Blackberry: Director and star Matt Johnson talks about his new movie
Docudramas seem to have such high highs and low lows across the board. The new (very) Canadian movie Blackberry (opening on May 12) is the latest in the genre that elevates itself above the fray of cookie-cutter true stories and generic Wikipedia pages brought to life.
It currently has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
A docudrama is more than a true story. It’s a hybrid story that feels one part documentary and one part drama, always based on a real event. Some of the best in the genre (The Insider, Erin Brockovich, Zodiac, Moneyball, North Country, All the President’s Men) look at a much larger story with a smaller scope and lens from the point of view of just a handful of people.
For example, the movie Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle) is a docudrama about Apple and the man behind the rise, failures, and success of the company. It isn’t a birth-to-death tale but rather a slice-of-life look at the hours leading up to three separate Apple launches.
In many ways, Steve Jobs is the perfect double feature to pair with Blackberry, the upcoming movie that was a smash hit at SXSW and currently sits at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. This movie, starring Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder), and Richer Sommer (Mad Men), is a dramatic look at the rise and fall of Research In Motion (RIM) and its Blackberry smartphone that feels riveting but also unique because it’s just so unexpectedly (and believably) funny.
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We spoke to Matt Johnson, the writer, director, and co-star of this highly anticipated new movie. Johnson talked about what interested him in the material, finding this exceptional cast, and even a few of his favourite food spots in Canada.
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Matt Johnson details how the initial idea of doing a movie about this subject didn’t exactly fill him with passion and excitement.
“Nothing about it I found interesting,” Johnson told Daily Hive.
“I got asked to read the book, along with my producer Matt Miller, to write a script. At that time I found the whole concept quite repulsive. I never owned a Blackberry. I knew nothing about them. I knew them as Canadian business figures, Mike and Jim, I had no interest whatsoever in their story.”
“As I was reading it, I found myself even less interested. The story was so run of the mill. There weren’t those kinds of antics I was hoping to find so I was really put off by the initial concept of the project,” Johnson added.
It’s not exactly a hard sell of the movie, but after knowing this, it’s clear that it’s this perspective that adds to the humour of the film. So why did Johnson make it at all?
“It was only when I made the connection that the ’90s, for Research In Motion, was a lot like what being a young filmmaker was like.”
“I reintegrated the project of being a kind of biography of my own life. Then I found a real love for these three guys. I realized that there was a way for me to tell a story about the three warring personalities that live within me and have them play out these very complicated questions of why we go to work and what work actually is on screen in a way that would help me understand — myself and my own psychological frailty.
Johnson was shocked at how big of an international player RIM was in paving the entire way for what is now the smartphone movement. “They don’t get nearly enough credit,” he said. “They invented crazy things that people will never know, like double spacing to create a period or email auto-complete when you type people’s names in.”
They have patents on all of this stuff because they were the first people in solving problems every single day. I found it really exciting to finally be able to tell a story about a real Canadian success, even though ultimately they really crashed and burned. I consider them to be some of the most important Canadians who have ever lived, literally.”
Even really entertaining Canadian movies have a history of being unable to break through the barrier into the United States (The Grand Seduction, The Grizzlies, Antiviral). Blackberry seems like the perfect project to hit mainstream audiences in the States, especially because the smartphone was just as big there as it was here. The nostalgia factor, along with the embrace of the Canada of it all, should make it even more appealing rather than a hurdle to overcome.
“You never know what alchemy goes into something like that,” Johnson told us. “But I can say firsthand from having been at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, and then as recently as two days ago in San Francisco, that American audiences really connect with the film.”
“There’s a kind of insatiable interest. Every single one of our screenings is sold out.”
“I also think that the Canadian side of the film has an ‘awe shucks’ fascinating element to it for an international audience, not just an American audience. At a base level, I think the film is kind of fun to watch and maybe it’s been a long time since there’s been a very fun movie.”
The very real stakes and engrossing humour isn’t just a hard tone to pull off on a script level, but the perfect cast is needed to bring it to life. Blackberry uses dramatic actors with a history of comedy to play the situations authentically which often results in laugh-inducing scenes. These characters don’t think they are in a funny situation, which makes it all the more enjoyable for the audience.
“I never approach these things thinking that we’re making a comedy, said Johnson. “It’s not like the people in the room are laughing because what’s happening is so funny. To them, it’s dead serious. It’s audiences who are laughing because they can’t believe the context in which this is happening.”
The entire cast, particularly Howerton, are pitch-perfect in their roles based on real-life people. Howerton brings the rageful intensity (much like Dennis) that’s always grounded in reality but in new ways that feel dramatic instead of comedic. When he yells lines like “I’m from Waterloo where the vampires hang out!” it feels over the top, funny, scary, and so specific all at the same time and that particular vision is just an example of why the performance, and the rest of the movie, works so well.
“He (Baruchel) and I had been working on Blackberry, which at the time was called Waterloo, for a while and this question of who would play Jim was kind of at the centre of the movie,” said Johnson, talking about casting Glenn Howerton in the movie.
“We needed somebody who would be able to be extremely bellicose and sabre rattling and almost deplorable while still being very root-able and trackable and for audiences to be like “well, he’s doing something that’s right for him.” I didn’t want somebody sadistic.”
“Casting that role was actually the hardest role to find because you needed someone who was willing to do all these dastardly things which seemingly would make audiences hate them but at the same time would have audiences love them, and Glenn…I have never seen him play a character that I didn’t understand.”
“Dennis in It’s Always Sunny is psychotic — he’s screaming, he’s got this psychotic level and also he seems cruel and sadistic but I always know where he’s coming from,” Johnson continued. “That made it a very easy decision.”
“I’ve been asked a lot about Glenn, specifically in this role, and I can say in all honesty there’s nobody in the world I would have rather had play that role than him…nobody.
We also couldn’t resist asking Johnson, who really is one of the most exciting Canadian writers/directors working today, about what his favourite places to eat were. We found out about several hidden gems, but also where he likes to go while he’s travelling to other Canadian cities.
“I’ve been eating in [Toronto] forever, and I love food,” Johnson started. “For example, tonight I’m going to that pizza place that just opened…Danny’s Pizza Tavern.”
Danny’s Pizza Tavern has been turning the heads of food lovers in Toronto ever since it opened. With a concept that closely resembles a classic American pizzeria, there is a simple menu of high-quality red and white pizzas, like the red sausage and peppers or the white clam pie.
He had some words on the Toronto ice cream scene as well.
“There’s this place, Death in Venice, that was making very esoteric gelatos.”
“They just opened a flagship, a permanent place on Dundas. They’re doing really great. People are loving ice cream in Toronto right now,” he told us.
He also mentioned a ramen place on Broadway that is “the spot” called Oji Seichi.
“This place has an old Momofuku chef that moved to Broadview that opened just a tiny little spot, and I give this my full pick for best Toronto ramen by far and I know this because it was recommended to me by a real Japanophile who works at a place called Sakai Bar, which imports all Japanese sake into this one place, and that’s an incredible restaurant just off Dundas.”
And you know the last Toronto recommendation he gave to us had to be a pizza place.
“It is 100% Badiali,” said Johnson.
“It’s unbelievable. I’ve had a slice everywhere. whenever I hear there’s a good slice I always go get it. I eat the whole pie. Badiali is a cut above everything.”
Once Johnson realized we were speaking to him from the West Coast, he had plenty of recommendations there too, including some insider tips for the best experience.
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“My favourite…every single time I go…absolutely a must is to stop at Pie Hole, get a banana cream pie and eat it by hand,” Johnson told us. “On the street — that’s the key. You don’t take the plate. You have them give it to you like a slice of pizza as you walk to the ramen place just down the street.”
So what ramen place is Johnson referring to?
Johnson even has a hot tip for anyone looking for the extra edge in getting a seat at the busy restaurant. “You gotta book on Yelp because you can join the waiting list on Yelp. They just started doing that.”
Leaving Kits, Johnson had his pick for a favourite sushi spot too: Toshi Sushi at 181 E 16th Avenue. “I love Toshi.”
“For Calgary, the best ice cream is called Made by Marcus,” said Johnson. In YYC, it’s a heated debate about what the best ice cream is, often coming down to either Made by Marcus or Village Ice Cream. Johnson told us why he thinks his favourite takes the top spot.
“I’ve done both,” Johnson started. “You know why I like Made by Marcus better? Because they’re taking risks.”
Made by Marcus has flavours like sea salt and goat milk, so we have to agree with the taking risks comment.
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It’s pretty obvious Johnson has some incredible food knowledge, but where Canadians should be most appreciative of his talents can be seen on screen, particularly in the new Blackberry movie, premiering in theatres on May 12.