Matt Johnson on BlackBerry

BlackBerry essays the incredible rise and then the spectacular demise of the world's first smartphone. Writer, director and star Matt Johnson tells us why he identifies with these tech bro losers and wanted to tell their story

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 03 Oct 2023
  • BlackBerry

In The Social Network and Steve Jobs – both written by Aaron Sorkin – Silicon Valley success stories became baroque moral tragedies, with the tech bros behind Facebook and Microsoft depicted as deities; flawed deities, but deities nonetheless. BlackBerry, the crackerjack biopic from Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson, could hardly be different.

In hilarious fashion, Johnson chronicles the rise and sharp decline of the world’s first smartphone. Jay Baruchel plays the naive inventor of the BlackBerry, Mike Lazaridis. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Glenn Howerton is fantastic as Jim Balsillie, the shark-like businessman who helped Lazaridis sell BlackBerry to the world. And Johnson himself plays Doug Fregin, the vest-wearing tech bro who started the company with Lazaridis but would rather have a good time than be in business.

The film is a delight. Unlike Sorkin, Johnson brings these tech giants down to a human level, telling a rollicking story full of wit and pathos. He clearly has a lot of affection for these lovable dorks from Waterloo, Canada, who had a dream and made it come true – for a short time at least. While Johnson was visiting Scotland to present BlackBerry at Glasgow Film Festival, we sat down with him to discuss the film.

The Skinny: There's something deeply unsexy about the BlackBerry. It was this utilitarian device that just made people work all the time…

Matt Johnson: That’s completely true. There was nothing cool about it, which is, in my opinion, what was so shocking about the fact that it took off. It was like our culture wanted a smartphone so badly that they were willing to look stupid to use it.

So what made you want to tell its story?

Exactly what you just said, believe it or not. I thought, “Oh, if we make a movie about BlackBerry, it will at once be broadly appealing, where people will know what it is. But it also will, on its face, seem as though the movie will be so boring, and so standard, and by the book, that when people actually get to the cinema and watch it, they'll be going, 'Well, what the hell is this?'”

Why do you expect that reaction?

Because my cinematic style is the opposite of what a standard biopic is? I don't want to say my style is anti-boring, because that’s too self-congratulatory, but what I mean is that it is in no way normal. And I thought, “If I could combine that style with something extremely bland on its face, that could make for an interesting experience.” These people are not celebrities. Mike, Jim and Doug are all very low stakes, very Canadian. You'd never think, “Oh, these people deserve a movie.” All my films are trying to fool the audience into caring more about watching it than they thought they would.

It's instructive to compare BlackBerry to films like The Social Network or Steve Jobs, which are very slick – pretentious, even. Your film is much more grounded.

I think that might be its Canadian-ness. It's funny, if you put the Steve Jobs biography in my hands, I'd think, “I could never even approach this guy because he’s been lionised.” These tech guys are icons in a way, and that creates a distance between them and me. I would never even feel as though I had the right to tell their story. Whereas with these guys, I thought, “Oh, these are just Canadian kids trying to do something interesting and they had no idea what they were doing.” That very much echoes my youth trying to make movies with my friends, where you make something, it's slightly successful, and then all your friendships change. I was like, “Oh, this is exactly what happened with me and my friends.”

It would be remiss not to mention the cast, and in particular Glenn Howerton, who’s fantastic as this hypercapitalist, Gordon Gekko-like figure, Jim Balsillie.

He was perfect. It's like the character was written for him. It was his idea to shave his head and go as far with it as he did. I did very little directing with Glenn – he just came and did his scenes. He knew everything. He was extremely serious. I think a lot of people don't realise that Glenn began as a Juilliard actor. He was never intending to be a comedian. His career has taken him to a place where people think of him strictly as a comedy actor, but, in my opinion, he’s way more suited for drama. He takes his work so seriously, like no mistakes, new ideas every single time; he’s the most focused, most dedicated guy on set. It was unbelievable to watch. I have a feeling that he's gonna have a long dramatic career after this – at least I'm hoping so.

But he is also hilarious in the film. 

He can't not be funny. On set, he was like: “Well, I'm not doing this funny at all.” And I'm like, “You don't understand, Glenn. This is the funniest shit I've ever seen in my life.” Like him losing it, him becoming so desperate, the decisions he makes. Even though he's playing it all for drama, I think he's the funniest guy in the movie.

BlackBerry is released 6 Oct by National Amusements