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Spock, NASA, And A Real Documentary Versus A Fake One

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Sometimes there’s just too much good stuff to cover so this week I am going to talk with a pair of filmmakers from wildly divergent films but what makes them fun to combine into one podcast is that one is a real documentary — "For the Love of Spock" — and one is a fake documentary — "Operation Avalanche."

Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I’m Beth Accomando
Beth Accomando: Sometimes there's just too much good stuff to cover. So this week I'm going to talk with a pair of filmmakers from wildly divergent films. But what makes them fun to combine into one podcast is that one is a real documentary and one is a fake documentary. Adam Nimoy has created an intimate and fascinating documentary about his famous father Leonard Nimoy and the iconic character of Spock that his dad created on the original Star Trek T.V. series.
Matt Johnson on the other hand has created a clever and often hilarious mockumentary called Operation Avalanche about two young CIA agents who create footage of a fake lunar landing from NASA in 1967. But both films serve up great cinematic experiences for film goers so don't miss either one. First let's talk about For the Love of Spock the documentary Adam Nimoy began making with his father about the famous character created by Gene Roddenberry for the Star Trek TV series in the 1960s. Adam Nimoy will be in San Diego on September 21st and 22nd to screen the film and to hold Q and A’s.
I had a chance to speak with Adam by phone about the making of the film and about his dad. I’ll also be hosting the Q and A with him on September 22nd at the Carlsbad Village Theater. When Adam's father died last year before the film was finished, the documentary change from being just about Spock to being about Spock, Leonard Nimoy and about the relationship of a father and his son. The documentary uses archive footage, family photos and video as well as new interviews with a diverse array of people.
The film gives us insights into how the character of Spock evolved through old interviews intercut with new ones. Here Leonard Nimoy talks with William Shatner about how the character of Spock changed from the pilot in which Jeffrey Hunter played the captain to the series in which Shatner took on the role of Captain James T. Kirk.
[Movie clip]
Leonard Nimoy: One of the reasons for the shift in the Spock character when you came here on board was because when I was working with Jeffrey Hunter, Jeffery was a very internalized actor. There's an old joke about two actors preparing to play a scene and one says to the other “Why are we even playing this this scene. And the other one says “I'm playing nothing”. The other one says “You can’t play nothing” “I’m playing nothing”. [Laughter] So here's Jeffery Hunter playing this quiet internalized performance.
William Shatner: Oh
And I felt the need to help drive something in opposition to the [overlapping conversation] [00:02:35] otherwise we're both playing nothing.
William Shatner: Right, right, right.
And when you came on board with your energy and a sense of humor and a twinkle in the eye, I was able to then become the core Spock.
[Movie clip]
Leonard Nimoy: Has it occurred to you that there's a certain inefficiency on constantly questioning me on things you've already made up your mind about.
William Shatner: It gives me emotional security. [End of movie clip]
Leonard bouncing off of me could now dramatically be internal allowing me to be external and the two forces made an interesting combination.
[Movie clip]
Leonard Nimoy: I prefer the concrete, the graspable, the provable.
William Shatner: You'd make a splendid computer Mr. Spock.
Leonard Nimoy: That is very kind of you Captain.
[End of movie clip]
Beth Accomando: In another interview Nimoy credits his director with an important insight into Spock.
Leonard Nimoy: There was a scene in which the ship was being threatened by some outside problem or outside dangerous force and there was a lot of activity on the ship. The captain was saying do such and such, press this button, do this to what warp three get us out of here within seconds. And Spock had one word to say and the word was “fascinating.” And we're looking at the scene on the screen everybody was reacting all look at it –
And I got caught up in that energy and I said “fascinating”. And the director gave me a brilliant note said “Be different. Be the scientist. Be detached. See it as something that's a curiosity rather than a threat”.
A big chunk of the character was born right there.
Beth Accomando: As a director Adam Nimoy sometimes takes a playful tone in his documentary. Take this clip where art and life intersect on the Big Bang Theory T.V. show.
[Movie clip]
Jim Parsons: Listen to this. I just received an email from Wil Wheaton. Leonard Nimoy’s son is working on a documentary that he started with his father before he passed away. It's about Mr. Spock and his impact on our culture.
Adam Nimoy: For the Love of Spock, Adam Nimoy. Mark. We want to do something to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Star Trek which is coming up in 2016. And a documentary about Spock had never really been produced before. I thought it was an interesting idea to create a film just focused on Spock who he is, how he came about and why he has continued to resonate for 50 years. All as a part of the celebration of the anniversary of the original series and the minute I suggested this to Dad, he was in.
Justine: Hi Adam. It’s Justine. I just wanted to call and let you know how sorry I was to hear about your father.
John: Hi Adam. This is John. Just called I heard the news about Leonard. I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope you are doing all right and love you Adam, bye.
Adam Nimoy: After dad died it became clear that the film needed to include his life as well as the life of Mr. Spock. And that in turn led me on a journey of discovery about my relationship with my father.
Beth Accomando: You obviously had great access to a lot of archive materials in terms of home movies and photos and things like that. What was it like going through all that to decide what to put in the movie?
Adam Nimoy: It was a great experience in that I was able to kind of keep close to my dad. I was looking at all those films with my dad interviews with him and this is shortly after he had passed away. It was a way to reminisce about his entire life. I look back and it was just a nice way to process kind of the grieving that I was going through and then getting used to my life without my dad.
At first it was really like a supportive experience and then after a while it became a daunting experience because we had to really sift through a lot of material to figure out what we were going to include in this film.
Beth Accomando: How do you think the film might have been different if your dad had lived to see it completed?
Adam Nimoy: I started this film when my dad was still alive. We were working it on together as a collaboration and he was pretty clear that he wanted the film to be really only about Spock beginning to end, the life and legacy of Mr. Spock. He didn't really want to include anything about himself and his own career. My dad had a great sense of humility and he didn't want this to be the Leonard Nimoy Show because he was going to be making this film with me.
So this film would have looked a lot different. It really would have been a completely Spock-centric film for an hour and a half or three hours 50 minutes as it is at this point.
Beth Accomando: One of the things that you put in the film that I thought was great was you have your dad reading The Variety Review of Star Trek when it first premiered.
[Movie clip]
Leonard Nimoy: The review The Variety gave us when we first went on the air September the 19th 1966. And I thought you'd enjoy hearing what our show business Bible said about us the first week we went on the air. This is dated September --it appeared on September 14th 1966. Just a little over 25 years ago. It says Star Trek with William Shatner, Leonard Nomoy –
Star Trek won't work.
That's the opening line. Then it says an incredible and dreary mess of confusion.
Trudged on for a long hour with hardly any relief from violence, killings, hypnotic stuff and a distasteful ugly monster.
William Shatner shhhh William Shatner appears wooden.
I didn’t say it. It says it here. I'd never heard of him being accused of being wooden before.
Spock, Scotty, I need warp speed in four minutes or we are all dead. Then it says the same goes for Leonard Nimoy.
Adam Nimoy: There was a lot of naysayers. There was a lot of obstacles in the way of Star Trek even being acquired by the network NBC. And then they wanted to get rid of Spock. There was a lot of trepidation about how well the series would be received. So it's just very telling and very to the counterpoint to what happened. It's nice to go back and see what people were thinking when it first premiered and some of these establishment were not too enamored with the show and didn't see any potential for the show including the trade papers including friends of my father. My dad was nervous about putting all the years in and getting inspired by he was a very serious actor. And there was just a lot of concern that the show would not be taken seriously.
Beth Accomando: Well, I think it's great to include because I think Star Trek has become such a part of our culture that people forget that when it first came out how it was being received.
Adam Nimoy: Yes, I mean there's also a misconception that it was a failure when it was first aired and then found its audience during syndication which is not entirely the case. Star Trek was very popular and very competitive in its time slot when it premiered. A lot of people were watching Star Trek. A lot of fans writing mail to Mr. Spock. There was a lot of positive response and the problem with Star Trek was that there were issues between the producer particularly Gene Roddenberry and the network and Gene left the show by season Three. And the network basically killed the show by moving it into a Friday night time slot when nobody is at home watching TV.
There were no V.C.R.'s back then and it's a death knell for T.V. shows because there’s simply no one at home watching. So it was fairly successful then but then it was a huge success obviously in the syndication market where local television stations were playing it five nights a week and on all weekend. So that's really when it became a cult following situation.
Beth Accomando: You interview some fans at Star Trek Conventions. What was that like speaking to some of these fans about your dad?
Adam Nimoy: Well I love talking to fans about my dad. [Chuckles] They’re so effusive and they are warm and they are respectful and they are reverential. They're just so happy to have had Spock in their lives. He had them huge impact on people's lives and the fans are very vocal about it and very emotional about it. It's also very comforting and heartwarming to hear that we're all a community of Trek fans and Spock fans and Leonard fans. So I love it. It's a wonderful experience to be out there mingling with these people and sharing stories with them. So it's a really great experience for me.
Beth Accomando: You interviewed one fan who I've seen at a number of conventions. The really tall Spock and he seems to look a lot like your dad too. Was that an odd experience?
Adam Nimoy: Yes, I mean we've seen a number of people who have been in Spock garb but that gentleman in particular whose name escapes me right now. I think his name is Robert and he's just amazing. He's articulate. He's a diehard fan and he's in all the conventions. He wears various Starfleet uniforms from different time periods.
The guy's amazing and I think he's just very representative of what a lot of people feel about Spock. A lot of people just want to emulate and be Spock and myself included to some degree. I think he's just kind of like representative a tip of the ice berg of a lot of people who really enjoy the cos play. This whole phenomenon of cos play-- costumes play which is being instigated by Star Trek and it's nice at the conventions. It’s a way to cut loose and really walk in the shoes of these characters that people have admired for so many years.
Beth Accomando: One of the other archive clips that you dig up is your dad singing that Hobbit song.
[The hobbit song]
Beth Accomando: Talk a little bit about how you did incorporate a clip like that into the movie.
Adam Nimoy: The thing is the Hobbit the Bilbo Baggins is one of the catchier moments of my dad's long recording career. I've been listening to a lot of the more music while we were making a film and a lot of it's really wonderful, easy listening lovely stuff. And some of it is like dad “what were you thinking?” And I remember when the Ballad to Bilbo Baggins came out my sister and I were scratching our heads because it was just so kitschy so off the wall out there. A lot of Star Trek is very serious drama. Excellent storytelling and some of it is a wink of the eye, tongue in the cheek kitschy stuff. It's very campy and I just thought it would be fun to kind of meld these two elements together of playing this funny song on the bridge of the enterprise in a lighter moment which is brought those two strains together in that moment. It was actually one of the sequence that was initially created by Luke one of our editors and he showed it to us and we couldn't stop laughing.
We just thought it was terrific and we kind of just used the ballad as it was presented to us. So I think it really works and people are responding to it.
Beth Accomando: There's a moment to where your dad was talking about looking at a publicity photo where they had changed his eyebrows and removed the points of his ears.
[Movie clip]
Leonard Nimoy: I saw the photograph of myself as Spock and it didn't look right. Something struck me. It was strange and the closer I looked the more I realized that they have straightened out my eyebrows made them look normal and they had taken off the tips off the ears. The network said “We are very dependent on the numbers in the Bible Belt and they will not accept in their homes a character who looks devilish with these pointed ears.
William Shatner: Are you casting me in the role of Satan.
Leonard Nimoy: No Captain
William Shatner: Is there anyone on this ship who even remotely looks like Satan?
Leonard Nimoy: I am not aware of anyone who fits that description captain.
William Shatner: Well Mr. Spock, I didn’t think you would.
Adam Nimoy: It's a big issue about that with the network. The network was very nervous about having Mr. Spock on the T.V. show that they were sponsoring. NBC at the time was very conservative. They were the network of Bob Hope specials and sing along with Mitch and Andy Williams. A very clean family-oriented affair. They had a lot of support in the south and they had a lot of markets in the south and were very worried about losing that market share. They took on Star Trek to get an edge here because they were in third place among the three networks but they were nervous.
So some of the original material --the press material they doctored, airbrushed out so Spock didn’t look so demonic. But then it turned out when Spock became popular, their attitude was “well, we love Spock. We've always loved Spock. Give us more Spock stories”. Dad thought that was very ironic that at first they were like “get rid of Spock” and then they embraced him.
Beth Accomando: Did you discover anything about your dad while you were making film in terms of the interviews you did with some of the people or just going through archive material?
Adam Nimoy: Yes I think the most important thing that had an impact on me that I discovered about my dad is the impact that he had on people—on fans particularly when we interviewed a year ago in September of last year. Our production crew went up to Vancouver to interview the new cast of Star Trek in this new J.J. Abrams produced The Re-emergence of Star Trek.
[Movie clip]
Zachary Quinto: Mine is a very different Spock than your dad's. I was really fortunate to be able to explore even more than your dad because as entertainment evolved, as narration evolved, as storytelling evolved over the intervening decades between when he created the role and when I assumed it. I think that it opened up a little bit more space for us to get in and play with that. [music] Mr. Spock.
Sharing that with him and then discussing it and then exploring it through the context of our personal relationship that was probably one of the most creatively satisfying aspects of assuming a role that an already been established so firmly and created so boldly. No pun intended.
Adam Nimoy: And all the cast members individually told me the same thing which was they were so reverential about my dad. They were so honored that he participated in the new incarnation of Star Trek beginning in Star Trek 09 directed by J.J. Abrams. And to a lesser degree in Star Trek Into Darkness and they felt very much that his-- even though my dad was not with them on the third Star Trek Beyond they really felt that his spirit was with them. They just felt a sense of his energy and inspiration.
And it really struck me. It was just lovely to hear them say that. I was just amazed each one of them one by one. The impact of my dad’s involvement with the new incarnation was so powerful on them. It was still a great source of inspiration to them and I was pretty amazed by hearing this from them. It was wonderful.
Beth Accomando: In that series of interviews you actually seemed to open up a lot to Zachary Quinto talking about your dad and some of the difficult times you had with him. Was that a planned thing or was that something that just evolved from that interview?
Adam Nimoy: Well no I mean it was something that we had discussed that we were going to anticipate doing. The extent of the depth of the interview was there was no limitation. I sat with Zachary we had a couple hours together. And we knew that there was certain things we wanted to cover both on his side me interviewing him about Dad and then him turning the tables and then interviewing me. So I wanted to talk about this personal side --my relationship with Dad with Zachary. Because Zachary was almost like a surrogate son to my dad. They had a very close personal relationship and it just seemed to make sense that he would be the guy that I would open up to about some of the personal ups and downs that I had with my father. And how we reconciled and became close again. It just made sense that I would want to reveal that information to him or with him talking to me about it.
[Movie clip]
It just overwhelms me now that we could get to that point where he could be my go-to guy. And in the next 18 months of my life with Martha which were probably the most challenging possibly in my entire life. My dad and Susan were there every step of the way to support me and keep me going.
And all that personal stuff about my dad was something that really came along later on during the making of the film. A lot of people felt that I really needed to include my own story. My own point of view, my own experience with Spock and my dad that would add a whole dimension to the film. So the film is a balance between really Spock centric. Mostly about Mr. Spock and then about the life and legacy Leonard Nimoy and about my relationship with Spock and my dad.
We were able to reconnect with one another through --in our case through recovery --through the tools of recovery. 12 steps recovery that we had both independently entered into and Susan felt that it would make the film unique. There's so many great documentary makers who could make a very good films about Mr. Spock and Leonard Nimoy but nobody can tell the unique side of my story—my perspective and my relationship with them.
There was a chorus of people starting with my partners in this project who joined that chorus to say “This makes more sense. It's going to resonate with people and if we tell this side of the story. It will give a whole new dimension to my dad and the experience of being in a celebrity family that most people don't know about.”
So that's how that all came about. I think we struck a good balance there. It's been very satisfying a great process for me to work through and judging from the reaction I think we've done a pretty good job of keeping that balance in play.
Beth Accomando: At what point did you really fully become aware that you had a famous father? Was it something you always were conscious of or was there a point where you suddenly realized not everybody lives the same kind of life or has a parent to work on television?
Adam Nimoy: Well it happened when the fan started reacting to him both in terms of the deluge of mail that came to our house stacks and stacks of mail addressed to Spock or Mr. Nimoy or Leonard Nimoy.
[Movie clip]
Our family activities was answering fans mail.
Leonard Nimoy: My personal life was going about---happening very fast and to show you how naive I was at that time I still have my phone listed in the phonebook and my address. And it was all you know I never dreamed that there was going to be any-- that kind of impact because I had been on television before. I had been on movies before. I was listening. The phonebook for didn't matter to me.
Susan Nimoy: We started getting a lot of fan mail not only fan mail but fans coming to our door knocking down the door.
Leonard Nimoy: So we started getting people driving by the House and parking and ripping up the shrubbery to have a souvenir and taking my grass and my leaves and whatever. Some of them would knock on the door and ask to be invited in to visit.
Adam Nimoy: And then being on the street with him I couldn't spend any more father son time alone with him in public anymore because we'd be mobbed. He took me to a carnival in West L.A. near our home one Saturday morning and immediately we were surrounded by people. It was crazy. We had to leave immediately. We made a bee line for our car and drove away. And that was when I really realized what we were in for. That our lives had changed forever. I was 10 years old at the time.
It was a shocking experience for me and then I was with him at Wallichs Music City of Hollywood. He was signing records. He put out his first record Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space. The place was packed with people. I was in shock. I just didn't –we didn’t understand the magnitude of what he had accomplished with this role.
Beth Accomando: There are also photos of you on the set with your dad where you actually had like some Spock ears put on. What was it like for you to go to the set and be with your dad?
Adam Nimoy: I really enjoyed the experience because it was just some much fun watching them make this show. This was the summer of 66 before it even aired. I maintain I am one of the first Trekkies. It was so much fun. It was so exciting to run around on the set and to watch them film the show. There's key scenes from six or seven episodes that I remember watching them film. It was fantastic to see dad in character. I couldn’t really connect with him while he was Spock.
He had a very distinct thing going on. He was always trying to stay in character but I really really enjoyed the experience. It was a very exciting times the first time that I had starred in a TV show. I had been watching is career as a kid watching the appear in episodes of Broken Arrow and Outer Limits and Gun Smoke, Man from Uncle. These are all shows I was a fan of and that was fun but seeing him on Star Trek was a whole new level of excitement for the whole family really.
Beth Accomando: Was getting the ears put on something special for you that one day or did that happen on a number of occasions?
Adam Nimoy: No, that just happened on one day. I was on the set and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said follow me. And I went into the make-up trailer and Freddy Phillips who did my dad’s makeup every day. I knew Freddy very well because I was just sitting there watching dad getting made up. He cut my hair and he would give me pointed sideburns. He shaved my eyebrows.
He took a pair dad's ears and glued them on me. Then they walked me into a terrible lift on the set of the bridge and on cue they open the doors and I walked out and greeted my father. I remembered all vividly believe me you don't forget that kind of stuff even at 10 years old. Wonderful experience one of the highlights of my life. I was so proud to be there and what dad was doing with Star Trek and I'm just so lucky to have been such a close part of it in those early stages.
Beth Accomando: And what was it like going back and interviewing some of the cast members from the original Star Trek and talking to them about that whole period?
Adam Nimoy: Well, I feel a certain amount of kinship to those people. They are like family to me and it was lovely. They were wonderful. All of them were just willing and very giving, very generous with their comments very loving what they said about my dad. It was a great experience to walk through memory lane with them. I think they enjoyed it as well. It was a real --real give and take with them and I had prepared a number of issues that I wanted to talk about with everybody.
And they were just so gracious and it's such a great feeling. It's so hard to really describe. It was just reverberating we've had a connection for half a century with these people very unique. I just feel--I was really honored that they all were so willing to help me with this project.
Beth Accomando: I love the fact that you included Neil deGrasse Tyson in the interviews because it gave this perspective of how Star Trek and Spock affected people outside of just pure fandom or the entertainment industry.
[Movie clip]
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Now for me I knew I’d liked science before Star Trek. So Spock and I resonated I think. But I wonder if the slow but real appreciation for what science is and why it matters that I see manifesting today whether it owes its origin to that series, to that character.
Beth Accomando: And how the show and Spock inspired people to be interested in the future and in science and in the possibility of all sorts of things.
Adam Nimoy: Well, one of the objectives of the film For the Love of Spock my documentary about Spock is to explore why he has continue to resonate for half a century. What is it about him that people find interesting or inspiring? Or that they can connect to? One of the things that was a big part of my experience interviewing fans about Spock was the inspiration he brought to some of the scientists. We interviewed a number of people at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Many people said they owe their career to Mr. Spock. Mr. Spock inspire them to get involved in the space program or in the sciences or the medical profession my God I can't tell you how many doctors I've met who have little shrines to Spock in their offices. It's just crazy or Star Trek in general. This is one of the reasons why Spock has been kept alive is just a number of people for generation after generation have been inspired by him in various ways in the sciences. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big spokesperson for Popular Science right now. He's a wonderful articulate man to interview him. It is just interesting getting his perspective because these are the reasons why Spock continues to be present and relevant even now 50 years later.
Beth Accomando: And now that the film's done and you've presented it. What do you feel most proud of about the finished product?
Adam Nimoy: Well I feel most proud of the fact that the fans seem to be very happy with the product that we came up with. We started this film For the Love of Spock really began as a kick starter crowdfunding project. In which we appealed to the fan base to help us finance this film as it was a very expensive proposition to interview. We had over 30 original interviews that we had to conduct and we had a license. A lot of material we have about a half an hour of Star Trek material clips in there that we used to comment on the evolution of Spock.
I am so happy that it's been so well received. Frankly I'm elated that we did a job that seems to have satisfied people in a number of levels that we really did find the balance. This took a lot of editorial work. We had a lot of friends and colleagues whose opinions we trust to come in and look at the film and give us feedback because we really wanted to keep a balance between-- again keeping Spock at the forefront. But then including my dad’s story as an artist in all the various ways he expressed himself artistically whether it was the recording artist, the photographer, the director, the actor.
[Movie clip]
Leonard Nimoy: One of my Lon Chaney who was called the man of a Thousand Faces because he changed characters so drastically from one performance to another. And I consider myself that kind of person. I'd go to the makeup department, the wardrobe department and if I’m going to get it and find a character.
Adam Nimoy: And then weaving into all this my experience, my perspective with Spock and my dad and we seem to have accomplished that in a way that is satisfying to people and that was our objective to begin with. And that's probably the most satisfying aspect of this entire project.
Beth Accomando: Well I want to thank you for introducing me to all the stage work he did. I was not aware of how many things he had done in stage especially Tevya and the Man in the Glass Booth.
Adam Nimoy: Oh yes a big part of his --my dad's artistic career a big part of it was very much a challenge to him an opportunity for him to expand on his craft as an actor. Opportunities brought by the success of Spock and Star Trek the good solid decade in the 70s performing in probably dozens of productions really exciting work. A lot of people came to see him whether they came --a lot of people probably bought tickets to see Mr. Spock but what they saw were outstanding performances by Leonard Nimoy, a man who was really at the height of his craft. I loved following him around all those productions. The family going all together, on the road with him, or in New York watching him. It was a really exciting time as well.
Beth Accomando: And you’re going to be coming out here to San Diego to present two screenings of the film.
Adam Nimoy: Right, to introduce the film. To lead a question and answer of the film. I’m really looking forward. It’s always fun to present the film to fans who will be there listening to feedback. I’m taking questions and getting their responses, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Beth Accomando: Well I look forward to having you come out here and I’ll be able to host one of those Q and As. So I look forward to meeting you.
Adam Nimoy: I look forward to meeting you in person too, thank you.
Beth Accomando: For the Love of Spock, screens as part of a special event, sponsored by the Jewish Film Festival. For ticket information go to
Beth Accomando: From this warm, intimate, real documentary let's take a wild leap to the fake documentary world created by Operation Avalanche. The film begins with some newsreel footage of President John F. Kennedy talking about the space race.
[Movie clip]
John F. Kennedy: We meet in an hour of change and challenge and a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds. So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this state of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and watched and wished to look behind them.
[Clapping] We choose to go to the moon
We choose to go to the moon. [Clapping]
We choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other thing not because they are easy but because they are hard.
Beth Accomando: Okay we know that's real right but what follows is meant to be fake. [Movie clip]
Matt Johnson: Hello my name is special agent Matt Johnson and what you are about to watch is a film detailing the connections between Stanley Cooper and Dr. Strangelove is not a spy.
Speaker 1: Thank you, are there any questions.
Speaker 2: That covers it, what’s next?
Speaker 1: Actually Director Brackett I’d like to make a pitch for major research to be moved onto Operation Zippernext [phonetic] [00:32:52]
Speaker 2: What the hell are you doing?
Speaker 1: You guys are trying to put a field agent inside NASA posing as a scientist and Agent Williams and I don’t think it will work. This mole if he is there he could have been at NASA since the early 60s. He’s going to spot one of our guys pretending to be a rocket scientist instantly. We need to send people who are going to look like they have no idea what’s going on. Us – as a documentary film crew we can pretend that we are from the National Education Television Network filming the definitive Apollo documentary. We are there to chart the race to the moon.
Speaker 2: Smart idea. No soviet mole is going to let you openly film them. I’ll direct you back to filming you through the window.
Beth Accomando: Okay so all that about the CIA and a mole in NASA on America's inability to land on the moon before the Russians. That's all fake right. That's what filmmaker Matt Johnson is interested in creating. A film where people keep asking themselves which part is real and which is fake. That's complicated. Even further by the fact that Johnson and his cohorts infiltrated NASA and Sheppard studios to shoot footage that is used in the film. Operation Avalanche is a found footage film but it's one that reinvigorates the tired gimmick with true inspiration in craft. Imagine if Christopher Guest made a mockumentary about a paranoid conspiracy plot and then add in a dash of Quentin Tarantino's passion for cinema and you might get an inkling of what this film is like.
I began my interview with Johnson by asking how the film began and how he decided that sneaking into NASA would be a necessary part of the production process.
Matt Johnson: Well that was a means to an end to the very beginning we said we wanted to make a movie about the CIA faking moon landing and that's it. That we wanted to tell the story about the guy who filmed that footage and we thought oh this would be easy because we're independent filmmakers and we knew we were not going to have a lot of money so we thought we could shoot it all in Toronto which is where we're from. But very quickly we realized that in order for this movie to have any veracity whatsoever we were going to need to shoot on location.
And that meant that we were going to have to shoot at NASA because we couldn’t rebuild those sets and so really that came out of necessity of us sneaking in there and filming the movie at NASA.
Beth Accomando: So what was that like?
Matt Johnson: It was super scary and we definitely didn't know what was going to happen. It was exactly as you would imagine. The way that we got there was that 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 to shoot documentary footage for a movie that we were making about the Apollo program. So it wasn't even that different than the cover our characters use in the movie to get into NASA. Saying that they're part of an N-E-T documentary film crew and so that's why we did it. And then when we were there we just shot as much as we could.
Beth Accomando: I understand you have a bit of a reputation for pulling some video prank kind of things. So in making this, was this more about what you could get away with or did you really like want to say something about this potential conspiracy theory?
Matt Johnson: Oh well you know what? As I said it really was a means to an end. If we could have made this movie without doing that, I think we would have in a heartbeat. I think a lot of the stunt style filmmaking that my friends and I do is often because we're trying to think of telling a story in a new way or doing something that you couldn't normally do in a film. It has less to do with the actual act of doing it and that stuff we don't really enjoy it's really agony inducing and quite high stress.
So there's a way to do it without having to sneak around and do all this duplicity stuff that would be awesome. But that said you do get a certain feeling and excitement on camera from filming in this way. It's not lost on me that the characters in our movie have broken into NASA in the exact same way that the real filmmakers had broken into NASA and you kind of get to feel that a little bit. That's something that you just couldn't have in a movie that had the resources to not need to do that. In fact we share a lot but no the idea of doing it just to do it, no way I wish I was that brash but no. That’s not why we do it.
Beth Accomando: A lot of what I've been reading about the film is focusing on the fact that it's about a fake moon landing but I have to say that in watching the film and having gone to film school myself. You guys seem to get a lot of joy out of just the filmmaking process and about highlighting how good Kubrick was in what he was doing. So is that part of what motivated you to make the film?
Matt Johnson: Absolutely, in our first film it was exactly the same as The Dirties and it was about again very eager wannabe filmmakers which I think is really important that distinction of really wanting to be a or being a wannabe and really being a neophyte and not knowing what you're doing and exploring the process of filmmaking and storytelling as a method of self-discovery and a way of breaking new ground at a personal level through a movie which I think is what both these characters in the The Dirties and in Operation Avalanche are doing. And that is you're dead on completely tied to the experience of being a film student and looking up to these giants and being like oh man how does Steven Spielberg do that?
How does Orson Wells do that? 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.
[Movie clip]
Matt Johnson: All right. It's called front screen projection. Stanley Kubrick can fake any environment he wants by projecting it through a semi-transparent mirror and then onto a gigantic silver screen. And he films the entire scene through the same mirror at a 90 degree angle to the projector. What it winds up doing is creating images where you can't tell where the stage stops and the fake photographic background begins. You have an infinite depth of field into environments that exist completely in two dimensional space. We can do the same thing with the lunar surface photography that NASA is taking on the Apollo missions. Movie special effects can be very convincing. Especially when you don't know you're watching a movie. The plan is to rent a film studio in Texas, hire a crew and have them build our own lunar lander. We’ll mix this practical set piece with Kubrick’s projection technique and presto the illusion that man is walking on the moon.
Beth Accomando: Because that excitement when he's trying to explain Kubrick invented this front screen projection it's amazing.
Matt Johnson: Yes exactly and that's all real because I knew immediately a bit about that kind of stuff but the movie really is me discovering how to fake the moon landing. All that stuff is real I didn't know any of that stuff really before we started shooting. So hopefully it shows.
Beth Accomando: It does and also though seems it’s like you're taking advantage of an opportunity to also remind people how great Kubrick was.
Matt Johnson: Yes of course. The idea that these know nothings can just steal 5% of his technique and then successfully pull off a moon landing I think is testament to that.
Beth Accomando: I have to confess I recently just saw the new Blair Witch film which only reconfirmed for me how frustrated I often get with found footage films and then I see your film which reminds me that oh it's just a tool and it can be used well. You totally sucked me in and the quality, the color of the film alone just placed it in this different time frame and you did a great job of that.
Matt Johnson: Yes, it was a long process to do that. Hopefully it seems effortless but that was probably one of the hardest things that we did. We went through so many stocks and about a year of test between three different departments to figure out how to make the movie look like that.
Beth Accomando: Well it pays off and the fact that you did that I think is part of why the film works too.
Matt Johnson: Thank you very much.
Beth Accomando: The film also reminded me a bit of films that came out I think was in the 80s or so that paranoid cinema that Parallax View and Winter Kills and those conspiracy films was that something you were tapping into?
Matt Johnson: Yeah we stole as much as we could mostly Manchurian Candidate which you'll see there's a poster of in the character's office but those are dead on. Even Capricorn One which was a movie about faking the Mars landing has a similar tone. And we steal dialogue and moments from each of those films. So in terms of a narrative reference that's what we were doing. We were taking those Pakula movies and those paranoia thriller movies and trying to put our characters in the middle of one without meaning to be.
Beth Accomando: So in referencing these other films what are you bringing to it that's new and what do you want to say that's different from those films?
Matt Johnson: Here’s what we all loved about that era of cinema is that it was somehow able to criticize the current government, the institutions of power in America and without being direct without directly naming names or being unbelievably. Dr. Strangelove was an incredible example of a movie that seemed sort of light and almost like a comedy obviously but was being unbelievably critical of the very, very current political state of the United States and it just seems like we don't really have that anymore.
It seems like modern movies when they do that they're unbelievable didactic. They're not accessible in a way those old films were. So we thought oh how can we make a movie today that has that same institutional criticism without falling into the trap of being --without being didactic. Sorry to use the word twice but that's one of the reasons why we set up on making a movie about moon landing because it was far enough in the past that people don't take it seriously. There are still people who believe the moon landing was faked for whatever crazy reasons. But even if you don't I think there's still a way that you can see this film as a criticism of an institution like the CIA without necessarily believing the story that we're telling you.
Beth Accomando: Is it also pointing to the fact that we have come to a point in our technology where it does seem like it's easy to fake things or not even trying to fake things. People go on the Internet and search for something and find it and just accept whatever they get as true. Is it also a comment on that?
Matt Johnson: Well, media literacy I actually think is at an all-time high. You’re right in that I would say an average citizen is looking at You Tube videos that like a very famous like Leroy like War Craft video and being like oh my God it's incredible. This is the reality. This is so great. It's a video game without realizing oh no it's completely fake that that's manufactured too just to make me laugh. I'm making two points here and then actually conflict with one another.
But in general I actually think that like the people who are into this kind of stuff their literacy is through the roof. They can spot fake stuff a mile away and it's almost impossible to fool them. Well as my parents or people from a few generations or not everybody are fooled daily by viral videos by video footage, by media footage and it's something we're talking about at our film school where we graduate from where --we just graduated from I should say in Toronto. There's a great program where they combine an MBA and a film degree and they talk about media literacy and the understanding of the creation of images now being the new form of business intelligence. That being a major cornerstone in the MBA program is understanding what the images are doing and what the so-called official news footage can actually do as a business tool which I think is really telling.
Beth Accomando: That's really fascinating. And I'm half happy to hear that in half thinking like oh but they can also use that to then fool the public.
Matt Johnson: No, I think that's the point. I think that the aim of it.
Beth Accomando: Do you also get a slight sense of satisfaction as a filmmaker at the ability of someone to be able to fool you whether it is in a fake news story or just in a film being able to suck you in and make you believe in this completely world that you're creating?
Matt Johnson: Well they're different right. When you watch a Hollywood movie that is really captivating then that is a very different feeling than watching a new story. Did you ever watch –who was that guy that went on local news stations doing yo yo tricks? Man it’s so funny I can remember his name but the guy's a genius but for Zim Zam Yo-Yos. So sad I can’t remember this dude because he is real. I love him.
Like that I think is very different type of feat. Or like to Sacha Baron Cohen tricks where he's able to trick people in the public into thinking that he's real. He’s different than a great filmmaker luring them into believing that what they're doing or that story is really happening even though it’s really fake but I love both of them. In fact that I think is very very new. The first one of those which is like the fake authentic. The idea that something is real but really it's been manufactured when it used for comedy or anything like that. That's why shows like The Office I think really took off because people are so interested in that authentic truth or something that really is authentic but in that manufactured way. That's why we're making these movies like this because we want the audience to think what they're seeing is real but at the back of their head know that it's not and that space is really, really interesting. At least for me when I'm seeing something like that. My favorite movie ever made is F for Fake by Orson Welles which is a documentary or a fake documentary about a lot of the stuff. I just love that. I love when a filmmaker can do that to you. Can tell you what you think is the truth but then you realize it's a lie and then you really realize what's the difference?
Beth Accomando: That is a brilliant movie. That reminds me do you feel that your film is a con about a con like that sort of thing?
Matt Johnson: Of course well why do you think we put all that effort into bringing Stanley Kubrick back from the dead?
[Movie clip]
Speaker 1: Stanley Kubrick is making a new movie about the moon landing. And I'm willing to bet that we can use the special effects that he's doing there to do this.
Speaker 2: Okay but you can just walk on the film set. He has two NASA scientists advising him. We're going to go and say we’re going to interview them. Do you see what's going on here Kubrick is getting NASA to make sure that his space movie looks like real space. And so we're going to use his space movie to make sure the real space movie looks like space.
Matt Johnson: It's no coincidence that that sequence of us –of me going to see Stanley Kubrick is shot almost exactly the same way like the moon landing footage, black and white very very high contrast, very very narrow frame of view. You can barely see what's going on. We’re trying to create a microcosm within the film of a greater hoax which is what we're trying to say was propagated on the public. So of course we love that stuff.
Beth Accomando: I love that you did have that camera inside the bag so it does narrow your field of vision and sadly I only saw on the screen. I didn't get to see it in a theater yet but I can imagine the whole audience leaning to one side to try peer around the frame of vision that you're giving them to try and peak and see more or something.
Matt Johnson: Yes exactly but again it's such a great trick because it's set up as a way that they're hiding their camera but really what we're doing is we're hiding the image of the audience. It's tough to tell where you stand as an audience member are you on it or are you being fooled?
Beth Accomando: I really would look forward to seeing it in a theater though because I think it does engage the audience in a slightly different way than most films do in terms of those kind of tools and tricks you use.
Matt Johnson: Well yes thank you. Most of them are stolen but yes [Laughter]
Beth Accomando: Well yes stealing is --Shakespeare never had an original plot. Does your film harken back in some way or its roots somehow in like those old candid camera T.V. shows.
Matt Johnson: Kind of—the difference is that we're not trying to make fun of people. We're trying to get performances from people that are completely and 100% real. That's very different than putting somebody in an odd situation in the hope that they react in bizarre or uncomfortable way. We never try to do that. The staff we talk to at NASA the guy who tells us where on earth we can find places that look like the moon. The reason we do that kind of stuff is because we don't want to work with actors who are going to have that fumble all this very technical dialogue. It's so much more interesting again playing into what's real and what's not real to do that with real people but the intention is not at all. We may be stealing the form and the format and a lot of the rules “from Candid Camera shows or hidden camera prank shows or reality television” but the aim is completely different. We're trying to just capture people's real behavior as opposed to making fun of them.
Beth Accomando: So what do you hope people walk away from your film with? What impact do you hope it has?
Matt Johnson: I can only talk about what I was hoping that it would do for me which is tell a story about my own personal ambition and where that is probably going to lead me. That's what I'm trying to do with this movie and my friend it was the same way where we're working out what it's like to actually do these things. In terms of an audience, you're a great example. You went to film school and are getting all these things from this movie in terms of form that in 99% of audiences are not even going to touch on.
For young filmmakers like us, I'm hoping they see it and they go “wow I could do that” or “wow I didn't know you're allowed to do that”. For film historian and the people who like movies I hope that they will see the connection between movies then and movies now. But all this stuff is so pretentious people just watch the movie and have fun watching it. That's really all we want. We put all this other stuff in it because it's exciting and funny really to us as friends.
Beth Accomando: Yes from my point of view there was nothing pretentious about it and being somebody who loves movies I just enjoyed the references to other films and to just the craft of filmmaking.
Matt Johnson: Well then at least with you. We were okay.
Beth Accomando: There's seems to be a lot of challenges in terms of making the film. What was the most difficult thing? I'm also thinking of the car chase at the end that's done in almost one take or one Take.
Matt Johnson: That was actually easier than it probably looks because there are no special effects outside of the bullet holes. The challenge was just being willing to drive like that in an uncontrolled way and being risky. But actually shooting it was really easy because what you see is what you get. You roll the camera and drive like a maniac and that's the footage you get. You could have shot that thing with your friend if you wanted to. Just roll the camera in the backseat and go for it.
But in terms of actual challenges, it was all narrative. It would be like going to a place like NASA shooting a bunch of footage and then really, really trying to figure out what footage serves the story. I know that's not a very exciting answer but that really was what challenged us figuring out what we could use.
Beth Accomando: So what percentage of the film was stuff you got where you had not as much control and stuff that you had actually scripted?
Matt Johnson: Well we didn’t script anything but in terms of things that were completely uncontrollable it was probably 25%, about a quarter of the movie is completely-- we just got it by accident. I mean 75% was stuff that we wrote around the 25% that we got by accident.
Beth Accomando: So what do you have coming up next after this?
Matt Johnson: We're making a television series in Toronto with Spike Jones called Nirvana the Band the Show that is really worth checking out. It's crazy. It's basically doing all the things that we did in this movie except in a modern comedy show. It's about two musicians trying to get famous and it comes out in January.
Beth Accomando: Great I'll look for it. Well thank you very much for your time and I really appreciated the film.
Johnson: Yes, it was great talking to you.
Beth: Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS cinema junkie podcast. That was filmmaker an actor Matt Johnson talking about his film Operation Avalanche that's opening in theaters. I highly recommend checking it out as well as seeking out the new documentary For the Love of Spock.
[Music] Coming up in October will be a month long focus on horror and on expanding how we define that often maligned genre. There will be new interviews as well as some from the archives and just a reminder cinema junkie is a listener supported show from KPBS in San Diego. We can't do this without you listening and without people like yourself who choose to also support the show with a donation.
So if you like the show and want to help make sure that it will be around in the future go to and show your financial support. If you're looking for something a little cheaper just go to iTunes and leave us a nice review. That won’t cost you anything but a minute of your time and it's just as important. So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junky.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place