Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson’s follow-up to the widely-acclaimed The Dirties, is another fake documentary film starring Johnson and collaborator Owen Williams, once again as young would-be filmmakers. This time, though, the DV cameras and school-shooting plot are swapped out for 16mm and the faking of the moon landing. The film played at Melbourne International Film Festival this year and we reached out to Matt to talk through the film, its curious production methods and the state of film festivals today.
It’s good to see a film at a festival like this, out of hundreds that play, that is first and foremost fun.
Yeah, I know what you mean.
Like, you open with your very grimy black and white film stock as the CIA’s A/V club. There’s a Jerry Lewis retro playing at the festival this year, so in a way it’s fitting that your film seems so madcap at first. When you were editing the film, were you conscious of balancing out that comedic tone at the start with how tense the film gets near its end?
Well, it wasn’t super conscious but definitely from a character point-of-view, putting somebody who doesn’t think about consequences in a situation where the consequences are gonna become quite grave is something that I like a lot. We did the same thing with The Dirties, so I don’t think it’s really about managing the tone. I don’t think about that, because the tone of these films is basically what’s going on in the character’s mind. As the circumstances around this character change and he realises that things are not gonna work out the way he wants them to, I see this as more of a character decision than as a tonal decision. It’s so funny, because the subjectivity and the objectivity in the movies I make get very confused. They have authorship from the protagonist, if that makes any sense. It’s not even me setting the tone—it’s the characters setting the tone of the film.
In Operation Avalanche, even though you have transplanted yourself and Owen from The Dirties, there seems to be more of a power structure in this one. It’s an “auteurist” thing again, but your character is more stuck being a cog in the machine in this one.
Exactly but I would argue that Matt was as well in the machine of high school, with its own rules and its own stratosphere of classes and its own power dynamic. It’s definitely more clear in Operation Avalanche, but it is at least slightly similar.
That’s true. In both films they have the escape of the editing suite and, in a sense, parallel locations too. On that, I read in a few other interviews—and just immediately assumed it was bullshit—that you shot part of this film in secret at NASA.
Everything that looks like it was shot at NASA really was. Like, we didn’t have enough money to fake all that shit, which was so crazy. People were making such a big deal out of it when the film played at Sundance because of that. We thought it was cool that we’d done it but we didn’t do it for any other reason than we couldn’t afford to re-build Mission Control and most of NASA, we just couldn’t, we didn’t have any money.
Wait, so how many of those interviews with NASA personnel were real people?
That’s insane. How did you go about building that into your story? Did you just know you’d need a block of interviews?
We happened to reverse-engineer when we shot that stuff first, so before we even had a finished outline for the movie, we went to Texas and shot all that stuff at NASA. The stuff that was the most compelling, we built the movie around.
That’s pretty different from the approach you took with your web series Nirvana The Band The Show, which you shot everything first and then made a story in the edit.
Well, it’s similar in a way, where we would go and get elements… you know what, you’re right. Although, the philosophy behind it is the same but the stakes were much lower with Nirvana The Band, because we could just go out, shoot something and then edit all of it together and figure out the whole thing in the edit room. With this, it’s a lot more back and forth, where we would go shoot something, come back, edit it and then go out again.
You also snuck onto Shepperton Studios for the Kubrick section of the film, but it wasn’t originally shot for Operation Avalanche.
No, we shot it with the intention of using it for this film. It was when I was on tour in London for The Dirties‘ release in 2014. Jarred and I specifically went over there just to get this shot, and we got it.
That’s great determination in low-budget filmmaking.
You have to do that. I mean, I think that the only way you can sort of compete with Hollywood-level effects is by showing audiences something that Hollywood couldn’t do. Like, a Hollywood movie could not sneak into NASA; could not recreate Stanley Kubrick. Just legally, they would find a more expensive and worse alternative to it.
Your two films seems to mirror their own production, in narrative and documentary stylings. So much of what the characters do in Operation Avalanche is reuse and reshape existing footage and photo material, which is exactly what you do too. That’s all thanks to recent fair use laws, right?
Yeah, exactly. It was only because we had done so much weird shit with The Dirties. Like, a lot of it didn’t actually make the final movie, but a big part of that movie was Matt intercutting his movie with actual Hollywood movies, which is very on theme. I’m sure you can understand, it would make some sense for the character to have done that. Because that was sort of in my head for that movie, we thought, “oh, we should just take this to the very next level in Avalanche and do it as much as we can”.
What does that mean your budget was, then, if you’re sneaking around and also re-purposing footage?
A lot of that money went to paying lawyers for allowing us to do this.
You’ve spoken out in interviews over the last six months against film schools and Canadian film financing boards, Telefilm in particular.
Yes, I have. You have something similar in Australia, don’t you? I’m quite a big fan of Australian independent film and TV at the moment. I think it’s quite vibrant. In a lot of the debates that I have, like the one about TIFF, I brought up the Australian system, like your public networks, the ABC. I think Chris Lilley… I know he’s a bit dated now, but when he was first starting to do stuff on there, it was incredible what the government was allowing him to do. I don’t know if you watch Danger 5 but, in my opinion, that’s like one of the most culturally relevant shows out there, being put out there by government money. So I actually bring up your country quite a bit when I’m talking about what we should be modelling our system on.
We probably don’t have the same problem as Telefilm does in terms of rewarding already established filmmakers so much, but our major funding body, Screen Australia, are often criticised for putting money into safe films, and I know a lot of their funding criteria does frustrate interesting independent filmmakers.
Well in that sense they are similar to Telefilm, because Telefilm has all those problems and more. It’s a terrible, terrible corrupt system.
What would you recommend for young filmmakers, then? Just go out and start shooting?
I mean, in what country? In Canada or your country? In Canada, the advice I give students or people who want to become filmmakers is “do not put faith in the short film system, that system leads to rack and ruin”. I’ve seen many filmmakers from my generation spend, you know, $50 to $100 to $150,000 on a short film that is twenty minutes long, that is impressive, but a) there is no marketplace for short filmmaking, and b) it’s not the ’90s anymore, where you can then take the next step through your national funding body based on a short film that you made. That support structure just isn’t there anymore, and so I’m encouraging them to take whatever budget they were going to spend on a short and figure out how to turn that into a feature budget, because that makes all the difference. It puts you in a completely different playing field if you’re in the feature game, as opposed to the short game.
How do you feel about film festivals, then? I know you skipped TIFF last year but which festivals stand out to you? Where should filmmakers be screening their work?
That all depends what kind of movies you are making. If you are making anything close to American independent cinema you just have to go to Sundance. Like, that’s just where you go to sell your movie, although that marketplace is now obviously so cluttered and most of the movies are sold before they even get there but that doesn’t change the fact that that is where major, major sales happen and where you really can get discovered. Outside of that, I mean, any of the big six film festivals are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I think the film festival is the motor driving the independent film scene.
I love film festivals and even though I was extremely critical of TIFF… I was extremely critical of TIFF from the perspective of a Canadian independent filmmaker who believes TIFF is not doing very much to support. So, if you made a first feature, like, if there was a Conor Bateman first feature and it’s your voice from Australia and funded by Australia, you would do, I think, quite well premiering your first feature at TIFF. If you were making art films and you could premiere at Locarno, amazing. The film festival is where you are going to get noticed. I think that it’s a myth that we’re at the point where you can self-distribute your first feature and get a lot of attention from it. You’re just working against so many established, really, really locked-in systems that the media respects. The international press really does turn up to film festivals. They do turn up to TIFF. They really turn up to Sundance. Getting your film reviewed in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter still means quite a bit, and it also means a lot to sales agencies and distributors, so I think that is definitely the path. The path is to get a feature off the ground, be really proud of it, work like hell, obviously, and then hopefully through relationships with programmers get it into the best film festival you can.
In Australia we have what’s referred to as the cultural cringe, which is basically that we hate our own national works until they are praised overseas, particularly geared around America. Do you have the same thing in Canada?
I would say absolutely, even from my own experience. We begged and pleaded for TIFF to play The Dirties and they were like “No, this movie is godawful”, and it was only after we’d won all these film festivals around the world that it was like “oh, what an interesting film”. People talk about it as though it’s an important Canadian film now, but that’s just the way that it’s gonna be. I think that it’s very difficult to take a risk on your own countrymen if you’re not in the United States. That just seems to be the way things work, but I don’t know if other countries have that issue. The UK are pretty good at having an insular film and television community when they know when something is good. You saw with Ricky Gervais and countless others who have gone through that program. And Quebec, in Canada, also has a similar situation where they have their own star system. They prop one another up—again, they’re supported by a language barrier, but I think Canada and Australia are quite similar in many ways. New Zealand, I imagine as well.
Well, New Zealand really punch above their weight in cinema, at least recently.
Yeah, well they had some pretty crazy role models. Like, the Flight of the Conchords guys and The Lord of the Rings completely changed that country, and brought so much infrastructure that wasn’t there before. Again, the power of role models is strong, if you’ve got real role models in your country showing you that you can actually achieve massive things. Obviously Peter Jackson is like a god to, I’m sure, a lot of 13-year old New Zealanders. Knowing that something is possible definitely helps pave the way, which we just don’t have in Canada. There are no role models like that.
Are you hoping that you’re gonna be a role model to 13-year-old Canadians?
Yeah, I hope so. That’s why they’re all about 13-year-olds making movies.
(laughs) Well The Dirties definitely does feel like a call to arms, almost, for DIY filmmaking.
Yeah, we tried our best to make it look as easy as possible.
Operation Avalanche is quite different in that respect, even on visuals alone. I know during your press tour for The Dirties you intended to shoot Avalanche on expired 16mm film stock for your next film. Did you end up shooting on film?
It was about 70/30, mostly on video, but we were able to come up with this unbelievable process where we were still able to use expired film by just having a really smart lab technician named Pablo Perez; just convert everything. What you watched in Sydney was a 16mm print of our entire movie: full-on to negative, and then to print stock. That’s why it looks the way it does. There were some issues we just couldn’t overcome, like with sharpness. I personally like the way video cameras are able to capture details in that way, but I think the effect is really remarkable.
Oh, for sure. It’s part and parcel in your work. With The Dirties on consumer grade digital, and now Operation Avalanche on 16mm, there’s an active re-creation of history in place.
Well we’re trying to have the form match the function as much as possible, because I think you learn something from that. That’s why on Operation Avalanche we had Andy [Appelle] and Jared [Raab] carry around 16mm cameras with them almost all the time. When we were at NASA, they had the ARRI BLs with them, just so they knew what they felt like. Those guys had both shot a tonne of film and we shot a bunch of film for this movie. It’s because we wanted to mirror that kind of classic American vérité doc that was made so popular by people like Wexler; the documentary An American Family. We watched these things hoping to have that same kind of dirty, handheld but still shoulder-mounted look that The Dirties just didn’t have. The Dirties was very much a from the hip style handheld, whereas this every shot was shoulder-mounted, with a very ugly zoom lens; an Angenieux from the 1950s.
How are you going to pull off this form meets function approach in what’s been cited as your next film, something set in the 1850s?
Yeah, it’s a tough question, right? I think one of the big touchstones for us is a Peter Watkins film called [Edvard] Munch, which is an awesome movie—it’s not very exciting to watch, but it’s awesome in terms of what it’s doing. It’s a documentary about the painter, Munch, set in his lifetime. It’s a vérité documentary, so people are looking at the cameras, it’s shot on film and just through costume and setting they’re able to pull off so much with this. It’s mixed vérité: half-vérité, half-standard doc, but that will give you some clues as to how we’re gonna shoot that movie. This movie is quite bizarre. I mean, it’s about H.P. Lovecraft’s dad and a cult trying to summon, like, an elder god in Canada, so we have quite a bit of leeway in terms of how the cameras can move I think. By about five to ten minutes in the audience is going to accept that this movie is slightly more farcical than our first two features.
Lovecraft is hip again, kind of.
Yeah, I love Lovecraft. I think he’s so funny. I don’t think a lot of people think of his stuff as hysterically funny, but we wanted to tell an origin story that was both the origin story of Canada and the story of where H.P. Lovecraft got all of his ideas from, which is from his insane dad, who was kidnapped by this cult and just told him all everything.
That would make a wonderful, unwieldy logline.
It’s a little rambling, for sure.
With the commas and everything, just got for it. Both of your films, though, have had this sort of instant pull. They have elevator pitch premises.
Well, because I believe in the crossroads of commerce and art. I actually think that’s really important. I think filmmakers who try to duck or avoid commerciality are kidding themselves, because you want people to see your movies, and also you wanna subvert expectations in some way. I like the idea of having loglines for movies that are incredibly facile; like, unbelievably stupid-sounding in many ways, like “kids plan a school shooting as a joke”, “CIA agents fake the moon landing as a joke”. Like, these things, they demand to fail. Like, you as an audience, especially critical audiences, demand for these premises not to work and so it makes us work extra hard to try and figure out how to bring these stories to life in a unique way. It’s just so easy, because when your central thesis is just so simple and so digestible and you’re shooting hundreds of hours of footage all around the world—like random shit, just improvising—it helps to center you because you can always get back to a simple idea, like “this is supposed to be about the fun of CIA agents faking the moon landing, let’s get back to that”. It helps you at every single stage.
To change gears a bit, which will prove to be a horrible pun in a second—the car chase in Operation Avalanche was shot in one take, right?
Yeah, we shot it about seven times, but yeah, we shot it in one shot.
And you were driving too?
The reason we… well, not that we had to do that. Again, it’s a money thing. Again, you’re seeing the types of things that independent, cheap movies can do that Hollywood movies cannot do. If they were Matt Damon, they wouldn’t let them drive the car. Insurance won’t let you do those types of things. You can’t take those types of risks with your talent, but because we can basically make the rules, we’re sort of doing our own thing. We can show you things that you can’t see in other movies, like the protagonist—who is not a spy, has never fired a gun, has never driven a car fast—doing all of those things for the very first time, and you’re right there with him. So, it’s again the form feeding the narrative, feeding the function. One of the big payoffs of making a movie in this style is that we would get to shoot a car chase in a way that people hadn’t seen before.
Does it frustrate you, the term ‘found footage’, and how it’s slapped on your films?
Yeah, well I always correct people, but then it’s like “what can I really do”? I think that most people, sadly, who watch my movies think that they are found footage. They don’t connect the authorship, which is such an important part of these movies, the idea that you’re getting it from the perspective of the protagonist but like what am I gonna do about it? I could open all these movies with title cards. Yeah, but it’s a term I resist but I think it’s so easy to say, it was so buzzy in the late ’90s and early 2000s that I feel the label isn’t going anywhere. ‘Fake documentary’ just doesn’t have the same catchiness to it, it’s not alliterative, ‘found footage’ just has a tone to it.
Well I think one of the best things about Operation Avalanche is how you mess with the audience as to the presence of the camera. You forget quite often that every camera is being held by a character and sometimes aren’t sure which person is behind the lens – in the car chase, for example.
That’s one of the interesting dynamics of it. In the original concept of the movie, the two cameramen were much bigger characters, but that cut of the movie ended up being two-and-a-half hours and we just couldn’t do it. But I do hope that we were able to retain some of that. Like, in that sequence in the beginning. it’s Jared’s camera when we notice that the CIA is coming after us. I scream after Jared to run away, and then his camera runs into the woods, and I join Andy and you see his camera burn in. Like, the film literally burns in like he’s just started the magazine and it just goes through an entire mag, that whole car chase.
I saw in the credits for this film that it was produced, in part, at York University.
It was my thesis film.
In fact, that was the only way we could make it because my university had all that old gear, and so I enrolled in a masters program knowing that masters students just got to use all the stuff in the school, and that nobody else was gonna be using that old gear from the ’60s. It was a way for us to get one or two million dollars worth of production design for nothing, for the cost of tuition, which in Canada is very cheap.
That’s fantastic. The Dirties had this relationship with school shooting films and media coverage at the time. Often mentioned in reviews was van Sant’s Elephant, and you would hit back in interviews by pivoting to talk about Last Action Hero, and the blurring of fact and fiction. Outside of the documentary work you’ve mentioned so far, what other films were touchstones for Operation Avalanche?
I’d say the big one was… well, it’s so funny because we watched so many movies. The one that’s obvious in the movie is Dr. Strangelove, but it’s weird because formally our movie is so far away from that movie. I think what you’re watching is a movie by a guy who really loves Dr. Strangelove, and less by someone who actually understands the genius of Kubrick and can actually do what Kubrick can do, which I think is an important distinction. There’s sort of a neophyte version of that movie, but also things like The Manchurian Candidate was a big influence on this movie. Capricorn One, which is also about faking but the Mars landing. We actually took a lot of dialogue from that movie because we thought it would be so funny.
That’s a good movie.
I actually think the movie’s great. It has some of the best helicopter photography I’ve seen in my entire life. I think OJ Simpson’s hilarious in it. I mean, we watched… it was really [co-writer and actor] Josh Boles and I, and he’s much more of a cinephile than I am, by far. Us watching movies, sort of like my favourite movies from that time, Sweet Smell of Success, F for Fake… I think F for Fake is obvious. There’s a lot of stuff stolen from that movie.
Did you know about that Black List script going around about Kubrick faking the moon landing? [1969: A Space Odyssey or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon by Stephany Folsom]
Yeah, of course. She got a lot of press for that film.
Yeah, there was a live read of it.
When we first heard of it we were like “Oh Jesus”, ’cause there was a French film as well, a French-American film called Moonwalkers, which also had the same premise: Stanley Kubrick faking the moon landing. I mean, from our perspective, we were funded independently and we were making this movie and in such a different ballpark than those movies. Moonwalkers, anyway, was a multi-million dollar movie and if that other Kubrick Black List script was gonna get made it was gonna be a multi-million dollar movie. So we felt pretty secure in being like, “Oh yeah, we’re making the indie version of this”, and what wound up happening, lucky for us, was not only were we the small version of it but we were the only one that had any kind of release at all. I think what happened is… it’s so funny, it’s like when Armageddon and Deep Impact came out. That sense of parallel thinking that can happen sometimes with media, and I think it’s so brutal because it seemed like that girl who wrote that Black List script really kinda got fucked. How do you sell that movie once two movies are in production with the exact same concept? It’s not fair. I don’t know much about that screenwriter, but I hope to God that she’s gone on to find some success.
That’s all I have, Matt.
Thanks a lot, Conor. I hope I make it to MIFF next year. We’re making Nirvana The Band The Show as a TV series, and we’re premiering it at TIFF, believe it or not.
So you’ve mended your bridges?
Yeah, well, there was a very diplomatic programmer who said “listen, we’ve got to end this, let’s show something”, and it’s great because, as I said, I love the film festival. I just don’t love what they do to Canadians, that’s all.