The Director of 'Operation Avalanche' Explains the Power of Conspiracy Theories

Matt Johnson discusses the passion and personal history behind his moon-landing mockumentary.

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Sep 23 2016, 8:40pm

Matt Johnson doesn't believe in conspiracy theories, but his latest film makes a hell of an argument for one of America's most mythical ones. Operation Avalanche follows Matt (played by Johnson), a 1960s CIA agent/filmmaker who is sent sort of undercover to infiltrate NASA and find a mole during the height of the space race. Not long into his mission, Johnson discovers that the US isn't even close to getting a man on the moon and begins scheming up an idea to fake the whole damn thing.

"In the beginning, so much of the thrill was about making a movie that proved the moon landing was fake," Johnson laughs. "We wanted people to watch the movie and leave believing the moon landing was staged—and then for people to do research and realize that we all think that position is moronic. That kind of tricky, stupid, juvenile thinking can get a team of filmmakers a long way."

And it's the same kind of thinking that has led most of Johnson's career choices. The 31-year-old York University grad released his first feature, The Dirties, in 2013; like the VICE Films–distributed Avalanche, the film stars Johnson and collaborator Owen Williams as slightly different versions of themselves—this time, two high school students named Matt and Owen—who try to make a film about a high school shooting but end up planning a high school shooting. The Dirties was shot without a script, as was Avalanche—and this fall, Johnson's sorta-scripted web series Nirvanna The Band The Show will make the leap to television on VICELAND.

For Avalanche, Johnson posed as a documentary filmmaker to gain access to NASA's Houston HQ, liberally interpreting fair-use laws in order to include a large collection of found footage in the finished product. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation about conspiracy theories, films about filmmaking, and navigating the ethics of the film's gambit.

All photos courtesy of Zapruder Films

VICE: From ideation to conclusion, how long did it all take?
Matt Johnson:
About two years. We were extremely lucky, because after The Dirties, people were interested in the movie we were going to make next. We knew that if we had a good idea, we could get funding for it almost immediately. Plus, we work fast—we don't write scripts—so it was easy to start shooting immediately.

While working without a script, how far do you guys usually get before you have to figure out where things are going next?
With our first film, we had no clue what we were doing. With Operation Avalanche, we knew the basic structure of the film, how we wanted it to end, who the characters were, and what the transitional points were going to be. We had the big ideas, but because we didn't know exactly how they were going to happen, we organized the schedule so we'd be discovering that in the right order. We had four or five moments where we would go, "Let's see what happens when we shoot this," and then we reorient ourselves after we got it.

You told NASA that you were a documentary film team when you shot there.
We did the same thing that our characters did in the movie. It was more functional for us to have the exact same cover because it meant that we could do real dynamic shit. When I ask NASA staff questions, that's what was happening in real life—I was trying to mine people for information on how to fake the moon landing. We did the same thing with The Dirties—we pretended to be high school students making a film about us planning a school shooting—I talked with students, teachers, and friends in the exact same capacity. The fact that my identity in the film and my identity in real life is the same saves so much money—there's no starting and stopping when you roll the cameras.

Did you go back and tell them after the fact that you weren't actually making a documentary?
We had no legal obligations to. You could argue we had an ethical obligation, but we wanted to make sure that was the movie we were going to make before we told them. In my experience, people don't react great when you tell them in the moment that the reality that they're in isn't the reality they believe to be. They have a much better reaction when you show them the finished product and say, "Hey, you may not have known you were participating in this—this is what it is." When I show people footage of themselves, they're usually fascinated by their own behavior. It's not like we were trying to make NASA look ridiculous—we were trying to show them as they really are.

Did you relate to Matt's obsession about making the fake moon landing work?
Yeah. One of the main reasons we made this movie was because it's about being optimistic to a fault, and thinking that no matter what you need to do to achieve something, as long as you achieve it you'll be forgiven. Matt thinks he'll be forgiven for the boundaries he crosses, the friendships he ruins, and the things he puts other people through for the things he thinks everybody wants. That's something I identify with because that's the story with filmmaking and a lot of collaborative artistic pursuits. One of the reasons that things get made at all is because some buffoon is willing to push everything negative out in order to pursue something. That's been my experience with everything I have made.

Were you interested in conspiracy theories prior to Operation Avalanche?
As much as any North American kid would be. When I was younger, my favorite movie was JFK, so when I first heard about the moon landing conspiracy I was like, "Yeah, of course!" That stuff is exciting because it's the first time you hear that the reality your parents believe is not even reality. It's a way for people to have one-up on the rest of society when they feel powerless. When I was a young person, I had no agency whatsoever, so mass conspiracies were like being let in on a secret that gave me power from knowing the truth. I think that's why conspiracy devotees are rarely mega politicians or CEOs: The people who bang the drum are often people on the outside of society.

What excites you about making films about filmmakers?
There's so much hope in the beginning of any project—seeing the light in somebody's eyes when they first think they can do something is always exciting. That's the type of person I want to see stories about—someone who has an undying belief in himself or herself. Filmmaking is about believing so strongly in your own stupid idea that you're willing to do moronic stuff you'd never do. When you're trying to get a film off the ground, it's like nothing else matters. You feel like the center of the universe, and your meaningless movie is more important than anything. I don't think I'll always make movies about filmmakers, but at this young stage in my life, that's basically all I know.

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