their heads know that it’s not. That space is really interesting to at least me as an audience member seeing something like that."
Very quickly, though, Johnson realized that if people were going to buy into his fake documentary he would have to infiltrate NASA to shoot some real footage.
"It was super scary and we definitely didn’t know what was going to happen," Johnson recalled. "The way that we got there was that we were film students at the time at Toronto and we asked if we could shoot footage for a documentary we were making about the Apollo program."
In the film, Johnson plays a character named Matt Johnson who describes himself as a member of the CIA's AV team. He suggests that if the CIA wants to find a mole in NASA they shouldn't send a fake scientist in but rather "send people who look like they have no idea what’s going on." In other words, send the AV team in posing as a documentary film crew.
"It’s not lost on me that the characters in the movie have broken into NASA in the exact same way that the real filmmakers have broken into NASA," Johnson said.
Johnson said it was "stressful and agony inducing" to shoot surreptitiously at NASA that but there was a pay off: "You do get a feeling and excitement on camera from filming in this way. And that’s something you just couldn’t have in a movie that had the resources to not need to do that."
The challenge then was to take the unscripted real footage and work it into a fictional narrative.
"About a quarter of the movie is completely like we got it by accident and then 75 percent was stuff that we wrote around the 25 percent that we got by accident," Johnson explained.
That adds even more layers to Johnson’s cinematic con game. He blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s fake even more by taking meticulous care in technical details like getting the film grain and color stock to look perfectly like it’s from the 1960s. So while the film is overtly about a fake lunar landing, what comes through most vividly is Johnson’s pure delight in the filmmaking process. On one level, this is a film student’s giddy love letter to cinematic giants like Stanley Kubrick.
"You are dead on, it's completely tied to the experience of being a film student and looking up to these giants. Seeing these almost mythical filmmakers and wanting to emulate them however pathetically is a really important part of why we make these movies the way we do," Johnson said.
Johnson's screen alter ego enthusiastically reports back to his superiors about what he has discovered on the set of Kubrick upcoming film, "2001."
"All right, it's called front screen projection," Johnson said. "Stanley Kubrick can fake any environment he wants by projecting it through a semi-transparent mirror and then onto a gigantic silver screen. He films the entire scene through the same mirror at a 90 degree angle to the projector. What it ends up doing is creating images where you can’t tell where the stage stops and the fake photographic background begins."
You also may not be able to tell where references to other films stop and Johnson’s originality kicks in. While most people hide the fact that they have borrowed from other sources, Johnson admits to blatantly stealing from films like "The Manchurian Candidate," "Capricorn One" and Alan J. Pakula paranoid thrillers.
"In terms of a narrative reference, that’s what we were doing," Johnson said. "We were taking those Pakula movies and those sort of paranoia thrillers and trying to put our characters in the middle of one."
Which is why the two young CIA agents have an exchange where one asks, "Have you heard of a conspiracy theory before?" To which the other replies, "I think we are in one."
Johnson professed a love for those old films.
"Here’s what we loved about that era of cinema — it was somehow able to criticize the current institutions of power in America without being direct, without directly naming names. 'Dr. Strangelove' is an incredible example of a movie that seems sort of light and almost like a comedy but was being unbelievably critical of the very current political state of the United States," Johnson said. "And it seems like we don’t have that any more."
But now we do.
With "Operation Avalanche," rated R for language including a brief sexual reference, Johnson delivers a hilarious mockumentary combined with savvy social commentary — all wrapped up in a valentine to the magic of moviemaking. And that's irresistible.
For my full interview with Matt Johnson, listen to Cinema Junkie Podcast 91.
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