Film festival: Matt Johnson, Glenn Howerton dive into the smartphone craze in ‘BlackBerry’



Before people were clamoring to buy the latest iPhone model or tablets to play games on, BlackBerry set in motion the idea that making calls, sending messages and surfing the web could all be available on one small device.

The rise of the first smartphone first began in the late 1990s when Canadian mobile communications company Research in Motion, cofounded by Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, created a device that could work as a cell phone and email machine. Later on, as the company grew and savvy businessman Jim Balsillie joined the team, the first BlackBerry was launched, equipped with the satisfying clicks of its tiny keyboard. At its height, BlackBerry controlled 45% of the cellphone market.

But all good things come to an end, and BlackBerry began to fizzle out in the 2010s when other smartphones on the market became the next big thing and had more desirable qualities, like larger screens and on-screen keyboards.

Matt Johnson’s feature film, “BlackBerry,” gives viewers a look into that meteoric rise and fall. The film follows tech-savvy investors Mike (Jay Baruchel) and Doug (Johnson) from their scrappy beginnings to the mega empire that their company becomes once Jim (Glenn Howerton), a daunting and sometimes frightening force, came in to properly push their products out into the world. As BlackBerry revolutionizes the modern age, the three find themselves often at odds with each other, with Jim’s money-first attitude up against Mike’s desire to make the best products possible.

“BlackBerry” will screen at the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Johnson, Howerton and producer/screenwriter Matthew Miller will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.

Exploring the not-so-distant past

The late 1990s/early 2000s was an exciting time for technology, but Johnson admitted in a recent interview he was quite ignorant to a lot of it. His focus, instead, was on video games, which plays a role at the start of the film.

“If you notice in the film, a lot of the culture that I’m trying to represent amongst the engineers working at Research in Motion is a lot closer to like a video game hangout culture than it is an engineering right on the cusp of digital and analog innovations. That’s sort of what I knew at that time,” Johnson said. “I was at the age where I was much more into comic books and games and early console video games and computer games.”

Similarly, Howerton was a bit late to the technology craze — he didn’t get his first cellphone until his 20s — but he had an affinity toward video games when he was younger. However, he was able to relate to his character Jim when he sees Mike, Doug and the other engineers playing on their consoles at work.

“When I was growing up, I always thought video games were for kids, and then I learned as an adult, when I saw my adult friends continuing to play video games, I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess we’re still playing with toys? We didn’t move past that?'” he laughed. “Playing Jim in those moments was very easy for me.”

It’s only when the film gets into the early 2000s that more of an emphasis is put on the technology and changing landscape. Johnson said that’s when his memory of the impact of the first smartphone really turned on, as he recalled seeing people using BlackBerrys in school and realizing there was a “cultural shift happening.”

It’s a fascinating time to look back on, especially when many people today likely find it hard to imagine life before everything became available at their fingertips. The question of “What did we do before X?” comes up every generation, and was likely asked when video games, TV, radio and even the novel and casual reading became part of life, Johnson said.

“Every single one of these cultural, technological intersections where they completely changed the gestalt for everybody always seems so essential for current life — it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without them,” Johnson said. “I think one of the joys that my friends and I had in illustrating this time period was that although the film itself doesn’t ask you these questions because it’s not self-aware in that way … by omission, you’re forced to kind of reckon with those things and see a way of life that really is not that long ago but is socially completely different.”

It can be a struggle to write modern-based material, he admitted. Funny bits about miscommunication, as seen on shows like “Seinfeld” or “Frasier,” don’t work anymore because at any moment you can know the status of anyone by calling, texting or using an app. “It was refreshing to get to write something where the characters could truly be on different pages even though they themselves were inventing texting,” Johnson added.

Capturing the story

“BlackBerry” was loosely adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry.” When it came to deciding what to include in the film, or crafting original scenes and conversations, Johnson said it was all about finding “things that feel true.”

“I try to keep that lens really, really clear and put everything through it. When it comes to even a line as absurd as when Jim is arguing with Gary Bettman at the NHL, and he says, ‘I’m from Waterloo, where the vampires hangout,’ and you think, ‘Well that’s so ridiculous, there’s no way he actually said that,’ and yet, and maybe I’m crazy, but for some reason it seems true,” he said. “Something very interesting happens once an actor embodies a character who has real goals and who is a real person to them. They start to map out what is real and what isn’t.”

The film was also shot to look almost like a documentary film crew was following the characters around in meetings and their work spaces. Johnson was inspired by the 1993 documentary “The War Room” about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. What stood out to the director most was how, as it becomes more and more clear that Clinton is going to win the race, the cameras get pushed farther away from the subjects and they have less access to the key players.

“I thought this would be so cool to recreate this feeling of very handheld, very in-the-room. The cameras are almost part of the gang in the ’90s, (but then in the) late 2000s, Research in Motion is this huge billion-dollar company and the cameras need to be way more static and way further away because they don’t have the same access that they had in the beginning of the picture,” Johnson said.

Howerton described the filming style as “almost shooting us like National Geographic animals with a long zoom lens.”

Some of the most intense scenes in the film rest upon important meetings, such as when Mike and Doug introduce their pager to Jim, as well as when Mike and Jim later introduce what would become the first BlackBerry and how they try to save face once the first iPhone hits the market. Johnson said those scenes were written with as much tension as possible so that the actors could embrace those moments, and to allow cinematographer Jared Raab to find the energy of the room — which is why the camera moves around often as it looks for interesting moments. The goal, he added, was to give the actors the freedom to do what they felt was right in those scenes.

The end result includes looks of panic and rambling between Mike and Doug, annoyance from Jim, and a lot of sweating from the viewer’s seat as we wonder if they’ll be able to pull off these contentious meetings.

Understanding the villain

Howerton has made his comedic chops known as Dennis in the series, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” As co-owner of Paddy’s Pub, he and his gang of misfit and not-too-bright friends get up to outrageous shenanigans in each episode, and more often than not, he’s the smartest person in the room — although the intelligence bar is quite low among that group.

There are some similarities between Dennis and Jim, mostly in the way they get to express their anger, but “BlackBerry” was an exciting departure from the typical roles Howerton gets to play. While there was still plenty of humor in his performance, he got to explore a character who is confident and no-nonsense, but also quite terrifying to go up against. Howerton called it a “real dream role for any actor.”

“I really like it when I see a great dramatic performance from a comedic actor, I also love seeing a great comedic performance from a dramatic actor. When they host SNL and you suddenly realize, ‘Oh, wow, this person is really, really funny,’ I think that’s a lot of fun,” Howerton said. “I think (Matt) sees really good comedic acting the way I view it, which is that it’s just good acting.”

In “BlackBerry,” much of the comedy comes from the differences in personalities between Jim, Mike and Doug. While Jim is always dressed professionally in a suit and ready to talk business, Mike and Doug are less suave with their Velcro wallets, headbands and graphic tees and are often intimidated by Jim’s presence.

Although his character is portrayed as a backstabbing, controlling, selfish individual in the film, Howerton said he could understand why the businessman was often so harsh with his colleagues.

“I’m not willing to yell at people, and I tend to actually be that kind of person who would rather figure out a way to get what I want without yelling or berating people, but sometimes you need a bad guy to come in and do what Michael Ironside’s character does, which is call everybody out, say ‘You guys are children, shut the (expletive) up, if you don’t do what I say, you will be fired,'” Howerton said. “Is that nice? No, but sometimes that is what it takes to get the job done.”

Howerton added that the most interesting villains to him are those who don’t even realize they’re the villain. Jim would fit into that category because, as is seen in the film, he does what he wants and doesn’t think twice about who it might hurt in the process.

Johnson said of Howerton’s performance: “He was an absolute tour de force. Glenn had a way of making every word that he said be completely true to the character. It was mesmerizing to watch him.”

As much as Howerton enjoys playing intense character, he does look forward to giving a subtle, calm performance in the future, he said. His biggest fans, and his vocal cords, are likely excited for the prospect as well.

“I want to continue to surprise people ideally moving forward. I want to continue to challenge myself,” Howerton said.

How to watch

What: “BlackBerry” screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

When and where: 8:30 p.m. Jan. 12 at Annenberg Theater

Cost: $15 (on stand-by)

More info:


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