'Operation Avalanche' Executes Delicious Cinematic Con Game
Filmmakers sneak into NASA to get footage for fake documentary
This is KPBS Midday Edition. The line between real and fake get severely blurred in the new firm -- film operation avalanche. It's a documentary about the US government creating footage of the faked lunar landing. The filmmaker Matt Johnson related infiltrate acetate shoot some of his footage. We speak with him about why he made the film the way he did. Movie special effects can be very convincing. Especially when you don't know you are watching a movie. The plan is to rent a film studio in Texas and hire a crew and have them build our own lunar lander. We will makes this practical set piece with projection techniques and presto the illusion that man is walking on the moon. Operation avalanche is a found footage film that reinvigorates the tired gimmick with inspiration and craft. Imagine if Christopher Guest made a documentary about a paranoid conspiracy plot and added in Quentin Tarantino's passion for cinema and you might get an inkling of what this film is like. I began my interview by asking how the film began and how he decided that sneaking into NASA would be part of the process. That was a means to an end. In the very beginning we wanted to make a movie about the CIA faking the moon landing. We wanted to tell a story about the guy who filmed the footage. We thought this would be easy because we are independent film makers who do not have a lot of money so we thought we would just shoot it all in Toronto but very quickly realized that in order for this may be to have veracity we need to see -- shoot on location and that meant we would have to shoot at NASA because we cannot rebuild those sets. Really that came out of necessity. What was that like? It was super Sert -- scary and we did not know what was going to happen. As you can imagine the way that we got there was we were film students at the time in Toronto. I guess up until recently we were and we asked if we could come down there and shoot documentary footage for a movie that we were making about the Apollo program. It was not even that different from the cover of characters used in the movie to get into NASA. They said they were part of it documentary film crew. That's where we come in. Allow me to introduce a when Williams and myself Matt Johnson. We joined the CIA to the recruits program and have been working together ever since. Along with the camera team we make up the CIA's AV department. Currently we are finishing operation deep red the probe into film director Stanley Grebeck -- cupric.'s mission is not using as to our full potential. I think a lot of it is sort of stump style filmmaking that my friends and I do is often because we're trying to think of telling the story in a new way are doing something you can normally do in a film and it has less to do with the actual act of doing it. We don't really enjoy it. It's agony inducing and high stress. If there's a way to do it without having to stick around and do all of this duplicitous stuff that would be awesome. That said you do get a certain feeling and excitement on camera from filling in this way. It is not lost on me that the characters in our movie have broken into NASA in the exact same way that the real filmmakers broke into NASA any kind of good to feel that a little bit and that something that you just cannot have any movie that had the resources to not need to do that. A lot of what I have been reading about the film is focusing on the fact that it's about a fake moon landing that I have to say having watch the comment on the film school myself you guys seem to get a lot of joy out if just the filmmaking process and about kind of highlighting how good cupric was that what he was doing. Is that part of what motivated you to make the film? Our first -- our first film was about -- exactly the same it was about eager want to be filmmakers which was really important. Billy Beane I want to be in a neophyte and not knowing what you are doing and exploring the process of film making and storytelling as a method of self-discovery and a way of breaking new ground on a personal level to a movie which I think is what both of these characters are doing. You're dead on completely tired to the experience of being a film student and looking after these giants and saying how did they do that. It's almost mythical been wanting to emulate them that's really important part of why we make these movies. Stanley Kubrick is making a new movie about the moon landing and I'm willing to bet we can use a special effect see us doing there to do this. Okay but you can't just walk on to the film set. He has two NASA scientists advising him. We are going to go and say we will interview them. To see what is going on here? Kubrick is getting NASA to make sure that his the looks like real space. So we are going to use his the to make sure the real space moving looks like space. It really is rediscovering how to fake the moon landing. I did not know any of that stuff before we started shooting. Hopefully it shows. It also reminded me a bit of the paranoid Simmon -- cinema and those kind of conspiracy films. Is that what you are tapping into? We stole as much as we could. Mostly the Manchurian candidate which there is a poster of that those are dead on. Even the movie about taking the Mars Landing has a similar tone. We stole dialogue and moments from each of those films. That is kind of -- in terms of a narrative that's what we were doing. We were taking his paranoia thriller movies and trying to put our characters in the middle of one without meaning to be. Have you heard of a conspiracy theory before? Yes. I think we are in one. Referencing these other films what you want to bring that is new and what is different from those other films. Here is what we all left from that era of cinema is that it was able to criticize the current government and institutions of power in America without being direct and directly naming names. Doctor Strangelove is an incredible example of a movie that seems lights that was being unbelievably critical of the very current political state of the United States. It seems like we don't really have that anymore. It seems like modern movies when they do that they are unbelievably didactic. So we thought how can we make a movie today that has that same institutional criticism without falling into that trap. That's one of the reasons why we settled on making a movie of the moon landing. It was far enough in the past that people don't take it seriously. There were still people that believe the moon landings was fake for whatever reason but even if you don't there is still a way to see it as criticism of the CIA without believe in the story we tell you. Thank you for your time. I appreciated the film. It was great talking to you.
"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.