Television

'BlackBerry' director Matt Johnson on why we're nostalgic for a time before smartphones

The acclaimed film 'BlackBerry', about the rise of the eponymous smartphone, is now a miniseries on CBC Gem. For director and star Matt Johnson, the film’s nostalgia is as important as its real-life story.

'BlackBerry' miniseries explores the rise of smartphones and why the ‘90s and 2000s look so different from now

An old photo of friends at a tech startup.
Jay Baruchel ("Mike Lazaridis"), Pranay Noel ("Pranay"), Steve Hamelin ("Steve"), Matt Johnson ("Doug"), Ethan Eng ("Ethan"), Ben Petrie ("Allan"), Michael Scott ("Michael") (Matthew Miller)

Director Matt Johnson feels a sense of comfort and deep nostalgia for the years when BlackBerry takes place.  

"That whole late '90s, early 2000s era technology and culture I thought was really fun," Johnson told CBC. 

BlackBerry, which is now streaming on CBC Gem, tells the story of the rise of the hugely successful Waterloo, Ont., company Research in Motion that pioneered the world's first mass-market smartphone.  

The appeal of nostalgia to today's audiences is undeniable and has given rise to the success of Tetris and Air, films based on other products from our not-so-distant past. Maybe we're nostalgic for a simpler time, or perhaps we want to understand how we got here.

"It's such a confusing time for people generally around technology, especially now with things like AI," says Johnson. "There's a hunger for the current moment to be explained through art in any way it possibly can." 

[It's] about how a Canadian company winds up changing the world and even as they're doing it they still don't think that they're all that important.- Matt Johnson

BlackBerry, based on the book Losing the Signal, stars Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton and Johnson himself, and has appearances from Canadian icons like Mark Critch, Michael Ironside and Saul Rubinek. 

Released as a feature-length movie earlier this year, it was first conceived as a three-part miniseries. "The idea was that we were trying to make something very broad that anybody would be able to watch," Johnson said. "Originally I had thought we would just make it as a three-part miniseries…. That's why the film is split into those three eras because I wanted to make each episode a different era of the company."

In BlackBerry, the founders sense that a big change is coming. 

This before-times of smartphone technology is a big part of why Johnson is so keen on the nostalgia of the late '90s and early 2000s. "It sort of had an innocence compared to the way things are today." 

A world before smartphones

Born in 1985, Johnson was a young adult during the rise of smartphones. But, during the period BlackBerry takes place — the late '90s to the mid-2000s —  he was still immersed in his own analogue world.

Actors Matt Johnson and Jay Baruchel in costume for the series BlackBerry
Matt Johnson as Douglas Fregin and Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis in BlackBerry (Colin Medley)

"I had zero interest in smartphone technology," he remembered. "I could not wrap my head around what was coming at all.… It was a total shock."

"As I got older, and I realized what the smartphone revolution basically was, my friends and I would go back and watch that Steve Jobs presentation all the time, just because it's so wicked," he added.

The introduction of the first iPhone in 2007 is a turning point in the film. Baruchel, who plays BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis, and Johnson, as Research in Motion co-founder Doug Fregin, look at Steve Jobs' now famous keynote with a sense of horror.

"It's almost like this guy's presenting this magical device," Johnson said, "while at the same time showing our BlackBerry and talking about what a piece of sh*t it is."

A Canadian inferiority complex

In making this film Johnson wanted to underscore how much BlackBerry is a distinctly Canadian success story. In one self-deprecating line delivered by Jay Baruchel, he is asked why he needs to hire new engineers when he said he'd hired the best, he says:

"I said they were the best engineers in Canada."

Actors Matt Johnson and Jay Baruchel looking at a script behind the scenes while filming BlackBerry.
BlackBerry Writer/Director Matt Johnson with Jay Baruchel as "Mike Lazaridis" (Colin Medley)

"The reason it works as a joke at all is 100 per cent because Canada is seen by itself as a kind of permanent second place," Johnson remarked. "[It's] about how a Canadian company winds up changing the world and even as they're doing it they still don't think that they're all that important."

This Canadian ethos extended to his casting choices. "Right at the start I wanted actors where people have the same feeling about them that they have about BlackBerry," he said, "'I remember that person, and I can't believe that they're Canadian!' Which is sort of a universal feeling about BlackBerry as a product."

Getting the period nostalgia perfect

BlackBerry is full of dynamic drama and over-the-top characters. But, a testament to Johnson's commitment to this time period, the miniseries is full of nostalgic pop culture and artifacts from the era. 

There is so much attention to detail in Johnson's BlackBerry miniseries, and it all stems from the production's shared desire to make the late '90s and early 2000s feel real to the audience. 

"We're always going for realism," Johnson said. "These characters are so ridiculous and elevated, [but] it needs to seem grounded."

BlackBerry production designer Adam Belanger, who has worked with Johnson before on projects like Nirvanna the Band the Show, says Johnson was committed to populating the film with objects people would recognize from the past. "They're taken from the real world, and it evokes that nostalgia that is exciting to the crew working on this movie and it passes it on to the audience."

Creating a shareable culture

"I'm seeing interest become more and more niche.… You can become such an insane fan of such a small, little idea," Johnson said. "What is the Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier going to be of this next generation?"

As far as Johnson sees it, nostalgia is a theme throughout all his work, as it gives viewers a shared narrative. BlackBerry is no different. 

"There's really no more common religion," he said. "Without shared movies or shared stories, it's a lot harder to relate to people."

"I think that generally, all my movies are about characters who try to use media to relate to others."

Watch BlackBerry free on CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Oliver Thompson is a writer, producer and musician. Originally from the UK, where he worked for the BBC, Oliver moved to Canada in 2018.

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