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Director Matt Johnson, leans against a wall by a window showing the Berlinale red carpet, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Berlin, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, ahead of the world premiere of the Canadian film, Blackberry, in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, Germany.
Joel Ryan Photo/The Globe and Mai

Director Matt Johnson at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Berlin, on Feb. 17.Joel Ryan Photo/The Globe and Mail

The very first thing that audiences attending the Berlinale film festival saw during the world premiere of the hilarious, thrilling and instantly essential new Canadian movie BlackBerry was a disclaimer.

Just two quick sentences, projected up high on the grand screen of the Berlinale Palast in front of 1,800 filmmakers, actors, industry executives, politicians, cinephiles and critics gathered for an evening at one of the most prestigious film fests in the world. Each line of the disclaimer served two separate purposes. The first: to let the black-tie audience know that BlackBerry is a “fictionalization” of the real-life saga behind the ascent and crash of Research In Motion, the Canadian company whose handheld device changed the way the world communicates. The second: By noting that their movie takes place in “Waterloo, Ontario” and not “Waterloo, Canada,” BlackBerry’s filmmakers kick off their story with a subtle but definitive mission statement.

“It means we’re not pre-emptively censoring ourselves to be more friendly to Americans or anyone else who might not know what Ontario is, out of fear that they’ll shut the movie off in confusion. We’re not perpetuating this weird servile attitude of, ‘Oh, I hope the rest of the world likes us!’” explains Canadian actor Jay Baruchel, who stars in BlackBerry as Mike Lazaridis, the tech-genius co-founder of RIM. “I made a conscious decision a while ago to stay in Canada to work. I have an Ontario driver’s licence. I have an OHIP card. I pay my taxes here. And I’m proud that I’m making movies that aren’t about hiding where I’m from.”

In that way – and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other tinier ones – BlackBerry is a Canadian movie that embraces, adores and shouts its Canadian-ness at every opportunity. BlackBerry is so Canadian, in fact, that it is unlike any other Canadian movie that you have ever seen.

“Canada famously has an inferiority complex, and we’ve made a movie about a phone with an inferiority complex,” says Ben Petrie, who appears in the film as one of BlackBerry’s engineers. “It’s often said, derisively, that we know when a movie feels Canadian. But this movie feels Canadian in a way that I’m proud of.”

The Berlinale crowd this past weekend agreed, giving a standing ovation to BlackBerry’s cast, its crew and, especially, its writer-director, Matt Johnson.

“There was a shortage of films this year, and they needed a movie from Canada, so they called us,” Johnson joked to the crowd, before bringing his many collaborators up to share the stage. “But this is a big deal in Canada. This never happens to us.”

But the bright, global Berlinale spotlight did happen – and might happen again, and again, if BlackBerry sparks the Canadian cinema revolution that its creators are fomenting.

A decade ago, a mouthy, irrepressible, divisive Matt Johnson launched an incendiary campaign to change the way that Canadian movies are made. And BlackBerry is proof that he just might have succeeded.

‘The balance between chaos and order’

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Actors from centre left to right, Cary Elwes, Glenn Howerton, Jay Baruchel and director Matt Johnson, respond to media questions, during the press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Berlin, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, ahead of the world premiere of the Canadian film, Blackberry, in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, Germany. Joel Ryan Photo/The Globe and Mail

Actors from centre left to right, Cary Elwes, Glenn Howerton, Jay Baruchel and director Matt Johnson, at a news conference ahead of the world premiere of Blackberry.Joel Ryan Photo/The Globe and Mail

The 37-year-old Johnson – who grew up in Mississauga and attended film school at Toronto’s York University – first kicked down the doors of the Canadian industry in 2013, when his $10,000 school-shooting comedy (yes) The Dirties made a splash at the Slamdance Film Festival, attracting the attention of indie king Kevin Smith.

Since then, Johnson and his ever-expanding band of mischief-makers operating under the Zapruder Films banner – producer and co-writer Matthew Miller, composer and actor Jay McCarrol, cinematographer Jared Raab, editor Curt Lobb, production designer Adam Belanger, assistant director Matt Greyson – have delivered a wealth of brash, irreverent, intensely entertaining work. These are productions that feel miles (sorry, kilometres) away from what we have been conditioned to talk about when we talk about Canadian film. If we ever talk about it at all.

There was 2016′s Operation Avalanche, in which Johnson and his crew snuck into NASA headquarters to covertly shoot a mockumentary about ... breaking into NASA. Then came the Viceland series Nirvanna the Band the Show, whose episodes mixed real-world action with meta-slicked improvisation to such a dizzying degree that you couldn’t quite tell whether Johnson and McCarrol actually, say, broke into the Royal Ontario Museum’s archives or only tricked you into thinking they would dare to. Zapruder has even expanded into children’s programming with the Amazon Kids+ series Matt & Bird Break Loose, which transfers the fourth-wall-breaking comedy of Nirvanna to a cute cartoon about a monkey and a bird trying to escape their zoo.

If there is one through-line to Johnson’s work, it is his devotion to so intensely blurring the lines between reality and fiction that everyone – audiences, but also the productions’ own participants – gets their heads turned upside-down.

It is a kind of cinematic troublemaking that extends to the real world, with Johnson regularly challenging the status quo of the Canadian film industry by issuing provocations to gatekeepers and power players. (Such as the time, in a quote that he will never likely escape, he told The Globe and Mail that “a lot of people just need to die of old age for the system to change.”)

Yet Johnson has steadily backed up his fighting words with real-deal action. Together with his producing partner Miller, Johnson has helped completely rewire Telefilm Canada’s microbudget Talent to Watch funding program, doubling the number of first-time filmmakers the federal agency supports (even though the initiative has in recent years drastically scaled back its ambitions). And through Zapruder, Johnson has developed an incubator of sorts for emerging filmmakers (some of whom, including Petrie, Ethan Eng, Michael Scott and Pranay Noel, play the nerdy engineers in BlackBerry).

“With BlackBerry, Matt is the voice of the outsider making an anti-establishment film about the ultimate establishment, which is hilarious to me,” says Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media, which helped produce BlackBerry. “My role was to put this shield around Matt so that he could make this film his way. And he got to do this film exactly the way he wanted to because he nailed it every step.”

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BLACKBERRY (2023). Shown: Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie. The story of the meteoric rise and catastrophic demise of the world's first smartphone. Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie in BlackBerry.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

The film is a loose adaptation of the 2015 non-fiction book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, written by Globe and Mail journalists Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish (the latter of whom later moved to The Wall Street Journal). Tracing the rise of RIM from its scrappy beginnings in the late nineties through its dominance in the early-aughts smartphone market to its crash at the dawn of the iPhone era, the book is not exactly the kind of edgy, provocative material for which Johnson is known.

Yet the director found his story by focusing on the two warring personalities who co-run RIM: the gentle genius Lazaridis, and the corporate shark Jim Balsillie, played with voluble menace by American comic actor Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). As Lazaridis and Balsillie steer their company toward innovation and away from the clutches of various competitors – including a corporate raider played by Cary Elwes – the soul of RIM is tossed back and forth between the freedom of invention and the tyranny of capitalism. Johnson is on-screen, too, playing a composite character named Doug who acts as the angel on Lazaridis’s shoulder to Balsillie’s spittle-spewing devil.

Across two swift and sharp hours, BlackBerry delivers live-wire filmmaking that feels both wildly fun and just barely in control of its own potency – a riotous burst of energy that is deliberately nerve-rattling.

“We’re trying to take the language of cinema-vérité documentary and transpose it to a more classic Hollywood storytelling style,” says Johnson’s long-time cinematographer Raab, who shoots the action from great distances, and partially obscured by the pane of a window or the edges of office furniture. “There’s a powerful feeling created when you’re watching something that feels like it’s shot by real people. How do we get the audience to feel like they’re the ones operating the camera? It should feel as if the audience is thinking, ‘I can’t believe we’re in the room seeing this all happening.’”

That fly-on-the-wall naturalism is key to what makes BlackBerry click. This is a movie less about business decisions than it is about the flawed people who are making those decisions – and getting close enough to them to revel in their successes, and squirm in their screw-ups.

“It’s about finding the right balance between chaos and order,” says assistant director Greyson. “We were used to driving a speedboat with previous projects, but this was a cruise ship.”

Indeed, BlackBerry’s thrilling sense of impending disaster rests in the tension between its small-scale mischief and big-time stakes.

To tell the story of Canada’s most epic corporate meltdown – the BlackBerry was, at its height, the go-to tool of journalists, CEOs and even the president of the United States (one can’t help but think what Barack Obama might make of the film) – Johnson knew he had to go bigger than any Canadian film had gone before. This is, in many ways, Canada’s The Social Network.

The result is an epic, decades-spanning feature with real-deal movie stars, expansive sets, a fist-pumping soundtrack (the Kinks, the Strokes, Matthew Good Band) and the production budget to match (just less than $10-million, with Telefilm contributing $4.1-million in financing and development).

“More than 90 per cent of this movie is directly financed out of Canada, and we’re proud that we’re making this as a Canadian movie,” says producer Miller. “But if we want Canadians to see Canadian movies, we need to increase these budgets. If you start making movies that people want to see that are accessible and entertaining, audiences will come.”

Which means that Johnson and his team need to get their outsider vision inside the system.

“After Telefilm’s Talent to Watch began to erode from the inside, I thought, ‘Why is this happening?’ We were not getting results working outside the system at all, so why don’t we try to make a successful film for these public agencies so we can then speak to the leadership from a place of authority?” Johnson says. “It’s easier to mutually benefit from trade than going to war, which is what I was doing in the past.”

‘Thank god, another Canadian movie’

Open this photo in gallery:
Actors Jay Baruchel, centre right, and Glenn Howerton, right, smile as colleague Cary Elwes hugs director Matt Johnson, left, during the photo call at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Berlin, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, ahead of the world premiere of the Canadian film, Blackberry, in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, Germany. Joel Ryan Photo/The Globe and Mail

Baruchel, Howerton, Elwes and Johnson at the photo call ahead of the premiere at the Berlinale film festival.Joel Ryan Photo/The Globe and Mail

The last time that Johnson was premiering a film at a festival, he was too busy pulling pranks to savour the moment.

When Operation Avalanche made its 2016 debut at Sundance, the Zapruder crew tagged along to twist the experience of screening a movie into fodder for an episode of Nirvanna in which Johnson and McCarrol, playing bumbling versions of themselves, trick the Utah film fest into showing a fake version of their film (also called Operation Avalanche; it’s just that kind of hall-of-mirrors show).

There is no time for such antics in Berlin, though, with Johnson and his cast – including Baruchel, Howerton (his hair having fully grown back after being shaved clean to play the bald Balsillie) and Elwes (who sports a wickedly infectious laugh) – busy shuttling between various interviews and festival obligations. A media junket inside the Grand Hyatt’s lounge turns into business meetings a few floors up, which then turn into a long walk along the red carpet in front of rows of snapping photographers and screaming onlookers who the day before lined up to glimpse Anne Hathaway, Sean Penn and this year’s Berlinale jury president Kristen Stewart.

And even though Johnson is sporting his typically dressed-down look of a Toronto Blue Jays T-shirt, sweatpants rolled up to just below his knees and blue-swish Nike runners – he promises to, and does, change before the world premiere – the filmmaker is at the swirling, swarming, go-go-go Berlinale to work, not play. Mostly. (He swears that if you see cinematographer Raab in-person, there’s no chance that they’re filming anything on the sly.)

“I want to go to film festivals and hear people say, ‘Thank god, another Canadian movie!’ I’ve never been to an international film festival where they’ve said that. Nothing like, ‘I saw this great Finnish movie,’ or, ‘What about this Italian film?’ I know French Canada is different, but what I’d like to see is for English-Canadian film to have a main place on the international stage,” Johnson says. “Our country is awesome. You don’t have to move to the U.S. to make movies or be so apologetic about your own existence that you never take any risks.”

It will be a few months still until Johnson and his backers can tell whether their BlackBerry risk paid off. In Berlin, the word inside the press lounges, hotel bars, café queues and theatre lineups is overwhelmingly positive, as are the reviews (100 per cent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes). Before the festival even began, the film had sold out its distribution rights across the world. Elevation Pictures will give it a large theatrical push in Canada starting April 28, esteemed indie label IFC Films will release it in the U.S. four weeks later and Paramount will roll it out in the rest of the world.

“Canadian success seems predicated on U.S. box-office success, so I’m curious to see if it breaks through over the next couple months,” says Miller. “We also want it to register around the world as a Canadian film. We want Canadian films to mean something outside of the country.”

‘The greater the sacrifice, the greater your success’

At its heart, BlackBerry is a film about the ways in which success tears people apart.

Lazaridis and his friends changed the world, but the cost of doing so – “the greater the sacrifice, the greater your success,” Balsillie tells his partner early on – becomes abundantly clear by the film’s tragicomic finale.

“The analogy that helped me understand this story about starting a tech company with your best friends is that it’s not so different than making your first film with your friends,” says Johnson. “You have no idea if it’s going to work, nobody is getting paid anything, one person is the leader but that’s diffused throughout the group, the hierarchy is flat. These guys at RIM had no expectations, but success wound up completely changing friendships in that group.”

Johnson insists that the same thing will not happen to him after BlackBerry. Mostly because he already endured such a learning experience making The Dirties.

“When I was young, this exact story occurred to me, a culture shift that changed the landscape of my social life,” he says. “Part of it is you can be viewed differently, and the funny guy who was once the leader before is now on the outside.”

But Johnson’s optimism is also due to the fact that almost all of the guys who helped make BlackBerry – and they are, mostly, guys – are here in Berlin, along for the ride.

Two days after the premiere – which was capped by a politely raging after-party that would have kept going had the staff not turned on the house lights – nearly a dozen BlackBerry players are sharing beers and currywurst in a crowded restaurant near Potsdamer Platz. Harried Berlinale guests flit around every which way between sales meetings and screenings, while a waitress stops by the group to bemoan her inability to nab a BlackBerry ticket.

“For me as a young filmmaker, watching Matt do things his way, from Mississauga to Berlin, it shows me that I can do that, too,” says Ethan Eng, the director of the microbudget festival hit Therapy Dogs and part of the film’s engineering cast.

Earlier, Elwes – who spent most of his time on the BlackBerry red carpet personalizing autographs for everyone holding Princess Bride 8x10s – recalled just how unusual it was to find the film’s set so heavily staffed by friends.

“It was all, ‘This is my buddy here, and this is my buddy there,’ and I was just like, wait a minute, this is unbelievable. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

As Johnson prepares for his next project – several are in the thick of development, including a new ripped-from-the-headlines film, revamping Matt & Bird Break Loose into a half-hour adult animated comedy and a lead role in fellow Canadian filmmaker Kazik Radwanski’s latest movie – the director emphasizes that his future is both ambitious and achievable. He wants to continue working in Canada, and he wants to ensure that his collaborators both old and new get the seats at the industry tables they deserve.

“There’s a line in the film where my character asks Mike, ‘Why do you think people work here?’ And Mike answers, ‘Because they get to make the best phone in the world,’” Johnson says. “That was my perspective when I was younger, because I didn’t know that was just one piece of it. You can make the best show that everybody loves, but you can’t do that and not let people know how important they are to you.”

He pauses for a beat.

“And that’s why the film is so technically flawed. We refused to hire professionals, I’m sorry!”

BlackBerry opens in Canadian theatres April 28.

Open this photo in gallery:
From centre left to right, actors Cary Elwes, Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton, look on as director Matt Johnson, right, is photographed by international media, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Berlin, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, ahead of the world premiere of the Canadian film, Blackberry, in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, Germany. Joel Ryan Photo/The Globe and Mail

Joel Ryan Photo/The Globe and Mail

Best of Berlinale

Thanks to its early-year place on the film-circuit calendar and its European location, Berlinale’s programming tends to lean away from Oscar bait and toward more adventurous international cinema. In addition to BlackBerry, here are the standouts.

Past Lives

The debut feature from Korean-Canadian director Celine Song follows two childhood lovebirds separated by distance and decades, only reuniting after one of them (played by Greta Lee) has married an American writer (John Magaro). Tender, confident, frequently funny and already backed by cool-kid U.S. distributor A24, Song’s semi-autobiographical romance looks like it could be the big indie hit of the year.


Euphoria/White Lotus breakout Sydney Sweeney anchors this experimental take on the saga of U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Reality Winner. Instead of dramatizing the events leading to Winner’s arrest, writer-director Tina Satter adapts, verbatim, the FBI transcript of her interrogation. The script’s inventiveness cannot outlast the set-up’s diminishing dramatic returns, though Sweeney offers a twisty, unblinking performance.

She Came to Me

There are about four quirky movies stuffed into Rebecca Miller’s latest romantic comedy – but each one of those is still entertaining enough on its own. Peter Dinklage, Anne Hathaway and Marisa Tomei lead a cast of neurotic basket-cases trying to find happiness in New York, each with their own set of sexual hang-ups and unique occupations. (This might be the first movie to ever feature a lascivious tugboat captain.)

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