Outspoken, jovial Toronto based filmmaker and perpetually rising star Matt Johnson is in a great mood. It’s a sunny May afternoon, the day of the local premiere of his latest effort, Operation Avalanche, at Hot Docs. It’s not a documentary, but that hardly matters to the festival or to Johnson. It’s close enough for the festival to screen it as a part of a new program called DocX, showcasing the blurred lines between documentary, fiction, and art. He lounges on an office couch seated across a conference table at the Entertainment One offices in downtown Toronto; positively beaming after another successful day of shooting on a project that once again blends reality and fiction.
A filmmaker adept in making viewers question where reality begins and the filmmaking ends (and vice versa), Johnson first made waves with the locally beloved underground, unpunctuated cult webseries Nirvanna The Band The Show (produced with co-creator Jay McCarrol from 2007 to 2009), which returned this year at TIFF – with an extra “n” in the title to avoid future lawsuits – prior to debuting on Vice’s new television network later this year with all new episodes.
The tone and tenor of Johnson’s in-joke-y series about a fictional band with no songs and little talent who desperately try to book a show at The Rivoli extends to his feature film debut, The Dirties. A darkly comic tale of a high school filmmaker (played by Johnson) enlisting his best friend Owen (Owen Williams) into helping with the production of a revenge fantasy picture against those who bullied them, The Dirties was critically lauded in Toronto (garnering Johnson the Toronto Film Critics Association’s Jay Scott Award for emerging talent) and around the world, at one point capturing the eye of filmmaker Kevin Smith, who helped bring the film to a greater audience.
Operation Avalanche (which opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, September 30, 2016) is Johnson’s most ambitious blurring of the real and fake to date, one that has people talking for several reasons. The first is the film’s biggest talking point from a production standpoint. For his tale of a young, overly eager CIA operative and propaganda producer (once again played by the writer/director himself) and his team of fellow operatives teaming up to fake the famed Apollo 11 moon landing on behalf of the U.S. government, Johnson brought his cast and crew to Houston where they pretended to be documentary filmmakers in an effort to shoot at actual NASA facilities. Some members of NASA unwittingly add to the somewhat creepy, but decidedly irreverent vibe of the film by showing up on camera, unaware that Johnson’s playing a character in a fictional film.
“I think a lot about the Hollywood version of this movie and what that looks like. People would be cutting corners, thinking that no one’s going to know, or saying ‘who cares what the cameras look like.’”
It sounds like an insane plan the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen would attempt, but for Johnson (once again teaming up with co-writer and co-star Williams) and his crew, it was that seemingly impossible bit of trickery that united the filmmaking cadre. It was a matter of faking one film to tell the story of a highly disreputable conspiracy theory in a place where the deception was reported to have taken place.
“Our whole team likes to do things where the pitch would sound totally impossible if you were to try and describe it to someone,” Johnson says, fiddling with a marble on the conference table. “A period piece that’s shot like a documentary is very challenging, and simply because of this it seems like you should never do it. It was a good challenge for us to see if we could even make a film like this today. Even just in terms of the story, you couldn’t fake a NASA program today. You just couldn’t. Back then, NASA could control who saw something like this and who was involved. Nowadays, that’s just not possible. So you’re kind of left with this impossible movie about this impossible thing that you have to make seem authentic.”
Despite filming at the decidedly modernized NASA facilities (where some of the original Apollo era technology is still in place for tourists to see) and telling everyone that he was filming a documentary for a university project, the York University Masters student committed to the authenticity of shooting a period piece by using the technology that would have been available to Matt and his fellow CIA operatives back in 1967. Thankfully, his school shockingly had everything he needed to make the grainy 16mm handheld shooting style of Operation Avalanche a reality.
“We were always conscious about the technology that would have to be used to make something like this because we can’t just use something modern or it betrays the whole challenge of what we’re trying to do,” he says about the film’s low-fi means of production. “But going to York University in Toronto was one of the best things that could have happened for this movie because they haven’t updated their gear in so long. (laughs) They do have a lot of great, new equipment, but they never got rid of most of this stuff that they’ve had around since the fifties and sixties. They still have it! So we had all of these cameras, lights, and gear that was all period appropriate, and it was RIGHT THERE. I was a Masters student at the time, and I still am, so I could just take that stuff and we shot with all of it! The Steenbeck in the film that I edit with, that’s AT York University. That is THEIR Steenbeck and it was just sitting around there pretty much waiting for someone like us to come along and use it. Forcing ourselves to use tools like this to fake the moon landing made this so much more fun than if we used modern technology.”
Johnson admits that much like the moon landing Matt and Owen try to fake in his latest film, there was probably an easier way to produce Operation Avalanche using modern trickery and a lot more money, but the filmmaker had no intention of making a polished, high budget tale.
“I think a lot about the Hollywood version of this movie and what that looks like. People would be cutting corners, thinking that no one’s going to know, or saying ‘who cares what the cameras look like.’ But when you do a film about a famous conspiracy theory that’s so directly tied to the art of filmmaking, those are precisely the questions keen viewers are going to ask, so why make it if the answer is going to be ‘who cares?’ There’s a version of this movie that is so hack-y, inauthentic, and costs way more money because they’re going to rebuild NASA and everyone is a big name actor. I just thank God that we could make this film because I really wanted this to be sort of the antidote to that kind of mentality and that way of thinking. We still do pretty absurd things in this film that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. There’s a car chase. I break through a wall. If you saw these things in a polished, Hollywood production, you would think it was so stupid. But because we spend so much time in small, real spaces with real people that when things go off the chain, you don’t immediately think this is all suddenly fake. I love that feeling.”
“What all great conspiracy theories do is that they take something truthful and attempt to tell the best narrative version of how that thing did or didn’t happen.”
When Johnson says that Operation Avalanche goes “off the chain,” he’s referring to the film’s shift in tone from that of a good natured, technically adroit historical mockumentary in the film’s first half to its becoming a tense, paranoiac thriller in the film’s latter half that’s more indebted to something like The Conversation than a Christopher Guest picture. It’s not the first time Johnson has done this with audiences, mounting a similar structure in The Dirties, and it’s a choice that belies one of Johnson’s favourite storytelling devices.
“This character of Matt doesn’t realize that what he’s doing is really stupid and probably won’t amount to anything, and that’s what I think Operation Avalanche and The Dirties have in common. Matt is so convinced about whatever he’s trying to do and whatever talent he has that we can follow it and find it cute and funny up to a point. Then, when it does amount to something, the consequences for what he’s doing or about to do are so crazy that the gear change is fun. In both cases it’s about being careful what you wish for. I love the Faustian bargains that both of these movies have. You get exactly what you want, and then you regret it instantly.”
Matt, the character, is someone that Matt, the filmmaker, had been thinking about for a while. To hear Johnson explain it, there’s not that huge of a thematic leap between what this unassuming renegade CIA agent does and the work of a trained killer like James Bond or Jason Bourne.
“Matt’s idea at the start of Operation Avalanche is totally selfish, so I don’t think he ever fully knows about how great of an idea it was until these consequences start coming down on him. What I’m kind of pointing at with this movie is that these are the kinds of guys that the CIA wants. I think in real life, big organizations who are willing to do crazy, immoral things that are totally not by the book, but that the organization can somehow control. They want the guy crazy enough to try to sneak an exploding cigar into Cuba to kill Castro back in the 1960s because if it works, awesome, if not, we have no idea who that was. The CIA is built on these types of guys: reckless, willing to do whatever they want, self-directed, and lacking in any moral compass.”
Johnson also spent a lot of time researching both the real science and accomplishments of NASA during the 1960s as much as he did looking into the conspiracy theory that suggests Stanley Kubrick helped to pull off the greatest cinematic hoax of all time. While his interest started with the conspiracy theory angle, the research process gave the filmmaker a huge appreciation for NASA’s accomplishments, something he hopes current and future generations pay more attention to.
“We kind of take this stuff for granted, and following the Challenger explosion, the generation who grew up around that probably had their interest in this stuff ended in an instant,” he says about how he really didn’t grow up during a time when space exploration was cool or viable. “I just came to it through writing, and honestly what got me into this in the first place was reading about these conspiracy theories about how the moon landing was faked. What all great conspiracy theories do is that they take something truthful and attempt to tell the best narrative version of how that thing did or didn’t happen. You could take something like the story of how the Apollo 11 came to be, and that’s your first act, and then you just systematically start to change everything from there. Conspiracy theories are such great storytelling tools because people bring their own baggage to them, and that’s what makes them fun to tell and fun to listen to. That was so much more interesting and intricate and sometimes silly to read about on every level, but without that I never would have learned that much about how cool NASA actually is. I really hope our generation has a new big mission, whether that’s getting to Mars or headed back to the moon or looking into colonizing a planet.”
“This character of Matt doesn’t realize that what he’s doing is really stupid and probably won’t amount to anything, and that’s what I think Operation Avalanche and The Dirties have in common.”
When Johnson, a bit of a jokester by nature, is asked if he keeps up his conspiracy theory act off screen to people that might be “true believers,” he says he approaches it on a case by case basis, just as happy to talk about the truth of the Apollo 11 landing as he is the fictional version of events as depicted in the film.
“I learned enough about the Apollo program that I could talk pretty reasonably with anyone about it if they ask me, but definitely not with someone that’s one of the heads of NASA,” he admits about the extent of his knowledge. “I couldn’t do that. I only know what I know through the conspiracies and from having spent time at NASA and through what I read while writing. But you’d be surprised how people from that generation are still really into NASA and what they were doing, and I think at first the ones who think I really am a conspiracy theorist like the character I play in my movie is, I think they want to try and take me down at first. Then, they realize that we could talk about anything because it’s just a movie! (laughs) I’m a big NASA fan now, but I had no idea before making this movie that people of a certain generation were so passionate about that because I wasn’t for a long time and I don’t know too many people from my generation that are passionate about this stuff. Obviously, I knew that part of the fun in making this was to make people believe in things that patently aren’t true. I love doing that. One of my secret joys is when somebody thinks something that isn’t true is true because of something I said in a movie. I love that, and I take great pleasure in making people think at first that I’m a conspiracy theorist, and they will then approach me in that way. Then, sometimes I’ll pretend to be one, especially if it’s someone I don’t know. If they seem into the conspiracy, then I’ll sometimes go all in with the act. If they want the truth, though, we can talk the truth.”
Now let’s get back to the other reason why people are talking about Operation Avalanche beyond the hook of how the film was made. Right around the time the film made its world premiere at Sundance in January of this year, a pair of interviews Johnson conducted with then Globe and Mail writer Calum Marsh and NOW Magazine writer Radheyan Simonpillai caused an uneasy, but necessary buzz within the Canadian filmmaking community.
In the interviews, Johnson raised several normally polite and complacent Canadian eyebrows in hopes of sparking a greater conversation about how films are produced, exhibited, and funded in this country. In the Globe piece, Johnson notes that he chose premiering the film at Sundance over a TIFF premiere, despite the acceptance of Operation Avalanche into the festival that would have happened in September of last year. He notes that he watched so many other local filmmakers struggle to get their films noticed in a behemoth festival that he didn’t wish for his film – which actually had the financial backing of a major American studio, Lionsgate – to suffer a similar fate or to be regulated to the “Canadian film ghetto” that often gets talked about in hushed tones among those in the know. A recent article about the increased size of TIFF in Variety earlier this month suggests that Johnson certainly isn’t alone in those instincts.
And while it was mentioned in the Globe piece, Johnson’s interview with Simonpillai goes into more explicit detail of how Operation Avalanche was denied funding by Telefilm Canada – the country’s largest supporter of independent film – because his intention was to always make the film not only for Canadian audiences, but to also sell it to Lionsgate. Considering that in that same year Telefilm had prominently and proudly funded Oscar nominated films like Room and Brooklyn – patently un-Canadian films regardless of their quality and artistic merit which also had major American studio ties in place – Johnson’s ire and feeling of being shunned seemed justified. In the NOW interview, he also calls out Telefilm’s continued practice of funding established filmmakers with sometimes mediocre material and diminishing commercial prospects (Paul Gross, Atom Egoyan) in favour of taking risks with new filmmaking voices. It’s a valid question: how can a national cinematic voice move forward if those holding the purse strings just keep funnelling funds into the same old projects that have been largely failing to break through for years?
“I think within ten years, I think we’re going to be looking at a very different culture of film and media in Toronto.”
Still, even talking about it back in May – before TIFF invited Johnson to premiere Nirvanna The Band The Show at this year’s festival as part of the television based Primetime program (which he accepted) and following a somewhat hush-hush industry breakfast at the Lightbox this summer – Matt seems taken aback by the response to his point of view.
“I was surprised by the reaction it got because I just assumed that people talked about that all the time,” Johnson recounts when talking about the first reactions to the latter of the two interviews that appeared in NOW. “I honestly had that sort of level of naiveté. But I guess no one does! I was in Sundance when that article was published, and then all of a sudden everybody was talking about it. Sure, I would talk about it, but that one article wasn’t really my identity like some people made it out to be. My Canadian-ness isn’t connected with what I said in some ways. I’m happy now that people are talking about it, though, because that’s really gratifying. I mean, sure, it’s somewhat symptomatic of the Canadian system, but it’s also just symptomatic of any kind of big power structure. Somehow, the way the laws in Canada have been drawn up have led us to this place. It’s not weird because if you look closely you’ll see that it happens everywhere. There are four major banks here. There are two major television networks. There’s one major film distributor, although that’s changing little by little. There are two telecommunication companies. These are big, big businesses that are never going to take the risks that a hundred smaller companies could take. The counter to that, is that if you take a risk within that system with a smaller company and the risk pays off, suddenly you’re at the top, but good luck getting noticed in the first place.”
“I’m trying to get out there as much as I can to talk about as many small policy changes that could happen at Telefilm that would change everything,” has says for hope of a brighter future for Canadian filmmakers. “I think within ten years, I think we’re going to be looking at a very different culture of film and media in Toronto. I really do. It’s coming not just from filmmakers, but film critics are coming around to this, as well. In just the past five years, I’ve noticed that Toronto critics have more of an identity now, and they seem to matter more, and they are starting to push the conversation in a new direction and that people are listening.”
With all the talk of Johnson’s views on the future of Canadian cinema, it’s hard not to joke that once again art and reality seem to collide, since Johnson’s onscreen persona is trying to crack through a glass ceiling in a large corporation in a bid to prove his own technical and artistic worth.
“That’s why it was so easy to play this guy. He’s a filmmaker. He’s a desperate filmmaker who wants to get noticed, and THAT I can play to the end of time,” he says with a big laugh. “I understand what a guy like that is thinking very well. I am the guy who would and did go undercover at NASA to get footage, so that resonance is perfect! I really connected with this guy.”