“If the moon landing was faked, then that footage — the moon landing footage — is like the best movie ever made.”
In director Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche, two low-level CIA agents arrive at NASA in 1967 to investigate a possible Russian agent. They find something much more surprising: NASA isn’t anywhere ready to land on the moon. The agents, played by Johnson and Owen Williams, take matters into their own hands and plan to film a fake a moon landing and bilk the American people, and the world, into believing it’s the real deal.
The concept of a “fake moon landing” may seem ludicrous to some, but the conspiracy theory prevails well into the 21st century, with some even bringing filmmaker Stanley Kubrick into the conspiracy. Kubrick, who was filming 2001: A Space Odyssey at the time,, would’ve been an ideal architect to construct a phoney moon landing. With the conspiracy theory showing no sign of dying, the question should be asked: does Johnson think the moon landing was staged?
“No, we never thought the moon landing was faked,” says the filmmaker. “We didn’t think it before and we thought it even less after we finished the film.” But the appeal of the conspiracy theory was part of what drew Johnson and producer Matt Miller to the project. “The story of it being faked is just so appealing. And there’s also no real downside to it, which I really think is a big part of it. When other conspiracies have such high stakes personally, like the 9/11 conspiracy of the JFK conspiracy — people are dying and there’s so much political weight in those conspiracies — whereas the moon landing being fake, I mean, it’s almost kind of innocent, and it’s fun, and it makes it almost exciting to think that that’s a true story. And there’s also not a large social cost attached with just entertaining the possibility.
“So I think that’s a big reason. And I also think that it’s sort of playing into a real sort of American cowboy mentality of ‘Oh, well, I know better than the government,’ or ‘The government’s blind to me,’ or ‘There’s no way that these people are doing the things they say they’re doing,’…which I actually think is quite a popular mindset at the current moment.”
Operation Avalanche is Johnson and Miller’s second mockumentary-style film, following their 2013 film The Dirties. The fake-documentary style clearly appeals to the filmmakers, as its concept was ideal to apply to the story of Operation Avalanche. “We were just trying to make another fake documentary after The Dirties in Park City, and we thought, ‘Oh, we should make a movie about the guys who faked the moon landing, because if the moon landing was faked then that footage — the moon landing footage — is like the best movie ever made. And the type of character it would take to do something like that — and to think that he’s important enough to be involved in something like that — sort of seemed like it was in our wheelhouse. And basically just from that simple idea, we expanded into the whole film. But we knew right away. As soon as someone said, ‘Fake moon landing,’ we were like, ‘Ah yeah, that’s what we have to do.’”
The tone of Operation Avalanche is one of the elements that makes it unique. In the first half of the story, there’s a playful, almost comedic tone blanketing the film as the bumbling CIA agents struggle to first infiltrate NASA, and then stage a moon landing. That shift in tone was a concentrated result of following the film’s main character, played by Johnson. “[That] tone comes from character and what the character is dealing with, so we basically tried to have the tone follow the mindset of Matt as he’s going through these things. And at the beginning he doesn’t really think about the consequences whatsoever because, I mean, he’s not the type of guy who thinks about them. And as soon as those consequences start becoming real, it’s not so much that the tone shifts — it’s that Matt realizes how deep he’s in it. What’s interesting is, because Matt is basically making the movie that we’re watching, he’s the only one who notices a change in tone — that the tone changes around him. It really is all coming from his perspective.”
Operation Avalanche goes to great lengths to invoke the era the story is set, and succeeds through production design and attention to accuracy. “We wanted to get all the technology right,” explains Johnson, “so everything you see us doing — like we wanted to fake the moon landing with the technology that they had available at the time. So that was really, really important to us, so we only used gear — sound equipment, camera equipment — on camera that existed at that time. And then in terms of the NASA stuff, we were really lucky because most of that stuff we just shot at NASA, and they’d kept everything exactly as it was in 1969 — so we didn’t have to do much set decking there. And we didn’t have to worry about accuracy because NASA was doing all that work for us. In terms of the space science that we talk about, all that stuff is kind of correct enough. We don’t know too much about space physics and that kind of stuff, but in the very small world of the conspiracy that these characters create, it … it all is above board. And that was really important, because we wanted conspiracy theorists — people who are really, really into this conspiracy — to watch the movie and get a lot from it, because we were sort of stealing their story from them and so we kind of wanted to make sure that we got the details right.”
Operation Avalanche is now playing in select theaters.