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Matt Johnson explains how BlackBerry combats “fake nerdiness”

Matt Johnson tells The Digital Fix about making BlackBerry, his new movie starring Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton, and how Star Trek gave us the internet.


Remember the BlackBerry? For a hot minute, that phone was the biggest thing to ever happen to handheld communication. Then, touchscreen technology and the iPhone came along, and we decided keyboards were for losers and embraced modernity.

Matt Johnson’s new movie BlackBerry explores exactly what happened during that period, and you might be surprised to know it’s all more complicated than you could imagine. The comedy movie follows Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Johnson) , co-creators of the Blackberry, from the moment they receive investment, to revolutionising mobile phones, to the sad, bitter decline.

He sat down with The Digital Fix at Glasgow Film Festival 2023 to chat about the thriller movie. He tells us about how we owe the internet to Star Trek fans, putting together an actual LAN party for one scene, and whether we’ll see his comedy series Nirvanna the Band the Show again.

You’ve been touring BlackBerry around film festivals – how has the reception been?

So far it’s been extremely good, and the audiences have been very kind. But I never really know, because festivals are so different than the general public, and it’s the first time my film is going to be released widely in theaters. So I’m trying not to get my hopes up. You know, because festival audiences typically are quite packed with cinephiles, and I think for better or worse, I’m making movies for people who love movies.

Sometimes that can be very different than the general public who is going to movies, I think, to see interesting stories. My technique can be a little distancing or off-putting, if you’re not into that style. So, it’s a long way of saying that the audience reaction has been really amazing, really amazing, and the critical reaction has been been great. But I think it’s a bit of command performance in that way, because critics and film audiences tend to know what I’m doing.


There are some key points the film focuses on, when the story could’ve been a lot longer. How did you decide the plot points to use?

The book was written by two journalists who wrote for The Globe and Mail, which is our national newspaper in Canada, and the fact is, that book was a series of, basically, events. There were so many to choose from that, what Miller and I, my co-writer were looking for were moments where the characters needed to go through some kind of change and make decisions that were going against what they’d done before, so there’s a hole in reality, BlackBerry was one of the first companies to be sued for patent infringement, that we don’t cover.

There are all kinds of things that happened to these guys, that were not, in my mind, in the public interest, like I didn’t think audiences were going to care. So really, I just picked moments that forced these guys to make difficult decisions, and we didn’t even pick that many. I think there are six or seven major historical moments like the iPhone getting released, or the first coming up with the idea of using the wireless data network to create a phone. Once we had those points, filling in the rest was simple.

For sure, a lot of the conflict comes from characters who have to go against their principles somehow.

And trying to force them to wrestle with their principles when the rubber hits the road. Specifically, Mike, his decision to move production to China, which is something that at the beginning of the film, you’d be like, ‘Well, there’s no way that’s going to happen a million years’.

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But because he’s already sacrificed so much – he sacrificed his friendships, he sacrificed everything, just so that he can say, we make the best phone in the world – as soon as that gets threatened, he needs to sacrifice his principles in order to keep that real. Because if all of a sudden, they don’t make the best phone in the world, then Doug is right. And he’s an asshole. All these guys are working for nothing, so he can’t let that happen.

I understand you were just attached as screenwriter to being with. How’d you end up in the director’s chair?

I think as soon as Miller and I did our first pass of the story. We just wrote an outline, and then we went in to basically explain what we thought the script should be to our partners, rhombus media, and once we explained it, not only did they want us to then take over the project with them, we realized, Oh, I think if we made this in our style, it would be better.

Because we were writing it in such a way that was so specific, and we were writing camera work into the script in a way that I think would have been very difficult for somebody else to inherit, because it was so idiosyncratic. It was written in such an idiosyncratic personal way that it almost would have been unfair to then tell somebody else in the Canadian system to then go and make it. I think we would have needed to rewrite the script.


I can imagine that, you’ve a distinctive style that’d be hard to communicate to someone else.

It might seem like a bit fake – they would need to reimagine it. And also, I think, because I wind up playing one of the characters, it meant that we could take a lot of liberties in the writing, because I knew I was going to be able to rewrite any scene from a position of being on camera. That took a lot of pressure off certain scenes.

I’ll give you a great example. Basically, every single scene with the young guys in the engineering department, all that stuff is 100% improvised; no script, right? So those conversations between me and those guys, those are my friends, those are all young filmmakers in Toronto.

So in the script, there’s no mention of those guys even having lines, right? They’re basically just in the background, but we knew that we could create a really alive feeling, almost like a documentary space, if it was me and these guys on camera, shooting for long takes without with a script. That’s the kind of thing that I think would be difficult to impose on somebody else.


I loved all the ’90s set design. The magazines and posters and so on. In the office, you’re playing a full on LAN, I’m presuming you didn’t actually set one up…

We did!


Yeah, so it was very important to me that we did it for real. Because when you see us playing Command and Conquer that is a fully real game, like it’s not safe, and that’s why we react the way that we react. That’s not dialogue. It’s not like I’m saying, ‘OK, they’re bottom left, let’s go’. It’s not that simple.

First of all, it’s impossible to act. If that was dialogue and a script then you get The Big Bang Theory. You get people who have no clue what they’re saying, just reading lines from a script, coming off as uncanny valley robots. Which I feel is what nerd culture has been parodied as since the ’80s in the most pathetic demeaning way where I look at it and go, ‘That’s not me and my friends’.

Even Silicon Valley. Mike judge is a genius. I love Mike Judge, but even that is a kind of fake nerdiness, like those guys know they’re being funny, they aren’t those guys, they’re not those guys. Those guys known dick all about programming. TJ Miller, whatever his name is, wouldn’t be caught dead with those people.


I watched that, and I go, ‘This is actually so hateful’, and I can’t watch it. It sickens me. So all of my work is trying to show what these ’90s cultural hangout places were actually like, and what engineers and technologically minded people who actually liked Star Trek, who actually liked mathematics, who actually liked computer science, are really like.

These are charming, intelligent, concentrated people who are just into things that you’re not into, and don’t you dare judge them because they gave you the world that you live in. That’s how I feel. That’s why a lot of attention was paid to things like those LAN parties and having real Magic cards, real EGM and GamePro magazines.

There are real Warhammer figures, we really are reading White Dwarf, and all those guys are actually into those things. It’s not like everybody’s pretending, you know. That’s why we did it. It was difficult. Oh my God to set up a LAN with MS DOS systems, that was very challenging to do. But my production designer Adam Belanger just put a lot of work into it and did it.

Awesome. I think it really pays off! There are a couple of bits that really got me, one is the improvised headbands with the mobile phones.

That actually happened! Steve Hamlin said that’s how him and his friends used to play because they would have two phone lines in their house, one to connect to the internet and another to play and talk to each other on their phones. That was 100% from Steve, the guy who’s wearing it, his childhood.


I definitely feel that. In the film, you make a remark to one of the engineers, you want him to get off the internet because he’s on a Star Trek messageboard. Then he responds that someone’s got some garish opinion. I remember hanging out on those forums, and telling someone they were wrong was everything.

It was huge! But you know what I heard when I was young, that really knocked me out and made me go, ‘Ah’, it’s actually one of the major inspirations for this film. It’s a very simple line. It’s almost a joke, but it’s the truth: the early internet was 99% Star Trek forums. The original internet was mostly Star Trek forums, in the way that they say now it’s mostly pornography. Most of the bandwidth of the original internet was hosting Star Trek forums; that tells me everything I need to know about what technology is about.

That’s who it’s for, that’s who it’s by, and so that’s why it was really important that we show a guy in a true Star Trek forum, talking about the origin of Noonian Sung and Data, and how maybe he is a Q, who knows? It’s such an insane opinion, you know, that Noonian Sung could be a Q, but it’s the type of thing you could read in the ’90s and be like, ‘Are you out of your mind!?’

I remember spending time like that with my friends, and nobody was ever bringing the temperature down in those situations. Whenever somebody would point out, ‘they think this on the internet’, you’d be like, ‘Well you gotta tell them they’re wrong!’.

You gotta get ’em, you gotta tell ’em, exactly! [Laughs] That’s why he can’t get off the internet at that moment. ‘Yeah, one sec, some guy’s trying to say Noonian Sung is a Q’, and Mike is watching this, like, ‘Ah, OK’.

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In the back half of the film, we transition to more of thriller movie vibe. Things are getting more corporate and serious for the characters. Can you tell about handling that move out of the ’90s stuff into the 2000s and the duller feel?

Right, and I think the what we were just talking about plays into this because the goal here was I wanted to show how great a world like this could be, right? Look, it’s so fun. These guys are having the time of their lives. They don’t realise it, but they’re changing the world, and it’s awesome.

There’s a conversion then into a place that was much less fun, much higher stakes for the audience, and a lot colder and more unfunny, and I don’t want to say dramatic but serious. Taking the fun out of the second half of the film was very intentional because I wanted the audience to feel the same thing that Doug and his friends were feeling which is, ‘This place sucks now. I used to love it here, and now look what’s happened’.

That mirrors my own experience of making films with just my friends, and then moving into a more corporate space, having to do things more by the book. That’s where I was getting all that stuff from, because I have no background in tech or IT at all. But I do understand what it’s like to be in a kind of fraternity with your friends from university, making something you care about, and then having that change as soon as you have some success.

So that was mirroring that, in a way. All my films, I think, do this. They show the fun and games, and where that leads to, because at a certain point, you do need to grow up, and that can be quite painful.

Glenn Howerton gives a great performance, and shows a side of him that I was unfamiliar with. Can you talk about what he brought to the film?

It’s all Glenn. That guy, people don’t know this, but he’s a Juilliard trained actor, who is not a comedian. He intended to be a serious, almost theatre actor, that’s what his intentions were as a young man. Then he found success in this comedy world, nd so people see him as Dennis, this manic comedy first guy, but in reality, as a man, he’s unbelievably serious. Unbelievably serious, so serious that he was the most prepared person on set. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and that performance is I mean, he’s doing exactly what he wanted to do, is what I’ll say.

I’m not pushing him into a place, I’m not tricking him into being something, he is totally in control of what he’s doing. He was, I would say, borderline method in terms of what he was doing on set, he would come in, do the scenes, and then escape as soon as possible, in a way that was so useful. He’s become a dear friend, and in many ways, I owe much of the success of this film to him because he took it so seriously.

He was at the world premiere in Berlin, where he’s getting huge laughs, half the things he’s saying are getting huge laughs. I don’t think he realised that in him taking the role so seriously, people would see the humour in what he was doing. I find it unbelievably funny by not going for the joke, and he never goes for the joke. That was a huge gift that he gave me.

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There are definitely some moments where he would just stare or something and you’d be deadpan that work so well.

Of course, I knew that him and me, with me being so super low stakes, and him being so super high stakes, everything between us was going to be funny. He looks at me like he just hates me. He hates my guts, and he wishes I would just die. But you can’t fire me! That made for really, really great stuff on camera.

The Dirties is one of my favourite movies of the last decade. I remember when it was coming out, Kevin smith, who was a producer, talked about it being a really important movie. I think it was heartbreakingly prescient and relevant to a lot of what’s going in American schools. When you were making it, did you feel yo were making something important, or were you more concerned about just speaking to issues impacting young people?

No, you know, all my work, I’m never thinking of it in a larger context at all. The Dirties, I would say, is my most personal film, but Operation Avalanche, Nirvanna the Band the Show, BlackBerry, they’re all about my own life. I’m never looking past my own experience when I’m making these things. I honestly have no clue about what the impact will be outside of the fact that when I watch them, I think they’re funny, and that’s as far as it goes.

For me, I try to make it extremely honest. I spend so much time with my editors talking over things that I think are fake, or not working. But I had no concept of one, the fact that other young people would connect with it, and two, that even now ten years on I would still be getting not only questions about it, but young people telling me that they love that movie.

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I think the reason people are connecting with it is because it’s about the desire for a young person, specifically a young man. to be relevant. I think that that is becoming more and more desperate, as time goes on; the need to be seen and to be heard and to have society know that you have something to say.

This is very much what The Dirties is about – a young man who thinks, ‘Oh, I have something important to share with the world, and I’m going to share it no matter what’. And then when that gets blocked, he’s like, ‘Ah, I will share it in a way that will really get people’s attention’, which is, yeah, ‘I’ll kill all the people in my school and make a movie out of that’.

For some reason that story is just getting more and more critical as time goes on, until we find a way to help young men find meaning in life. Because that’s certainly, at least now looking at it, definitely what that film is about. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that’s just how I felt when I was at age.

That kind of aimlessness is something that we’re still trying to find healthy ways to handle.

Right, but it’s aimlessness mixed with a kind of with intelligence, where it’s like, ‘Oh, I know, I can contribute to the world. I just don’t know how’. That creates a real frustration, which I understood extremely well.

My last question is a two-parter – can you remember when you understood the popularity of Wii Shop Wednesday from Nirvanna the Band the Show, and will the series return?

Well, so yeah, I’ll answer that first, and that’s that,  Nirvanna the Band the Show is my favorite thing I’ve ever done. Jay and I are desperate to do it again, we finished shooting the third season of the show, right when Vice went out of business in Canada. So we’ve been trying every way that we can to find a way to release it. Making BlackBerry, in some ways, was a kind of path, we thought, to getting enough exposure that maybe we’d be able to find a place to create a new home for it.

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So I’m hoping that season 3 can get released, now that BlackBerry is coming out theatrically. And we’d also like to make Nirvanna the Band movie, which I think we might shoot this summer. We’ve been wanting to do that for a long, long time. We want to make Nirvanna the Band the Show the Movie.

Full title?

That will be the title, yeah! [Laughs] So long as legally we can get away with it. But in terms of the online popularity of the Wii shopping channel, I remember seeing that people were liking it, and that people would want to do interviews with us just about it. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s great’. I think Jay and I looked at that as like very low hanging fruit with the show. Like, if you see the show, you’re like, ‘This is nothing’. Like it’s barely even funny.

The older I get, the more I realise that it’s like the broadest, most ridiculous stuff that I did when I was young, that large audiences seem to like, and at some level, I find that depressing. Because to Jay and I, I think we would each say that that’s one of the worst things that we did, right? So it’s like, we write a song and sing it, and it’s so silly. You could compare it to almost a TikTok video today.

Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol in Nirvanna the Band the Show

But that’s just the way it is. So it’s sad, but I don’t begrudge people who like it. I mean, what do you think? I think the show is way better than that stupid video. I think there’s some funny stuff in it. I like when I run down and I run down the stairs very quickly, that’s funny.

Every time I watch it, that’s the bit where I feel like the two of you knew this was funny.

Well, we didn’t know. We didn’t know until afterwards. Like I said, we never know what’s funny until it’s done. If we knew how funny it was, we’d never be able to get through a take, we’d just be laughing constantly. Remember it’s the same as Blackberry, I don’t know how Jared’s shooting us. So I don’t know if I’m in this [mimics close up], or like really wide. That’s why it gives Jay and I permission to do these spaces and hold them because we don’t know, and then we watch it and we’re like, ‘Holy shit, this is hilarious’.

There are some good jokes in that where I say, ‘Everybody loves the Wii shopping channel and everybody shops on it everywhere’. Oh, man, it’s so good. [Both laughing] We’re singing that song. Yeah, and I don’t know what it was, but I’d stolen that thing at the end where it’s like, I’m a woman who has been sexually harassed.

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We’d seen that somewhere, right? I don’t know what it was. We started like a real movie with a serious woman, and we were like, ‘Oh, we should do that’. Like, you know, the woman who’s clutching her pearls who’s so, ‘Gasp!’. I don’t know why we did that. We didn’t know how to end the scene, I think that’s what it was.

Well, I think the internet has proven that you ended it just right.

Yeah, right. Exactly. Well, you know, it’ll come back. Nirvanna the Band is not dead at all, because we love it too much. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I don’t think I’ll ever top it. Hopefully we can get it released. Maybe if Blackberry catches on people will be like, what else has this guy done? They’ll watch this and be like, ‘Oh my God’.

BlackBerry is in cinemas now.