Operation Avalanche Screenwriter Josh Boles on Finding Story in Found Footage

If you watched  The Dirties, the 2013 breakout debut from the team at Toronto’s Zapruder Films, you no doubt remember the film’s charismatic, funny and slightly creepy lead, Matt Johnson. While Johnson commands attention in every scene, you’re less likely to remember his first tormentor in the film, the original “Dirty” as it were, a kid with a shaved head and a black T-Shirt who refused to let go of his hand. This is Johnson’s co-writer and former York classmate, Josh Boles. While his on screen role as “Boozy” (his actual nickname) in The Dirties was brief, Boles plays a much bigger role in their new film, Operation Avalanche. As a CIA agent looking over the shoulder of a team that decides to fake the moon landing, we’re never quite sure whose side “Boles” is on.

As Matt Johnson makes headlines as the new “Can-Con Bad Boy”, Boles seems more than happy to let him take the spotlight while he remains relatively quiet in the background, smoking a cigarette (I imagine), knowing that he’s played his part in this great little film with big ambition. Between TIFF parties, the rollout of Operation Avalanche across North America, and all night writing sessions (Boles has written seven scripts since Avalanche), we couldn’t find a time to meet with the intriguing screenwriter in person, so the following interview was conducted via e-mail.

Dork Shelf: When did the idea for Operation Avalanche first come about? 

Josh Boles: As I recall, the idea to do something about the fake moon landing conspiracy theory was cooked up by Matt Johnson and Matt Miller (producer) on their way back from the Slamdance festival after The Dirties had played there. Johnson and I were roommates at the time, and he got back from the airport, burst through the door and said, ‘We should do the next movie about NASA faking the Apollo missions!’

I thought it was a good idea, but suggested that we center it on the CIA, and have NASA being duped along with everyone else. Then we just started spitballing all night and came up with a lot of the core ideas that ended up in the finished movie: searching for a mole at NASA, stealing techniques from Kubrick, etc.

DS: Even though it’s set 50 years ago, many things are about the film’s subject are timely (Mars One, cancellation of the shuttle program). Did this influence your decision to do a film about the moon landing?

JB: Not really.  It was more the appeal of doing a spy caper based on a well known conspiracy theory. Also, the idea lent itself well to the found footage format which the people working on the film had become quite good at. If anything, it’s timely in the sense that conspiracy theories seem to be more popular than ever in the age of the Internet.

“I like to wake up at like midnight, sit in an empty room with no distractions except for music that fits the mood of the story. Then I smoke weed and drink black tea constantly, and just pound it out until like 9 or 10AM”

DS: With so much improvisation on set, particularly by your co-writer who also happens to be the film’s lead and director, how do you write for these sprawling “found footage” shoots that will eventually be whittled down like a doc? 

JB: In scripts I write on my own, I get very anal about tweaking stage direction and dialogue down to the point of fussing over the tiniest elements of punctuation. To me, that’s fun, trying to make it jump off the page. But, working with Johnson, I know he’s probably not even going to sit still long enough to read a script, let alone follow dialogue and stage direction during shooting. Which can be frustrating if you get precious about that kind of thing.

Having worked together before, and understanding his temperament, we basically just kept talking the story out, making bulletin boards full of index cards, and then 10 page outlines to get feedback from the rest of the crew. We kept the story pretty loose in our minds before shooting began. Then the story evolved during shooting and especially during editing. Kudos to Lionsgate for letting us get away with that madness.

And though Johnson and I are credited as the writers, there was constant invaluable contribution from the rest of the core crew including Matt Miller, (cinematographers) Jared Raab and Andy Appelle  (actor) Owen Williams, and especially our editor Curt Lobb, who has the mind of a genius and the patience of a saint. Without Curt Lobb in particular, we would all look like complete idiots right now.

DS: Having worked in this format before with The Dirties, what did you learn on that film that you could apply here?

JB: Aside from just understanding movies and classical structure better than I did when I was 25 and first started writing The Dirties, we had some new ideas just about things like having the camera operators Andy and Jared being larger characters in the story, ways to try and smooth over the ludicrousness of these guys shooting all the time, that kind of thing. Although, arguably the situations are even sillier than The Dirties, but hey, the 60s were a crazy time.

No one really knew Owen before we made The Dirties, so after getting to know him, it was fun to come up with character stuff for him that his personality played into.

DS: What are some advantages and/or disadvantages of writing for this format ?

JB: Well, one of Johnson’s great strengths as a performer is playing directly to the camera. Doing more action-oriented things like sneaking around or the car chase work well when the camera is an actual character. And the found footage format lends a feeling of authenticity to what’s happening on screen.

The big disadvantage is that you have to come up with at least some mildly plausible reason why the cameras would be shooting all this stuff, which at certain points becomes pretty dubious.

DS: Got any other found footage ideas in the barrel? 

JB: After shooting Avalanche, I wrote a found footage horror script for this crew that’s better at addressing the inherent ridiculousness of the format, but at a certain point we’ll have taken the format as far as we can. I wrote another seven scripts after that which were in a more traditional movie format, which was kind of a relief, not having to explain the camera. But it is a fun challenge to try and make found footage stuff plausible.

DS: What’s the hardest part of the writing process for you? How do you overcome it? 

JB: Writing a satisfying Act Three, as I’m sure most writers would tell you. The best way is to really beat the story to death in outlines and have your characters exist as real people in your mind before you write the actual script, or in the case of a movie like Avalanche, before you start improvising on set. Once you know the story and characters, then it’s just a matter of watching and listening to the movie in your head and writing down what you see and hear. That’s the fun part. Then you leave it for a month or two, get notes from smart people who won’t bullshit you, and ruthlessly rewrite it.

DS: What’s your ideal writing environment?

JB: Collaborating on stuff is a lot of fun because it’s basically brainstorming and talking things out. Cooking up these stories with Johnson generally involves a lot of abstract conversation, calling each other idiots or geniuses, and epic bouts of gut busting laughter. Then once the sun starts coming up we frantically focus and try to get something coherent down on paper.

Writing on my own, I like to wake up at like midnight, sit in an empty room with no distractions except for music that fits the mood of the story. Then I smoke weed and drink black tea constantly, and just pound it out until like 9 or 10AM, or until I’ve got my 20 pages for the day, then just wander around the city for a while in a daze thinking about the story some more and making notes for the next day’s writing.

DS: As cinephiles, the characters often reference different movies and filmmakers at the same time they’re making what ends up being one of the most important (albeit misleading) films of all time. What do you think this says about the power of cinema?

JB: Hmmm…  Well, an effective movie is kind of like a dream, right? That’s the power of cinema compared to the other arts, when the images and editing and sound are all working together to create that dreamlike feeling. When you’re in the middle of a dream, or a nightmare, it’s often way more intense than real life.

The real footage of the moon landing is very dreamlike in a way. It’s so foreign, but so beautiful and compelling in its implication. When you see that footage for the first time and have some understanding of what’s going on, it’s pretty unforgettable stuff, like the best moments in cinema.

The fun of our movie is to imagine that a bunch of jackasses on a sound stage somewhere were able to create that imagery and let the implication of what you don’t see do the work on people’s imaginations.

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