There’s a cheeky opening to “General Magic,” urging audiences to turn their smartphones to airplane mode, not only out of respect for the film at hand, but because the phone itself might never have made it into their possession if it weren’t for the people in the story they’re about to see unfold. Yet airplane mode is also too appropriate for Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s soaring chronicle of one of the great underreported tech stories of the past 30 years. Akin to Pixar spinning off from LucasArts’ Industrial Light and Magic, albeit with far different results, “General Magic” charts what’s going on not far down the road in Northern California where Marc Porat, a tech entrepreneur had attracted some of Apple’s brightest minds with Apple’s blessing to develop an all-in-one device that would declutter an office and help people communicate with one another by putting a phone, a calendar, a notepad, a music player and other helpful items together, running on a private network since the internet had not reached the masses yet at the start of the 1990s when the idea was born.
An unprecedented consortium of companies including Sony and AT&T, among others, joined forces to make General Magic’s Magic Link a reality, but perhaps just as remarkably, the company allowed cameras in to track the development, sensing they were onto something historic. In fact, history was made, but not the kind that General Magic had anticipated and with the intimate access Kerruish and others had received at the time, the film reveals a truth about technology that has rarely been articulated so well on screen before in showing how ideas that were ahead of their time have now been realized – often by the people who had them in the first place – in such a way to allow one to see how visionary the company was and how its failure was a function of time, not effort or imagination.
Revisiting all the principal players involved, many of whom like future MIT professor Megan Smith and iPod designer Tony Fadell have gone on to have monumental achievements that have shaped our everyday lives, Kerriush and Maude get candid recollections of everything that went wrong – and right – about laying the foundation for an entire network that did not yet exist and feels like a triumph even as the realization sets in that you’re watching a car crash in slow motion. With as much drama as was packed into four seasons of “Halt and Catch Fire” into a fast-paced and cogent hour-and-a-half, the film gets the same adrenaline going as you feel it must’ve been like to work at General Magic as they were creating something the world had never seen before and shortly after the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Kerruish and Maude spoke about pulling the curtain back on the rise and fall of the groundbreaking company,
How did this come about?
Sarah Kerruish: I was at General Magic 25 years ago, filming the company as part of their first launch, so they were launching the product, the vision, and the idea, and then 20 years later, I experienced my own catastrophic failure of a start-up. It was just an incredibly painful experience and it started me meditating on the meaning of failure and bringing big ideas to life. At the same time, one of the General Magicians that we all love dearly died, so all these things crystallized. Knowing that we had this footage and all these people had gone on to do extraordinary things and that failure was instrumental in their success made me feel like this was a story that needed to be told.
Matt, how did you get involved?
Matt Maude: One of the co-producers of the film told me that she was beginning to work on a feature doc and we sat down and talked about it. I was just enthralled about the idea, and then I met Sarah and when you look through these archival tapes, we had about three hours worth of archival footage, and seeing all these twentysomethings all sitting around on the floor talking to one another, and Sarah would point out “that chap went on to be the founder of eBay,” and “that guy co-founded LinkedIn,” and “he’s the senior vice president at Samsung and he just created this new chip,” it was a who’s who of those that work in technology in Silicon Valley. [So I thought] where is this crazy school of people? How and why did they all branch off, and what went wrong? What was learned along the way?
For me, it was very much seeing the possibility that was within the archival and then also getting the opportunity to work with Sarah. Sarah really wanted to approach the film as if it’s a fiction film, and to really look for a very strong three-act structure, so the opportunity [where we] put it together as almost [as if we had] a writer’s room, was really, really attractive to me. And I’m not a technologist at all, but I still find it really interesting that if you look at these huge, huge companies like Facebook and Apple, they’re all personified by just one person, so it creates this image that this [individual] was capable of genius engineering, entrepreneurship — they almost do everything. It’s not real and I was fascinating [by] the story behind those, because it’s real emotions that these people are going through. Within the story of General Magic, you could tell a lot of different emotions within it.
When you co-direct this, is there an interesting tension there since Sarah has both the experience of being there for General Magic’s heyday and working in the tech world and Matt doesn’t?
Sarah Kerruish: It’s been a perfect collaboration. We have an incredible creative collaboration and it comes down to chemistry, commitment, passion, heart, insight, and Matt has all of that in spades, so it’s been a total joy, and of course we have different perspectives, but we always talk them through. Did we disagree on anything in the end?
Matt Maude: No, I think it’s really helpful when you have someone you can be completely open with. We both see each other a lot and talk a lot, I was going through our emails and we sent barely any emails, so that really helps. You can’t make a documentary unless you are in love with the subject matter. But more importantly, you can’t make it unless you love the people you are making the film with, and that’s the great collaboration, you work with the people that you love and considering we didn’t know each other at all before we started working on the film, it’s amazing to [ultimately] make a film with your best friends. it’s that half-family, half-friends thing and being able to live in each other’s houses and each other’s lives all the time.
Sarah Kerruish: There were a few little things we didn’t agree on, but nothing major. At the end of it, I think it was the film that not just we wanted to make, but I wanted to make and Matt wanted to make.
Matt Maude: It’s funny though because a documentary is 90% access, and then 10% having the camera turned on. Sarah’s access to the subject is legendary, and she and Mike Stern, the executive producer of the film, concocted the idea several years ago that the film should be made and they’re both so well-liked and respected by the Magicians that they trusted us to tell the story. And I was able to come in as an outsider, and Sarah has made some incredible films, but has been working in [the tech world] for the past 12 years, so I could come in [knowing] “this is the modern technology of filmmaking” and being able to juxtapose that with the archival stuff [that Sarah knew intimately], and being able to story this into work between the two of them, there’s a lot of complementary [skills] we have.
Since you bring up access, one of the things that struck me was that it seemed like everyone was eager to talk about this, which was surprising because of that perception of failure. Was that actually the case?
Sarah Kerruish: [laughs] The film almost died right out of the gate, because there was such a strong immune reaction to the idea of making the film — not making the film about General Magic, but with the theme of failure. [The film] is not about failure, but redemption. but that’s the perception and we almost didn’t get through that first resistance. Some people were extremely open to talking about it even though it was painful and they personally felt some responsibility, or a lot of responsibility, for the failure of General Magic. Others took time. So we committed to that time, and we encouraged them to come along with us. I have a belief that Matt shares, that if you can really talk openly and honestly about painful things like failure it sets you free in some fundamental way.
Matt Maude: It definitely takes time for that, some subjects did three interviews. The first interview is the story that they want to tell, and they’re comfortable telling. The second time is allowing the emotions to come out and be told, because it is hard to do that, [even] with your friends and your family, and it’s even harder to do that with a crew of people around you and a camera pointing at you. But the joy we had making the film was that we would fundraise enough to be able to shoot a block and then edit a block and could go back to our subjects and say, “This is the [story] we are trying to tell and your interviews have allowed us to get to this point.” So we were giving them a lot of trust that they wouldn’t start critiquing or sharing with other people or other colleagues. It helped them understand we weren’t there to try and make antagonists out of people or two-dimensional characters. It was considering everyone as a three dimensional person. It makes it harder in some ways because you are editing and then re-editing, but it meant we had the subjects on board a lot stronger.
It was interesting to me how egalitarian this feels – Marc is a natural focal point since he came up with the idea for General Magic, but it really feels like a group effort, which comes across in how many interviews you do and how the film is cut together. Was that a central idea from the start – that there wouldn’t necessarily be a single person for this to coalesce around?
Sarah Kerruish: That’s an interesting observation, and perhaps we never articulated that every person plays a really important part as a sort of archetype in the story. [For example] Tony has the classic hero’s journey — he starts with a little knowledge and goes off on his adventure, and he has heroes [that he looks up to] and those heroes become mortal, and when he finds this special knowledge, that special knowledge he brings back to the people and transforms technology. They all have an important role to play, but I’m not sure we did think about it consciously.
Matt Maude: You’ve got different characters who are able to [express] different emotions, and for me as a storyteller it was important to look at characters as what emotion they can incite in the audience. Tony [Fadell]’s journey was the central narrative, but then you look at how this experience has affected [each] person. At the beginning of act three, you have Andy, Joanna, and Mark all recounting failure, but the way they react to it is almost completely different. If you just stick to one person it means you can only tell it one side of it, and you can only go so far. Megan is one of my favorite characters in the film, and being able to tell her story amongst everyone else’s, it was great to be able to do that.
When you’re filming the present-day interviews, does the archival material come alive when you refer back to it rather than the other way around?
Sarah Kerruish: That was one of the great joys of the whole project. We knew we had this great cache of archival footage that I had worked on years ago, and then on the way we found two very important archives. One was 600 tapes in Hawaii, and [another] 25 that were gold. Our goal always was to tell the story through the archival footage, but we had big holes until we found these caches of films and we learned, through the guidance of an editor we worked with, how to drive a story instead of using archive to illustrate a point. We were helped by these extraordinary finds of footage, and there are no words to describe the thrill of looking at these scenes that we imagined but couldn’t tell, and all of a sudden there they were and they were so much richer than we had ever dreamed.
Matt Maude: We had an amazing researcher, Joanna Allen, and every once in a while she would scour the internet to see if there was a new thing that had been posted and you’d find these photographs that you’d never seen before and they’d been taken by a photographer you’d never heard of. And the 25 tapes Sarah is referring to, Joanna found [through] this Japanese website, with three photos we had never seen before. It was written completely in Japanese, so we had to get a translator to translate the entire webpage to find the guy who wrote it [and ask] “Can we have all your photos?” He sent his five disposable cameras of photos to us, and as we were looking through the negatives, we saw that a guy in the photos was holding a video camera, so we were like “That’s the person we need to talk to.” That’s how we found the tapes. It was weird that you would have these investigative moments while you’re making the film that then change the story completely. There is one tape that changed the whole film, and there is a real thrill.
Sarah Kerruish: I still dream about finding footage, [where] I find another tape.
Matt Maude: Are they a nightmare now?
Sarah Kerruish: [laughs] No, I’m like “Matt!” And then like, “Oh no. [We’re done with the film.]”
There was an auspicious tweet that Sarah posted in Paris with Colin Greenwood of Radiohead and Tony Fadell, presumably working on the music for this. What was that like?
Sarah Kerruish: [Colin] came to Paris with us. What was his official title? Creative consultant?
Matt Maude: Yeah, he sat down with Tony Fadell, who’s a massive, massive music guy, and I don’t know if it’s truth or rumor, but there’s a story that one of the reasons that Tony wanted to make something like the iPod was because he wanted to put all his Radiohead albums on to one device. So [it was cool to have the] ability for those two guys to meet, and we sat in because they just were riffing about the music that Tony would listen to [at the time of General Magic], and Colin would interject, so we were getting some guidance with that [because] you need to put some music in that is evocative of the time, but also music that they were listening to.
The original score was written by Benjamin Morrison, an incredible composer who started working on the film relatively late. For a long time, we just had temp soundtrack and for a film to be cinematic, the music is important if more important than the image because it takes the audience on the emotional journey. It was interesting because we started trying to write [the score] to picture, and that didn’t work, so we encouraged Benji to just start writing as if they were morning pages, so he would write huge chunks of music and then we would find places where it would work within the film and then develop it from there. It was a very different way from doing it, and it meant Benji was always working in a spontaneous place rather than trying to make music to work to [a specific scene] or moment. It made it a lot more freeing. We’ve been really blessed with music, [and] with such an incredible team [in general].
Sarah Kerruish: It’s worthy of a classical music score. I’m very happy with it.
What’s it like getting to Tribeca?
Sarah Kerruish: I had no idea it was such a big thing – I knew Tribeca was obviously a huge festival, but I was in no way prepared for the fun and the joy and all the wonderful people we’ve met. It’s been incredible. Literally, when I’m on my deathbed, I’m quite sure this will be one of the weekends that I remember. It’s been unbelievable.
Matt Maude: It is amazing. We’re both from the middle of nowhere. Sarah’s from the Isle of Man, which is this tiny, tiny little island, and I’m from the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, and [neither of us] have family in the business, so this is the kind of stuff that dreams are made of.
Sarah Kerruish: If we were kids and someone said, “Hey, by the way, your film is going to be in one of the most famous film festivals in the world, and The Hollywood Reporter is going to be writing about your film,” I would not have believed them for a second. And I’ve been to New York a lot now, but I still get the same excitement as when I came the first time because when you live on a tiny island, New York is the mecca of the world.
Matt Maude: The other thing about it is that there are a lot of pivotal moments at General Magic that happened in New York, and as we were making the film there were a lot of moments that were very similar in making the film to what happened at General Magic the company. There’s a scene in the film called “Ship or Die,” which is [when the company is running up against a tight deadline, and the. question becomes] are you going to be able to get the product out and are you going to get it finished? So for us to be able to launch the film in New York in the same way General Magic did, we don’t have an IPO, but there were a lot of pivotal moments that where their team traveled here, and some ghosts that we are revisiting for this project, so it’s been nice to make those ghosts friendly, having Marc and Tony and Andy [Hertzfeld] and Joanna [Hoffman] and Megan and Mike all come back to New York, and make it a moment of celebration rather than as a place of “Ughhh…” that’s been good. It’s been cathartic.
“General Magic” opens on May 10th in limited release, including Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall.