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Defector At The Movies

‘BlackBerry’ Director Matt Johnson Is Not Wearing An Outfit

17 February 2023, Berlin: Matt Johnson, director, arrives for the photocall of the film "BlackBerry". Berlinale is one of the major film festivals and lasts until February 26, 2023.
Monika Skolimowska/Via Getty Images

I was wondering what the hell Toronto-based filmmaker Matt Johnson was doing even before I saw BlackBerry, the film about the Canadian-made mobile phone which he directed, co-wrote (with longtime co-producer Matthew Miller), and co-stars in. Back in February, he showed up to the Berlin Film Festival in a Blue Jays T-shirt, a blue headband, pushed-up gray joggers and a pair of white Nikes with a blue swoosh (he matched, at least). My first thought was: Oh, Jesus Christ, they’re going to think we all dress like that. I’ve seen Johnson around a bunch because I also live in Toronto and am friends with people in the film community. I’ve seen him wear that headband before. I thought it looked, you know, kooky. But it wasn’t a red carpet, so who cares. This looked more eccentric. Then he just kept showing up like that, sometimes mixing up the top–a Canadaland tee (that’s a local podcast about Canadian media), a blue Waterloo sweatshirt (the Ontario town where the BlackBerry was created), a blue Slayer shirt (that’s … not Canadian). Then I watched Blackberry.

To call this film a biopic is to sell it short—sort of a meta-biopic? It's ostensibly based on the Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, but actually based on the diaries of a rogue ex-employee of Research In Motion, the Waterloo-based company that developed the device. Within the story of the creation of the not-iPhone, by Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), Douglas Fregin (Johnson), and the RIM team, assisted by businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), is Johnson’s own story about trying to launch himself as an indie filmmaker (with the three personalities in BlackBerry acting as his own warring personae) in Toronto, Ontario. In other words, this is not The Social Network, though it owes a lot to David Fincher, who also compared the Facebook story to his own, and whose ending for that story BlackBerry echoes.

To return to the headband: It’s in the movie. As Doug, Johnson sticks out like a sore thumb in that same red-carpet look: wild hair, headband, tanks and tees from various films (They Live, The Thing, Army of Darkness), though in the film he dates his style with oversized glasses and a jean jacket. Next to Baruchel in his staid shirts and Howerton in his power suits, it’s not an exaggeration to say Johnson looks absolutely batshit in his role. It shouldn’t work. And yet, BlackBerry is one of my favorite films to come out of Canada in a while. Something about the way Johnson uses his off-the-wall presentation, his energy, and his dialogue (“He’s a very sassy man,” Doug sasses of Jim) as a foil to those around him just makes it all pop that much more. Not to mention Johnson’s deeply personal understanding of the fact that “good enough is the enemy of humanity.”

This is the third film in what Johnson has called “a trilogy about filmmaking,” following The Dirties (2013) and Operation Avalanche (2016), both of which had much smaller budgets. (He is likely better known, however, for the mockumentary series Nirvanna the Band the Show, which he is turning into a feature this summer.) Johnson is the rare contemporary indie filmmaker from Canada who not only travels (Nirvanna was bought by Vice, Kevin Smith supported his first film, festivals love him) but also criticizes the filmmaking apparatus in his home country (which resulted in him helping the Canadian government’s film funding body, Telefilm, launch a diversity program called Talent to Watch). I wanted to talk to him because I wanted to know how this total oddball–I know he’s a white indie filmmaker dude, but he’s still an oddball–was making it work so well in such a punishing industry, both in Canada and internationally.

The following conversation is edited for clarity (on both sides). We talked via Zoom for 20 minutes while Johnson was in Los Angeles for the BlackBerry publicity tour. As he has been on the road promoting his film since February, he was missing his hometown. More importantly, he wasn’t wearing a headband, though I could see it wrapped around his wrist.

Am I right in thinking that you weren’t actually going to play Doug? 

Nobody wanted me to be in the movie. All of our partners, Telefilm, all the people who were supporting the film, were like, Yes, we’ll make this movie. But Matt can’t be in it.

Why, because you don’t have cachet?

Look, I can admit that. I have no delusions about myself whatsoever. I acted in my own films out of necessity. It’s not like I had any desire to be an actor, and I don’t. But in this case, we were casting everybody as quickly as we could, and we couldn’t find anybody to play Doug. It’s a weird role, right? A lot of people were trying to play him as a bit of a stoner. A lot of the actors we went to were like, OK, so this guy really likes weed. But I wanted to create a character who had an ’80s punk sensibility that then went into computer hacking and had a very strong sense of not ever being willing to sell out. He was never gonna sell out no matter what.

Very ’90s.

Exactly. It was basically Ethan Hawke from Reality Bites, that kind of aesthetic, except in the computer space. It actually speaks to my inability, as a director, that I couldn’t really communicate this to the people that I was auditioning. Then two or three weeks before we started shooting, it was just like, "Well, look, I’ll just play this guy, and we’ll see how it goes." I found it helped a lot. Mostly because I was working with so many seasoned actors, especially some of the Canadian actors like Saul Rubinek and Michael Ironside. I was working with people who had worked with masters. Masters. And because I was in it, I think it made it easier for the other cast members to approach me as a director, because I was playing such a low-status character in the film. It made my feedback easier to take because they didn’t need to listen to some insouciant childish director who was like, "Let’s do this! Let’s do this!" They integrated with one another in a way that made it so that me and the cast got along. And I think that’s because I was in it with them, embarrassing myself.

It feels like Glenn Howerton is in a different movie.

He thinks he’s in the movie Wall Street! Early on, Glenn and I were talking about his character and he was like, “OK, so what kind of movies does this guy like?” And I was like, “I don’t know that he likes movies.” And he was like, “Yeah, I don’t think so either. But he’s got to have role models.” And we were both like, “OK, it’s Gordon Gekko.” He thinks Gordon Gekko is just cool and has no sense of irony or judgment. He thinks that he really is an American Psycho ’80s super businessman. And he’s the big star. Everything else that’s going on is just a joke. All the engineers, the product cycle, everything is a real don’t waste my time with that.” That’s why him and me are such good foils for one another.

Yeah, he’s just constantly confused by you. Which I feel like is probably how he is with you normally.

A little bit. A little bit, yeah.

I’m actually surprised you’re not wearing a headband right now. What is this outfit that you’re wearing on all the red carpets?

It’s not an outfit! I get teased about this so much. Those are just my clothes! I have no sartorial sense whatsoever. When I was young, I got bullied into wearing clothes that my parents made me wear. I made a promise to myself that when I grew up, I was going to get a job where I could wear whatever I wanted. Now I am living that dream, where I can wear my Blue Jays shirt. And I wear this headband not because of its aesthetic value, I wear it because my hair is so ridiculous and long that it gets in my eyes. I wind up playing tennis or pickleball everyday or every other day; I need to be able to just be like, "OK, we’re playing now." I know that sounds insane, but it’s literally true. 

In some ways, I can recognize that I am trying to be disarming. I don’t want to give people the impression that I know what I’m doing. I’m trying to make filmmaking seem approachable, especially to young people, especially to film students. So, I am trying to dispel the myth of the great man or the mysterious genius who goes on to make movies and seems like they have access to a special kind of power.

Yes, but Matt, what you did with this film was complicated.

But if you knew how hard it was to make movies, you’d never do it! I try to make it seem like it’s actually a low-stakes affair, because we need more young people in our country making movies and taking chances. Otherwise, we’re just not going to develop a national cinematic voice like we had in the ’80s.

Five years ago, you said you hoped the Talent to Watch program would open doors. Do you think it has?

If you look at the first features that came out of Canada in the last two years, yes. But I’m worried that now that [co-producer Matthew] Miller and I have left that program, that it’s starting to revert to the mean. The path forward is making more movies with more young people, and I don’t think that is a supported philosophy, at least not at the level that I wanted it to be. But, yes, I think that it made a big difference. I just wish it was doing more. We’re just never going far enough. Our country does everything in half measures, and so we wind up failing twice. You become so risk averse. I would rather take risks and fail 50 percent of the time and win 50 percent of the time, than just kind of slowly lose everything.

Were you nervous at all about the ethical quandary of using a biopic as a Trojan Horse for your own story?

It’s funny, I never considered the ethics of something like that. I think luckily, because if I had those anxieties, I think it’d be very hard for me to be honest in any of my work. And I’m a strong believer that the specificity of an individual’s life is what gives it its magic. Put it this way, I would never have made this movie in a million years if I did not discover this direct line to my own life.

How did you find the guy who had the diaries that opened things up?

It was just classic journalism, talking to people that I’d gone to high school with who went to [the University of Waterloo] and then wound up getting internships [at RIM]. And then their old contacts with people eventually lead me–this is such an amazing story–to this guy’s woodworking YouTube channel. A person said, “Oh, well, the guy who was really a big shot there, I think has become a woodworker and I think he’s quite famous.” And I was like, “What do you mean, a famous woodworker? That doesn’t make any sense.” Then I go and look on YouTube for famous woodworkers, and lo and behold, this guy’s got the most popular woodworking channel in the world. It’s five or six phone calls back and forth before he’s willing to really talk to me about anything, but then we are off to the races. He really saved the film, because if it weren’t for his influence, and really his research, we would have been completely in the dark, because nobody was covering RIM in the ’90s. Nobody cared about them.

I guess it’s hard to pick apart now, but how much of your character was you, how much was Doug, and how much was the guy who gave you the diary?

The fourth piece of it was this really famous video game programmer from the ’90s named John Romero. That’s where I got my aesthetic from, that’s where the clothes came from, that’s who I am portraying in that [press] photo. Look, the real Doug was truly a mascot and truly a cheerleader for that company. And he was everybody’s friend–he was the cipher between the staff and Mike. So that is the exact role that I’m playing. But my dialogue is generally improvised. I’m trying to talk the way I remember older kids talking in the ’90s that I thought was so cool and that I looked up to, which maybe sounds a bit silly, but that was one of my big motives for making this movie. I remember really looking up to older kids in the ’90s that I would see at LAN parties and being like, Oh, I want to be like that. It was a response to having total confidence about your opinion, or having total confidence about all the things that Doug says in the movie. You’re just like, Well, he seems to completely and totally believe that. He doesn’t dither at all, which is funny because neither does Jim. I think that that was such a great relationship for Jay Baruchel to be in the middle of: two guys who were never going to sell out. Both knew that they were 100 percent right, but they have the exact opposite opinion on everything.

Did you have any anxiety of influence around The Social Network

Look, I love David Fincher, but I don’t love very arranged films. Fincher’s a master of the perfectly arranged mise-en-scène–everything in his film is so perfect. While I did like The Social Network a lot, specifically the performances and the dialogue, in some ways, this film was trying to be a much more found version of that same type of story. The founders’ story, that tech story, youthful friendship sundered through success, the types of things that I was dealing with as a young filmmaker, I felt were so manicured when I was watching The Social Network. And there’s a place for that, because it kind of has an epic poetry or operatic nature to it. But when we were making this film, it’s funny, having that in the backdrop of it, I think was very useful to us, because it showed us what the version of it done perfectly looked like. It gave us space to do it in a way that was a lot more in keeping with our own reality. I like my movies to have instructions on how to make movies in them, and to have characters who are engaging with the meta nature of being in a movie.

Why do you think your films travel when so many Canadian films don’t?

I could lay all of the blame for it on festivals. I think that because these movies played so well at festivals, the cinephilic American youth audience wound up picking them up, and it just has been snowballing since then. It might be that I have a bit of Jim Balsillie in that I have a kind of Americanism–I’m unapologetic, maybe slightly anti-Canadian, which I think maybe helps a bit. But it’s so hard for me to psychoanalyze myself in that way. I can only say with BlackBerry, it very much was my intention to make something that seemed like it was just going to be a broad tech film, and in that container, I put a very personal film about my own life. I think one of the reasons that it’s having any type of success in the United States is because of that packaging. People are thinking, Oh, this is an IP film. This belongs in this standard broad conversation of other IP films like Tetris and Air.

So much of my work is just toiled away in obscurity because it’s cult comedy films that are very, very niche. With this, I thought I should make something that a broad audience could approach so that I can continue to make movies well into my late life. I recognized that I can only make these small, weird art films for so long. But don’t worry, I will continue to make small, weird art films. I’m just hiding them inside bigger properties.

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