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In Conversation: Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude

 

In 1993, Sarah Kerruish was part of a documentary crew commissioned by a new tech firm in Silicon Valley named General Magic to shoot some behind the scenes footage for a promotional piece. They knew the company was potentially going to change the tech game forever. Kerruish captured the team (known as ‘magicians’) at their most creative and ambitious. Over the next few years, Sarah returned back to the company, again and again, continuing to follow their story.

Then, with the invention of the World Wide Web and the heat of their competitors attempting to keep up, the company failed. 

25 years later, Kerruish has teamed up with director and producer Matt Maude to tell an incredible story of how some don’t see failure as the end, they see it as the beginning. 

General Magic had its World Premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and is produced by Spellbound Productions.

 
 Photograph courtesy of General Magic.

Photograph courtesy of General Magic.

CB: How did you both meet?

SK: Aside from the film, I have two other full-time jobs. During the day I’m the CSO of a med-tech startup. I’m also a mother to three teenagers. I needed somebody to help me make this film. In 2015 we started to put out feelers to find a team of people who could devote their full uninterrupted time to the project. One of the film’s co-producers, Ceri Tallett, suggested that I should meet Matt. I had no idea what kind of person would be walking through the door during our first meeting. I hadn’t made a film in over a decade. The film industry has changed hugely in that time, especially documentaries. We met at the Tate Modern and we hit into this immediate working chemistry. It’s that amazing thing - and it happens very rarely in my life - where it was just instantaneous. Trust established very quickly. We didn’t miss a beat. Matt is an extraordinary co-collaborator. We feel extremely lucky that it happened like that. 

MM: The timing was perfect. I’d been making a lot of commercials and I felt like I was living in a constant whirlwind of nervous exhaustion. Nervous when you’re working: big budgets, big egos, short turnarounds. And nervous when you’re not - pitching yourself like crazy. I took a month off and went to New York to escape the phone ringing. At the time I felt like I could blink and it’d be 2025 and I’d have nothing but a series of 30-second clips to show for it. While I was in NYC I went to a friend’s hen do and re-met Ceri there. She told me she just started work on a feature doc and after I’d asked an avalanche of questions about it, she suggested I meet with Sarah. We got into the same slipstream very quickly. When you’re directing something together you have to not only speak the same language but also know how the other person is going to say it. 

Sarah once told me she worked with a cinematographer who had two deaf parents. He’d developed this amazing ability to know, just by seeing what Sarah was asking for or thinking. It was a massive compliment to be compared to his way of working. 

CB: What ties you to this story?

SK: For me, it’s a part of my history. I was there. In 1992 I was filming the company for a documentary. I knew that it was an extraordinary place but it wasn’t really until 23 years later that I realised these people, who were just kids at the time, would go on to change the world. Every year a new invention would come out or a new company would skyrocket into our palms, monitors or TVs. I’d be seeing all these products link back their trajectories to General Magic - eBay, iPod, Android, iPhone, Samsung, Google, Facebook - even the Obama White House. It took me that time to notice where the echoes had come from and that this was a story worth telling.

CB: So you needed that time to feel the significance of what they did at General Magic? 

SK: The more time goes on, the more things come from that group of people. It’s amazing what they learnt at General Magic. What to do and what not to do.

MM: It feels like you’ve been making this film for the last 25 years. It’s just the first 20 years you didn’t know you were.

SK: It certainly played around a lot in my head. We knew we had this amazing footage from when it all began. Footage I shot back in 1992 with David [Hoffman - the director of the footage shot back in 92’].

MM: There are some definite Hitchcockian vibes because you can see Sarah in the back of the footage that was shot in 92'. 

SK: Wearing really bad jeans.

MM: You look incredibly fashionably conscious compared to the subjects you were filming.

SK: Even with David’s footage we knew we needed more archival material to tell the story. We needed photos, newspapers, more footage. We had a fantastic archivist, Joanna Allen and the most incredible post-production coordinator, Toby Warren, working with us to find these missing pieces. The most extraordinary thing that happened though was finding two caches of archives footage. One was 600 VHS tapes we found in a garage in Hawaii and the other was a handful of tapes that were shot prior to me coming to the company. When we found the latter we had to re-edit the film because it was so transformative. It was 40 minutes of the most amazing footage.

CB: This was earlier footage of the magicians in their offices? 

MM: Yes, and it wasn’t shot by a documentary crew. It was handicam footage, home video style, all shot by friends filming their friends. It’s all organic. All ordinary. But it’s that ordinariness that really shows the character of our characters: the humour, the geekiness, the friendship and affection they all had for one another. 

SK: It really enabled us to tell the story we wanted to. We were able to create that world and give people a sense of what it was like to inhabit that special world. When do you ever see footage of the walls of a Silicon Valley startup? It doesn’t exist. That footage also really helped us to not use a narrator. 

CB: Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen?

MM: Right at the beginning we were told by everyone around us that we needed a narrator to guide the viewer and hold their hand through explanation or exposition. We felt that as soon as you put a voiceover in there, you’re dictating an opinion to the audience. Although some films do need it, the fear is that you rely on this ‘voice’ too much and it can be to the detriment of the characters. We didn’t want our audience to be spoon fed. We want them to be making their own judgements about the characters and the decisions they are making. It makes it much more challenging making the film, particularly in the editing. The structure has to be more thought out. One of the great things about working with Sarah and all the experience she brings is that as soon as we started development she suggested that we script the documentary as if it’s a fiction film. It quickly became clear that the film was a three-act film. We built the documentary around that narrative spine.

CB: This is a story about many things: failure, friendships, money, creative genius. Were you thinking of a clear message that you wanted the film to convey?

SK: Having gone through what felt like a catastrophic failure of a business that decimated many aspects of my life, I wanted to specifically understand its role in bringing big ideas to life. I knew this experience wasn’t unique to me and in many ways is a central part of creation. I also wanted people to understand the different contexts for failure.

Matt pushed the idea that there are a lot of problems to solve in the world and this is not just about the creation of one thing, but many things that affect our lives. It’s sort of a blueprint for how you affect change and bring ideas to life. Basically, how do we use this knowledge of technology and creativity to solve big, meaningful problems?

We wanted to give this toolkit to the next generation and say look, this is what we’ve learned. Please take this and go. Go and make. 

MM: There’s a hook to every film. It’s in the trailer or poster or byline. You purchase the ticket because you have got an interest in the concept. You come for that hook but you stay for the characters. Even when we were in the developmental stages of the film, we could tell that this was a story that contained a lot of different emotions: friendship, hope, promise, struggle, failure, grief. Some of these emotions have lasted a lifetime with our characters. 

Silicon Valley doesn’t tell these stories. We spoke a lot about the fact that most of the companies in Silicon Valley personify themselves as a single person. Steve Jobs is Apple. Mark Zuckerberg is Facebook. That’s great for the brand but it isn’t real. The whole success of a company isn’t attributed to just one person. Every company is a culmination of hundreds, thousands of people. Working on a story like General Magic lets you see these single people be young and earnest and real. You see their mistakes, lessons and successes. You see that these are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. 

SK: My favourite aspect of the story, which is subtle, is that these are the disciples of Steve Jobs. When he left Apple he went into the wilderness. These were his brothers and sisters. He was in exile and the General Magic team went through this huge failure. It was only when those forces came back together that this magic happened. I love that. 

CB: In the film, there is talk of how being in your twenties allows you to be creative. In the documentary, they call it ‘powering through’. There’s less baggage. I think people can take a lot from that.

SK: To an extent. The advantage you have in your twenties is that you really can give it all the time it needs. There’s less responsibility than there is in the rest of your life. You’re less likely to have dependents. Or a mortgage. In terms of risk, you may have to work ridiculous hours but you have less far to fall if it fails. That part is easier. I don’t think the passion or the creativity diminishes but you are probably more free to explore it then. 

 The team behind General Magic with Kerruish and Maude, centre. Photograph courtesy of General Magic.

The team behind General Magic with Kerruish and Maude, centre. Photograph courtesy of General Magic.

CB: Andy Hertzfeld said during the launch of their product, ‘The best part was not the invention, it’s working with the incredible team at General Magic.’ That was interesting to hear. Were they enjoying it too much that they didn’t have their eye on the end game?

SK: It was brave for him to say that.

MM: I’m not sure Andy would consider it brave. It’s so natural to him. The joy is in the creating something with others. You wouldn’t hear Steve Jobs saying that. Or Elon Musk. If you’re purely execution minded you leave friendship at the door. It’s about the product. Nothing else. It’s cold-hearted. Making this film, part of the exercise was trying to understand what went wrong - why it did and how it did. It’s a very Silicon Valley-esque aspiration to put a dent in the universe. That involves a huge amount of ambition and hubris. What we learned making the film was that arrogance, believing what you’re doing is better than what came before, needs to be paired with humility. Checking yourself. Looking behind you. Asking questions about what you’re doing. You do also need that person who is execution orientated. At General Magic, they tried to do it all too much too soon. They lacked that one person with the hammer who said, ‘stop trying to create perfection’. They tried to launch perfection before the technology or its audience was ready for it. The iPod is a perfect example of that. It launched in 2001. It took 6 years of iterating before the iPod became the iPhone.

SK: I agree. How you ship great products or create amazing inventions is all about the execution. I’ve just read this great book about the Wright Brothers and the number of iterations they did was ridiculous. They built a wind tunnel just to test one aspect of a wing. It was a micro-detail. Having the bright idea is just one of many components. The biggest question is, can you execute that idea? The 90s seemed to be a time when people were learning how to execute ideas. There are very few people who do it well. Steve Jobs is the best example of it in my lifetime. Tony Fadell is the best example of it today. He’s unbelievably good at breaking things down to understand what’s not working and why. 

MM: That all said, I admire Andy for that pride in the people he worked with. That humanness. It’s one of the reasons why he’s so admired and well-liked across the industry. People want to work with Andy because of that energy. That’s what makes him so likeable, hopefully, as a character. The cliché, ‘it’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey’ rings true. If you’re working with people you love and are getting something from, the journey is so fulfilling. That was true of both the company and making the film. 

CB: So when you come against difficult things, if you have that creative understanding, you’re going to be more likely to succeed in those moments. You’re going to be more likely to care about the other opinions and move forward together. 

MM: That’s the hope. If you’ve created a culture in which anyone is able to question the direction in which you’re heading, ask what does execution look like or how it can be improved, it’s more likely to succeed. You need a diversity of thinking. 

CB: What was it like interviewing your old colleagues again after so much time has passed?

SK: Surreal. Especially when you’re spending all your time living in the edit viewing the archive footage. Watching them sat on the floor at General Magic to now being stood in the corridors of the White House or at Google. It was quite an amazing thing that they were all so willing to have us make this film that is ostensibly about failure and that they were willing to revisit it. 

MM: A documentary is 90% access. Making sure your contributors feel like they trust the filmmakers. All that comes down to Sarah, Michael Stern, one of our executive producers, and our co-producer, Dee Gardetti. All three worked at General Magic in the 90’s. Sarah, Mike and Dee have this amazing gift to make you feel like you’re family very quickly. Between Sarah, Dee and Mike and our characters, there was always this trust that made the film possible.

CB: There's a very tender moment in the film, and it's the only time we hear Sarah's voice, as she speaks to Marc Porat about his relationships at the time. It seems like an almost cathartic moment for him. 

SK: We didn’t expect that. I have eternal gratitude for everyone that spoke to us. They were very warm, open and candid. Especially Marc. He took complete responsibility for his role in this which is rare but also a sign of greatness. 

MM: We didn’t want to shy away from the feelings associated with failure. It’s so damaging - not just for the person going through it but also for their families and friends. It has a huge impact on people’s lives. Grief can be lifelong. These stories aren’t often heard in Silicon Valley or the business world. All we really read about are the endless success stories. This is a different kind of story.