BlackBerry director Matt Johnson interview: why the iPhone won and why most tech movies suck

You probably already know the story of BlackBerry. Its demise was as spectacular and public as anything you can think of, from a top-of-the-world gadget that people referred to as an addiction — the CrackBerry phenomenon was no joke — to just another of the many things left for dead by the iPhone. Talking about the BlackBerry now is like talking about, I don’t know, the Walkman or the Flip camera. They lived, they died, the end.

And yet, I was totally riveted by BlackBerry, the new movie directed by Matt Johnson about the rise and fall of Research In Motion (RIM) and the epic product it created. The movie is stylistically somewhere in the middle of The Social Network, General Magic, and Silicon Valley, following a ragtag bunch of engineers and one very dedicated suit as they try to invent the future. It’s not exactly nonfiction, but nor is it exactly fiction. And a lot of it feels true, even when it’s not.

Johnson, who co-wrote and directed BlackBerry, also stars as Doug Fregin, a headband-wearing amalgam of a few people in the history of RIM. Johnson’s not exactly your typical tech movie director: his previous projects include the series Nirvanna the Band the Show and Operation Avalanche, a mockumentary about a bunch of CIA agents posing as a documentary crew. (Documentary-ception!) But there was something about the BlackBerry story he says he couldn’t ignore.

Johnson and I chatted during SXSW, where BlackBerry had one of its US premieres. We talked about tech movies, why the BlackBerry really died, why the Storm was such a mess, and why he pushes back against the whole “nerds rule the world” narrative.

For our full chat, check out this episode of The Vergecast. (And if you want to read The Verge’s own coverage of the BlackBerry’s decline, start with this feature from 2012.)

 This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

One of the things that surprised me about this movie is that you wanted to make a BlackBerry movie. The idea — company makes successful product, dies at the hands of another successful product — there are a billion of those stories out there. What was it about BlackBerry that got you interested enough to make a movie about it?

I’ve been asked this question a lot. I noticed that every single time it’s asked, it’s almost the same kind of tone, which is, “Oh, this seems like such a staid, played out, dead concept.” It seems like this is more a “movie of the week”-style subject that somebody like me… I’m an indie filmmaker from Toronto who makes very bizarre comedies with my friend group. And so, I understand the confusion around approaching a subject like this, but I can’t stress enough how that confusion and that apprehension toward the subject matter is what drew me to it.

Because I thought, “Oh, here is an opportunity for something that, on its face, is so broad and so universal and is a product that is universally known in a way — and almost known as a joke or a has-been or a wannabe product.”

I thought this would be a great way for me to Trojan horse not only the way I see the world but the way my friends and I make movies into a story that a general audience may be interested in seeing. I’m not sure how much of my other work you’re familiar with, but I make really, really niche comedy films and comedy television shows that are made for a very small audience, a very specific audience. I felt like if I’m ever going to do something broader or for a larger audience, it’s going to need to be kind of hiding in plain sight in something like this. And because nobody knew anything about BlackBerry, nobody knew who Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis were, it was just a really, really great canvas for me to do something in my style. So exactly the tone of the question, in some ways, answers it itself, right? “Why would you ever do this?” That is what drew me to it.

Were you ever a BlackBerry guy? There are moments of this movie that make it seem like this is made by somebody who loved their BlackBerry.

Well, I’m coming by that in a fake way. I’d never touched a BlackBerry before I made this movie. I’d never touched one. But my cinematographer, Jared Raab, is such a technical person, and he’s so obsessed with the minutiae of the way technical things work, as well as my production designer, Adam Belanger, that they really brought a love for the product to the screen. Which was very important because Mike Lazaridis, in real life, truly has a kind of Pygmalion-esque obsession with this product. And that kind of “Narcissus drowning in a pond of his own product” was something that we really wanted to at least touch on because I think there is no bigger fan of the BlackBerry than Mike Lazaridis. And it’s why, at the end of the film, you see him unable to let go of the idea that this is still going to be a relevant product for all time. That’s why that final moment is what it is. And that very much is true to life.

One of the things I’ve read is that you weren’t super concerned with exact nonfiction detail correctness. And it made me think a lot about when The Social Network came out, and Mark Zuckerberg was like, “This is unrecognizable to me. Everything about this is not true.” And David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin were like, “We weren’t trying to make a documentary; we’re trying to make a movie.” But the names of the people and the companies are real. And I think, in a lot of ways, people think about Mark Zuckerberg as played by Jesse Eisenberg, whether or not that’s real.

They always will. Yeah. That’s him for the rest of his life.

Does that change the way you think about what you can do or can’t do? That there are people who have these names and companies that did this stuff?

No. I defer to Werner Herzog’s concept of the ecstatic truth with this. He’s quite adamant about the idea that there is a truth beyond the facts and that the facts are actually kind of dead and cold and, in many ways, don’t matter to anybody but accountants. And that the truth, the real truth of who somebody is, of what somebody did, is beyond an encapsulation of the facts of what they did and when and what they said. It’s deeper than that.

And that’s what Matt Miller and I were interested in: what is the deeper truth of this story in their lives? Because that’s what is enduring and that’s what’s useful to audiences, I think, as opposed to just a straight portrayal of exactly what happened and when. So while we are playing with the dialogue that’s being used and some things in reality, we are keeping pretty strict to the timeline and the events that occurred with these guys.

But more than that, we’re trying to sort of say what we think is really going on with them. Zuckerberg says The Social Network is unrecognizable to him, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still true. The Social Network is still true. As much as he can argue that none of that happened, it did. In the same way that The Shawshank Redemption is true, even though there never was a friendship between Red and Andy Dufresne and they never went to Zihuatanejo in Mexico. It’s still true. And we know that it’s true. And so, I feel like that’s what we were going for in this film.

“Zuckerberg says The Social Network is unrecognizable to him, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still true. The Social Network is still true.”

So, tell me why you think BlackBerry ultimately failed. The conclusion the movie draws is really interesting because there’s been this line of thinking for 15 years now that Apple showed up and killed it, and BlackBerry didn’t see it coming and wasn’t able to respond fast enough and just sort of died at the hands of Steve Jobs and the iPhone. But after watching the movie, I almost ended somewhere different. I kept asking myself, “If BlackBerry had just not gotten distracted by this Apple thing and kept doing the stuff that they cared about and wanted to do and believed in, maybe it could have worked.” Where do you land? What killed BlackBerry at the end of all this?

In a nutshell, what I’ve been saying, and I think that that’s true about the people and the product, is that the BlackBerry was a technical device that solved an immediate problem, which is: how can we basically get data into the hands of consumers, and how can we have email mobile? And that’s a very small box, right? What Mike and Doug [Fregin] were trying to do, they’re trying to solve something extremely local, but the product itself — and I think you’ll agree, especially since you’re a tech reporter — really had no vision.

The product did not present a vision of culture and the future and how human beings would relate to one another in the way that the iPhone did. The iPhone is a product with incredible vision, and it’s saying that you are going to change the way that you live in order to make this product integrate with you. Whereas the BlackBerry was, “We’re going to give you this tool that is going to help you with the tiny problems that you have, and it’s going to be very, very useful.”

I think that you’re right to land on this thing that the film is getting at, which is that BlackBerry seemed to get distracted by the threat of something new, and they tried to pivot quickly toward it in making the BlackBerry Storm. And in some ways, that very shortsighted, very anti-BlackBerry product winds up getting them in so much hot water with Verizon and really starting the slow descent into obscurity. Whereas if they had maintained that original almost startup culture that they had where every day was exciting…

I mean, BlackBerry invented so many things that they’ll never get credit for. Double-spacing to create a period is an invention of BlackBerry. Autocomplete on emails, where you start typing somebody’s name and then it goes through your address book and instantly finds them, they invented that. The pace of innovation that was occurring because you have all these engineers all in the same place, all trying to come up with new stuff every single day, was insane. And we still live with a lot of the things that they created that they’ll never ever get credit for.

And so, I think that if they had just maintained that almost LAN party sense of “well, what’s fun, what do we want this device to do” and kept going, then I think we could have seen a world with parallel products. And I really would’ve liked to see that world because, with the BlackBerry gone, we essentially just have clones of the iPhone, which is a product I love, but it really isn’t the same as what a BlackBerry was.

“We essentially just have clones of the iPhone, which is a product I love, but it really isn’t the same as what a BlackBerry was.”

Mike Lazaridis wrote a manifesto in the mid-to-late ’90s about what he thought mobile products should do, and he said they should do as little as possible — as little as they possibly can do. And that’s how you break into a new market. And it’s so funny because, nowadays, it’s like every week or something I’ll see a news report about, “Oh, this company is putting out a cellphone that does nothing. Don’t worry. There’s no social media on it. It has no apps. All it can do is talk and text. All it can do is send simple emails.” It’s so weird to see, now, a culture trying to recapture whatever it was that the BlackBerry was trying to do at first. And so, I really do wish that they had kept doing that, because a scaled-down BlackBerry with just a keyboard that can only do a few things — I think people would love that product.

I honestly think so, too. There’s a world in which you could just start the BlackBerry from scratch right now, and I think it might be hugely successful.

So do I, especially with what we know about manufacturing. Oh, man. Well, who knows? Maybe there’s a revived interest after this film.

It was a really interesting moment for me to watch this movie because, to some extent, it is a story about what happens when you become successful and how that corrupts you and all the problems that come with it. And I’m watching this movie in the middle of Silicon Valley Bank failing and everybody panicking about the future of the tech industry.

I got to the end of the movie and couldn’t decide if you had done this as this incredibly damning critique of everything that makes the tech industry go or if it was sort of a sad movie about what happens when you become successful and how hard it is to grapple with those things and how complicated life is. Do you land one way or the other? Do you want this to come off like sort of a screaming critique of the way tech works, or is there something else going on?

I learned a long time ago when I made my first movie that if I knew what my movies were about and I could explain it to you in a sentence, they would suck. And that really is true. I think that that holds for almost any movie that you love. To explain what the point of it is, I can’t — I truly can’t. You know what I did? I was like, “I love these characters,” and I tried to follow their story, and I tried to treat them with dignity, and yes, this is where BlackBerry wound up. I’ve talked with a lot of people who think that I was trying to do a general critique of capitalism or, as you say, the inevitability of innovation and how the world really is “innovate or die” and that, no matter how successful you are, you will fail in the end.

And to be totally honest, none of these things are philosophies that I think about at all. I think that, from my own experience, I know that as soon as you lose the catalyzing beginner’s mindset or the child that lives inside you, as soon as that goes away, you may as well be dead, which, in some ways, is kind of what this film is about. But I don’t have a larger philosophy on how that applies to the larger tech world, although I do like to see these themes playing out in the real world.

So many tech movies, in one way or another, are basically, “look at these assholes.” It’s either the nerdy engineers or the dickhead money guy, but somebody’s an asshole. I get the distinct sense you went out of your way to be like, “Actually, nobody in this movie is an asshole.” Even Jim Balsillie, who is objectively an asshole, is not an asshole. Is that why it was so hard for me to come out of this being like, “What does this guy think about the tech industry?”

You know what? I was very specific in trying to make sure that there was absolutely no sadism in the characters, specifically Jim, because what I often find in any type of villainous portrayal is that they add a level of sadism that I go, “What? I don’t know anybody like that. Nobody successful.” It’s very difficult to be a success in industry and to be a sadistic or “evil” person. I also believe it’s very rare to find people who are truly evil and successful. It’s very hard to get people to work with you if you’re an evil person. Extremely hard.

“It’s very hard to get people to work with you if you’re an evil person. Extremely hard.”

My theory behind personalities is that, one, everyone’s funny, and two, everybody thinks they’re doing the right thing. And so, if you treat characters as though those two things are true, you won’t wind up with people that audiences are just like, “Oh, I completely hate them, and I want them to die.” That’s not what I wanted. And also, that’s not true. If you spent time with the real Jim Balsillie, you’d be like, “Ah, this guy’s great.” And even when I watch him in the film, he’s the guy I’m rooting for. I’m like, “Man, I really hope this guy gets what he wants because he seems to really sincerely want it.” Also, those guys were going fucking nowhere if it weren’t for Jim showing up and being like, “Alright, look. Unfortunately, you need this prototype done tomorrow or we’re going bankrupt.”

He’s sincere in his desire for power — but also, without that, this company was going to go bankrupt, and the Dougs of the world were going to wind up in their parents’ basements doing nothing, thinking about the good old days. You do really need these forces to come together, and I think that it’s insincere to think that one of them is totally bad and one of them is totally good.

A funny central tension of the entire tech industry is everybody’s always looking for villains, and it’s super unclear who the actual villains are.

Of course. Even the VC assholes, even the people who are like, “Oh, we’re going to take these people for all they’re worth,” they’re providing an essential service, and so many of these companies fail miserably. They’re taking insane risks. Yeah, it’s not as black and white as people like to think it is.

What tech movies do you like? What would you think of as influences for what you wanted to do in this movie? Are there even any good tech movies?

I think people would be surprised to hear that when I first saw The Social Network, it was with the entire team that made this movie. We saw it in theaters, and I was very bored by it. Even though it is considered a classic and universally beloved, there are parts of that film that I really love, but it’s so manicured and so controlled and so operatic that it doesn’t represent reality to me in any way. They were not people that I could relate to. I’m not trying to say it’s a bad movie. It’s just that, in some ways, we were trying to do the anti-Social Network. We were trying to do a Social Network where you are watching people that you recognize and you thought, “Oh, I could be this person, or these are people that I knew.”

And the stakes, not to say they were lower, but they were the kind of stakes that I feel like most people experience when they’re dealing with problems like this. It’s not as cut and dried as a massive corporate betrayal involving the signing of stock documents. It’s much more about a culture that shifts as you and your friends grow apart because you want different things. So, in some ways, that was a bit of a good guide map for us: “oh, we want to be like what a bunch of young Canadians would be like in this situation.”

And then, technically, Adam McKay’s The Big Short was shooting in a style that we really liked because we wanted to be observational like our previous films. Very much in a documentary space but with much longer lenses, and this is maybe getting overly technical, but in order to do that, in order to shoot handheld documentary style, we had 500-millimeter lenses, which are gigantic. You need to shoot in a certain way just to get these cameras into these spaces, and so we stole a lot of technical stuff from that movie.

Did you watch all the tech docs? There’s a bunch of well-known old-school tech documentaries, especially from the ’90s — Pirates of Silicon Valley, all that kind of genre.

We watched them all, and I got to say, Pirates of Silicon Valley was a major reference. And so was that documentary about govWorks. Do you remember this film?

It was about the dot-com crash, and it was about a company that made paying your parking tickets online possible. They were the first people to do that in a certain region, and that documentary was a major influence in terms of the culture of what we were seeing. It’s an amazing documentary. But then also, even before that, most of our references were documentary references because that’s sort of the aesthetic we were going for. What we were trying to do in our movie is create that same feeling that you are there and the camera doesn’t know what’s about to happen — to varying success, I would say.

I want them to make more stuff like this because, again, I think it’s an era that, although we are getting these giga-movies about this kind of stuff, whether it’s the Uber movie or the Theranos movie — I guess these are series, but there is an era that I feel like is slightly forgotten, and that’s the mid-to-late ’90s, where we really were transporting from a much more technical, oily, tangible product into an entirely digital product. And that’s the era that I really love.

It’s super different now, obviously, because all these companies are so big and so buttoned-up. If you want to be in the room with some of those people, you have to get through 85,000 marketing executives.

But there was that moment, then, that most of those people were actually doing it because they thought it was interesting, not because it’s the thing you do after you get an MBA, which is what it is now.

Dude, I think there’s an amazing movie out there about [Jeff] Bezos in the ’90s when he’s driving around in that shitty old car trying to figure out the future of Amazon. And the movie only takes place between ’95 and ’99, and that’s it. I think that there’s a movie there that people would love. It would be a bit like 8 Mile about Eminem. So you never see him.

Right. You never see him get rich, right? You just see the struggles. If Bezos were smart, he would try to find a way to secretly commission that film because, right now, he and Elon Musk are seen as like Lex Luthor — the most psychotic, evil people on earth. And I think something like that would be able to really rehabilitate him in a way that could be really good. Again, super low stakes. Dude in his car just trying to figure out how to sell cat food online.

That’s a good idea. Make that movie. I’d watch that movie.

I can’t. I can never reenter this space. It’s over for me. I got to do action movies now.

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