BlackBerry is hands down one of the best films of the year. At the time of this story going up, I’ve seen it three times now and I absolutely love it. A little over a month ago, we at OTN had the privilege of sitting down with director Matt Johnson and alk to him about everything BlackBerry and so much more. Read our full interview below:
OTN: So my first question I’m gonna start out with is a fun one. In the movie, it says BlackBerry controlled 46% of the market at its height. Were you part of that 46%?
M.J: No, I never even touched one before we started making this. I was too young and I never had one. I knew, obviously, about the phone and my dad had one but yeah, I never touched one before this.
OTN: What made you wanna do this project? I’m curious, especially as a writer, what drew you to this project specifically? Was it out of the blue or were you thinking about this for a while?
M.J: It very much came out of the blue. I got asked by a Toronto producer approached [Matt Miller] and myself about writing it and then we decided to read [Losing the Signal] and write the script. We just fell in love with it and the material through writing it and yeah, that’s how it happened.
OTN: I know with tons of “based on a true story” movies or biopics, writers and directors usually want to speak to the real-life subjects of the film prior to production, did you get to speak to Jim Balsillie, Mike Lazaridis, anyone at RiM before production?
M.J: We didn’t speak to any of the main characters (Mike, Jim, Doug, etc.) at all and that was by design because we thought they wouldn’t want us to tell this story the way we told it. In fact, I’m sure of it. Instead, we just spoke with people who worked in the office. Mainly people from the 90s, people in the office or people with no real ownership of the company.
OTN: Well, that kind of answers my next question on if you got anyone’s blessing for this project or any advice.
M.J: Well, actually we got tons of advice. I would say that the biggest help that we got was from one engineer in particular who gave us his entire diary and photos from the area which is what we used as the blueprints for the sets. Much of the culture within Research in Motion came from conversations with this one guy.
OTN: Speaking of the photos, I actually wanted to bring that up quickly. In that title sequence and in the montage, was that archive footage from RiM archives or did you actually just create new B-roll?
M.J: We shot all of that with a VHS camera.
OTN: Oh, so those aren’t the real photos and videos but all recreated?
M.J: Yeah! We just brought a camera from the era on set and shot that stuff.
OTN: You guys did such a good job that I couldn’t tell if it was Glenn Howerton or Jim Balsillie at times. Point is, I loved that you did this and it was a really nice touch to the film.
M.J: Thank you!
OTN: Going back to BlackBerry. There’s a lot of BlackBerries in this film. Did you actually have to track down every individual phone and purchase them or were some of them just dummy shells?
M.J: Every single one of those, my art director Adam Belanger (EDITOR’S NOTE: We met Adam at the BlackBerry afterparty and he’s a delightful person!) found and bought all off of old collectors. So every single BlackBerry in the film is a real BlackBerry that worked. Man, it was a struggle to get some of them to work because they were so old but yeah, those are all real.
OTN: Did you have trouble tracking down a specific BlackBerry model?
M.J: Hmmm, No. We were lucky that the film cuts through time quite a bit. For instance, if we needed to get an original LeapFrog or BullFrog model, which was the horizontal BlackBerry that came out before it was even called the BlackBerry, that might’ve been a big challenge, maybe impossible to get a working one of those. But, because we cut from 1996 to 2003, we were able to use the Cork models which were very mass produced. Finding working versions of those was a challenge but not impossible. I think we purchased something like, 200 or 300 of them.
OTN: Woah, that’s a lot of BlackBerries. I’m assuming that’s across all the different models or was it just for that one?
M.J: No, we bought one specific model, the Cork, and it was a specific version of the Cork because we wanted to only have this one because we wanted the film to be a snapshot of this one time. We had a few slightly older and slightly newer models but generally it was the black and white screen Cork and then in 2007 we move on to the color screen. (proceeds to call BlackBerry producer Mark Miller into the room) Hey Miller! Do you know what the 2007 BlackBerry we used was? Was it the Curve?
M.J: You sure?
M.J: Yeah and then we started using the Blackberry Curves.
OTN: That’s really cool to hear. Something I really liked about this movie was that it’s such a different biopic. It’s still fairly dramatic but it’s also laugh out loud hilarious. For me, it’s a combo of Succession and The Social Network. especially with its humor and breakneck pacing (i.e 30 minutes into the movie you see BlackBerry booming). As a writer, how did you manage to balance the comedic and dramatic aspects of the film in order to keep audiences engaged?
M.J: Well, contrary to popular belief, that’s all in the editing. You never know on set or even when you’re writing it. You have no damn idea. But then, once you’re looking at the footage and dailies – sometimes, you write something thinking “Oh this is really funny” and it isn’t. Sometimes when you write something thinking “this is gonna be so intense and serious” but it turns out funny. At least this is how it is with me, I’m not talented enough to be able to make these determinations at the script or even the shooting stage. In the edit, our editor [Curt Lobb] kinda makes the call on whether something is really gonna work as comedy or work as tension. Sometimes, he’ll re-edit really funny scenes to be tense and vice versa so that entire thing takes place in the editing room.
OTN: As someone who loves the filmmaking process, that’s really interesting to hear. Alright, last question, I’ve talked about how much I love this style of biopics. Would you like to see another company’s story told in this format? For me, I’d love to see the rise and fall of Atari told in the format BlackBerry was made. So, what story would you like to see told like this?
M.J: Oh, wow. That is a really smart question and I’m surprised I haven’t been asked that before. Hmm. Yeah man, I agree with you on the video games. I would love to see an original Nintendo movie where they go from a playing card company, to toys then to the Game & Watch and the Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom. That would be absolutely amazing and I’m surprised nobody has done that. I’d really love to see the origin of Richard Garfield creating Magic: The Gathering, I’d REALLY like to see that. As strange as it sounds I wouldn’t mind seeing under the hood at Apple and how they came up with the first iPhone. I mean, it’s so funny, I’d almost rather see documentaries about these but if someone in the style that I like then I’d absolutely watch those. The problem I find is that even with films that I’ve seen that are in the same category as ours like Tetris, Flamin’ Hot and Air, is that they’re so differential to their subjects and you really don’t get to see any dirt. It’s kind of like “Oh these guys are all great” and they all seem like they’re made for television and so, they don’t have the depth that I want. I wanna see the ugliness of the human condition. So I would love to see those stories told with real ugliness.
OTN: I wholeheartedly agree with you on that, especially the Nintendo one. I’m a huge video game nut so seeing the story of Nintendo driving themselves back into the Western market after the 1983 video game crash and reviving it would be really cool.
M.J: It would be AMAZING!
OTN: I’d love it and you know what, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a hit so maybe Nintendo expands their horizons on storytelling.
M.J: I wish they would but I have a feeling they’ll be making more movies in the vein of Mario. I find it very doubtful they’ll tell their story.
OTN: Well, they’re Nintendo so who really knows with them?
M.J: (laughs) Yeah, you make a good point (EDITOR’S NOTE: Matt Johnson is the creator of the famous Wii Shop Wednesday video so he knows his stuff when it comes to the Big N.)
OTN: Unfortunately, they’re giving me the wrap. I just wanna say congrats again and thanks again for fitting me into your schedule today. I love this movie so much and I’m probably gonna watch it again (EDITOR’S NOTE 5/26/2023: I’ve seen it four times now). I wish you nothing but the best and good luck with the rest of the press tour.
M.J: Thanks so much.
I caught up with Matt two days later at the BlackBerry afterparty and he was just as delightful to talk to. Read the synopsis for BlackBerry:
BlackBerry tells the story of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the two men that charted the course of the spectacular rise and catastrophic demise of the world’s first smartphone.Elevation Pictures
BlackBerry is in theatres now. You can check out our full review here!