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SXSW 2016 Interview: Operation Avalanche’s Matt Johnson (Exclusive)

Fearlessly and continuously reinventing yourself in an effort to powerfully uncover and explore society’s most significant issues in recent and modern times is a stance that not many people have the courage to take on. But filmmaker Matt Johnson intriguingly did just that in his new thriller, ‘Operation Avalanche,’ the compelling follow-up to his acclaimed and award-winning feature film debut that focuses on school bullying, the 2013 crime drama, ‘The Dirties.’ In his latest movie, the director and actor, who also worked on the story outline with his co-star, Josh Boles, effortlessly created a compelling faux-documentary about one of the greatest conspiracy theories in American history: whether Apollo 11 was actually the first spaceflight that landed humans, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the Moon, or if the American government actually staged the event on Earth, in order to gain an edge in the Cold War.

Production companies Zapruder Films, XYZ Films and Resolute Films and Entertainment independently produced ‘Operation Avalanche.’ After production on the mockumentary was completed, it was acquired by it’s distributor, Lionsgate Premieres, eight months before it had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Johnson’s daring thriller is next set to screen during the Festival Favorites section at this month’s SXSW, before it receives its official release from Lionsgate. The movie is set to screen at the following times and locations at the Austin-based film festival: Sunday, March 13, 9:30PM at Alamo Lamar A; Monday, March 14, 2:15PM at Alamo Ritz 2; and Thursday, March 17, 7:30PM at Alamo Ritz 1.

‘Operation Avalanche’ is set in 1967, during the height of the cold war, as the global race to put a man on the moon is afoot. Suspicions are rising within the CIA that a Russian spy has infiltrated the inner-circle of NASA, in an attempt to sabotage the Apollo Program. Two young agents from the CIA’s inaugural A/V department, film buffs and close friends, Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), are among those who are drafted from the top Ivy League universities at the height of the Cold War to assist with a series of special investigations. The duo soon learn that America’s space program could be in jeopardy, which gives the Soviets an edge in the neck-and-neck race to the moon. As the new agents become eager to garner more responsibility, they propose a plan to their bosses that would thwart a Soviet traitor who’s believed to be sabotaging America’s advantage from within NASA.

After their supervisors reluctantly agree to allow Matt and Josh to try to expose the mole, they go undercover as filmmakers tasked with documenting the nation’s journey from the earth to the moon. They’re accompanied by two cameramen, Andrew (Andrew Appelle) and Jared (Jared Raab), who practically never stop filming, so that they can pose as a civilian documentary crew and use that access to expose the mole. To the chagrin of the American government, the new agents uncover a conspiracy far more shocking than Soviet spies. The government is hiding a dark secret about Apollo, and the White House will stop at nothing to silence those who discover it.

Much like the characters in the faux-documentary, Johnson and his cast and crew carried out the same covert filmmaking style as they were shooting ‘Operation Avalanche.’ The director and fellow filmmakers told NASA that they were making a movie about the Apollo missions, before showing up for informational visits dressed in character and ready to film. The filmmaker later combined archival material with the footage he captured to mimic several key events that took place during the space race in the late 1960s.

Johnson generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing, directing and starring in ‘Operation Avalanche’ during an exclusive phone interview before the thriller debuts at SXSW next week. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how only having an outline for the thriller’s story, and filming in actual locations where some people the actors were interacting with didn’t know they were shooting a narrative feature, necessitated improvising from the cast. He also mentioned that the cast and crew tried to film in all of the locations where the story actually takes place, including NASA’s headquarters in Texas, but they also built sets if they needed or wanted to film additional footage in a specific place.

ShockYa (SY): You co-write the script for the new thriller, ‘Operation Avalanche,’ which follows a group of Ivy League students who were recruited by the CIA, and became the film crew that fakes the Apollo 11 moon landing. What interested you in penning a faux-documentary about one of the biggest conspiracy theories in history? What was the process of penning the screenplay with your co-scribe, Josh Boles?

Matt Johnson (MJ): The movie actually didn’t have a full script in the beginning. We just wrote an outline, so the whole movie’s improvised. But what got me thinking about this movie was that I was interested in creating a character who’s really obsessed with making a feature, which is similar to my first movie (‘The Dirties’).

This movie is about a character who’s trying to make the greatest film of all time, which would include footage of the moon landing. As soon as I started thinking about the movie like that, I began working with my co-writer, Josh Boles, and my producer, Matt Miller. We just started working on that theme, until we came up with that exact plot.

SY: Speaking of improvising, since you arrived at some of the movie’s real locations in character, without informing the people at each setting that you were making a film, what was the process of adapting the scenes you were filming to the situation in each setting?

MJ: Well, it was a lot easier than having to follow a script in many cases, because you couldn’t get the story wrong. A lot of times, that improvising was even necessary, because we would be in places where the people we were acting with didn’t know that we were shooting a movie, or that there was any acting going on at all.

But it was a lot of fun, because we didn’t know what type of footage we would get whenever we went into an environment. A lot of times we would shoot something or some place, and then not be able to use any of the footage at all. That was disappointing at times, but it was worth it, so that we could make a movie like this.

SY: Besides writing the outline for ‘Operation Avalanche,’ you also directed and starred in the thriller. Was it always your intention to helm, and act in, the drama while you were working on the outline? How did creating the story, as well as playing one of the lead characters, influence your helming duties on the set?

MJ: Well, I always act in my movies, so I think that makes the directing aspect different for me than for other filmmakers. I spent very little time behind the camera. So I trusted my shooting team to get the stuff that we needed. I direct from within the scene, which is something I’ve always done, including on ‘The Dirties’ and my show before this film. That’s an experience that I like a lot, because I get real-time feedback, and I don’t have to wait until after a take to change things. I can instead change things right away, while we’re still in a scene, which is great.

For the most part, these movies come together the editing, more so than during the shoot. That’s where most of the hard work happens. I don’t even think of the direction of the film on the set, because I try to stay in character. It’s not until after we finished shooting that I think about what I can and can’t use.

SY: You filmed ‘Operation Avalanche’ on location in Toronto, Houston, Washington D.C. and England, including at such places as NASA and Shepperton Studios (where Stanley Kubrick shot such films as ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’), as well as on sets. What was the process of filming the drama on both the locations and the set?

MJ: Well, we just followed the story. I would stay that most of our details were built by our production designer, Chris Crane. He would build or buy things, and then show us what he had. Often times, he would just stock a room with a bunch of different things, and we would just choose what we wanted. So again, it was a funny extension of the improvisation.

We shot in some real environments, like at NASA, as well as on a stage on our set in Toronto. We’d have a whole bunch of different props that helped set up our world, and we would pick and choose what we needed. So that process was pretty fun.

We tried to film in all of the locations where the story actually takes place. Some of the story takes place at Stanley Kubrick’s studio, and some of the scenes also take place at NASA in Texas. So we just traveled to these places. So since the story was being built as we went, we would just travel with the production team and the other two actors, Owen and Josh. Our camera team, Andy and Jared, would also just to these places, and see what we could get. If we could get interesting footage at each location, it would end up in the movie.

On the actual production side, Chris just built replicas of the places that we liked. That way we could play in these environments, and shoot as many scenes as we wanted. It was a really great experience.

SY: Since ‘Operation Avalanche’ is a mockumentary, what was the process of working with the thriller’s cinematographers, Andrew Appelle and Jared Raab, who you just mentioned, to create the found footage visual feel of the story?

MJ: Well, they also play characters in the movie. So not only were they the people who were shooting the film, but they were also playing the documentary cameramen inside the movie. So our interaction was really important. They only appear at times within the feature, since their characters were supposed to be filming the documentary, but they were also actually shooting the film.

I have actually worked with them on many of my other projects, especially Jared, but Andy has also collaborated on my more recent projects. Since we’re all friends, I felt like our interactions on the film would be completely fine.

SY: You have filmed all of your projects independently. How did that experience influence the way you approached shooting a faux-documentary thriller like ‘Operation Avalanche?’

MJ: I think independent filmmaking is the best. I believe filming that way pushes you to make much more interesting decisions, especially when you have more limited resources. It’s the nature of storytelling, at least for me and my friends.

For this film, if we had a lot of money, we could have just built a lot of sets, and we wouldn’t have had to sneak into places. But then the film wouldn’t have had the same film. I think if we made this like a traditional fictional film, it just wouldn’t have felt right.

SY: The drama is set to play during the Festival Favorites section at SXSW this month, and also screened during the NEXT section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. What does it mean to you that the drama is playing as a part of the festival film circuit?

MJ: It has been a great experience so far. I think this movie was tailor-made for festival audiences, because it deals with the process of filmmaking. So many people who go to film festivals are filmmakers themselves. This movie showcases the process of actually figuring out how to make great movies from total ignorance, so it plays to the film festival audiences in a good way. I’ve loved film festivals since the first time I went to one. My first film also played at a bunch of film festivals, and I’m happy to be doing it again with ‘Operation Avalanche.’

SY: You have secured a distribution deal to release ‘Operation Avalanche’ in the U.S. and Canada through Lionsgate. How did the distribution come about, and what are your plans of how you’re going to release the thriller after it finishes its festival run?

MJ: We’re very lucky that we were able to sell the movie to Lionsgate, and that they were interested in a movie like this one. It’s actually a good sign for the direction of independent films that a movie that was made this way good get the attention from such a huge distributor.

In terms of the release plan, we’re not really sure what the plan is yet. But I imagine that the movie’s going to be released during the summer sometime, which I’m very excited about. I’m not sure of the exact dates yet, but I’m sure that Lionsgate is working on figuring that out.

SY: Besides ‘Operation Avalanche,’ do you have any other upcoming projects, whether writing, directing and/or acting, lined up that you can discuss?

MJ: I’m in the middle of shooting my first television series, but it’s top-secret right now. But it will be done in about five or six months, and will be released sometime this year. It features the same team that made ‘Operation Avalanche,’ which is exciting.

SXSW 2016 Interview Operation Avalanche's Matt Johnson (Exclusive)

Written by: Karen Benardello

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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