Apr 20, 2023
In a way, BlackBerry, SFFILM’s Sloan Science on Screen Award recipient that screened at the Festival on Monday, Apr. 17, began with DIY woodworking videos on YouTube. Producer Niv Fichman (The Saddest Music in the World, Antiviral) approached Operation Avalanche writer/director Matt Johnson and writer/producer Matthew Miller with the proposal that they adapt the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story of the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, about the once popular precursor to modern smartphones. Finding those videos turned out to be key to cracking the story.
The story behind the making of BlackBerry
The book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff spun the tale of Research In Motion (RIM), the Waterloo, Ontario, company that invented the BlackBerry through the eyes of its two CEOS, tech geek Mike Lazaridis and hard-charging businessman Jim Balsillie. What Toronto native Johnson wanted to find were opinions of people who had worked at RIM. His brother-in-law is an engineer and through him, he learned of the connection between that profession and DIY projects, leading Johnson to scour YouTube until he struck gold when he discovered that one of BlackBerry’s original engineers later started his own woodworking company, posting videos about his projects. Johnson reached out and managed to overcome the man’s initial reticence.
“He really opened up from his perspective as just an engineer on the ground,” Johnson said during a phone call in the days leading up to the Festival. “He told us everything that was happening in the day to day. That’s when it clicked with us that this company, yes, is an engineering firm. But to us, it’s a lot like what it’s like to start a filmmaking career. You’re working with your friends, you’re working all day, and it’s fun. You don’t go to work for the money. The camaraderie is more important than either the product or the compensation.
“That’s when it really took off. We came up with this structure, a story about a kind of exciting startup culture that gets transformed through success into a corporate culture. That is when, all of a sudden, we knew what the characters needed to be and we were able to dig into all of our research from that angle. So that was a real lightning moment for us.”
Fichman originally hired Johnson and Miller merely to write the script, but as the pair threw themselves into the work, it became apparent that they wanted to tell the story themselves. Miller became a producer. BlackBerry became Johnson’s first feature since Operation Avalanche and he took on the role of Doug, Lazaridis’ closest collaborator at the beginning and the company’s amiable and goofy conscience.
“Basically, as soon as I realized this was an opportunity to tell the story of my own life, I thought, ‘Well, it wouldn’t be right to write it and put it in somebody else’s hands,’” Johnson said. “It wasn’t that I wanted to do it so badly, but because I thought, ‘Well, what we’re writing is really not going to be manageable by somebody who hasn’t exactly lived through it in the same way. Niv agreed one to one. He was an amazing partner.”
The Trotsky’s Jay Baruchel came aboard to play the silver-haired Lazaridis, a man perhaps too invested in his company’s product, while It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton is the id of the piece as the energetic, crude, take-no-prisoners Balsillie. BlackBerry represents another step in the evolution of Johnson’s career, after making his 2013 feature debut with the ultra-low-budget, Slamdance award winner The Dirties, followed by Operation Avalanche in 2016, in which film geeks working for the CIA during the Cold War get involved with shenanigans involving the space race and Stanley Kubrick–and a film in which Johnson and his crew managed to invade NASA.
What was it like to work on BlackBerry?
“By American standards, BlackBerry’s budget is quite small, 8½ million Canadian,” Johnson said. For me, it meant that all of the sudden I was working with the actors’ union, all of the sudden we were working with a crew of 40+ people and the marshaling and coaching that went on. It was so funny how life imitated art, trying to maintain the ethos of that early Research in Motion. We’re all doing this for the fun energy while knowing not only the stakes but also that there were way more people involved. I like to hope that some of that energy remains on the screen. That was, by far, the hardest part of the process.
“You may notice that we tried to shoot as much in the real world as we could,” he added. “A lot of the actors aren’t really actors. A lot of them are real people, all those engineers I’m surrounded by are all very young filmmakers from Toronto, who have no background in acting but have a certain vitality, a certain life. And we shot in all the real places Research in Motion actually was. We shot in Waterloo in a lot of the real factories. The kind of stuff was important. We didn’t necessarily break in to as many places as we did on my last film but certainly authenticity was important.”
What does Johnson make of the rise and fall of BlackBerry?
The story of BlackBerry reads like an Icarus tale, a company that flew too high and crashed and burned, as much a victim of corporate hubris as the invention of the iPhone, the product that slew BlackBerry with its more advanced features and sleek style. But Johnson sees another reason for the fall of Research In Motion and its phone.
“I think Michael Lazaridis really had a bit of falling love with his own product, to the point of obsession,” he said. “I think what the film highlights in its own small way is a kind of – I don’t want to say arrogance–but there is that myth of the man who makes a statue of a woman and he makes it so perfect, so beautiful, that he falls in love with it. It was like that with Mike, so that when all of a sudden there was another device that did things almost the exact opposite of what his did, his pride and love for his own creation made him completely blind to the positives of what the smartphone was going to become. He fell so in love with what he’d done that he was blinded by possible improvements, because he thought, ‘Well, this could never be better.’”
What can we expect from the in-person conversation?
Johnson expressed his delight at BlackBerry being chosen for Sloan Science on Screen honors and the opportunity it gave him to geek out with a scientist. He looked forward to the onstage conversation between him and physicist Joel Moore, the Chern-Simons Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley and a senior faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
“I’m thrilled,” he said. “I spoke to so many scientists, specifically from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, when we were making Operation Avalanche, and my brother and brother-in-law are scientists. Although I am painfully ignorant of all sciences, I love the fact that I can interface with people who know what they’re talking about… I’m sure he knows so many things that I just teased in the film. He is going to educate me.”
See the full conversation here
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
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