When Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol answer the phone at Zapruder Films on a Monday afternoon, it's nearly impossible to hear them. Their office is busy with the sounds of multiple conversations and questions that need their attention. They have to move rooms at one point, but even then they sound distracted.
At that moment they're two and a half weeks out from the first episode of their revamped web series, nirvanna the band the show (premiering on VICELAND), and they're still putting the final touches on some later episodes — pretty impressive for a crew working out of a nondescript house north of Queen Street in Toronto's West End. But then again, Johnson and McCarrol have always been masters at making something special out of very little.
Johnston first rocketed to attention when his 2013 film The Dirties, a found-footage style high school dramedy about a pair of bullied teens (one of whom seeks revenge against their tormentors), got a nod and distribution help from indie film great Kevin Smith. For the movie, Johnson, who also starred, enrolled in a real-life high school and filmed scenes without the faculty and his fellow students' awareness.
His next picture Operation Avalanche, a riveting, mockumentary-style conspiracy thriller about a pair of CIA agents who faked the Apollo 11 Moon landing, found him taking things a step further, infiltrating NASA to film scenes under the guise of a school project, which was technically true (the film was his master's thesis while at York University).
Canadian audiences were amazed by his ability to capture and create such raw cinematic moments with unsuspecting participants. In reality, he had been honing those skills for years.
In 2009, nirvanna the band the show was first released online. The ten-episode series followed Matt and Jay (played by both of its creators), two hapless twenty-somethings living in Toronto who would seemingly stop at nothing, no matter how embarrassing, to try and get a gig at The Rivoli. (That is, except write and record any songs.)
The show found a dedicated cult following due to its astute cultural references, unscripted scenes and hilarious storylines, but it wasn't meant to last forever. "The amount of work we were putting into that show was crazy," Johnson recalls. "It was our whole lives. We needed to stop doing it at some point, and ten episodes seemed like a good number."
But then Vice gave him an offer he couldn't refuse.
"Around the time we were finishing Operation Avalanche they asked me if I just wanted to make a TV show for them, that they had a lot of money from Rogers and they were willing to make risky stuff," Johnson says. "They more or less said I could make any show I wanted. It just seemed like the perfect place to make nirvanna the band."
After having its premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, nirvanna the band the show makes its official return on February 2. Fans of the original, guerrilla-filmed comedy have nothing to worry about, as the new series finds the pair up to their old tricks (making mock billboards for their band; faking listings in NOW Magazine; trying to get a float in the Toronto Santa Claus Parade), as well as pulling off new stunts, thanks to Johnson's newfound fame (one episode was shot at Sundance last year, where Avalanche premiered).
"We didn't really know what it was we were going for, but we gave ourselves a bit of motivation and we tried a bunch of things — essentially just acted like a bunch of buffoons for a week straight and everyone just thought we were crazy," McCarrol says of the experience, documented in the show's fifth episode. "There was no way that they thought when they saw us shoot that it would turn into anything. They just thought we were being a bunch of Tom Greens."
Thankfully, the feel of the show is the same too, despite the duo getting better financial backing. "One of Jay and my jobs on set is to try to reduce the amount of complexity that's going on in the production, even though we do have more money than we used to… just trying to remind us that this is supposed to look bad, feel disorganized and not seem like it's coming together too easily," Johnson says. "We're still trying to make the show look bad."
Read our review of nirvanna the band the show here.