General Magic: The Most Important Dead Company

The filmmakers and principal subjects of General Magic sat down with Solzy at the Movies during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

During the first half, I was joined by co-directors Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish.  In the second half, Marc Porat, Andy Hertzfeld, Megan Smith, and Joanna Hoffman would join me.

General Magic is said to be the most important dead company in Silicon Valley.  Marc Porat and Andy Hertzfeld co-founded the company with Bill Atkinson in 1990.  The company would be shut down by the mid-2000s.  Hertzfeld was also a member of the original Apple Macintosh team.  Joanna Hoffman was their vice president of marketing in the early 1990s.  She would later be portrayed by Kate Winslet in an Oscar-nominated role in Steve Jobs.  Finally, Megan Smith would become the 3rd Chief Technology Officer of the United States.

Thanks for joining us.  How are things treating you?

Sarah Kerruish
Sarah Kerruish

Sarah Kerruish:  I don’t know.  For me, it feels like a surreal experience because we’ve really only just finished the film.  I think all my nerves are frayed on every front. But I’m very glad to be here.  It’s the end of a very long odyssey but a very wonderful journey.

Matt Maude:  We’ve been making the film in the cave for quite a while.  I think we worked on the film for over two years.  You don’t really know how the film is going to be received in this area saying we finished the film last week and then we got reviewed in Time Out the next day.  It’s been slightly surreal but a good surreal.

How much of a thrill is it to premiere General Magic at Tribeca?

Matt Maude:  For me, I don’t think it could be a bad festival for the film.

Sarah Kerruish:  When we found out, he was literally bouncing off the walls and the ceilings.  I’ve never seen you so happy.  It was quite a moment.  I think I was just too tired at that point to truly register what was happening.  Mat was very, very excited.  I just think it’s an extraordinary festival.  The fact that it’s so well-curated and that we were selected and the team has been so amazing and supportive. It felt very personal.

Matt Maude:  There are a lot of parallels between the film and then the making of the film because New York was the area that serves the city in which General Magic launched.  It’s where they came and did their IPO.  I think there’s kind of parallels of this is where we’re launching the film and bringing back the magicians to be here.  This is a very nice synchronicity with a good closing of the circle.

Sarah Kerruish:  Did you see the film?

Yes.

Sarah Kerruish:  What did you think?

I enjoyed it. I still cannot believe I’m about to be surrounded by tech geniuses.

Sarah Kerruish:  Oh, good.

Speaking of—this documentary features an impressive selection of tech geniuses.  Where did you get the idea to explore the story behind General Magic?

Sarah Kerruish:  I worked there making the original film for the launch.  Many years ater, I had experienced my own what felt like a catastrophic failure of a startup.  It started me meditating on the meaning of failure and success.  I also read the Walter Isaacson book about Steve Jobs at the same time and I’m looking through and thinking, Oh, I know you and then I suddenly realized I’m a little bit late to the party but boom these people are really amazing and famous so let’s go back and revisit this story because it’s instrumental in where we are today.  I think people don’t often look at what it really takes to make big ideas come to life.  They just see the end result.  What does it really take?  What are the steps?  What are the journeys?  What is the heartache and the emotional aspect of the story?

Matt Maude
Matt Maude

Matt Maude:  I think for me—I’m in no way just a filmmaker and I’m not particularly interested in technology.  I’m not a technologist.  What fascinated me was that if you look across Silicon Valley, you could probably name three or four people.  They’re the figureheads or the founders but these entire huge companies—conglomerates almost—that are personified by one person.  All of that success of the company is funneled into that one person.  To me, I think that when you’re looking at a story potential, you have to ask that question how does a company like that come to pass.  It’s not just one person. There are a lot of emotional stories that are told in that sort of day to day work.  General Magic was the perfect vehicle to be able to tell a story because you know there are a lot of emotions that occur throughout that story in this film to be able to tell how do you deal with the grief of failure, how do you overcome the mistakes within the idea or within yourself, and learn to kind of do it again but do it again better.

Matt, since you didn’t work at General Magic, did you ever have a sense of awe because of all of their inventions?

Matt Maude:  On one hand as a filmmaker, you have to have a bit of distance.  I think in a way I’ve not been so overawed by technology kind of helps.  I’m very much kind of driven by what technology allows you to do rather than it becoming the thing that defines what you do.  There was this amazing moment when we were going through the archive—when Sarah and I sat down and watched the archival tapes that we have right at beginning in the process.  Right when we started the film, we looked through the archives that we had available.  It’s when the General Magic team sat on the floor and there are probably 30 or 40 of them and they’re all in their 20s.  They’re all wearing like amazing 90s clothes. And Sarah’s saying he’s the co-founder of LinkedIn. That guy—he just launched the iWatch.  That’s Megan Smith—she’s working as the chief technology officer of the United States government for Barack Obama. That’s Susan Kare, she did the Mac interface.  It’s was just a massive list—a who’s who of Silicon Valley.  I think that was the moment when you just think what is it that happened at this college, what happened at this company, what happened at this school that allowed all of these people to graduate and become the technology and the people that we interact and their products we use every day.  There wasn’t just a moment of being like “Whoa” watching through the tapes.

In making the film, what was the most surprising thing that you learned?

Matt Maude:  I saw a lot of cartoons and reading a lot of comics.  My belief was that everybody—whether it was film, whether it be music, whether it be technology—that it was superheroes that did this.  They weren’t ordinary people.  There was something that happened in their lives where they just had these insane genius-like gifts.  I think when your researching and meeting these people is that you realize they are they are ordinary people with extra ordinary qualities about them. But they are people and they cry and laugh.  They’re three-dimensional people and what I hope this film inspires is for an audience member to watch it and think I can do that because they could.  We have a lot of problems that we need to solve.  I do believe that technology is if not the—it’s definitely one of the solutions to the problems that we’re facing today and tomorrow.  I hope that someone’s inspired to either come back to that idea that didn’t work out the first time and go at it again or to have the self-belief and the confidence from these people that they themselves can do it.

Sarah Kerruish:  I think the surprise for me was how willing people are to be truly vulnerable in a difficult thing to do.  They’re very courageous to go on camera and admit to the feelings and emotions that go along with failure.  It was a privilege to be able to sit with them and hear their story.  It’s also very painful because it hurts.

Matt Maude:  It’s grief.

Sarah Kerruish:  It’s a form of grief, I agree.

This is when the filmmakers switched out for the film’s subjects.

How much of a thrill is it to be here with the film telling the story of General Magic?

Young Product Designer Megan Smith shares her vision for the smartphone in General Magic.
Young Product Designer Megan Smith shares her vision for the smartphone. Image Credit: Spellbound Productions II.

Megan Smith:  That’s not the thing.  I think it’s exciting to be with you guys.  To be with these guys and also to be able to share what it feels like to be in an amazing team and what you can achieve.  Even though we didn’t get there because all these different things conspired that were true that we were trying to go against whether technology wasn’t ready yet.  People weren’t really using e-mail yet.  But that vision was right and you can be an incredible team with amazing mentors like all these guys were for us who were young.  That’s a possibility for all humanity.  I think that’s maybe what—this thing that you guys all built originally with the Mac in your vision for what communications was.  I think that’s more of it not so much being here in the film.

Joanna Hoffman:  I’m very happy for Sarah and Matt because Sarah was part of the General Magic experience.  Michael Stern is involved.  We still have that strong feeling of camaraderie with the people that we worked with.  We’re very happy for them that this is something that they’ve created simply out of a labor of love, really. We’re happy to see that it’s resonating with people.

Megan Smith:  They’re so talented so it’s nice to see at this level for them to be recognized.

Marc Porat:  You just spoke with Sarah?

Matt and Sarah.

Marc Porat in General Magic.
Marc Porat in General Magic.

Marc Porat:  I’m sure she told you there was a story inside of her that just was burning and needed to be told there’s a way for her to get closure on what that episode was.  For her to also kind of collect what she had been hearing for the last 20 years from people who worked there and people who didn’t work there—it was kind of their peak experiences and the most amazing thing that ever happened.  She needed to bring all of it together.  I think that’s how she got to me as a kind of motivation for doing it—that resonated with me. I’ve never done anything, said anything to bring closure other than just watching these amazing people continue to do amazing things.  At first, I was first quite reluctant in fact—very reluctant in fact.

Joanna Hoffman:  I don’t even remember that.

Marc Porat:  Lots of reasons.

Andy Hertzfeld:  Because it’s too painful.

Marc Porat:  It’s too many emotional—I didn’t want to necessarily go back there but then she told me–

Andy Hertzfeld:  Bill—

Marc Porat:  Bill Keating didn’t want to do it and others didn’t want to do it.  It was a peak experience for all of us.  Everyone says that and so it was a chance to get back in there and put some closure on it.  I only saw the rough cut with my family members and I think I was kind of not there necessarily so I’m seeing the film for the first time.  I’ll tell you after the film.

Joanna Hoffman:  It is important to do also talk about failure as a springboard to success.  That is what Sarah succeeded in doing, really, for the next generation like the youngster here, Megan.—they all succeeded beyond our wildest dreams so that’s really wonderful.

Marc Porat:  For me personally, I think that Joanna and Andy uniquely when they see people using Macs, something—there wouldn’t be a Mac without them so something must resonant. I’ve never asked you that question.  Something must be like, “We did that.”

Developer Andy Hertzfeld tests an early model for the smartphone in General Magic.
Developer Andy Hertzfeld tests an early model for the smartphone. Image Credit:
Spellbound Productions II.

Andy Hertzfeld:  Sure, for a while after it first came out, just seeing any Mac out in the world was an event.

Marc Porat:  For them, the Mac is soul nourishing because they did it.  I imagine when when Tony Fadell or Andy Rubin see Android or iOS machines, it’s the same sustenance.  It’s is the same, “I did that.”  They still did.  They don’t have to say it.  Andy and Joanna don’t have to say, “We did the Mac.”  It’s way in background but it’s it connects to their soul.  It must connect to their soul.

Andy Hertzfeld:  A little bit like a child.

Marc Porat:  Like a child.  This is a child everywhere.  You go anywhere in the world—anywhere on the planet, you go to places you wouldn’t think of going and there’s a Mac or there’s an iPhone or something. For me, General Magic did not succeed commercially.  It did not succeed.  But for me, I do have a second derivative pleasure in watching what Megan has done and what people in the team have done with their lives.  It’s tremendous.

I was looking online at that list and Matt was going over it earlier.  It’s like a who’s who.

Megan Smith:  It was the central idea of a cool person thinking “I know a really good musician at the center.”  It’s like how can you empower people to do what they need to do in the world.  That’s what these products of this vision are about and certainly—obviously right now—we’re seeing it also be used for bad as well as good. Like any technology can be used for bad or good. But the ultimate goal was to really empower people at the core and connect them with each other and with what they wanted to do, which is an extraordinary thing to have a chance to be part of especially because you see people in power out there doing their thing.

I guess I should say congrats on having an Oscar nominee portray you in the movies.

Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs.
Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Joanna Hoffman:  She was unbelievable.

Marc Porat:  She was scared of Joanna.

Joanna Hoffman:  No, she wasn’t.

Marc Porat:  Yes, she was. It’s written in an article.

Joanna Hoffman:  You’re kidding.

Marc Porat:  No.

Megan Smith:  She was totally intimidated by you.  If someone has talented as you—

Marc Porat:  Google her.  She says and it’s not me inferring, “I was scared of Joanna.”

Joanna Hoffman:  Jeez, I tried to be nice.

Andy Hertzfeld:  She was scared?  Why?

Marc Porat:  Well, you’d have to read the article.  Joanna was such a huge figure in her mind—

Megan Smith:  She was too intimidated that she could actually play you.

Marc Porat:  She didn’t think she’d be able to capture your power because you’ve talked down Steve Jobs.  You were the only person who could do that so she was scared of you because she couldn’t have done that.

Joanna Hoffman:  Many people did that.  Actually, it was a glutenative character.

Marc Porat:  Glutenative? (Laughs) She said she doesn’t look like you although when she was all dressed up, she—

Megan Smith:  She did great.

Andy Hertzfeld:  Steve wouldn’t respect you unless you stood up to him.

Marc Porat:  That’s right but she had the courage to just attack.

Joanna Hoffman:  A couple other people did, too.  I think also just being in technology, it just seems like well, there must be some kind of more—

Marc Porat:  It’s a very simple equation.  Steve Jobs an important person.  You were not terrified of him.  Therefore, he was not terrified of you.  It’s simple math.

Joanna Hoffman:  I see.

Megan Smith:  Why didn’t he just say to someone, “I need you to stand up to me.”

Marc Porat:  She did really well, including your accent.

Joanna Hoffman:  Talent goes without saying.

Marc Porat:  This quasi-Russian Armenian bizarre accent that you have is—

Megan Smith:  Buffalo’s in there!

Joanna Hoffman:  Buffalo’s in there.

Megan Smith:  A little bit, maybe.  We like the MIT Buffalo people.

Joanna Hoffman:  That’s right.

General Magic will open in theaters on May 10, 2019.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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