Just off Toronto's West Queen West, a few blocks past Trinity Bellwoods Park, looms a narrow three-storey Victorian home in dusty red brick. Its front parlour has housed a number of short-lived enterprises: art galleries and jewellery stores, cafés and Web-design firms. But never has it been so fruitfully commandeered as by its current tenants. These are the headquarters of Zapruder Films. And it's here that director Matt Johnson – alongside the faithful cadre of producers, editors, cameramen and interns that constitute his crew – furiously, indefatigably toils.
I arrive late one Friday afternoon, and there it is: the pullulating HQ, a riot of industry. The Zapruder team is managing a crisis. They've just been out shooting at the Eaton Centre – and it seems the footage they returned with may be lost. "All that data, it's corrupted!" Johnson explains to an editor. "Oh boy, oh boy." Someone thinks it can be retrieved; someone else renders a less hopeful prognosis. Johnson, meanwhile, whirls from floor to floor, briefing the uninformed, soliciting help from others. He knows this problem will be resolved soon enough. He has the resources: a platoon a dozen strong, at his near-constant disposal. They are there to realize Johnson's mad-genius vision.
"Back in the day it was just me organizing everything," he recalls. Those were the days of Nirvana the Band the Show, the 10-episode Web series Johnson wrote, directed and starred in from 2007 to 2009. His only collaborators were his co-star Jay McCarrol and the usefully multitalented producer-cameraman Jared Raab. But as the 31-year-old Johnson became increasingly ambitious, the demands of his art commensurately grew. In 2013 he directed his debut feature, The Dirties. It was set in a high school – so naturally Johnson had himself enrolled in one for real, passing himself off to teens and teachers as a student. The film was heralded for its radical ingenuity. And yet it was nothing compared with what Johnson was poised to do next.
Operation Avalanche is set to enjoy its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, later this month. The logline is appealing: A pair of CIA agents infiltrate NASA in 1967 and endeavour to fake the moon landing – a period mockumentary. But when Johnson wants to make a movie about the infiltration of NASA, he isn't content to merely stage it. He needs to infiltrate NASA for real.
So he did.
"We told them we were students shooting a documentary on how this place was in the sixties. We were friendly. We shot what we needed and left the same way we came in."
What the NASA people didn't know – indeed, what they probably still don't know – is that they were freely offering their facilities as the setting of a narrative feature. It may be the first time in history they've done so. It will almost certainly be the last.
Much about Operation Avalanche astonishes. There is the NASA feat, doubly impressive for how seamlessly the footage has been torqued in postproduction to accord with the period – anachronisms such as cellphones having been scrubbed out by the film's scrupulous effects team. There is its eye-fooling approximation of 16 mm, credibly achieved by transferring footage shot digitally onto reels of old stock. There's the moon landing itself: The surprise of how they pull this hoax off is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that conspiracy theorists the world over will embrace what Johnson's done here as clinching evidence for the case. There is a meeting with Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey so clever that it ought to provoke theatre-wide applause. And as though all that weren't enough, there is a virtuoso one-take car chase calculated to outdo the one in Children of Men.
What deepens these methods beyond gimmickry is the sense of reality bleeding in. It's what's so thrilling about watching Johnson put together a moon-landing module or source plausibly moon-like dirt: Johnson the character succeeds precisely to the extent that Johnson the director does. The fiction and the reality are one.
"It's the cheapest way to make a movie," he jokes by way of explanation. "Whatever the characters are going after is the same as the film itself. If we can align those things it makes it easy for us. The less I get in the way of what's happening in real life while I'm shooting, the better it is. The less work we do ahead of time, the better the film is."
Hollywood, by contrast, has trained itself against doing things for real. That's Johnson's bread and butter. "In the movie we had to build the Apollo Lunar Module. So we hired a company to construct it. The characters are sitting around watching it actually be constructed, and we can use that footage. You couldn't tell a Hollywood studio to do that. The producers would hire a construction crew to build a fake construction set. They'd hire actors to play the builders." Johnson's ideas are fairly simple: It's just that nobody would think to try the sorts of things he sets out to do.
Across the walls of the Zapruder offices sprawl pages of script notes and storyboards for projects in the works – bigger and more ambitious projects than even Operation Avalanche, though of the details I have for now been sworn to secrecy. But I do wonder if Johnson isn't concerned about having his intentions so plainly on display. Not a chance.
"Our producers are always telling us to shred our creative documents. Why? This is the great gift of the things we do: They're not stealable. Somebody could have gotten a hold of our Avalanche script before we made the movie. What are they going to do? It says to sneak into NASA and stage a $2-million car chase. What is anyone going to do with this?"
A multimillion-dollar car chase, mind you, requires more than the will of one man's creative aspirations. Johnson was afforded the opportunity by Lions Gate Entertainment, which will distribute Operation Avalanche in the United States this year. That's a rare privilege for an independent filmmaker from Toronto; few reach escape velocity and make it stateside. Johnson is of course well aware of that – and made the decision himself to premiere at Sundance rather than locally, at the Toronto International Film Festival, which had invited him to screen the film this past September.
It was a brazen move, rebuffing the festival of festivals – one might even say an imprudent one. But Johnson thinks a director in his position has much more to gain in the mountains of Park City. "Films that my friends have made seem to get lost in the Hollywood massiveness of TIFF," he says, somewhat cautiously. "It seems like you rented out the theatre yourself – that's the vibe. Your friends come to the screenings, and people think, well, of course they played TIFF. It's expected. There's no victory in it."
Johnson doesn't want to find himself 20 years from now languishing in the vacuum of Canada's middlebrow. "TIFF to me is such an intrinsic part of what's so skewed about the Canadian film industry," he says. "You have a dozen filmmakers who, no matter what, are going to get funded by Telefilm and, no matter what, are going to have their world premiere at the biggest festival in the world. You have a groove so deep-set for these filmmakers – filmmakers who are culturally irrelevant and have been for 15 years. They don't struggle. They just have to show up." The solution? "A lot of people just need to die of old age for the system to change."
But Johnson is quick to point out that he doesn't aspire to be American. He has no plans, professional or personal, to emigrate at all. "Canada is the best place in the world to make films, especially for someone like me," he says. "All the things I make are, in one way or another, showcasing what this country can do."
The question now is whether the industry here can accommodate the talent on its own terms. Canadian films are scarcely as big as Johnson intends his to be.
As the filmmaker's star rises so, too, do his means: bigger budgets, a larger staff, the wills and egos of producers and studios. But unlike other career trajectories, Johnson's isn't threatened by compromise or wrested control. He has a motto: "Authorship is a key creative weapon." Which is to say that nobody can do the things Matt Johnson wants to do except Matt Johnson.
"So many times people have warned me that if I screw up the studio is going to fire me. I say bring it. Go ahead. Fire me. Take our 800 hours of footage." He laughs. "What are they going to do with it?"