Why Matt Johnson is taking Operation Avalanche to Sundance instead of TIFF

Toronto filmmaking wunderkind skewers Telefilm, TIFF and Canadian film critics


The Canadian film industry got its own rendition of Kendrick Lamar’s Control verse from 31-year-old wunderkind Matt Johnson. The Dirties director put the industry on blast and called on everyone to step up their game in a caustic and eye-opening interview with Calum Marsh in The Globe and Mail last month.

In a preview of Johnson’s Operation Avalanche – a “period mockumentary” about faking the moon landing, surreptitiously shot at NASA and set to debut at the Sundance Film Festival this Friday – the young talent had some hysterical but unflattering remarks about TIFF, Telefilm (the government body that funds Canadian film) and the old guard those institutions roll out a carpet for while young filmmakers struggle to be seen.

“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,” a typically swagger-iffic Johnson told Marsh. “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 … A lot of people just need to die of old age for the system to change.”

You don’t have to rack your brain too hard to guess who he’s talking about: Atom Egoyan, Deepa Mehta and Paul Gross are some of the alumni who didn’t exactly light Rotten Tomatoes on fire with their recent string of films, yet they can always rely on support from Telefilm and TIFF.

If I’m all ears, it’s because I was genuinely floored by his debut feature, The Dirties, an audacious and hilarious high school-set mockumentary that revealed a sharp take on bullying and school shootings.

The moon landing conspiracy theory movie, Operation Avalanche, sounds even more promising. With that in mind, it is troubling that Telefilm declined to support it, and that Johnson decided to skip last fall’s TIFF and debut the film at Sundance instead. How could a local talent like this not count on our institutions?

I got in touch with Johnson a day before he packed up and headed to Park City for Sundance so that we could discuss those decisions. He agreed, provided I was as candid with my opinions as he was. Then came this conversation.

Rad: So there’s no Telefilm involvement in Operation Avalanche?

Matt: No. We wanted to make the movie with Telefilm. Originally our plan was to make the movie and then sell it to an American distributor. They wouldn’t consider our movie Canadian because our intention was to sell it to a company like Lionsgate.

So for whatever weird and insane reason, they disqualified us from being a Canadian pic. That’s why when you look at the Sundance lineup, it lists us as Canadian/U.S., which is absurd because there’s not a single United States citizen who worked on the movie. And the money is all from a Canadian bank.

Rad: What the fuck?

Matt: That’s just how the system is set up. Early on, when we went to Telefilm, we said, “We’re making this movie. This is the film. Our only plan right now is that we think Lionsgate is interested. We think we’re going to sell it to them when its finished. It’s not a Lionsgate movie.”

They said that because that was our intention, they wouldn’t certify us as Canadian. So we couldn’t apply for anything.

Rad: That seems ridiculous. They do finance movies like Atom Egoyan’s Remember and Paul Gross’s Hyena Road and the long game for those movies would be to sell distribution to the U.S.

Matt: But they never do.

TIFF-Hyena-Road.jpg

” is more like a maple syrupy version of American Sniper,” we wrote about Paul Gross’s film at TIFF.

Rad: My understanding is Telefilm has a certain budget.

Matt: $100 million.

Rad: Do you think the reason they bypass your film is because you’re doing well? You already have interest from Lionsgate. Maybe they’d rather invest in someone who needs more help?

Matt: I’m totally fine with that. I love that idea.

The problem isn’t that that money is not going to me because it’s going to some other young filmmaker who just got out of film school. It’s not going to filmmakers because [Telefilm] needs to be funding this same small group of filmmakers (the veterans) no matter what.

It’s funny for me to be putting myself in this situation because it did work out quite well for me. But at the time that we were trying to get money for The Dirties or Operation Avalanche, I was a nobody.

Now that this movie is at Sundance, it’s easy to say everything’s fine.

Rad: I talked to some other folks in the industry and they agreed with everything you said about Telefilm. But they also said you are the only one in a position to say these things about Telefilm and TIFF because you’ve succeeded without those institutions. In your situation, you’re not biting the hand that feeds you.

Matt: There’s such a gag order on both filmmakers and critics in this country.

I understand a part of it. I understand that when a Canadian film comes out, critics are historically quite kind to those films because we’re trying to support our own film industry. To a certain level, I think that has merit.

Where it doesn’t make sense is when we’re not critical of the institutions that actually create this art. We have such a massive opportunity in this country where, for whatever reason, the government seems to think that arts endowment is important. And yet that program has basically run amok since the 80s and is now such a bizarre, insular little club that basically nobody has access to in any real way. It’s strengthened all the more by the programs that Telefilm winds up funding, the biggest one of course being the Toronto International Film Festival.

It’s your job to be writing about these things, to be critical of these institutions, to be giving you’re opinion whether you’re a filmmaker, critic or film lover. You’re a Canadian citizen. You’re paying for these things. So the idea that we shouldn’t be talking about this is crazy. This isn’t the CIA, this is a very small arts funding program.

Remember that TFCA night (the Toronto Film Critics Association’s awards gala that we both attended)? A critic came to me and said, “Man, aren’t you worried that you’re going to be assassinated for saying something like that?” He was joking of course. But even that as a joke is so fundamentally backwards in terms of the way we should be thinking – about how we talk about the institutions in this country.

Rad: Maybe it just goes to show how we’re in bed together, because of how small we are as an industry.

Matt: Even at the TFCA gala, everybody knows everybody. You don’t want to say something about the guy sitting next to you at dinner.

Rad: You figure as critics, we should be sticking it to them more. But I feel dumb right now, because a lot of this is news to me. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of how Telefilm financing works in Canada.

Matt: Well, because it’s not a sexy conversation. Nobody wants to talk about arts endowment funding. In the grand scheme of things, the national budget of Telefilm is smaller than one Hollywood movie.

What I think would be so beautiful is a program where Telefilm is trying to foster young artists in this country. If you graduate from a film program in Canada, you have like a 90 per cent shot of having your first feature funded at the $30K to 50K level. That would be like 10 per cent of Telefilm’s national budget. They could just carve off 10 per cent and say, “guess what every graduate, we’re funding your first feature.” Imagine the landscape of filmmakers in 15 years.

The problem is that filmmaking is a very expensive hobby. And to get good at it, you have to do it a lot. It’s not like writing or drawing. You really need to be spending a lot of money to get better. And a lot of countries are just doing that better.

It shouldn’t be that way. We have it so backwards. We’re funding our old artists.

1_57612ae8-81b0-4b57-9b5e-2a17a6d9aa34.jpg

NOW film writers were torn on Deepa Mehta’s Beeba Boys at TIFF this year, but Susan G. Cole ultimately gave it four Ns, calling it “”

Rad: Is it possible that Telefilm favours folks like Egoyan, Deepa Mehta and Paul Gross because their names carry weight internationally and they can expect a return on investment?

Matt: If the numbers back that up I’d agree with you. If you follow these films, you know that they’re losses.

Not only that. I’ll turn that on you the other way.

If a filmmaker is so renowned that Telefilm has no choice but to fund them, then distributors should be in the exact same boat. It should be a cakewalk for those filmmakers to walk into the offices of eOne, Serendipity or even an American distributor and be like, “Hey, I’m one of the biggest Canadian filmmakers. Telefilm funds every movie I do because I’m a ‘sure thing.’ You guys fund my movie.”

That doesn’t happen because it’s not reality.

Rad: Look. I didn’t care for Egoyan’s, Mehta’s or even Cronenberg’s new stuff. I definitely had no love for Gross’s Hyena Road. And I often wonder why Telefilm puts tax money into films that I’m only watching because I’m paid to do so. Yes, my overall impression of Telefilm is that it’s a joke. But then you have a Philippe Falardeau or a Denis Côté come along. For the 20 misses, there’s one that Telefilm gets right.

Matt: No doubt. Of course that’s going to happen. I’m saying rather than funding 20 movies from sort of these old filmmakers every single year, fund 150 by filmmakers that nobody has ever heard of. And then all of a sudden your one in 20 ratio becomes like 7.5 in 150.

Rad: That does sound great. I’m still reeling over the fact that Telefilm didn’t finance Operation Avalanche just because of that Lionsgate business. It’s even weirder because they finance films like Room.

Matt: Now you’re getting into the really complicated shit. So Room is the perfect example of how things could get completely corrupted. Room was nominated for basically every single Canadian Screen Award it could get nominated for. Best director, picture, actor and everything. Even though the talent in those films is great, those people aren’t Canadian.

What happens is that the international producers use Telefilm, our financing system. They say, “we will come and shoot our movie in Canada if you agree to give us this money from Telefilm.”

Now Telefilm gets to be a financier on an international film that as you can see has done very well. We get to put it into the Canadian Screen Awards. Both Room and Brooklyn are Irish films. That’s an Irish director that can possibly win a Canadian Screen Award.

operation-avalanche.jpg

The that in order to shoot scenes at NASA to make Operation Avalanche, Johnson and his crew lied and said they were students shooting a documentary about the space agency in the 60s.

Rad: There’s still a benefit in bringing these international productions here because you’re putting our crews to work.

Matt: My counter argument to that is, why isn’t that a fully Canadian movie? That crew could be working on a totally Canadian film instead.

Rad: Fair enough. Let’s talk about the TIFF thing. You opted to go to Sundance despite being invited to last fall’s TIFF. In the Globe interview with Calum Marsh, you explained that films that your friends have made often just get lost in the “Hollywood massiveness” of TIFF.

To me, that sounds like the nature of the beast with such a massive festival showcasing over 300 titles, where debut filmmakers are programmed alongside Hollywood juggernauts and those in search of new talent can’t yell as loudly as those feeding the Oscar hype machine. Movies will get cannibalized. It’s like an unavoidable symptom of a festival’s success.

And then there’s the question that always hangs over a Canadian film premiering at TIFF, whether it got into the program on its own merits or an initiative to support local film. But it’s not TIFF’s fault that people have skewed assumptions about a local premiere.

Matt: I totally agree with that.

The real issue in terms of the “Canadian ghetto” – which is what filmmakers call having a Canadian film playing at TIFF – is that TIFF is symptomatically going and programming these massive Telefilm movies in their gala slots and saying, “This is it. This is Canadian film. Hyena Road, this is our great achievement. Remember, this is our great achievement. Beeba Boys, everybody talk. This is Canadian Film.”

They are holding these things up and catapulting them to the very front of the stage in terms of Canadian content so that even the Canadian filmmakers that are operating at a small level can’t break through the noise of TIFF.

Rad: But I see the entire gala slate as a dumping ground for movies with some clout behind them. If I saw a Canadian film in the gala program I would immediately assume it’s got problems.

Matt: But you know. You know the deal. You’re different from the average person going to TIFF. You’re different from the average American going to TIFF. You know what’s up.

If I’m going to TIFF for the first time in my life and I’m trying to see a great Canadian film, I’m going to go see the gala! The argument breaks down as soon as you sort of know the game as soon as you know that galas are a joke.

But then that gets to my real issue with critics living in this country. If you know that and I know that – if everybody who works in this world knows that – why doesn’t anybody say it? Why in the reviews for those movies that play as galas doesn’t it say, “as you all know, because this is a gala, it must be total shit, and these guys are on the take, and TIFF had no choice, and Telefilm had no choice and avoid at all costs.”

Rad: But that’s a fairly recent trend among galas and I can’t categorically prove the reasons why those movies were selected for that program.

Matt: But that’s everybody’s opinion. Why is it only talked about privately?

Rad: I figured we did our part in our reviews.​ I get what you’re saying, but we’re talking inside baseball that I don’t think most audiences would be interested in.

Matt: In any case, my decision to play at Sundance and not TIFF – it was not meant to be critical of TIFF. It’s just acknowledging the same reality that you acknowledged. Even if I was a small American film, it would be a benefit.

You’re talking to somebody who basically holds TIFF as his favourite personal film festival. I’ve been going to TIFF every single year and I’m never going to stop. I love it. I love the fact that it’s big because I could see every single movie. And it’s the absolute greatest. I just mean as a filmmaker it doesn’t make sense for me to have my films playing there.

Rad: Well in terms of Sundance, there are a couple reasons why I think you playing there is a smart move. First, you’re ditching the “Canadian Ghetto” assumption. Debuting your film at Sundance, Venice or Cannes is a bit like skipping the University of Toronto to get your degree at Johns Hopkins. You’re going places.

Matt: Yeah, exactly.

Rad: The other thing is, Sundance doesn’t have TIFF’s “massiveness” problem. Sundance has a third of the films that TIFF has and big Hollywood premieres aren’t invited. And because it’s filled with titles from mostly rookie or under-financed filmmakers, you end up with some great discoveries – but also an echo chamber hyping movies that are mediocre at best.

Every time I hear hype coming out of Sundance, I’m skeptical because they have a habit of praising shit films. Last year Dope and Me, Earl & The Dying Girl were deemed hits. They were bad.

Sundance is the place that anointed Zach Braff a filmmaker to watch. I’m not saying you are that. I think the best thing for you is to play Sundance because, as a legit filmmaker to watch, you’re going to stampede over that competition.

Matt: You’re completely right. I remember rushing to the theatres when Me, Earl & The Dying Girl came out. I was like, “What the hell is this?”

Rad: That’s the Sundance syndrome! Happens every year.

Matt: But then sometimes it happens over a movie like Whiplash. And then you’re like “holy shit!”

Rad: So for every 10 movies hyped, there’s one that’s actually good. Sounds like Telefilm.

Matt: I think that’s completely accurate and that it’s more symptomatic of the desperation for people to sell movies at Sundance than it is of what the critical response to these pictures actually is.

I would say a good third of the people in Sundance are publicists. When you make a film and go to a festival like this, the number one question people ask you about is your publicist. You’re in a place where a huge portion of the population, their entire job is to build, create and spin hype. Of course you’re going to get these tidbits of fake or false information, or where one good review turns it into the greatest film of all time.

Rad: Again, that’s why you belong at Sundance. You can trample that competition. There are two movies I’m looking forward to that are playing Sundance: your Operation Avalanche and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women.

Matt: I love Reichardt! I can’t wait to see that movie. I think she’s one of the greats.

Rad: That last one was a bit of a come-down though.

Matt: I liked everything about the last movie except for the ending, where he kills her in the sauna! I was like, “What the hell is going on here. This doesn’t make any fucking sense at all!”

website@nowtoronto.com | @FreshandFrowsy 

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *