PARK CITY, UTAH — “I want to give a shout out to our legal team right now,” a smiling Matt Johnson said following Friday’s Sundance Film Festival world premiere of Operation Avalanche, his Apollo 11 moon hoax thriller.
“They did not come up here, I think for good reason. They did not want to be photographed with us!”
The 31-year-old Toronto filmmaker was speaking in front of a sold-out Library Theatre audience, leading a Q&A session along with members of his cast and crew.
Everybody in the room was moonstruck, not just Johnson’s “really great lawyers.” They were all trying to take in what they’d just witnessed on the screen.
People in the audience really wanted to know if NASA or the CIA were going to come after Johnson and his team, for their brazen invasion of NASA facilities, their reckless use of archival Apollo mission footage and most importantly, for their surprisingly convincing suggestion that mankind’s first moon landing in 1969 was a colossal scam.
“It’s the government — they’re not going to sue a bunch of Canadians!” said producer Matthew Miller, bringing a roar of laughter from the audience.
But seriously, Johnson interjected, Operation Avalanche relies heavily on recent updates to “fair use” laws regarding artistic appropriation of material previously considered untouchable due to copyright restrictions.
“You couldn’t have made this movie legally 20 years ago,” said Johnson, who is making his Sundance debut three years after he stormed rival Slamdance with The Dirties, his award-winning debut feature that also blended truth and fiction.
“This is a fact. You couldn’t have done it.”
Operation Avalanche is a very difficult beast to describe, but an easy one to love. Set in the late 1960s during the simultaneous Cold War and space race between the U.S. and Russia, it’s structured like a documentary within a documentary, but it plays like a vintage espionage thriller or 1970s paranoia classic like The Parallax View.
It also looks like vintage film, with much grainy B&W and desaturated colour imagery.
The film stars Johnson and Owen Williams, Johnson’s accomplice in The Dirties, as two young CIA agents posing as filmmakers. They are pretending to be making a documentary about NASA’s preparations for the July 1969 first moon landing by Apollo 11.
What they’re really doing is trying to unmask a Russian mole within NASA, but in the course of their sleuthing, they discover NASA has been hiding an Earth-shaking fact: the space agency is nowhere near ready to land a man on the moon, not in time to meet the end-of-decade deadline set by late president John F. Kennedy, whose bold challenge opens Operation Avalanche.
American pride won’t tolerate a global embarrassment, especially in front of the Russians, so Johnson and Williams get drawn into a wheels-within-wheels conspiracy to fake the moon landing for a planet of gullible TV viewers.
It sounds like comedy, and the film has many funny moments — but there are also many frightening ones, when other players in the scenario set out to silence any squealers.
There’s a great chase scene involving vintage 1960s cars that looks like something Hollywood would have cooked up on a much bigger budget than Operation Avalanche enjoyed.
And there’s a tour de force moment when late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, whom some people think actually did fake the Apollo 11 landing footage on behalf of NASA, is resurrected through artful editing of photographs that Johnson’s crew gained access to, along with the set in England of Kubrick’s interstellar epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Johnson and co-writer Josh Boles, who also stars in the film, don’t actually believe that Apollo 11 was a hoax. They studied the many conspiracies theories out there, as any fan of The X-Files would tell you.
They just do a fantastic job of showing how the moon landing could have been convincingly faked to a pre-Internet world — the film crew even built a realistic Lunar Landing Module.
“I don’t think this movie is going to make people think that NASA is a joke or that they didn’t go to the moon,” Johnson said. “I think quite the opposite: It’s going to provoke a discussion about these very issues.”
I left the film thinking of Shakespeare’s famous line: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Operation Avalanche is expected to land in Toronto theatres later this year — and that’s no hoax.
LIFE AFTER DEATH: It’s just the first month of 2016, but it seems safe to say there will be no crazier film this year involving major actors than Swiss Army Man, the existential love story having its world premiere at Sundance.
And maybe no more beautiful one, either.
It stars Paul Dano as a man marooned on a remote Pacific Ocean isle, one prepared to take desperate measures to end his loneliness, until the day the body of a man played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe washes ashore.
Dano’s Hank becomes involved with the stiff he calls “Manny” in the strangest of bromances that seems destined to divide audiences, as is happening here. No sensibilities are spared as Hank makes use of Manny’s surprising dead-guy talents, which include wild flatulence that allows him to be ridden like a Jet Ski.
And when Manny begins to shows signs of an after-death personality — is it a zombie thing, or is Hank going crazy? — all bets are off as to where this story is headed. But it’s impossible not to get caught up in it, even if you’re simultaneously repelled by it.
Swiss Army Man is co-directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. Scheinert and Kwan, “the Daniels” of music video fame, make ample use of their vivid imaginations and amazing visual skills to tell one of the most unique love stories of recent memory.
SUNDANCING: I also caught Friday night’s hot-ticket midnight world premiere of Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, a horror film set in the Tehran of 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War, with a mother and daughter dodging bombs as well as an evil presence in their home.
Judging from the gasps and applause in the Egyptian Theatre, and the constant festival buzz, it’s destined to be this year’s breakout horror hit at Sundance.
Sitting in my row at the very back of the theatre was rocker Slash, a horror fan and guitarist for the reconvened rock gods Guns N’ Roses.
I asked him if GNR will make it to Toronto on a hoped-for stadium tour of the original lineup. He smiled, shrugged and said, “I have no idea.”
But he seemed to enjoy Under the Shadow, which I’ll have more to say about later.