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Matt Johnson says he made ‘BlackBerry’ to get funding for a Nirvanna the Band movie



Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press

Published Thursday, March 14, 2024 2:46PM EDT

TORONTO – Matt Johnson has been riding a wave of accolades for his dark comedy “BlackBerry,” which became the most nominated film in the history of the Canadian Screen Awards last week.

But the director says one of the driving forces behind that movie was a plan to garner support for his true passion project: Nirvanna the Band.

The Toronto filmmaker’s series “Nirvanna the Band the Show” developed a cult following when it aired on Viceland in 2017 and 2018 before the television channel shut down. Johnson and co-creator Jay McCarrol – who is the music composer and executive producer of “BlackBerry” – had been working on a third season but experienced “endless bureaucratic delays” trying to complete it.

“One of the secret reasons why we made `BlackBerry’ is we were trying to marshal political power to finish the TV show because we just weren’t getting anywhere,” said Johnson during an interview at last week’s Toronto Film Critics Association Awards, where the movie won the $50,000 best Canadian feature prize.

“And then as soon as the movie premiered in Berlin, we realized, `Oh, we can make a Nirvanna the Band movie.”’

Johnson said his next film will be based on the mockumentary-style series that follows two halfwits, played by him and McCarrol, who hatch increasingly complex plans to get their group Nirvanna the Band a gig at Toronto bar The Rivoli. The show, which originated as a web series in 2007, is a mix of scripted comedy and improv, often involving unwitting bystanders around the city, “Borat”-style.

Johnson said he had asked Telefilm to fund a Nirvanna the Band movie in 2012, but “they weren’t touching it with a 10-foot pole.”

The director, who helmed subversive indie flicks like 2013’s “The Dirties” and 2016’s “Operation Avalanche,” said he and longtime collaborator Matthew Miller asked Telefilm and the CBC to back several projects over the years, but “it was hard for them to see how we fit the Canadian model.”

So they made “BlackBerry,” about the rise and fall of the generation-defining smartphone and the people who invented it, in order “to try to forge a better relationship with national financiers in the country.”

“It was honestly to try to convince places like Telefilm to finance bigger projects from us,” he said.

Johnson said they changed up their “inaccessible” production model while making “BlackBerry” – which is up for 17 trophies, including best motion picture and best direction, at the Screen Awards in May – so that it would appeal to a broader audience.

“It’s hard to get people who have never seen ‘Nirvanna the Band the Show’ to understand what could be good about it, so we thought if we made a big movie by Canadian standards, that had real actors in it, it would help us,” said Johnson.

“It’s why we made it about `BlackBerry’- something that people know about. We tried to be good little boys so we could go back to making things the way we wanted to.”

The plan worked – Telefilm is funding the Nirvanna the Band movie, which Johnson said will be ready by early next year. He said he’ll be devoting the $50,000 Toronto critics’ prize to the film as well.

“The people who like the show will really like the movie, because there’s lots of tricks in it, even in how we’ve been talking about it in the press,” said Johnson.

“It’s not what people think that it’s going to be.”

He adds that the year 2005 will play a significant role in the film, which will have the “exact same tone and approach as the show” but will incorporate “big action sequences.”

“People who’ve never seen the show before will be like, `Oh, wow, it’s a huge action movie.’ And for people who have been watching it since the web show, they’re going to be like, `I can’t believe that they did this.”’

Johnson said they will release the third season of “Nirvanna the Band the Show” after the movie comes out, and that it will be “connected” to the film. He doesn’t know where it will air yet.

During his acceptance speech for the Toronto critics’ prize last week, Johnson said getting funding for “BlackBerry” from Telefilm and CBC after years of being an indie thorn made him “the worst type of aging hypocrite.”

But in an interview after receiving the Screen Awards nominations, Johnson said he’s begun to rethink his stance.

“Now I’m seeing a lot of young people approach Telefilm and CBC differently, and they feel as though, `Oh, maybe those are places where you can do interesting stuff,’ which was not my perspective when I was young,” he said.

“So hopefully I’m making a move from hypocrite to trailblazer. But we’ll see. Other people will need to go and do good work with these institutions in order for that to become truth.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2024.

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