Q&A: Charles Ferguson


Schooled in political science, Charles Ferguson served as a consultant to both government and the high-tech industry before founding software company Vermeer Technologies in 1994. From there, he segued into the life of a visiting scholar at MIT and Berkely and also spent three years as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington before making his first film, "No End in Sight," which explored key decisions in the Iraq War and earned him an Oscar nomination. Ferguson, who has now turned his camera on the financial crisis, talked with THR's Gregg Kilday about his sophomore movie experience, capturing economics on film and making his first trip to Cannes.

The Hollywood Reporter: Even after "No End in Sight" was released, you remained involved in the debate about Iraq. Was it difficult to move on to another film subject?

Charles Ferguson: No. It was not. It would have been hard to put it aside if I had put it aside instantly, but I didn't. I did stay with it as a film and also as an issue. I've been involved in public policy debates about Iraq for a while. But I'm a filmmaker now, and I want to keep making films. And just as the world unfortunately provided an obviously important subject with the war in Iraq, it provided another equally important subject with the financial crisis. As soon as it became clear how deep this crisis was going to be, it seemed an obvious thing to do. The people at Sony Pictures Classics agreed virtually instantly.

THR: What attracted you to your subject this time?

Ferguson: As with Iraq, I had several friends who were involved in analyzing it early -- two of whom are in the film, actually. One of them is (economist) Nouriel Roubini and the other is Charles Morris. Charley was one of the very first people to see this, and he wrote a book in 2007, which was published in very early 2008, before Bear Sterns. The title of the book was "The Trillion Dollar Meltdown." I read the book in manuscript form in late 2007. I had not been looking at the financial world at all, partially because I was involved with Iraq. Previously in my life, I had a lot of dealings with the financial world, but for the prior five years, I had nothing to do with finance. When I read Charley's book, I called him and said, "Charley, this is really extreme." He said, "Charles, just wait." And boy was he right. And then September, 2008 happened and everybody got the joke.

THR: Economics can be fairly abstract -- and a lot of the financial instruments involved are fairly obscure. Was it difficult making that interesting on film?

Ferguson: It's fair to say; the film contains a lot of talking heads. But what they have to say is interesting, and it's about something that has very directly affected almost everyone on the planet. If there isn't significiant popular interest in the film, it's because I haven't done my job well. It's not because the subject doesn't permit it.

THR: "No End in Sight" revolved around a couple of key decisions, like disbanding the Iraqi Army. Is there a similar overriding decision that the new film looks at or is it more about a series of decisions?

Ferguson: The latter. What the film is about -- and I wouldn't say this is an exaggeration -- what the film is about is the emergence and the cancerous growth of a criminal industry. The American financial system, particularly American investment banking since deregulation began in the early 1980s, it became a criminal industry. The film goes into that in the most literal sense. That wasn't just one event. That happened over time, and it was permitted to occur because, in part, as this industry grew in wealth and power, it progressively corrupted the institutions and people and systems who would have, and should have, restrained it. Political contributions and lobbying being the obvious example, but also the regulatory system, the law enforcement system and also academia.

THR: How easy was it to find interview subjects who would go on camera?

Ferguson: The people most directly responsible at the most senior levels actually and intelligently refused to be interviewed. None of the CEOs of the major investment banks agreed to be interviewed. Larry Summers (director of the National Economic Council) declined to be interviewed. (Secretary of the Treasury) Tim Geithner declined to be interviewed. (Former Treasury Secretary) Rubin declined, etc. But people in foreign countries, even very senior people, and also people at levels just below them and people who have independent security were very willing to be interviewed. George Soros, very direct and open and critical in film, he had no problem at all. Christine Lagarde, the finance minister of France. The most surprising in that category, who I thought would be constrained to be much more circumspect and much more closed and diplomatic -- my jaw was on the floor when he was saying the things that he was saying -- was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the director of the IMF. He's pretty out there, he's pretty direct in the film. And then, of course, lots of economists and people who had been bankers who had been forced out because they spoke out.

THR: Does the film offer up any revelations?

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Ferguson: It's difficult to chose a specific word because I myself am unclear about the mixture of motivations involved. It could have been oblviousness, it could have been incompetence, it could have been arrogance, it could have been ruthless though mistaken political calculation; I don't know. But for whatever combination of reasons, in terms of consequences, the incompetence with which the crisis period was handled in certain very important. I don't think that is generally appreciated, and we provide a couple of examples.

THR: Are you hoping to have some political impact with the film?

Ferguson: If the film is widely watched, I think it will have a polticial impact. What I would like to see happen is real reform and real sanctions, where appropriate, and, where appropriate, criminial prosecution for the people who are responsible.

THR: In a number of ways, the crisis is ongoing. Was it hard finding an end-point for the film?

Ferguson: Well, unless the Obama administration surprises me a lot, unfortunately there is a fairly clear end-point, and it's what in fact the film ends on -- which is the lack of real action by the Obama administration.

THR: When did you complete the movie?

Ferguson: The last content addition we made was made about two weeks ago. We included the Senate hearings on Goldman Sachs. What I personally found remarkable was the nature of the Goldman bulls' responses. It was really astonishing and that's what we focused on.

THR: Have you been to Cannes before?

Ferguson: Never, I've never been to Cannes, and I have to say this is a pretty good way to go. I am just completely bolled over. It's an amazing opportunity. It's very unusual for documentaries to go to Cannes, and this is just my second film, and they accepted it on the basis of a rough cut and my description of what the finished film would look like. I was very surprised.
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