A few weeks back a documentary hit theatres with quite an alarming buzz. I proclaimed it as "the most crucial film of the year"- the "must see film of the year". That picture, I.O.U.S.A. , has since been lauded as a frightening, fresh, and accessible dissection of our national debt with comparisons to the likes of An Inconvenient Truth. Well, the film is still playing and I'm still an ardent supporter. So, during this momentous (and tumultuous) week which saw the take over of Freddie and Fannie, I thought it would be apropos to interview I.O.U.S.A. director Patrick Creadon, who just finished up screening the film at both the DNC and RNC.
ASHER GOLDSTEIN: Why this movie, what attracted you to the subject matter? How did the film come to be?
PATRICK CREADON: As Christine and I were finishing up the DVD for our first film "Wordplay" we received a phone call. Addison Wiggin, the author of a book called Empire of Debt, was looking for a team to produce and direct a documentary based on his book. He and his team had seen "Wordplay" and figured "if they can make crossword puzzles come to life, maybe they can do the same with macroeconomics." We read the book, were intrigued by both the topic and the challenges of making a film from the topic, and decided -- what the heck -- "let's do it".
AG:During the filmmaking process, was there something that really hit you, or surprised you?
PC: Yes... an overwhelming sense of "What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?" Making this film was difficult on every level. I'm not complaining, mind you. I consider making I.O.U.S.A. one of the best experiences of my life. But simply trying to get our heads around this topic -- the sheer enormity of it all -- was daunting and stressful and scary. And then as we were nearing completion of the first rough cut in late August of 2007 the sub-prime mortgage crisis exploded. We were on a family vacation that week as the whole financial world started to unravel in front of our eyes. My brother and brother-in-law are both in the bond market in Chicago so we were all following the news very closely that week. Over the course of those few days the tone of our film shifted profoundly. We were no longer making a film about what could happen and were instead making a film about what is happening. We went back to LA at the end of the week and threw the whole film away and started all over.
For the rest of the production I would start my mornings by going out to my front lawn and picking up the daily New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I was nervous every day as I cracked the papers open, fearful that something on the front page was going to directly effect our film (which was often the case). For months it felt like our team was running down a train track trying to stay out in front of this locomotive of a story. The content of our little independent film -- namely, the financial health of the United States -- had suddenly become the biggest story on the planet. It was everywhere all the time all at once... there was no avoiding it. We felt a heightened sense of urgency and duty to tell the story accurately and in a non-partisan fashion. We all took that responsibility very seriously.
AG: In a critique of the film, I recently noted that it seems you made a very concerted effort to avoid voicing your opinion beyond suggesting we have a "leadership deficit" in this country. Why didn't you want to be more forceful with your take on the subject at hand?
PC: It's a very good question. We hear that quite a lot. Let me be very frank: this film could have easily been 90 minutes of what a horrible president George Bush has been in the area of fiscal responsibility. In fact, I think history will show that of all the things he did poorly, his lowest marks will come in the area of fiscal stewardship. You would be hard pressed to find a Republican in Washington to dispute that. I know this first hand... many prominent Republicans have said this to my face. They're embarrassed by his fiscal track record.
At the same time, it would be disingenuous to say that the situation we're in today is all his fault. It isn't. There is a lot of blame to go around. Republicans, Democrats and Independents all helped create this mess we're in. The Federal Reserve has a lot to answer to as well. And this says nothing of an entire culture in our country that supports the idea that we can live beyond our means. As Warren Buffett says in the film, even he would reach a "point of maxing out" if he stopped working, spent all his money and then proceeded to run up his credit cards to their limits.
Our goal had been from the outset that we wanted to start a conversation about this topic, not a shouting match. The more we blamed one person or one party the more we ran the risk of starting a big shouting match with lots of finger-pointing. We didn't want to do that. We simply let the facts speak for themselves. Some facts make some people look better than others.
AG:How did you come up with the stylistic and structural choices that really keep the film fresh and moving?
PC: We had learned a lot from the making of Wordplay in 2005 and 2006. Christine and I knew I.O.U.S.A. would need the clarity and sense of humor that our editor Doug Blush could deliver, the emotional resonance and cohesiveness that Peter Golub's music would bring, and the visual storytelling that only Brian Oakes and his brilliant "Santa's workshop" of a mind could create for the graphics of the film. We were very fortunate that all of them agreed to work with us again on I.O.U.S.A. Our guiding principle throughout the making of the film was "Don't make this film for people who know this story. Make it for the other 99% of the people in our country who don't know it. They are our audience."
AG:What was your biggest concern going into the picture and now that it is being shown across the country, what is your biggest concern for the audiences?
PC: We just wanted to get it right, that's all. I felt a personal obligation to those who appear in the film (and of course to the audience too) to tell the story honestly and in a non-partisan way. There's an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, and even Ron Paul makes an appearance. Remarkably, they are all saying (basically) the same thing: America is living beyond its means and if we do not change our fiscal course we are going to drive off a cliff. The "party" that we call "The United States of America" will be over. It's hard to get people from different parties to agree on much of anything these days. The fact that so many people from different points along the political spectrum agree with the seriousness of our current situation is both remarkable and alarming. We were also concerned that no one would care to watch our film. It's an excruciatingly difficult and unsexy topic. Our running joke during production was "This film is actually really entertaining and quite good, and the twelve people who go see it when it comes out are going to appreciate all the hard work we put into it." Our fears were alleviated on opening night when over 45,000 people attended the film in 430 different theaters in 43 states across the country. We were also asked to bring the film to both political conventions this summer (which we did).
AG: What has been your attraction to documentary film?
PC: When I was a kid growing up in Chicago I watched so much public television my parents would lament that I had better grow up to be a documentary filmmaker because it was the only thing I was going to be qualified to do as an adult. After graduation from college I got a job on a PBS show called The 90's and I've been making documentaries ever since.
AG: Why do you think that the public at large is blind to what is being discussed in this picture, and I extend that to even the well-educated and politically savvy?
PC: The American people don't want to hear about this because they don't understand it. No one likes feeling stupid, which is exactly the feeling one can get when they begin discussing -- or worse, debating -- macroeconomics, the trade deficit, the federal debt, etc... We knew we had to not only explore these issues but we also had to explain them as well.
AG: Do you feel that activist cinema is propaganda? Is this film activist cinema?
PC: I'm not real big on labels like "activist cinema". No one seems to agree on what that term actually means. But I will say that we made the film in part because we knew it would be released during a presidential election and we wanted the film to be a part of that dialogue. I consider this film a public service -- nothing more, nothing less.
AG: What is your greatest hope for the film?
PC: I hope people go into it with an open mind. Then when the film is over I hope they call their member of Congress and scream at them. I mean just rip them a new one. Then I hope they call the White House and do the same. Our leaders have failed us terribly. It's shameful.
AG: What is your more realistic hope for the film?
PC: I think that is a realistic hope. I also hope people who watch our film start saving more money and investing it wisely. Without savings there is no future, and yet for the past 2 years America has had a negative savings rate. We've spent more money than we've earned. That has to stop.
AG: Did making this picture change your own viewpoint?
PC: I used to think the War in Iraq was the biggest reason for our poor financial health in this country. It isn't. The biggest fiscal problem that our nation faces today is the rising cost of health care, followed closely by the belief that any tax cut any time is a great idea. If we do not fundamentally reform our nation's health care system we will go bankrupt. It's that simple.
That said, I personally think the War in Iraq was a terrible mistake and it certainly did not make our financial situation any better, to say nothing of the enormous price that has been paid in the loss of human life.
AG: In hearing people discuss I.O.U.S.A. a suggestion has been made that this is really just a ploy to strengthen the push to privatize Social Security, Medicare, etc. What is your response to that?
PC: There is no hidden agenda behind this film, I can assure you. Our agenda is one we wear proudly on our sleeves: America needs to put its financial house in order. If we don't our kids and grandkids will be paying for things they didn't buy. It's a classic case of taxation without representation. Now, how we go about fixing this mess that we are in is a different situation. Creating solutions that we can agree on and implement is much more difficult than diagnosing this problem. But it's important for people to remember one thing -- Social Security is not nearly our biggest problem. David Walker has said repeatedly that fixing Social Security is "fairly easy". Our biggest problem is Medicare and our overall health care system. That is where the bulk of this problem lies.
AG: What is next?
PC: Something easy... like Energy: What's Up With That?