Canadian actor and filmmaker Matt Johnson is jetting into Berlin for Friday’s world premiere of his Competition entry BlackBerry, which charts the early 2000s rise and subsequent fall of Research In Motion’s (later BlackBerry) world-beating smartphone.

Johnson and Matthew Miller adapted the book Losing The Signal: The Untold Story Behind The Extraordinary Rise And Spectacular Fall Of Blackberry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. The cast is led by Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton and Johnson, who previously directed and starred in 2016 Sundance entry Operation Avalanche, 2013 Slamdance selection The Dirties and 2016 TV series Nirvana The Band The Show.

Matt Johnson_Director Still copy

Source: Screen File

Matt Johnson

Rhombus Media and Zapruder Films produced BlackBerry with the participation of Telefilm Canada and Ontario Creates, in association with CBC Films, IPR.VC and XYZ Films, which co-financed and handles worldwide sales. IFC Films will distribute the film in the US and Elevation Pictures in Canada, while Paramount holds international rights.

What’s BlackBerry about?
That time in the mid-1990s when the cellular phone and the smartphone and the pager were all having a major public moment, and a dorm room of young nerds from the University of Waterloo [in Ontario] realised they could combine all these into one product, which catapults them into a multi-billion-dollar company.

Tell us about your casting choices.
My goal was to have almost all Canadians in the cast, specifically Canadians you didn’t know were Canadians like Saul Rubinek from Unforgiven, and Michael Ironside from all the Paul Verhoeven movies. From the very beginning I talked to Jay Baruchel [to play BlackBerry inventor Mike Lazaridis]. A major piece of casting was Glenn [Howerton, US actor] who so embodies [Research In Motion CEO] Jim Balsillie and understood this guy was ambitious at the cost of being nice to people.

What was behind BlackBerry’s downfall?
The central relationships of these characters had such flaws that they weren’t in a position to pivot. In the mid-2000s, data and the sale of data was unheard of. Apple and AT&T saw that future and created the product that was going to use massive amounts of consumer-side data. BlackBerry knew these networks were going to crash and laughed at the iPhone… But they didn’t see that AT&T’s plan meant rebuilding the networks and forcing consumers to purchase a brand-new product.

Did you know much about BlackBerry before reading the book?
I had only thought of BlackBerry as a product, which I had been too young to use at the time.

Is there still a lot of pride for the device in Canada?
Unbelievable pride. We shot much of the film in Waterloo where this happened and everywhere we went they opened their doors to us. [The founders] created not only this product but what’s known as Silicon Valley North, a hub of start-ups in and around the Waterloo area.

Where and when did you shoot?
We shot in Waterloo, Toronto and the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] in London and Hamilton. We shot from the beginning of May until the end of June 2022.

Who funded the film and when did IFC come on board?
We were financed almost exclusively through Telefilm Canada and CBC Films. XYZ Films were the sales company on my first two films and they were our American finance partner. IFC Films read an early version of the script and came on around Toronto International Film Festival last year.

How do you contextualise the BlackBerry in the history of tech start-ups?
In some ways they set the blueprint for start-up companies and major personalities rewriting the rules. We certainly saw that with Uber, WeWork and even Theranos. You have a cult of personality around an individual who basically promises a future vision of the world. BlackBerry had that Canadian modesty which forced them to actually do the work and deliver. It’s easy to think of them as a behind-the-times joke without realising they invented the future that we exist in now.

How do you feel about going to the Berlinale?
I’ve only been to the festival as an actor with Kazik Radwanski’s film [How Heavy This Hammer, Forum 2016]. I love Curry 36, I love Turkish food, I love the zoo and I’ve wanted to screen in the [Berlinale] Palast since I was 26. I can’t wait.