In 2010, David Fincher set the template for a modern tech biopic with The Social Network, providing a fast-paced serious comic portrait of the young entrepreneur at the dawn of the 21st century. It costs $40 million. Last year, director Matt Johnson made “BlackBerry,” a biopic about the rise and fall of the eccentric characters behind the antiquated cell phone. It costs $5 million.
“The amount of money that goes into making a movie is absolutely mind-boggling to me,” Johnson told IndieWire via Zoom. “We were pretty clear from the beginning that we were going to do something at the scale that we preferred.”
That ethos was established 10 years ago when the Canadian director made the acclaimed found-footage film The Dirties, in which Johnson played an aspiring filmmaker turned high school shooter. The $10,000 film manages to strike a difficult balance between satirizing its protagonist’s cinematic aspirations and the looming alienation that pushes him to a horrifying extreme. The complex and emotional provocation won Slamdance and won the support of Kevin Smith, who helped distribute the film. “Our life has changed a lot,” he said. “The transition from being a broke student filmmaker to making a career was extremely difficult to manage.”
While Johnson signed with an agency and entertained studio offers, he continued to create innovative lo-fi work from his Toronto location, including 2016’s “Operation Avalanche,” a tongue-in-cheek slice of historical fiction in which Johnson and Owen Williams play young CIA agents tasked with faking the 1969 moon landing. He also created the web series and eventual Canadian television show Nirvanna the Band the Show, which aired from 2017-2019 and was made with the same collaborators.
“For the most part, studio heads really want to meet young, interesting voices,” Johnson said. “Basically, it’s a meritocracy. But experience showed me that nothing really spoke to me and I always went back to what I was interested in because of that.
His longtime writing partner and producer Matthew Miller, who joined him on Zoom, chimed in. “None of this was ever like work,” he said.
“BlackBerry” marks the first time John and Miller have worked together on material they didn’t write, as they adapted the script from the book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry” after the producers who had acquired the rights to the book approached them about directing it. “They could have given the material and the book to more conventional directors and they would have gotten something more conventional,” Miller said.
Instead, Johnson and Miller turned the saga into a twisted, almost minimalist workplace comedy. It centers on the developing dynamic between geeky innovator Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his fun-loving partner in crime Douglas Freggin (Johnson) as their clever idea for a smartphone capable of sending and receiving emails catches the eye of a flamboyant executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, bald and hotter than his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia persona).
After Balsillie works his way up to become co-CEO of the ill-fated startup, BlackBerry goes through a series of harrowing chapters in the company’s history as loyalties are tested and the original duo’s laid-back workplace environment is forced to respond to the brutal demands of a corporate ecosystem. Through a series of screaming matches, awkward pitch sessions, and slapstick twists (including a prototype that disappears moments before a big presentation), “BlackBerry” heightens the underlying tension between personalities when innovation and capitalism collide.
Johnson said that even though he hasn’t spent time in Silicon Valley, he can still draw from his personal experience. “We tried to make it very close metaphorically to what filmmaking is,” he said. “How success can change the culture of a production company – we just grafted that onto the corporate culture.”
They were also wary of poking fun at Lazaridis, a maniacal figure played by Baruchel with a level of empathy he hasn’t shown onscreen before, as the character tries to do the right thing with technology even as Balsillie tries to push the company into legal trouble. risks and otherwise turbulent territory.
In other words, nothing like the crap on Silicon Valley, a show he knew would come up as a comparison early on. “These guys are very clearly trying to be funny and very proud of themselves for it,” he said. “It’s disgusting to me and it wasn’t influential in terms of how we did this.”
Instead, he turned to more serious precedents, looking to “All the President’s Men” as well as DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ 1993 Bill Clinton campaign documentary “The War Room” to define the approach. “They had a lot of scenes with men in rooms trying to change the world,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want to Hollywoodize it and make these guys look like Elon Musk. They were supposed to be like geeks at LAN parties who accidentally change the world and don’t even realize they’ve done it.”
While it lacks the polished surfaces of The Social Network, Johnson and Miller did enough research prior to the writing and production process to make for a much bigger film. They secretly interviewed former employees and reviewed diaries from several stages of the company’s history, from its early successes to the downward slope of its existence after the launch of the iPhone. Their production designer compiled a bible for the show from 2,500 photos provided by ex-BlackBerry employees.
This provided the key to their low-budget approach. BlackBerry thrives in a handful of cluttered office spaces and innocuous conference rooms. There are no massive crowd scenes or travel montages. “We were working with very little money, and that meant we had to shoot it a certain way,” Johnson said. However, the film’s budget came together in parts, which created some new challenges. Telefilm Canada provided most of the financing (with less than 10 percent provided by US-based XYZ Films).
Canadian funding made it difficult to cast American actors, including Howerton, despite his fame. “It wasn’t until it was very close to production that we were finally able to present it to him,” Johnson said. The result is the actor’s first great performance outside of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which returns for its 16th season in June. “The fact that we have Glenn shaving his head and sticking with it makes this movie feel like it’s going somewhere,” Johnson said. “It buys us so much goodwill. It’s a comedy show, but the characters don’t think it’s funny. He is deadly serious and quite funny.”
Johnson’s homegrown approach had to evolve to meet the needs of actors who were not part of the original cast involved in all his previous ventures. “Usually I just work with my friends and it’s all improvised,” he said. “You do a lot of directing and writing on the fly. It had to be done differently because of strangers who didn’t necessarily trust me. It wasn’t until the second week of shooting that we could start taking risks.”
Ultimately, Johnson was able to return to his usual documentary-like approach, which found him shooting in wide shots and encouraging his actors to continue acting without any real sense of when the cameras were moving. “I expect people to always be involved,” he said.
The producers were able to pre-sell the US rights to IFC outside of physical screens to buyers at AFM last fall, which helped cover finishing costs before the film premiered in Berlin in February. After the film premiered, Paramount acquired international rights. “It’s been so fun to have the support of these distributors, but it’s also very strange,” Johnson said. “I could do what I want, I always have a final version and I can literally do anything I want.”
Now, the 37-year-old director is looking to maintain that setup rather than entertain the kind of offers he had a decade ago. “We started doing things in our twenties in different positions in life and all our friends were paying cheap rent,” he said. “When you get older and you want to work with the same people, it gets harder. But we hope to continue to be able to graduate this way.”
IFC Films opens “BlackBerry” in limited theaters on Friday, May 12.