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Matt Johnson is Writing the Future of Canadian Cinema 

The breakout BlackBerry star infuses his craft with ethics and anarchy.

by Maggie McPhee

BlackBerry marks a shift in Canadian content in many ways. It’s part of an experiment at the CBC to turn films — including Marie Clements’ Bones of Crows and Chelsea McMullan’s Swan Song — into miniseries. It’s also broken through to the international stage, having been acquisitioned by US distributor IFC whose strategists secured the film a Gotham Award nomination. But most notably, it’s really fucking good. 

The three-part miniseries, which contains 13 minutes of never-before-seen footage and a novel narrative structure, charts the early days and downfall of the world’s first smartphone. Its documentary style narrows the divide between audience and action, bringing its jokes and dramas to visceral highs. The flow from joy to sorrow borders on whiplash. Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton, who play BlackBerry’s brains and brawn, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, are there at every turn, shepherding the perilous journey with best-of-the-year performances.  

What appears as a corporate thriller hides alternate readings. Some speculate BlackBerry allegorizes the financial decline of the Canadian film scene. Director, co-writer and co-star Matt Johnson tells RANGE he accepted the project due to parallels he discovered in his psychology and his progression working in the Canadian system.

“If you look at those early scenes in BlackBerry where I’m kind of the leader of that little group of engineers and all we do is screw around, eat pizza, and play video games, and there’s a shared ethic of: We’re at work because it’s more fun than being at home, that was exactly what my feeling was making movies,” says Johnson. “That’s why I did it, I loved the fraternity, I love making people laugh.”

Photo courtesy of CBC.

Johnson’s character Doug, who founded Research in Motion with his best friend Mike when they were young and hopeful and unashamedly nerdy, acts as a foil to his overburdened companion. He owns a velcro Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wallet, which pretty much sums it up. 

That scrappy start-up sensibility mirrors Johnson’s foray into filmmaking. He started shooting movies with his friends in high school, which they’d screen for their classmates – “there was no public forum other than the actual public.” He went to film school at the dawn of the web series, which he saw as an ideal outlet to make things quick and dirty. Though he loved his education, its formality oppressed him. 

“There was an intentionality that they were trying to drill into you. Which of course you need, like now that I make movies for a living, they’re 100% right. But in the arrogance of my youth I was like, these guys have no idea what they’re talking about,” he says. “So I set off on a career to do the exact opposite of everything I was taught. Which is: I’m never going to write scripts. I’m going to shoot everything in the real world. And I’m not going to have any idea what I’m doing. I’m going to figure it out after I film it.” He brought that ethic to his first projects, the underseen gem Nirvanna the Band the Show and his dark school-shooting comedy The Dirties. 

When Johnson first read the source material, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s journalistic history Losing the Signal, it wasn’t apparent how audiences would connect with its characters. Then, that lightbulb moment. They were him. Separate egos at odds with one another. Doug, the guy who wants to work just to shoot the shit. Mike, the idealist who sacrifices himself to make the world a better place. Jim, the shark hungry for status and power. 

“All my films at some level are dealing with me wrestling with elements of my own personality that I think are out of harmony. Like the Doug, Mike and Jim in my own heart certainly can fall out of harmony and by seeing themselves [on the screen] hopefully it keeps me in a centred place,” he says. “It’s almost like getting to exercise your demons, literally.”

Photo courtesy of CBC.

“It’s not like I’m trying to make this overt. Like nobody would ever watch it and be like, aha, this is the psychology of a man,” he laughs. “It is exactly that reason that I decided to make the movie. These three guys were avatars of these three different aspects of my own personality and what it’s like to be an independent filmmaker,” he says. 

The corporate world destroys this band of misfits. Competition, budget cuts, the non-stop updates and rebrands, all lead to that infamous bankruptcy. There isn’t the time, resources, or support to keep quality high. Sort of like another sector in this country. 

Though Johnson’s psychoanalytical parable doesn’t offer an antidote, his real life does. Unlike the Doug/Mike/Jim trifecta, Johnson has retained his younger self’s sense of camaraderie and creative play. Nirvanna co-star and composer Jay McCarrol, cinematographer Jared Raab, and editor Curt Lobb have collaborated with Johnson on all his projects, including BlackBerry. They’re just like a rag-tag group of coders coming together over a shared craft and a crazy dream. They’ve worked in relative obscurity until now, nurturing an insular sense of style and humour. And as CanCon seems to be on the precipice of greatness, they’re leading the charge. 

All episodes of BlackBerry are available now on CBC Gem while also airing weekly on CBC Thursdays at 9 p.m.