We’re Just Here For the Bad Guys: an interview with Matt Johnson

August 7, 2014

by Jake Howell

On January 24th, 2013, The Dirties—Matt Johnson’s little school shooter film that could—won Slamdance’s Grand Jury (narrative) prize, cementing the run-and-gun director (and the film) as something to watch out for. The film went on to play other festivals around the world, but curiously never saw a festival berth in his hometown of Toronto. Later that year, on November 27th, the Toronto Film Critics Association awarded Johnson its Jay Scott prize, given annually to an emerging artist. The Dirties went on to contend for the TFCA’s Best Canadian Feature prize in January, with Watermark eventually taking the title home. Jake Howell caught up with Johnson to talk about his life and momentum post-The Dirties, his new project Operation Avalanche (a film set at NASA in the 1960s), and what it was like to receive the love of Toronto film critics.

matt johnson


Jake Howell: It’s been about a year-and-a-half since that fateful day in January 2013, where The Dirties took home the top prize at Slamdance. What’s changed for you since then?

Matt Johnson: It’s funny, it has been a long time. It feels like it just happened a little while ago. The big thing that’s happened was that Lionsgate bought our new movie, so I’m in the middle of making that. That’s a pretty big change for me.

With The Dirties, you were working with a micro-budget of what, $10,000? But now with Operation Avalanche you’ve got some money to play with. What does that mean for you in terms of production? Are you shooting this new film differently as a result?

We’re trying to keep it as much the same as possible. We still shoot with the exact same camera style and all the performers are the same. Having more resources means we can do bigger things, but it also means a lot more things to worry about that we just never worried about before. There’s all these departments that are at all of our meetings and I find I’ve got to explain everything so much deeper than I did before…which I hate, actually. On The Dirties it didn’t matter–there were only four of us and there wasn’t any chance of miscommunication or broken telephone. On a bigger production, it’s harder. I’m getting used to it now, but at first it was a huge challenge. And working with people I don’t know! I’ve never met the people that are running the different departments before, whereas before I had only worked with people who were my best friends. There was no money, so who else can you get to work for you?

But I imagine you’re trying to keep the organic spirit alive. You may have more money this time, but you want to keep it simple.

Yeah. The challenge is trying to keep them the same. Nobody’s allowed to be on set with us when we’re shooting. We keep everything totally separate, and I rarely go to big meetings or anything like that. In many ways, we’re still shooting an independent movie with no money. We’re trying to keep that work ethic, but it can be hard.

Could you have made Operation Avalanche like you did The Dirties? In other words, is this movie only possible because of the money you have behind it?

It’s complicated because this movie all takes place in the 1960s and we can’t rely on the same resonant things that we could with The Dirties. With The Dirties we could use the real world as the real world and people as people. We didn’t need to pay for anything because anywhere we shot was just exactly what it was, and that saved us tons of money. We can do that a little bit now, but we still need to dress the people correctly. And we still need to be in locations that look slightly period. Also, a lot of this takes place at NASA, a lot of it takes place in England, a lot of it takes place in Texas… just in places that we couldn’t fake, so… no. I think if I was making this movie the same way as I made The Dirties, with no money, with nothing, it would be very different. That would be a different beast.

Do you ever fantasize about that different beast? What it would or could look like?

Sure. I’d like to make a movie like that again, very much so. But when The Dirties was made, a lot of people—rightfully so—said, “The Dirties was shot this way and was made this way simply because these guys didn’t have any money.” And that’s why it was found footage and that’s why it was all shot in high schools and all that. Which is true, but at a different level, that is the only way you could have made that movie. With a lot of money it would be awful. It would be so terrible if you tried to stage and fake those things. So this is sort of different, where although we do have money, we’re spending it all on things that are crazy expensive. Like these crazy locations. So in the end, when we get down to actually shoot, it’s not like we have any tricks or fancy cameras or a lot of expensive stuff.

Based on what you’ve said regarding Operation Avalanche, it sounds like the blurring of reality and fiction—a prevalent theme in The Dirties—is at the fore once again. Is this going to be a career theme of yours?

I like films that are resonant with my own life, because I don’t write scripts. It’s a lot easier to make a movie or to find a subject that is so close to my own life that a lot of the writing and the situations are just real to me, and they’re real to my friends. This is another movie about friends trying to film something or trying to make some movie and things going very wrong, in the same way The Dirties was, except this time it involves the CIA. But it’s the same kind of thing. The vibrancy of it is the same as The Dirties. Where there’s a guy who has a big dream and he’s dreaming of this thing and he wants to be in it, he wants to create, and the reality of it is a lot farther from what he had first expected. Which is something that’s true for me. Even in this conversation I’m telling you, I wanted to do this movie and it was going to be bigger, but then the real social cost of making a movie this big is actually crazy high. This is the hardest movie I’ve ever made in my life. Making The Dirties was 100x easier than this and we had none of the resources. We had none of the money, we had no time, nobody was helping us, and it was way easier than this, where we have enough money to do interesting things and lots of time and we have all the things that we would need and yet it’s torture, it’s so hard. This movie is a beast. That said, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, by far.

Where do you think you’ll be going with it? 

Lionsgate is releasing the film in North America, so their plan is to release it however they want. I know they’re really excited about it and then I’d like to go a lot of the same film festivals that I went to before. But this film’s a lot bigger than The Dirties was, so maybe that means we’ll be able to play at more festivals.

For instance, moving “up” from Slamdance to Sundance?

I became friends with the Sundance programmers. And I don’t think that that was an instance of them being like, “Oh shit, I wish we had played that.” They’ve seen The Dirties and we talked about it a lot. It just didn’t fit with what they wanted to program. It’s more sad that we didn’t play at TIFF. I’m not sure that the programmers at TIFF thought our movie was that cool. This is not really a movie for them, in my opinion, so I don’t begrudge them. That’s a very specific festival and a very specific type of audience.

Either way, the TFCA enjoyed The Dirties. We gave you the Jay Scott Prize and you were in the running for our Best Canadian Film award.

That was one of the best nights of my life! It was so cool. It was amazing! Just the fact that film critics reacted the way that they did to the movie was the best! It was such vindication for a lot of the things that we didn’t get to do with the film.

Did winning that prize open doors for you? 

Domestically, in Canada, that prize was the first time anyone had really recognized us in our own country, and it was such a huge deal. I think right after that, the Vancouver film critics gave us a bunch of awards, we won something at the Vancouver Film Festival, and then shortly after that we got nominated for a Canadian Screen Award and I got asked to present there. Before that, nobody in Canada thought about the film or thought the film was interesting. We were getting no attention in our own country. After that, it just became so much easier to then approach Telefilm about certain things, or to get money from Bravo, or just to be considered relevant Canadian filmmakers. That was a big turning point for all of us. We always felt so isolated because our movie was only liked outside of Canada.

Are you getting recognized on the street these days?

Maybe by young people, sure. Young people in film school. We had a lot of people join Operation Avalanche as interns. I think it’s exciting for young people to make movies like this because they seem like anybody could make them. Right now there’s a guy who flew up here from Tucson, Arizona just to work on the movie and is living up here while we’re shooting the movie. For nothing. He’s just spending his whole summer here working on the movie. And there’s a lot of people like that. There are people in Toronto doing the same thing. We get recognition, but it’s more like, “I want to work with you” as opposed to girls saying “Oh wow, the sexy school shooter!” It’s not like that kind of recognition.