Interview: Zapruder Films Talks OPERATION AVALANCHE, Matt Johnson, and the Power of Images
If you can believe it, it's been 17 years since The Blair Witch Project opened the floodgates for found footage films (ff), causing a long-running influx in the mockumentary genre - more troubling, in regular films that bend over backwards to incorporate a found footage approach, even if in order to do so it means having camera person characters shooting at the most inappropriate of times. Bad films that wear the ff aesthetic like an ill-fitting cloak, do so to appear unique and fresh when they actually drag down the whole affair as ‘played’. But for every ten, there is one inspired effort that shows the cynics that not only is ff still kicking, it isn’t even close to being used to its full heady potential.
Nobody is doing this better today than Toronto's Matt Johnson. One reason for this, that seems clear to me, is that Johnson is not a child of The Blair With Project, rather he's far more the product of brutal mockumentaries like Man Bites Dog (1992), an unflinching film that takes for its subject a sadistic killer and follows him on his ultraviolet adventures, implicating his audience in the process. Like the team behind Man Bites Dog, Johnson and his crew at Zapruder Films don't make found footage mocks - even if their new film, Operation Avalanche, features a character digging the film in question out of the ground - he turns them inside out.
The team’s first effort was a Web series called, nirvana the band the show, and it featured a hyper-ambitious, albeit misguided, whippersnapper named Matt who loved film and television so much, references poured from him like they were a second language. So crucial was ‘the reference’ that even the show’s own theme song was referential. In essence, off the bat, Matt is a character enchanted by the power of images. Once we get into The Dirties, Matt becomes a more seasoned image zealot who's no longer content to play audience. He now wishes to join the rank of image-makers and possess the manipulative power of the image to show the world who the real bad guys are at his high-school. Finally, in Operation Avalanche, Johnson’s aspirations have risen to flirting with the ultimate piece of image propaganda - constructing the moon landing.
This time Matt and Owen (Williams), the same buddy coupling as in The Dirties, play characters so sharply wide-eyed, they land positions in the C.I.A.'s A.V. department in the mid-60s, and unsurprisingly get far more than they bargained for when they set out to create footage so powerful, it could single handedly win the space race and unite the nation’s pride – the ends justify the means, right? I won't spill any of the wonderfully faithful ways in which the Zapruder team play with the era of 60s conspiracy and distrust, and the methods they apply to achieve what surely must be the best making-of doc around: Slam! Boom! Right to the moon. I will say, I am incredibly awed by the meta-intelligence of Operation Avalanche and the way it demonstrates that a genre is only as good as the films in its roster.
The following video interview with Matt Johnson and the rest of the Zapruder family is somewhat of a special occasion. As it happens, the very first interview I ever conducted was with Matt at a bar after he arrived home from Park City, where The Dirties had not only just won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance, but was also picked up for distribution by Kevin Smith.
I had just started writing for my friend's blog and Matt was an obvious choice for many reasons (like accessibility). Namely it was because I was huge a fan of nirvana the band the show and The Dirties, which I did a number of odd jobs on, not least of which was to hole up in a room that years ago served as my own high school classroom and listen by the door for shots fired. Once I heard Matt clear the hall in search of his best friend Owen (armed), I came out with a giant fan so to prevent activating the fire alarm of my youth.
That first interview was in January 2013 and I still appreciate Matt taking the time to discuss his vision over beers for way longer than I had yet to realize interviews should last. It's funny that three years later - this past January - I would interview Matt again, only this time he would be World Premiering at Sundance where I'd get to watch my chums at Zapruder field questions at Q&As. But the best part of all was that, for our follow up interview, not only could we include everyone on the team, but we could chat while drinking beers at their chalet, again, for way too long – tradition!
Operation Avalanche is currently playing across North America with more dates to follow. Check your local listings.
Clockwise around the table starting from the left: Curt Lobb - Editor, Josh "Boozy" Boles (hiding) - Co-writer/plays a CIA tough, Andrew Appelle - Camerama, Matt Greyson - First A.D., Matt Johnson - Co-writer/plays "Matt Johnson", Matthew Miller - Producer, Jared Raab - Cameraman, Own Williams - plays "Owen Williams", Tristan Zerafa - Visual Effects Supervisor, Zach Gayne - Interviewer/Interview Editor/Me