Words & Interview
The writer, director and co-star of BlackBerry – an irreverent take on the rise and fall of a tech giant – reflects on his third feature while making his way across Toronto.
“I tried to make it small,” says director Matt Johnson of BlackBerry, his new tech drama that somehow manages to make the epic rise and equally epic fall of its eponymous and once-ubiquitous proto-smartphone feel intimate. “What I was really drawn to was these young guys who didn’t realise what they were onto and were completely transformed by their success. It’s very much like the indie-filmmaker problem.”
This comparison isn’t too far off the mark. When we catch up with Johnson he’s on the move, travelling non-stop from one end of Toronto to the other to meet an actor to discuss a potential role in his next movie (No, he didn’t tell us what it is). It’s a trek that sees him powerwalk, cycle and dodge both dogs and traffic, all while answering our questions via Zoom on his phone, like a low-stakes episode of 24.
Similar to the characters featured in his new film, Johnson is in the middle of his own transitional rise, although it doesn’t seem to have sunk in just yet. “So many first features are made by a ragtag group of people who have no concept of success, they’re just making something because they love it,” he reasons. “Then, all of a sudden there are all these things that didn’t exist when you were unsuccessful. That tension and pressure creates something I’m very interested in.”
It’s a vibe that’s captured well in BlackBerry, a film that isn’t Johnson’s first but definitely feels like the one that’ll do the most for his career. Landing on the scene with his scriptless, Kevin Smith-produced 2013 debut The Dirties, the Canadian filmmaker played around with found footage and mockumentary before landing on his third and meatiest film to date. In BlackBerry, he loosely adapts Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, creating a darkly funny and mostly true take on how a bunch of tech-obsessed losers changed the world.
To do this, he follows Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Johnson), the geeky introverts behind the tiny start-up Research in Motion which created the BlackBerry and first harnessed the web-smarts needed for Apple to detonate the smartphone boom later.
When we first meet them, they’re going nowhere. Tired of being overlooked, Lazaridis hires business shark Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) to get their prototype the attention it deserves and yank them into the big time. By putting his reputation, livelihood and eventually his business morals on the line, Balsillie succeeds. However, with quick success comes new problems, fresh competitors and some harsh life lessons learned during an emerging mid-90s tech scene that’s still trying to figure itself out.
“It sounded like an interesting idea for a Trojan Horse-style film,” says Johnson on the appeal of luring viewers in with a weighty The Social Network-style drama only to instead deliver a lightly comic cautionary tale about tech’s Wild West. “I was fascinated by the world of start-ups at the dawn of Web 1.5 where there was a gold rush to try and figure out how to use the internet and new technology to make as much money as possible. “The only people who had any familiarity with his world were undergraduates, so companies were forced to hire young people,” he explains. “One of my main goals was to accurately represent what it was like to be in a fraternal cabal that, unbeknownst to them, is radically changing the world – even though they think they’re just fucking around with their friends.”
To make things more authentic, Johnson hired comedians and his real-life friends over dramatic actors to populate a moment in time where business and amateurish play intersected. “My original concept was that it was going to be much more reactive but as we started working on the story, we realised it was so technical, you could never improvise,” he says, explaining how having someone describe how to fix a cell grid didn’t really gel with off-the-cuff quips. However, having naturally funny people deliver his lines gave things an unexpected dose of reality amid all the high-stakes drama. “Having them say all this practical, problem-solving dialogue whilst still trying to be funny people gave it a life,” he says. “It made it more realistic.”
Johnson gets in on the action as Doug, Mike’s headband-wearing, movie-night-loving partner who watches helplessly as success evaporates the fun atmosphere from his once joyful company. Meanwhile, Mike is the opposite in every way; a repressed perfectionist who gets more than he bargained for with BlackBerry’s swift success.
“Jay typically brings a lot of physical energy to his performances but here he introverted that. He took all of his impulses to move and fidget and put them in a cage,” says Johnson. “It comes through as someone who’s always mad and unable to say what he wants to say. It’s like he had a caged monster in him for the whole movie – and I love that. I think it’s the heart of the film.”
One person who has no problem cutting loose is Balsillie, played here by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Golden God, Glenn Howerton – complete with a shaved pate. As the take-no-shit boss brought in to drag BlackBerry into the marketplace, he acts as the scream-happy dad to a bunch of revolutionary tech kids and gets to flex both his comedic and dramatic chops in the process.
“I knew Glenn was perfect for this role,” says Johnson. “We always tried to remember that this guy had everything on the line. For me, I see Jim as totally practical. He’s trying to solve problems and is willing to scream at you. The goal of that performance was to have audiences say ‘I’d never do what he’s doing but I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing,’” he adds. “That was key in terms of justifying his rage.”
Meanwhile, Howerton fully embraced the chance to play a real-life businessman with a tough reputation and wasted no time getting into character, starting from the head down: “Right away, [Glenn] said ‘I don’t want this to look fake’ so I wasn’t even given the option to [use make-up]. He was like ‘I’m shaving my head’ and that was that.”
In reality, it was a mixture of bad management and industry change that led to BlackBerry’s downfall. From illegally backdated stock options used as staff pay incentives to the arrival of the iPhone, a device that offered users a touchscreen instead of a keypad and access to everything all in one place – BlackBerry went from dominating 45% of the cell phone market at the peak of its power to being nothing more than a nostalgic memory to modern-day phone users.
Despite this rocky descent, Johnson was keen not to point any fingers. “While we were making it, we thought for sure that the real Jim was not going to have a sense of humour about it but he’s since come to screenings and said he loves the movie,” he tells us. “I was stoked because I love him. This movie was made as a love letter to him, in some ways. He made brilliant decisions and was a necessary piece of the company’s success. It wasn’t altogether his fault that things went bad.”
As Johnson arrives at his destination across town our conversation suddenly nears its end, leaving time for just a few final questions. With Elon Musk seemingly determined to destroy another Silicon Valley giant, does he feel tech history is doomed to repeat itself? “I’ve had many people say to me ‘Okay, now you’ve got to make the Twitter movie.’ I’ve never used Twitter before but I can see some connections to that story,” he admits.
As for his own future, with BlackBerry already receiving glowing reviews Stateside, it’s usually at this point in a new filmmaker’s career that they cross paths with lightsabers or superheroes. We wonder if Johnson, who wears a headband throughout our call mirroring his indie-spirited movie counterpart, is wary of heeding his own story’s warnings about moving too fast, too soon.
“I try to live my life in a way where if young people see my films, they leave thinking ‘That doesn’t seem so hard’ and in a way, BlackBerry is emblematic of that,” he suggests, dodging the question but shifting focus onto his film’s message for cinema’s next generation. “These idiots went to work just because they thought it was fun and ended up creating the thing that’s basically the centre of our culture right now. If they can do that, who knows what you can do.”
Published 5 Oct 2023
Canadian indie filmmaker Matt Johnson crafts an offbeat drama about the creation of a since-slain mobile phone giant.
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