The Magic of Making a Fake Documentary with Sundance 'OPERATION AVALANCHE' Director Matt Johnson
Operation Avalanche is no ordinary fake documentary. There's a fake CIA team making a fake documentary about a fake moon landing, weaving in archival footage, a cameo from Stanley Kubrick, actual unsuspecting NASA members, and Matt Johnson playing Matt Johnson -- all the while being set in 1967.
If your mind is boggled, we're off to a great start! No Film School had a chance to talk to director Matt Johnson at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival about how he pulled off his new film. In this first installment of our interview, we talk about how much you can get away with filming, how to avoid scenes looking staged, and the magic of a fake documentary.
NFS: In the film, you’re blurring the line of reality and fiction in a lot of different ways. I know you incorporated this technique in your first film The Dirties. How do you characterize the style of this film? Found footage? Mockumentary? What appeals to you about these conventions of filmmaking?
Matt Johnson: I think fake documentaries are actually a really great model for film students to start working in. You spend so much time in film school talking about movies that it almost becomes your life. That's all you're talking about and thinking about. I know it's bad advice to make movies about movies, but I try to make movies about the process of making movies, so my characters are always trying to make movies about themselves doing something amazing or something big. Then all the things that I'm excited about in real life, that I was kind of obsessed with, I was able to use in a way that wasn't stupid.
But formally, being able to shoot this way is also very cheap, because your perspective is locked to the documentary cameramen who are capturing all this. So if you can find a great reason for your story to include characters making movies about themselves, it's a great way to make your first feature quite cheaply. That's why I first got into it on my first feature The Dirties. And then I really liked the aesthetic, so I thought I'd make one more movie in this aesthetic before I stopped doing that.
But formally, being able to shoot this way is also very cheap, because your perspective is locked to the documentary cameramen who are capturing all this.
NFS: You're acting in the film and there’s obviously lots of improvisation involved. Did you have a script? Did you rehearse? What was it like once you started shooting, keeping in mind this improvisational nature of the whole thing?
Matt: I think that goes hand in hand with the form. When you're shooting a fake documentary, you want the cameras to not know what's going to happen, because otherwise it's going to look staged. So by not having a script, it puts the actors in the same position, because we're trying to get behavior looking as real as possible. And also because we shot so much stuff in the real world, and we don't know what people who don't know they were on camera were going to say to us, we couldn't have a script. You also save a lot of money by not having to schedule time for rehearsals or getting everything exactly the way the script said. It gets way more complicated in the editing process; you spend a whole lot more time editing your films.
...you want the cameras to not know what's going to happen, because otherwise it's going to look staged.
But I think because we come from the film school mentality -- all of us, my whole team -- we felt like in that mentality, people in film school try to wait until it's right. They try to get everything right before they go to camera, which I think is very good advice. But oftentimes that can hamper you because you're too afraid that you don't have it perfect before you start shooting. I think a lot of what makes filmmaking great is that the experience of actually filming something is often a big part of the magic of it. So much of your film is going to happen on the day that if you plan too much beforehand, you may either miss it or you may never shoot it at all, because you don't think that you have it right.
I think a lot of what makes filmmaking great is that the experience of actually filming something is often a big part of the magic of it.
NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge that you faced making Operation Avalanche, and what did you do to overcome it?
Matt: You know what? There are big challenges at every level with a film like this. The real challenges are personal challenges, like how do you decide that the movie's done, or how do you get over the fact that certain things are never going to work, or how do you work with collaborators? Those are the real problems. It's not really interesting to talk about those things because those solutions all come from within, and there's no way to give pat advice on how you solve that. But in terms of technical challenges on a film like this, I think it would be trying to get a story about something so complicated -- which is basically a technology conspiracy, where there's tons of details and tons of moving parts, and tons of real world details that people are going to need to hear. It's getting those details to mesh with a story that you didn't actually write.
That was really, really hard, because we had to have all of the technical side marry the story side, and you had to do it all in the edits. That put a ton of pressure on our editor Curt Lobb, and we almost didn't have a film because of how we shot this movie.
How we overcame it? We just didn't give up. I think that's actually the key to most problems, is that it's only a problem if you give up on it, and you say, "Yeah, this is going to kill me." But we just didn't stop. We held off finishing the film until we'd fixed these problems, and we edited for like a year straight.
How we overcame it? We just didn't give up.
NFS: What kind of conversations would you love to see come out of this film within the filmmaking community?
Matt: The notion of fair use, what you can and can't show, or what you can and can't shoot. The notion of private property, and shooting on location. Getting clearances, getting releases. I think these are all things that get in the way of most young filmmakers, especially first time filmmakers, because they're so concerned with these issues. Film schools are notorious for hammering into their students that you have to do things the professional way right from the beginning, and I completely disagree with that. I would say go with your gut and film whatever you want, and try to make it into whatever story you think is interesting to you, and more often than not the things that you thought were illegal are actually completely fine.
The only thing that's valuable in new storytellers is their voice. You have one; it's just sometimes very scary to believe in yourself.
Oakley: What would be your advice to other filmmakers? Kind of just gave a little glimpse, but if you have anything else to add to it...
Matt: The thing that people seem to like about my films, and encourage me to keep doing, is that I'm doing things I really love. If you have a voice or if there is something unique about you, focus on that. Make movies about yourself. I don't mean cast yourself in your movies...or do. I do that, but you don't have to do that. Just let your stories come from you, at least when you're starting out, because you know yourself best and you have a unique perspective on this world that nobody else has. If you think that you're a meaningless nobody and nothing you think is interesting, that's not true. You're actually extremely unique, and if you find a way to communicate that to people through your films, you will be recognized for it. The only thing that's valuable in new storytellers is their voice. You have one; it's just sometimes very scary to believe in yourself.
Thank you, Matt!
This is part one of a two-part interview with Matt Johnson on the making of his fake documentary on a faked moon landing. Stay tuned for part two of our Operation Avalanche interview, where Matt explains aspects of the production like transferring digital to 16mm, and how he created a lifelike cameo of Stanley Kubrick in the film!
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.