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Open this photo in gallery:Jay Baruchel as “Mike Lazaridis”
and Glenn Howerton as “Jim Balsillie”
in Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry. Courtesy of IFC Films / Elevation Pictures

Jay Baruchel, left, as Mike Lazaridis and Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie in a scene from Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry.Courtesy of IFC Films / Elevation Pictures

It is a few weeks into production of the new film BlackBerry, tracing the rise and fall of the Canadian company whose handheld device changed the way the world communicates, and co-star Michael Ironside is wondering where the cameras are.

The veteran Canadian character actor, known for his heavyweight roles in everything from Total Recall to last year’s Theranos miniseries, The Dropout, is shooting a scene inside the old Empire Steel factory in downtown Hamilton. Director Matt Johnson and his team have converted the cavernous space into a recreation of the Research In Motion engineering offices of the early aughts. It is a nerd’s paradise of arcade games (Cruis’n USA, Martial Masters), movie posters (The Goonies), and enough Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise to clog a sewer. But missing from the set is any sign of someone filming.

“Where are my cameras?” Ironside asks his director. This particular scene is crucial – it’s the moment in which Ironside’s whip-cracking chief operating officer first meets RIM’s co-founder, the introverted tech-wiz Mike Lazaridis (played by Jay Baruchel) – and every detail matters. Including where the actors should be looking. Or rather, not looking.

This is the method behind Johnson’s madness. Like the Canadian filmmaker’s other projects – the pseudo-slacker Viceland series Nirvanna the Band the Show, the dark comedies The Dirties and Operation AvalancheBlackBerry is shot in a sneaky faux-cinéma-vérité documentary style, designed to capture spontaneous reactions that might otherwise appear overly manufactured.

“We try to hide the cameras as much as we can – it’s much more interesting to be in a scene where they are obscured so that the actors have no clue where they are and are just reacting to their environments,” Johnson says later.

Or, in the words of Glenn Howerton, the American comic actor (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) who plays RIM’s constantly shouting co-CEO Jim Balsillie: “It gives the audience the impression that things could go off the rails at any second.”

This sometimes prankish, sometimes frustrating approach will ultimately result in an inspired, nerve-rattling big-screen comedy chronicling the epic tale of how a Canadian smartphone once prized by the likes of Barack Obama ended up being trounced by the iPhone. In half a year’s time, BlackBerry will make its world premiere at the Berlinale film festival to rave reviews, before making a victory lap at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, ahead of its May 12 theatrical release.

As brash and bold and unabashedly Canadian as the Waterloo, Ont., company it follows – the film is filled with myriad only-in-Canada details, from retro Shoppers Drug Mart and Bank of Montreal signage to boxes of Timbits – BlackBerry might very well go down as one of this country’s most successful cinematic dares.

But on this sweltering day in June, 2022, Ironside just seems flustered. Both by the sorta-hidden cameras and his director’s request for more – and more – takes between him and Baruchel.

“One more that’s simplified,” Johnson asks. Baruchel, wearing thick-framed glasses and a grey wig, requests some improvised off-screen dialogue in order to nail a reaction shot. Which is when Ironside turns calm and starts reciting from memory the middle stanza from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. (“At length did cross an Albatross / Thorough the fog it came / As if it had been a Christian soul / We hailed it in God’s name.”) It is a gentle, left-field moment that brings a smile to both the men’s faces.

Open this photo in gallery:Rich Sommer as “Paul” and SungWon Cho
as “Ritchie” in Matt Johnson’s
BlackBerry. Courtesy of IFC Films / Elevation Pictures

Rich Sommer, left, as Paul and SungWon Cho as Ritchie in BlackBerry.CHRISTOPHER KATSAROV LUNA/Courtesy of IFC Films / Elevation Pictures

Johnson and his actors pick themselves back up and go again for another take. And again. Okay, that’s lunch.

The days are long on the set of “Budgie,” as the production’s shoot is code-named (referencing RIM’s first product). These are 12-hour stretches, shot over the course of just 35 days, that can feel highly pressurized, marked to the minute. But there is a sense of shared purpose.

“Even in the moments that I was most frustrated or sweating my ass off under the wig, I knew we were making something awesome,” Baruchel recalls months later. “It was like playing cops and robbers – we’re not doing a job, we’re making something crazy and fun in the backyard. And Matt will just go until he finds the thing, which ends up being better because you keep refining and distilling.”

But time, as the real-life Balsillie might say, is money. Which means that Johnson and his long-time producing partner and co-writer Matthew Miller need to keep things moving. As can happen when you’re telling a monumental Canadian story with Canadian-scale resources.

While the film’s approximately $10-million budget is tiny compared to something like David Fincher’s The Social Network or Adam McKay’s The Big Short – to name two comparable tech-hubris movies – that number is huge for a homegrown movie.

“That is about as high as you can get in our country without being a co-production with another country,” says Niv Fichman of the Toronto-based Rhombus Media, which helped produce BlackBerry.

This relative budgetary bump, though, is both a blessing and a curse for Johnson, the scrappy outsider whose inventiveness is rooted in subverting norms – and eagerly lobbing firebombs at the Canadian film industry’s old guard. Working with crowds of unionized extras and a parking lot full of trailers on BlackBerry is not like sneaking into NASA headquarters to covertly film Operation Avalanche, or fake-enrolling in a high school to shoot The Dirties.

“Ironically it feels like we have way fewer resources than normal. With The Dirties and Nirvanna, we had the whole world to play with – shooting anywhere, doing anything, with real people,” the 37-year-old director, wearing a Mortal Kombat T-shirt and a bright orange bandana, says while picking at his lunch. ”Michael and I were having a pretty serious debate upstairs, and that’s exactly what you want. I wish we had another two hours to shoot that scene. This type of filmmaking requires preparation, which is my worst quality.”

To tell the story of Canada’s largest corporate meltdown, Johnson had no choice but to go big. But that doesn’t mean the filmmaker abandoned his sense of small-scale mischief (including casting himself as a goofy version of RIM co-founder Doug Fregin, the angel on Lazaridis’s shoulder to Balsillie’s slick Satan).

And though the business-world source material might seem an odd fit for Johnson – the script is a very loose adaptation of the 2015 book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, by Globe and Mail journalists Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish (the latter of whom later moved to The Wall Street Journal) – the filmmaker found his own way into the story.

“Being in a startup tech company with all your best friends is not so different from making your first movie,” Johnson says. “You have no idea if it’s going to work, nobody is getting paid, the hierarchy is flat. As soon as I started seeing those connections, it became easy to understand what this film would be. The RIM guys achieved great success, but at what cost to their friendships?”

Which is why the BlackBerry set is filled with long-time collaborators and friends. The group is so tight that six of them – Johnson, Miller, cinematographer Jared Raab, production designer Adam Belanger, assistant director Matt Greyson, composer and executive producer Jay McCarrol – are bunking together in a house nearby during production.

“There’s a summer camp feel to it. Miller cooks dinner and we talk and talk,” Johnson says. “It’s the most useful time of the day. On set, you don’t get to talk about anything because you’re so under the gun.”

This might be why, for his next project, Johnson is returning to his roots – a smaller-scale movie based on Nirvanna that will shoot in Toronto and Europe this summer, which the filmmaker and Miller hope will start a Canadian-flavoured Harold & Kumar-style franchise. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also have more BlackBerry-sized projects up their sleeves, too, including an ambitious time-travel movie, and another based on a real-life drug-trafficking case involving Canadian journalists.

“My mission is to make movies completely financed out of Canada, and make them quickly,” Johnson says.

It is no spoiler to say that by the end of BlackBerry, characters are forced to confront how they have sacrificed parts of their souls in their quests to conquer the world. So has the process of making the film changed Johnson?

“So far I’ve prided myself,” he says with a deadpan grin, “on learning absolutely nothing from this experience.”

BlackBerry opens in theatres across Canada on May 12.