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GFF23: Interview with BlackBerry director Matt Johnson

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

Hot off the heels of a brilliant debut in Berlin, the next stop for director Matt Johnson and his latest work BlackBerry is Glasgow Film Festival. The film chronicles the rise and sharp decline of the titular smartphone brand in hilarious fashion with Jay Baruchel as genius innovator Mike Lazaridis, Glenn Howerton as sketchy businessman Jim Balsillie, and Johnson himself as laid-back techy Doug Fregin. I had a brief chat with the charismatic co-writer-director-star ahead of the film’s festival screenings on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th of March.

AM. The film stars you on one side as this free-spirited tech creative, Glenn Howerton on the other side as this sociopathic business monster, and Jay Baruchel’s character is getting pulled between the two sides, moving from one side to the other. Did you have this construction in your mind as you wrote it?

MJ. Oh definitely. What I was really doing was looking at the nature of work and how I myself was kind of three people, especially to my closest friends. I was at once this perfectionist, full-of-himself, “I’m going to change the world” diva, and at the same time I was this child, playful, “let’s just have fun, who cares?, everything’s good”. And then I had this other part of me that was so despotic and cruel, “we are going to get this done, and I don’t care who has to die in order for it to happen”. These three parts of me, in all my earlier work they were happening at the same time, and I thought maybe I can make a movie where all these parts are all different people and we all get to see them fight each other. That to me was really interesting. It was always the plan to have a central perfectionist, a quiet young man with integrity be put in between these opposing forces of “don’t sell out, you’re our friend, work is meant to be fun” and “work is meant to give you power, give in to the dark side, you are a genius and you can do anything you want, and you deserve to have credit”. And they’re wrong, both of these philosophies are wrong if you go all the way down. But to see a character wrestle with them, it was very much what my life was like in my twenties.

AM. Did you have Jay, Glenn, and yourself in the roles as you were writing it?

MJ. Not at all. The only reason I am in the movie is because Jay Baruchel said, “I’ll only do this if you play the other guy”. It was his idea that I’d play Doug. We always wanted to cast Glenn, it’s perfect for him, but in Canada you have trouble casting Americans in our movies because of the way our tax system works. It was very hard to convince our partners that we should cast an American. So it was only at the last minute that we got permission to cast Glenn, only a few weeks before shooting.

AM. I’m glad it worked out cause the three of you are perfect in those roles.

MJ. Oh my god, it’s a miracle!

AM. Why do you think your particular creative filmic style - this comedy, mockumentary style - works so well in this scenario, this tech, big business world?

MJ. I think that the home video language of - film everything, having the camera be intelligent, what the cameraman looks at is important, it seems as though it fits. We were thinking of Pennebaker, we were stealing a lot from The War Room, we were stealing a lot from era documentaries that were all shot on VHS or Beta. It seemed as though the people who were into home video were techy engineer nerds. There was a shared space there, between people who are always filming themselves at work and technologists. When [co-writer Matthew] Miller and I were doing a lot of investigation into what BlackBerry was really like in the nineties, most of the engineers that we talked to had hundreds of photographs that they had taken documenting everything that they did. There seemed be a natural engineering curiosity, an interest in self-reflexively capturing everything that you do. And so the aesthetic seemed to match perfectly, the idea that someone would be walking around with a VHS camera, that shooting style, it made sense. In the opening credits you see that home video footage of the staff hanging out, and in the transition between the nineties and the two-thousands we watch again this home video footage of the guys partying, happy to be in this new space. It’s very much by design.

AM. It's often said that with comedy that there are two working styles, there is the spontaneous, off-the-cuff, improvisational comedy, and there is the relentlessly rehearsed fine-tuned comedy. Does your work fit into either of those camps or somewhere in between?

MJ. I think it is pretty obvious that most of this movie is unrehearsed. We did literally zero rehearsals. Oftentimes me and the other guys would be figuring out our dialogue as we sat down. And that was by design. When you cast actors of the calibre of Glenn and Jay, they are comedians, they understand comedy and they understand beats. The whole idea is that we would sit down and have this stuff happen for the very first time. And because I am the writer and an actor in the movie it gives us more or less full permission to say or do whatever we want because there isn’t anyone to tell us no. There is nothing I find more repulsive as an audience member than watching somebody onscreen say something that a writer thought was funny that they’re trying to make funny, where I can clearly see the whole thing, like “oh these guys think they’re so funny because they worked this out so well”. It’s personal taste, I know there are lots of great comedies that have been made that way but I find it repulsive, I’m sickened by this. When I first saw a stand-up comedian I was young, and I thought, “oh this guy is a genius, I can’t believe this, how is he just coming up with all this, this is the funniest person I have seen in my life!”. And then - I can’t remember who it was, probably Jim Carrey or Robin Williams - I saw a home video of them doing an act and it was the same jokes. I was like “What the hell is this? He is just repeating this?”. So from an early age, anything rehearsed or planned just ate. I like it when things feel like they just happened.

AM. So, if you are doing it like that, without rehearsals, just going into a scene, how do you film a scene? How many cameras? How are you blocking it?

MJ. Just two. I would shoot with more but one of the problems when you are shooting movies this style is that you actually run out of physical space to put cameras. It’s a challenge most people wouldn’t think about but one of the largest cinematographical challenges of this film was not having the space to put these cameras. They are at some points five feet long, they are bigger than people! Some of the spaces we shot in were tiny cramped offices, cause it is all shot on location, the whole movie was shot in real places. You don’t have the space to put these things, the cameras are huge! And the lenses are so long that the minimum focus is like four feet anyway. So you need the cameras to be so far away and to cross-shoot, to get a third camera in there, forget it.

AM. How many takes do you do then?

MJ. Very, very few. Normally we shoot the entire scene beginning to end. We have time to shoot four or five takes total.

AM. So there is a scene early on in the film where Jim Balsillie pitches the BlackBerry as this machine where you always be reachable, always be working, and then we watch a good chunk of the film where Mike Lazaridis is developing it and we feel this excitement, this energy, and as an audience we eat it up, this innovation, even though it is taking us to this corporate hellscape. Why do you think we do that?

MJ. It's horrible. It’s funny that in beginning this film, I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was making this story of the people who invented the future. And these guys thought it was a good idea to make work constantly accessible. If you look at Mike and Jim they are extremely A-type and all the meaning in their life comes from work, it’s where they get all their meaning. So for them, the idea of constantly being connected to that meaning is good, and for some people I think it is good. Speaking for myself, my life is my work, I prefer always working. I like the idea that I am always working, but I know that is not the way that everyone sees the world. I think the fascination as an audience when you are watching it is because you are in tune with the characters and it will meet their goals. And because it will meet their goals you think, “yeah, that is good”. It is the same with a war movie, you don’t want to go out and kill people, you wind up feeling and becoming the characters. So for them, the future where there are smartphones everywhere and they can always work is great because that is all that they are. But as soon as the movie ends and you divorce yourself from that you realise, “Oh, they created a future that worked for them, and it didn’t work for the rest of us. Now we’re living in their world and it sucks. Because I would like to have a life away from my phone.” I think that might be what audiences are feeling, but it is not for me to say.

BlackBerry is screening at Glasgow Film Festival March 3rd and 4th.


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