As far back as I can remember (especially as a kid), I would hear about our Moon landing being a hoax. Actually, my uncle who lived by a credo of: “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see,” made it very clear about how people were sheep. They were very gullible. Easy to dumb down, or dumb up. Some words to live by, ey? Well, they’ve lingered with me and I’m not afraid to admit I’m a skeptic. Always have been, always will be. However, even though I question everything, there are things in life I know exist. Not getting deep into it, but Space is one of them. Along with Space, all of what inhabits within its realm – Earth, the Moon, the Sun, etc. I see it. I live it. I experience it with my mind, body and soul. So, in that aspect, I do believe.
For decades upon decades much of the Moon landing has been questioned, “reproduced,” and made heroes out of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Whether fact, or fiction, “If the Moon landing was fake, then that footage is like the greatest movie ever made.” As per director Matt Johnson (THE DIRTIES) whose inspiration for his latest docu-drama (OPERATION AVALANCHE) stems from the whole idea of questioning our Moon landing.
OPERATION AVALANCHE takes place during the late 60s, where the height of the Cold War is starting to beat its drum. A couple of CIA agents (Matt Johnson and Owen Williams) go undercover at NASA to investigate the possibility of Russian espionage. In disguise as documentary filmmakers, they tap phones and break into offices while purporting to learn more about the Apollo project. But when they end up uncovering a shocking NASA secret, they decide to embark on a new mission. One that would shake the nation and may put their own lives at risk.
In a brief chat I was granted with director, cowriter and lead actor Matt Johnson, I had to get right into it and ask the dreaded F question regarding NASA’s Moon landing. Off-the-bat, “I thought the Moon landing conspiracy was so interesting. I don’t believe the Moon landing was fake at all. I was compelled to learn about the guy who would think the moon landing would be fake, and the type of person who would go fake the moon landing.” A film of this caliber needs strategic thinking. And a good one seeing as it’s shot in documentary form. To obtain the excitement of the Space Race and the era, Jonson’s team knew they had to film on location at NASA. Johnson’s crew knew they had to be clever if they were to gain open access they required. Just as the characters in the movie take a trip to NASA and sneak in, they infiltrated by also posing as a film crew shooting a documentary about the Space Race. “We had to illegally film at NASA, because we didn’t have much money. So, we went undercover to the real NASA, where mission control for Apollo 11 was, and we pretended to be a documentary film crew, and shot with real people.”
It also comes to no surprise that something like this wouldn’t be cookie-cutter ease. So how much of a nail-biter was it? “A huge amount of stress, that’s for sure. You don’t know if you’re going to get caught at any minute, or if they’re going to to shut you down, or if you’re even getting usable footage, because there’s a no way for us to communicate with one another while filming.” For added authenticity, the shoot also is driven by an outline, not a script per se. “The ups I think are sky-high. You’re showing audiences something they’ve never seen before, which is real performances from real people, who actually have the jobs they say they have. Also, it’s a palpable sense of danger, because the plot of the movie involves these same CIA agents using the exact same cover to sneak into NASA. They’re pretending to be a documentary film crew. In the same way we’re pretending to be documentary film crew. The danger that they feel is identical to the danger that we feel. And hopefully the audience feels that same danger as they’re watching the story unfolding.”
The excitement of this unique project didn’t end at NASA. Johnson’s crew got experience something that enhanced their guerilla filmmaking tales. These guys actually snuck their way into Shepperton Studios in London. That’s where Stanley Kubrick shot the classic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. “That was an even more rough and tumble. That was more of a full on break-in. I flew over there with one of my DP’s, Jared Raab, and we just took a train out to Shepperton, said that we were going on a tour, and then as soon as the tour started, we just broke off and filmed for as long as we could before security caught us and threw us out.”
Blending their footage from both locations is also accompanied by some cool VFX. With a nice surprise I won’t unveil pertaining an icon, Johnson expresses, “It was one of the most incredible sequences I have ever seen.” Mostly shot in the summer of 2014 in Toronto, the film took six months to shoot, with round-the-clock editing by Curt Lobb.
With such an interesting subject-matter and unique concept of shooting, “What this movie is supposed to be doing is a new take on documentary filmmaking. Hoping people who see it realize there are so many things you could do with filmmaking than what you normally see in the theater. Laws are changing in terms of what filmmakers are illegally allowed to do means that movies like Operation Avalanche can get made and shown, when 10 years ago it would have been completely illegal to do something like what we did. A new story in a new way.”
Distributed by Lionsgate and opening on Friday, September 16, OPERATION AVALANCHE is a unique, thought-provoking piece of cinematic art.
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