Charles Ferguson made an auspicious debut with No End In Sight, the definitive account of how the Bush Administration bungled the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which achieved the rare feat of long-term relevance and immediate success (a 2007 Academy Award nomination for Documentary Feature). The San Francisco native, who divides his time between residences in Berkeley and New York, took an unusual path to filmmaking, forging successful careers as a consultant and Web-software pioneer. That background proved valuable in asking tough, informed questions of corporate and government bigwigs for his second film, Inside Job, a bristling exposé of the individuals (and forces) who fueled and profited from the financial crisis. Coincidentally, the news broke mere hours after our conversation that Lawrence Summers would be stepping down from President Obama’s economic advisory team following the midterm elections. Perhaps Summers saw an early screening. Inside Job opens Friday, October 22 at the Embarcadero, the Shattuck and the Smith Rafael Film Center.
SF360: Given that you didn’t come to documentary filmmaking as a youthful idealist or from the world of journalism, I’d be interested to hear you talk about how you see the current role of documentaries in our society.
Charles Ferguson: I think there’s some chance that documentary films will have greater impact in the next few years than they’ve had in the last few years. They are to some extent taking up slack as the mainstream print media contract, and that contraction is a sad thing but the media are in financial trouble. Journalism is in financial trouble, and investigative journalism in particular is in financial trouble. I think that documentary filmmaking is beginning to occupy some of the space that used to be occupied by investigative journalism, both in print and in television. I hope there’s an appetite for that, particularly if the films are well made and compelling and dramatic and entertaining as well as informative.
SF360: Presumably you saw advantages in treating the financial crisis in a documentary rather than in a book.
Ferguson: Yes. First of all, several good books have already been written about the crisis although, interestingly, there hasn’t been yet—even in book form—a really comprehensive, synthetic analysis of its causes, and going into the history that we go into in the film. Also, there are things film can do that print can’t. I think that people watching, for example, the interviews in the film with Scott Talbott, the lobbyist, with David McCormick, the Treasury official, with the academics who were making large quantities of money from the financial services industry, watching them react when they’re being questioned and cross-examined, watching what they say and how they say it, their expressions, people will get something from that that they won’t get just from reading a transcript.
SF360: No End In Sight is a rigorous work that, in my view, was intended as a preemptive strike against the inevitable revisionist history from the right about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. We get much more of your voice in Inside Job. Is that a sign of frustration, or an evolution in your filmmaking style?
Ferguson: I thought that it made more sense for this subject. The Iraq war and the occupation is an inherently somber subject. Finance and what these guys did, and who they are and what they’re like, there’s more of an opportunity and almost more of a requirement to be a little more jaunty, have a little swagger and show that a film about money doesn’t have to be dull. Also, where appropriate and where it’s justified, to make fun of them. And there’s fun to be made. In addition to the absurdity and the dishonesty of what many of these people did, there’s also a kind of irrationality to it, and a senselessness to it, that’s an important part of the story. The chief economist of Citigroup, a very sober, serious economist, says, ‘Banking became a pissing contest. Mine’s bigger than yours.’ I thought that the attitude of the film could reflect that to some extent. Having said that, the film is still rigorously accurate. The film is not partisan, it’s not political and I challenge anybody to find a single factual inaccuracy. I wanted to have fun and I wanted the audience to have fun—or at least to be compelled and sometimes to have fun, sometimes to be angered—but I made sure that didn’t get in the way of the film’s accuracy.
SF360: The last few lines of narration, which close the film, are pretty pointed and action-oriented. Were you concerned that you might be veering toward Michael Moore territory, and that might be counterproductive?
Ferguson: No, I don’t think this film is like a Michael Moore film, and I don’t think that I’m, for better or worse, that kind of filmmaker. You hear my voice a few times when I think it’s appropriate, when it helps puts something in context, or when my expression conveys some information. When I asked Christine Lagarde, the finance minister of France, when she learned that Lehman [Brothers] was going to go bankrupt, I didn’t know the answer to the question. I assumed the answer was going to be she learned about it 24 or 48 hours ahead of time, and I was going to ask her then, ‘What kind of debate did you have with them about this?’ I was absolutely dumbstruck when she said, ‘I found out about it after the fact, by opening up the morning paper.’ I was stunned, and I thought it was appropriate to convey that by letting people hear my reaction I said, ‘Wow.’
SF360: OK, but how about that closing narration?
Ferguson: It just seemed natural. And it seemed kind of unnatural to show everything that we showed and then not also say, ‘We really should do something about this.’ For some reason I felt that that was already clear enough in the case of Iraq and No End In Sight. There really wasn’t any utility or point, and it would have been unnatural to put that in.
SF360: So it had more to do with the subject than with some shift in your approach to filmmaking?
Ferguson: I certainly felt that it was OK to come out of the closet. (Laughs.) I felt no inhibition about saying what I thought about what had occurred. In a funny way, what happened here in some ways is more fundamental to the United States than what happened with Iraq and the Iraq War. The Iraq War was a horrible, terrible thing and had terrible consequences for many people. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. But one can make an argument that it was an aberration, that it was something that wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances, that happened only because of a very particular set of circumstances and a very small number of people, and not likely to be repeated. One cannot say that about [the financial crisis]. This is something that is very deeply systemic now and has very disturbing implications for America’s future. So that, perhaps, also has something to do with why I felt less restrained.
SF360: You employ an ironic visual metaphor of gleaming skyscrapers that turn out to be houses of cards. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Oliver Stone likewise shoots the New York skyline, but I think he’s trading on the glamour rather than commenting on it. Your view?
Ferguson: My first reaction was of amusement. I saw Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps at the Cannes Film Festival, before my film was shown. Obviously I wanted to see it, because people were going to make comparisons and I was going to make comparisons. I broke out in laughter when I saw the first 10 minutes of that film, which is virtually identical to the first 10 minutes of mine. Later on, the films diverge, obviously, a great deal, but when I saw the opening credit sequence with the aerial cinematography of New York intercut with introductions to the characters—which is exactly what we do—I thought, ‘This is really quite funny, that we both started our films this way.’ I think you’re right about this issue of irony versus glorification. I think there’s some mixture of both in both films. There is something striking and awe-inspiring about the Manhattan skyline and the money that produced it. At the same time, what produced it was fraudulent in a lot of regards, so there’s irony there and we were mocking them to so some extent. And I think that both of those elements are present in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps as well, but maybe in different ratios—a little more glorification, a little less irony.
SF360: You’re being very polite and very politic, so let me be more—
Ferguson: They’re making an entertainment. It’s not a documentary, and people will get that.
SF360: But does that undermine, trivialize or distract from the message?
Ferguson: I hope not. I hope that people can separate fact from fiction.
SF360: In that film, a young couple is ripped off of $100 million. Who can relate to that? In your film, it’s made clear that ordinary people were getting hurt while men in $5,000 suits were yukking it up on the 61st floor.
Ferguson: That is true, and yes, that is absent from Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. You don’t see what this did to ordinary people. I guess that part of me wishes that they’d put a little bit more reality into it, but I just don’t think that was their goal. It can’t have been their goal, because Oliver Stone made the first Wall Street, which was actually extremely accurate and a quite remarkably faithful portrait of what Wall Street was like at the time, in the late 1980s. I’ve got to assume that the choice this time was deliberate to make a very different film.
SF360: You’re being generous, saying fiction and nonfiction serve different functions and that you just hope people see your movie, too.
Ferguson: But that’s what I really feel. I also want to make feature films, and I love classy trash. Maybe I shouldn’t say ‘trash.' I love classy, shameless entertainment: L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, Minority Report, Inside Man. I love those movies. Michael Clayton. The Bourne films. I think those are great movies. I’d love to make a movie like the Bourne films. I would find it extremely enjoyable and a very socially useful thing to do. Entertaining hundreds of millions of people, what’s wrong with that? I would love to do that. I still want to make documentaries, but I think in my ideal world I would alternate between the two.
SF360: I found Inside Job a quite entertaining film, but I also walked out feeling that the country has passed the point of no return.
Ferguson: It wasn’t my intent to make people feel, ‘We’re doomed. There’s nothing we can do.’ On the contrary, it was my intent to make people think, ‘We have to do something.’ There have been times in American history when bad things were going on and the American people came to their senses and did something about it, and I hope that that will happen again. In today’s New York Times I saw this town hall meeting that President Obama had. You see some very angry people who supported him and are very disillusioned and who say so, very directly, straight to his face. It’s really quite striking, and the President is looking very uncomfortable. I sense that many people are upset, so I wouldn’t count out the American people yet. It might take a while, but I think there’s a good chance that people will become upset enough to do something about this.
SF360: Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker? Would you embrace, or reject, such a description? Are all documentary makers political filmmakers, whether they acknowledge it or not?
Ferguson: I do share the view that there’s some amount of politics or political intent to almost all things. Politics and political questions and moral and ethical questions and questions of power, they’re kind of in the ether in many different places and ways. Aside from that, no, I don’t think of myself as a political filmmaker. I don’t think of myself as a political person. I certainly don’t think of myself as a partisan person. I think of myself as someone who’s interested in policy questions and in investigative journalism. If there’s any label that I would give to myself, at least with regard to these two films, it’s investigative journalism. Certainly not politics.
SF360: Who sponsors investigative journalism these days? Where do you find support?
Ferguson: It is to some extent endangered, but as the traditional places where it was found are contracting, which is disturbing, new things are arising. I’m optimistic that that function will still get performed. Partially by documentary films, partially by blogs and bloggers, partially by nonprofit organizations of various kinds. There are a number of nonprofit organizations that do what is, in effect, good investigative journalism and we used some of it in this film. We used some of the work that had been done by the Center for Responsible Lending, the Center for Responsive Politics and the Center for Public Integrity. And I view my own film as being a piece of investigative journalism, partially financed by Sony.
SF360: After the fact, right? When they acquired the film for distribution.
Ferguson: No. When I first had the idea of making this film, in September of 2008, I approached Michael Barker and Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics and I told them about this, and they agreed to finance—they’re financing a little over half the film—and to distribute it. They gave me complete control. I have contractual final cut and even more importantly, I have real final cut. When I started making the film, I had some concern [that] at some point I’d get a phone call. ‘This guy’s an investor. This guy’s a friend. This guy’s kinda important to us. He supports our movies.’ Never. Not once.
SF360: So what’s a bigger subject than the world financial crisis for you to take on next?
Ferguson: There’s lots of things worth investigating, although I don’t know that my next film will necessarily be a documentary. I have many ideas for feature films that I’d like to make. Some serious, mostly silly. Mostly entertainments. Thrillers of various kinds. I would love to make a film that has a lot of adrenaline in it, a lot of things going fast. I like speed and I think I could be good at conveying it.
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