Sarah Kerruish is the director, producer, and screenwriter of General Magic, all with Matt Maude. A Peabody Award-winning, Emmy Award-nominated documentarian, Kerruish is the CEO of Spellbound Productions, and the Co-Founder of Precision Medicine for Me.
Matt Maude is an award-winning director, producer, and writer, named by Screen Yorkshire as one of the U.K. film industry’s “Super 8” filmmakers to watch. With Sarah Kerruish, he is the director, producer, and co-screenwriter (also with Jonathan Keys) of General Magic, his feature documentary debut; he is also the film’s co-cinematographer with Jay Maude.
Together, they are the filmmakers of General Magic. An Official Selection the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary tells the story of one of the most important “dead” companies in Silicon Valley’s history.
Combining a rich trove of archival footage with new interviews with some of the world’s most important tech icons – John Sculley, Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman – the film had its World Premiere on Friday, April 20.
Following its premiere, Maude and Kerruish spoke with critic Sean L. Malin of CineMalin in a wide-ranging conversation about the mythos of the tech industry, the deathly allure of Silicon Valley, and the 25-year journey to make General Magic.
Sean L. Malin: I wrote down while I was watching the movie that it felt not so much like a time machine of General Magic the company as it is of your lives. Reading up on it, I know that you’ve been involved in it and shooting footage for 25 years or something, Sarah. To me, that is the secret backbone of the movie.
Matt Maude: [To Sarah Kerruish] I didn’t realize you had been working on this film for such a long time. It’s just a narcissism project!
SLM: This is the story of your life as a filmmaker, as a director…
Sarah Kerruish: As a girlfriend – I met my husband there. There are two shots of him in the film.
MM: Nice little cameos.
SK: This is my eulogy to grief. It was a very personal exploration of grief, a kind of grief that I did not know existed. Obviously I know the grief of losing family and have experienced that, but I didn’t know that this kind existed. It is the grief of putting everything you have into something, and it not working. We had put everything – everything – into it, and it failed catastrophically. It was ruinous. The repercussions were profound. I call them my shipwreck years.
SLM: I really like that.
SK: Basically, it was that this did not work so catastrophically that I need to do something completely different with my life. The other thing that came out of that was – [to MM] and I don’t know if I’ve even told you this – [to SLM] that I realized that I had been closed my whole life. I had this whole identity of being a very open person, but in fact, I was extremely closed. This experience punctured that.
SLM: The catastrophic experience, or the making-of-the-film experience?
SK: The catastrophe. And then it was really like Twelfth Night: I’m on a beach, and I have to recover. I started thinking about the role of failure and bringing the ideas to life. Then I thought, “I have been a part of a company that was the greatest failure, and the great untold story of Silicon Valley.” So I started filming it 25 years ago. I got to see the whole arc: the failures and the catastrophes, but also the phoenix rising from the ashes.
SLM: You alone got to witness this saga from the beginning three decades ago, but the both of you worked on editing this together, right?
SK: We made the film together, [but] I have a full-time job in tech.
SLM: How often were you in those editing rooms with your crew? What are we talking about time-wise in terms of your immersion in this project?
MM: I’ve been editing the film by myself since August. We were working with two really great editors in London before then. We have been living and breathing it really intensely for a long time.
SK: Three years. In terms of time together –
MM: — we have spent A LOT.
SLM: [To SK] I saw in your Women and Hollywood interview that you asked someone to remind you never to make another film while you’ve got a full-time job elsewhere. That’s funny to me because Matt is also a commercial director. And I’ve been on the sets of big commercial jobs – the 14-hour days – and it can be such a nightmare.
MM: *Laughs* Yeah!
SLM: So I can completely understand where you’re coming from when you say that balancing this with a full-time tech job is a nightmare. In terms of your schedules, how did that slow you guys down in your commercial work?
MM: It is a lot of juggling. I was the only full-time person on this. If you’re doing filmmaking for the destination, you are going to be disappointed. The journey is where the joy is. I was advised by a friend that when you begin working on a feature doc, the average time it takes to do one is four years, so sign yourself up for that.
SLM: One of the filmmakers here at Tribeca, PJ Raval, has a film called Call Her Ganda. We are friends from Austin, and I can remember meeting with him three or four years ago for coffee. He started telling me about this film he was making about a transgender Filipina woman who was murdered. Then I saw him a year later, and then again. Now he’s here with it after all this time. *Shakes head*
MM: It is weird for me because I don’t have that shake of the head.
SLM: You have an optimism about it? You have a positivity?
MM: No, no, it’s…
MM: Well, yeah, this is mushy…Insatiable.
SLM: *Laughs* I see.
MM: We are a really small team. We have a lot of sound recordists and a lot of gaffers because we shot in a lot of places, but it’s a core team.
SLM: But your names are all over the credits. Directors, producers, screenwriters, cinematography.
MM: You’ve got to love the story, and you’ve got to believe in its potential. Like I heard about Pixar that when they write a joke, the joke still has to be funny four years later after you’ve gone through all of the layers of animation. It’s the same thing with this story. You have to love the people you’re working with. If you don’t love your directors, and your producers, and your cinematographers, and your editors, you will never make it.
One of the greatest foundations for me in making the film was having a best friend in Sarah and a best friend in [executive producer] Mike [Stern]. These are two people who I didn’t know before starting to work on the film at all, but now these are people who I respect, love, admire, and look to get advice from.
SLM: Mike Stern appears on camera in General Magic, and has real charisma. Magnetic personality.
MM: The friendship among the crew was a revelation to me. Usually when you see people who are looking like this, [imitates SLM’s head shake] it is because they are making their films by themselves. They are trapped with themselves, in a way. But we [points to SK] talk every day; I speak to Mike nearly every other day, even though we are often fourteen, ten, or twelve time zones apart.
SLM: I would love to see a movie about your relationships with some of these people. It is a beautifully articulated feeling, and I feel like it doesn’t happen on many films in general.
SK: Really, don’t you think?
SLM: No, I don’t think so. There is a language that filmmakers are supposed to use – we are a family, we love each other, we are going to be longtime companions. In the doc world, it’s a little bit different, though, because your investment in the work is not necessarily to your financial benefit. You are usually working on something for pleasure or because of some dogged feeling about the project.
I’ve worked with so many filmmakers who feel abandoned or betrayed by their funders or producers, or their projects don’t come to fruition. You guys are in that perfect sweet spot: you made a feature together, happily; it got into a major festival; and you got this amazing access to people for the movie. I mean, you got John Sculley on the record.
SK: That was the best.
SLM: As an American, I grew up watching these people on television. We have that joke about how there is no (Bob) Hope, no (Johnny) Cash, and no (Steve) Jobs left.
MM: Somebody put Kevin Bacon in a bunker.
SLM: Exactly. When you see [former Apple CEO] John Sculley in General Magic, you feel that you are seeing a mythic figure. Truly legendary in the American ethos. In the future, if the singularity hasn’t happened in the next one hundred years, people will watch your film simply to see John Sculley talk. Merely the documentation of his motion will be important to world history. You must have been feeling a little of the historicity of that during the making of your film.
MM: Historicity? That is an amazing word.
SK: I will say that that was the most fascinating moment of the entire film. We go there, expecting to hate him – we had to, right? How couldn’t we hate him? – and we have THE most interesting interview that I think I have ever been part of. We know that people are never one thing; they are not only bad or good, really. John proved that out. He was so brave in terms of talking about his failure and what it meant to him. What does he say about how long it took him to recover?
MM: 15 years.
SK: It took him 15 years to recover. And his generosity to [Former General Magic CEO] Marc Porat is what sets Marc free. I think that dynamic is absolutely fascinating. In fact, Marc Porat was here this weekend, and he said, “I’m going to call John.”
SLM: Is that John Sculley’s house where you interviewed him?
SLM: He loves the color blue.
SK: Yes, and he’s got a fabulous wife called Diane, who is an interior designer. The whole house is white, and it’s got these beautiful blues. It is astonishing. But the scariest moment happened with him. We did the interview with him, and he really went there.
MM: It’s funny with interviews – there are peaks and troughs to all of it. You have to establish a connection between you and the subject, like you’ve done. You put yourself into the room and you create that connection. Then you also have to become completely invisible. When that happens, the air completely changes, it takes on a heaviness where the person is just talking to themselves. And Sculley got into that mode.
SLM: Oh my god, does he go there!
MM: But the surprising thing for an interview like that is that usually that lasts once because once the spell is broken, there is this realization of consciousness again. It’s not necessarily that they’ve said too much, but maybe they’ve said something that they haven’t thought about for a while, or have never thought about. The difference with Sculley is that he would do that continually –-
SLM: He would reach that point where it seemed like he would pull back into himself –-
MM: — but instead he would just push forward. That is really rare.
SLM: He probably has the most expensive therapists in the world.
SK: He’s got a great wife too, I think.
MM: I don’t know. As filmmakers, we tried really hard to make sure that there was no antagonist who was just evil. We tried to find the catharsis for each person in the film. I do really hope for somebody like John Sculley because he is so widely hated in the Valley because of the Jobs storytelling. But everyone should be forgiven if they seek that forgiveness and have an understanding that what they did wasn’t right, or could have been better.
SLM: I tend to agree with you. I had the thought when I saw him onscreen that this was a person who could so easily have talked himself into a deeper grave, into being even more widely hated – Charlie Manson applying for parole, that kind of thing. We put people into these holes, and sometimes they put themselves in them, too. Sculley is one of those figures. Yet he emerges from that hole, and it’s honestly kind of beautiful.
SLM: On the other hand, I wonder about things like the Illuminati, new world orders, conspiracy theories when I see someone at his financial level, you know? I feel like he knows more than we do. When John Sculley dies, is his head going to be in a Walt Disney-like jar? I can’t help but suspect that he’s one of those guys, getting the Lance Armstrong blood transfusions every other day.
*SK and MM Laugh*
SK: Some of [those guys] definitely are. They are doing a lot of popping their magic pills and focusing on the singularity and that whole movement. They are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of longevity. [To MM] What is it that Marc says – that we are all living in a virtual reality game?
MM: [To SK] I think that’s been slightly taken out of context now. [To SLM] I’m not a technologist, I’m not involved in technology at all, but it’s been a part of Sarah’s life for a really long time. Before working on the film, I could have probably named for you three people that worked in Silicon Valley. That is because these huge companies do personify themselves as just being one person. It has gone from that Richard Branson thing of being Virgin – you see a hot-air balloon, and you think “Virgin”.
It is the same thing with Bill Gates and Microsoft, or Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. But that means that an entire company’s success all lands on them – just look at what is going on right now in the Senate. It gives us this impression that they are almost superhuman.
SLM: Zuckerberg, in particular?
MM: No, every founder. Elon Musk is the same. We’ve got this idea that everything the company does is because of them. But actually, there are tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands – of people that are always contributing towards that. You never hear of that. So what was great about working on General Magic was that you got to see all of the different personalities, and all of the different emotions that go along with that.
*This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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