Matt Johnson Wanted BlackBerry to Be as Personal, Funny, and Canadian as PossiblePhoto by Ingrid Mur Comedy Features
Before now, Matt Johnson, Canada’s indie enfant bizarre, has had his brand of public stunts and electric goofy comedy restricted to cult webseries, low-budget features, and two seasons of VICELAND television. BlackBerry, which received acclaim upon its Berlinale premiere, is both untrodden ground for the filmmaker (mid-budget drama adapted from non-fiction, with a cast of Glenn Howerton, Jay Baruchel, and other recognizable names) and very much familiar territory (a compelling and unlikely story of weirdos and outsiders, a commentary on creative work, and so, so many snap zooms).
“I don’t think it’s going to be marketed as a comedy,” Johnson tells us when we speak to him at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival. Nevertheless, BlackBerry, which tells the real-life and uniquely Canadian rise-and-fall of the first ever but now obsolete smartphone, is incredibly funny. For fans of his provocative 2013 film The Dirties, there’s sharp insight into human psychology, for fans of the miraculously strong Nirvana the Band the Show and the certifiable best sketch of all time, “Wii Shop Wednesday,” his humor lives on in hilarious dialogue and his trademark visual style.
The three main characters—BlackBerry pioneer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), main investor Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), and co-founder Doug (Johnson)—form a triangle of trailblazing genius, diverting interests, and corporate corruption, but Johnson isn’t interested in lionizing the smartphone. Rather, he seems personally invested in the manner with which these Canadian developers achieved their success, while maintaining a cautious distance (one that feels smaller thanks to extensive zoom lenses). Just like the piece of tech at the heart of the film, BlackBerry seems like the whole package.
Paste Magazine: You’ve talked before about comedy actors having great dramatic potential. In BlackBerry, you’re pulling comic actors from different schools of comedy. Tell us about the casting and rehearsal process for finding the film’s specific comic groove.
Matthew Johnson: We did very little rehearsal, intentionally so. I won’t make this a universal statement, but comedians that I’ve worked with really, really, really know how to play to an audience. And when there isn’t an audience, when there’s no stakes behind it, I find that it’s really tough to summon up the magic for what you’re doing.
There’s something about the audience and the camera that draws it out of me. For most comedians, it’s a literal audience on the stage, but for comic actors, I think there’s something about being observed that brings out a magic energy that rehearsal does no justice to. You can rehearse to learn your lines, but every single take that’s in the movie, something went wrong.
A good example: you remember when Glenn comes into the engineering department and they’re watching They Live and he says to turn the projector off? That’s three or four takes all put together where something went wrong and they couldn’t get the projector to turn off for real and he’s getting frustrated for real. That kind of stuff you can’t write because it doesn’t seem like anything on the page, and it’s very difficult to perform. Glenn’s reacting to something that’s actually happening, the lights really getting in his eyes. He’s really getting mad. I feel in my experience comic actors can react to a room, people, and cameras in a way that I like.
Glenn is coming from almost “troupe” comedy. These three guys [on It’s Always Sunny] get on a topic and then vamp on two, maybe three cameras. Whereas the more Apatow style of comedy is a little bit more observed, where it’s almost like they try to fuck with one another on camera. Something like Knocked Up, where Jay and these guys in a house have their dialogue clearly, but then they’re also trying to fuck with one another. It’s a little bit more aggressive.
Paste: It struck me in one scene I was watching a Mad Men lead cast member (Rich Sommer) alongside a guy who became viral on Vine (SungWon Cho, “ProZD”), who in another scene gets interrupted by Michael Ironside. There’s a real eclectic mix—did you have an agenda with the supporting cast?
Johnson: Big time. I really wanted the entire cast to evoke the same kind of “Oh, yeah” feeling that the BlackBerry itself evoked. I was intentionally looking at a cast that when you saw them, you would go, “Wait a minute, I remember this person.” It’s the same as when I ask people, “Do you remember the BlackBerry?” Like with Michael Ironside and Cary Elwes; there’s something almost charming and nostalgic, right? People are pleased to see somebody like that working in a film this way.
Paste: Looking at the Research In Motion team (the small Canadian team of devs who invented the phone), there’s a resistance to going big-league early on. Did that mirror your similar jump to mid-budget filmmaking?
Johnson: The reason that Matt Miller [BlackBerry’s co-writer] and I wanted to make this movie is because we saw the parallels between our filmmaking careers and what they went through. I didn’t understand technology, I had never really been in one of these startup spaces in my life. But I knew that what this company had gone through was a parallel to what I had gone through with The Dirties, Nirvana the Band, and then my second film Operation Avalanche. I knew they were the same. You’ve got a bunch of young guys with stars in their eyes, where everybody’s kind of an equal, [there’s] an almost socialist feeling of “Well, we’re all in this together because there’s no success to even share.” That really changes as soon as you have a successful product or any kind of external validation.
I think in some ways, it’s uniquely Canadian, where if you wind up doing something that is recognized outside of your own country, then all of a sudden, the relationships change quite a bit. It’s like, “Well, are we all still equal to one another?” It brings up very complicated questions that can disrupt fraternity in a major way. I went through that stuff. I’ve kind of made a trilogy about filmmaking with The Dirties, Operation Avalanche, and now this; in many ways, it’s me trying to wrestle with the changes that have happened in my life as I grow as a filmmaker, and I realize what I’m needing to sacrifice in order to make bigger and bigger movies.
Paste: You’ve taken a very corporate story and held on to the visual language of your other films. It feels like the camera adds the humor, as if a zoom can be a comic beat. Were you keen to keep that language?
Johnson: Definitely. Look, I love zoom lenses. I get made fun of by my group of friends because of that. I think that zoom lenses allow filmmakers to do a lot of things that the public doesn’t realize. One of them: you can shoot less takes. As soon as the actors start being good, Jared [Raab, BlackBerry’s DOP and long-time collaborator of Johnson’s] just cranks into a close up, and we get the scene. It may seem lazy or shooting like a documentary, but it allows the performance a certain fluidity that you cannot get with standard coverage.
We try to basically write the scenes in the edit, where Miller and I overwrite every single scene that we shoot, and then only use about 30% of that in the actual cut knowing that by collecting tons and tons of footage, shooting with two cameras with zoom lenses at the same time, we’re going to be able to craft something that grabs the audience by the throat and doesn’t let go.
Paste: This is a Canadian tech story, and we’re more familiar with ones that come out of Harvard or Silicon Valley. Was there a specific Canadian motivation behind this project?
Johnson: Again, all I was seeing was similarities to the Canadian film industry. These guys were dealing with all the same issues of Little Brother-ism and not being taken seriously that Canadian filmmakers feel when compared to Americans. I understood it inherently because of what it’s like to be a filmmaker in Toronto, being told, “Well, what are you doing staying in Toronto? Why don’t you move to Los Angeles? You’re an idiot.” It was so clear that these guys were feeling the same thing. To their credit, all three of these guys are hardcore patriots. They still live in Waterloo, they have no interest in leaving Canada. They feel I think about Canada the same way that I do, which is that it’s a great country, the thing that’s bad about it is that we export all of our great people.
I’ve been to New York, I’ve been to Los Angeles. Sure, these places are cultural touchstones. They’re beautiful. They’re wonderful. But I feel a huge debt to my culture. I can’t leave. It’s like they gave me my life. When you watch BlackBerry, you’re watching the cultural inheritance that I was given for free. And I want to honor that.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.