Matt Johnson wrote, directed and stars in Operation Avalanche, the faux documentary about the faking of the 1969 moon landing that premiered at SXSW this year.

Matt Johnson On ‘Operation Avalanche’

Operation Avalanche follows Johnson and Owen Williams playing fictitious versions of themselves – 1960s Ivy League-educated film buffs who get recruited by the CIA versions of themselves. In the fake doc, the two are assigned with the task of uncovering a Russian spy that’s infiltrated NASA with designs on delaying America’s space program from getting a man on the moon. When they realize that they can’t halt the mole’s plans, and that NASA will surely lose the space race, Johnson and Williams get the CIA onboard with faking a moon landing behind NASA’s back for the sake of national pride.

In order to make this ambitious narrative movie on a limited budget, the real Johnson had to get creative as a filmmaker and actually infiltrate NASA.

“Anything that we shot in the real world we tried to do like it was a documentary with people who didn’t know that this was on camera, and definitely didn’t know that this was a narrative movie,” Johnson told uInterview in an exclusive interview. “And, we did that because we didn’t have a lot of money, so we couldn’t hire other actors, we couldn’t hire extras. So when we shoot at NASA ,we really are there undercover, just like our characters are undercover shooting at NASA. So the people we’re talking to are real NASA staff.”

For Johnson, there were ultimately two benefits to shooting Operation Avalanche with some legally questionable guerrilla filmmaking tactics: it was interesting and it was inexpensive.

“It’s cool to have our characters and the real us in the exact same situation act the exact same time – which is you’re undercover at NASA both in the story and in real life. Like, you get a lot of interesting narrative stuff that way,” Johnson explained, adding, “But also, you just couldn’t make this movie for this amount of money unless you shot it that way. It wouldn’t be possible. Because in order to recreate NASA and fill it with actors, I mean just that alone is like 2-3 million dollars.”

Johnson was led to making this particular mock documentary from the basic premise of having a lead character that would do virtually anything for a promotion. Since the tape of the Apollo 11 moon landing is arguably the most famous of all time, it seemed apropos to make that the center of the film – and the fake film.

“The big thing about the moon landing is that it seems like it’s the high point of American culture for a lot of people. It seems to be the big one, like that’s the greatest thing America seems to have achieved in the last fifty years, and people really, really love that,” said Johnson. “I mean, essentially it was a commercial against the Soviet Union, saying that our way of running things is better than their way.”

The idea of pinning the hopes of a nation on a promise of greatness, actualized in a symbolic moment or act, is something that Johnson concedes pervades into modern American politics.

“This seems like the framework of a lot of those election campaigns is we are going to take you back to Apollo 11 when you were sitting in front of the television and everything is just perfect,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Like, ‘We are gonna beat the Soviets all over again if you elect Donald Trump as the president of the United States.'”

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Q: What is the premise of the movie? -

‘Operation Avalanche’ is a movie about two very young CIA agents who are extremely ambitious, who are recruited into a new program at the CIA that is basically a media program. And they get sent to NASA to find a Russian spy, and instead of finding a spy they find out NASA can’t make it to the moon in 1967. And so, because they’re ambitious, they say, ‘Okay, I know what we’re going to do, we will just fake the moon landing for our bosses at the CIA, but we won’t tell them. We’ll just deliver them the final product and we’re going to get promoted, but it doesn’t go the way they think it will.’

Q: Some people shot did not know it was a movie. How did that work? -

Well, basically, anything that we shot in the real world we tried to do like it was a documentary with people who didn’t know that this was on camera, and definitely didn’t know that this was a narrative movie. And, we did that because we didn’t have a lot of money, so we couldn’t hire other actors, we couldn’t hire extras. So when we shoot at NASA ,we really are there undercover, just like our characters are undercover shooting at NASA. So the people we’re talking to are real NASA staff. We did the same thing when we went to go find Stanley Kubrick in England, and we went to Shepperton studios and shot there for real with real people. And the reason we did that: One is because narratively it’s interesting, it’s cool to have our characters and the real us in the exact same situation act the exact same time – which is you’re undercover at NASA both in the story and in real life. Like, you get a lot of interesting narrative stuff that way. But also: You just couldn’t make this movie for this amount of money unless you shot it that way. It wouldn’t be possible. Because in order to recreate NASA and fill it with actors, I mean just that alone is like 2-3 million dollars. We could never afford to do something like that, it’s crazy. So it was born out of necessity. But then we found as we did it we actually got a lot of great narrative stuff out of it too.

Q: Why did you focus on the moon landing? -

Well, for a lot of reasons. The big thing about the moon landing is that it seems like it’s the high point of American culture for a lot of people. It seems to be the big one, like that’s the greatest thing America seems to have achieved in the last fifty years, and people really, really love that. And so—that’s actually longer than fifty years now, or is it, 69… No, no, no, just shy. And um, the idea of sort of just corrupting that idea and showing it for what we really think it was, which is a PR move, right? I mean essentially it was a commercial against the Soviet Union, saying that our way of running things is better than their way. And I don’t think a lot of people view it that way, and so that was our jumping off point. But then, as soon as we dove in it was like, no there’s so much crazy stuff happening here. Just because... I mean we wanted to make a movie about an ambitious guy willing to do anything to get a job promotion and what better place to put him in than making the most famous movie of all time. Like, if you can make a movie about a character about the guy who is responsible for the footage of the guy walking on the moon, that’s like pretty rich territory, especially for a megalomaniac like Matt.

Q: How does it relate to the political campaign today? -

Well, very much. This seems like the framework of a lot of those election campaigns is we are going to take you back to Apollo 11 when you were sitting in front of the television and everything is just perfect. Like, we are gonna beat the Soviets all over again if you elect Donald Trump as the president of the United States.