If writer-producer-director Charles Ferguson can swathe sobering modern American history with dark humor as well as make job compensation evocative and collateralized debt obligations completely engrossing in Inside Job, his latest documentary, imagine what he could create with a fictional screenplay in his hands and talented actors at his disposal. Audiences may find out.
Inside Job, which opens in Los Angeles and Chicago today and throughout the U.S. over the next several weeks, chronicles the global financial crisis of 2008. But Ferguson said that in his "ideal world," he would add nonpolitical scripted films to his repertoire.
"There are a number of policy, political, social questions that I find very interesting, and there are also other subjects that aren't political at all that I would love to make films about," he said. "I certainly am not just going to make political documentaries my whole life. No, definitely not."
Ferguson made a name for himself when he sold FrontPage to Microsoft in 1996, and he is also known for his widely read books. But when the brilliant and engaging techie released his freshman motion picture effort in 2007, Hollywood started to take serious notice of his storytelling prowess: No End in Sight, which examined the George W. Bush administration's error-riddled orchestration of the Iraq war, earned Ferguson an Oscar nomination in 2008.
Inside Job may bring him closer to becoming a household name. Like an A-list master of the screen, he deftly spins a tale about real-life puppeteers who dangerously played unaware citizens around the world as marionettes -- all on a blindingly flashy stage built by the U.S. government.
The very prosperous (and the very free) Richard Fuld, former Lehman Brothers CEO, and Frank Raines, former Fannie Mae CEO, among others, make pretend baddies from big-budget thrillers look small time. Their egregious actions led to millions of people losing their jobs, their homes and their confidence in governmental control.
There are more scoundrels lurking, too. The very soil upon which the bad apples have fallen is tainted, according to the film. Ferguson, who attended the University of California, Berkeley, and MIT, goes after people who hold prominent posts at some of the most respected education institutions in the world while getting paid for helping to shape policies of financial institutions.
When asked about his conflicts of interest, Glenn Hubbard, chief economic advisor during the Bush administration and current dean of Columbia Business School, practically snarls at Ferguson.
Superiority and greed are at the center of what at times feels like a cinematic street fight. It's facts -- narrator Matt Damon meticulously explains everything -- that are used to kick Wall Street's teeth in while simultaneously ramming the U.S. government's face into a wall.
Leaders of the Free World fall under Ferguson's concentrated scrutiny. One by one, Presidents Ronald Reagan, both Bush and his father, George H.W., and even Bill Clinton are highlighted as culpable players in America's freakishly close brush with the Greater Depression. Barack Obama takes a few hits as well.
Laugh-worthy are interviews with characters like Frederic Mishkin, former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and current Columbia University professor, who discusses what he considered a priority during the fall of 2008.
Given Inside Job's slick feel and fine "cast," Ferguson's shift to fiction would not be surprising. While never evading its duty to inform, the documentary is both amusing and riveting. It's only when the theater lights go up that people may wonder if they should have enjoyed themselves so much; after all, the story really happened and didn't come from his imagination. Audiences will have to wait to find out if his next endeavor will be fashioned from that place.
"I don't yet have any idea what my next film will be about... but after awhile, I will have time to start thinking about that," Ferguson said. "I have many, many thoughts. Many, many ideas."
On Monday afternoon, I spoke with the writer-producer-director about his job on Inside Job:
It takes a certain degree of courage to take on who you've taken on in this film. Who or what inspires you to express your point of view and to call people on the carpet?
I have a considerable number of friends and colleagues, actually, who've been very independent, courageous journalists and/or academics and/or sometimes-political people. There's a couple of them in the film; Nouriel Roubini and Charles Morris were among the people. There are many journalists and, in some cases, political people who I've admired and whose courage, in many cases, far exceeds my own. It didn't seem as if I was being the most courage person in the world by doing this.
These are very influential, very wealthy, very high-power people, and you're holding them accountable... a lot of people would shy away from that.
Yeah, perhaps, but I've always been a fairly independent sort, and I care about these issues, and I have the luxury of being secure in various ways. I'm professionally secure. I'm financially secure. The film was being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, and so I felt that I had a certain amount of institutional support.
You come from a technology, economics and politics background. What surprised you the most about documentary filmmaking?
I would say two things. One is just how much I enjoyed it and still do enjoy it. I really can't think of anything I'd rather do than make films. Not just documentaries necessarily. I'd like to make feature films too. Once I started doing it, I just found it so unbelievably enjoyable and absorbing and compelling. I'd say the other thing that surprised me was how similar it is in many ways to the start-up I had done. The experience I had in the software industry when I started and ran a small software company turned out to be really fairly relevant...you acquire financing, you hire a team, you make a schedule, you make a plan, you watch your budget, you set up a corporate structure.
In terms of the Hollywood machine, which has politics all its own, what, if any, politics did you experience while trying to get your films made and distributed?
I certainly encountered some. I don't know if I would say that it was necessarily Hollywood politics. I've been more in the independent film industry than in the so-called Hollywood industry and the studio, large-budget industry, but I've certainly encountered some things. I would say, overall, I've had a pretty good experience. Have I sometimes encountered personal jealousy, or have I encountered a couple of people I had to fire? Sure, I've come across those kinds of things. But overall, I would say that the guys at Sony Pictures Classics, who were distributing this film, they've been remarkably straight. I would say that I have not encountered anything remotely like the worst of what one might imagine.
There's a certain amount of pressure... there can be "creative differences" between studio heads, film execs, the creatives involved in the filmmaking process, writers, directors and even actors for that matter.
That I have not encountered at all. With my first film, I made the film before it was sold and then sold it to a distributor [Magnolia Pictures], and the distributor did not change a single frame or try to. In the case of this film, I reached an agreement with Sony Pictures Classics for them to partially finance it and then distribute it. They gave me contractual final cut and they also gave me real final cut. I showed the film to them at various points, and they had various comments and suggestions, some of which I acted on, some of which I did not, just because they're very experienced judges of film and filmmaking and very smart people. But none of those were of the form "This person is too important," "This person is too rich," "Don't attack that company"; there was nothing of that kind... I have encountered no attempt to interfere with either the content of the film or with its overall style or sensibility.
What's one lesson you learned from making No End in Sight that you took with you to Inside Job?
One thing that I decided that I wanted to do better was to make Inside Job more of a film, to pay more attention to cinematography, to pay more attention to music, to pay more attention to pacing, to put more humor in it. I don't think that a lot of humor would have been appropriate for No End in Sight -- it's all about a war and a war gone very wrong -- but in this, this too is obviously about a very serious subject, but it's a subject where there is some humor in it, sometimes rather dark humor, but there is some humor in it. I wanted to make the film enjoyable and good-looking and interesting to watch as a movie as well as informative, so I tried to do that as best I could without compromising the content of the film. I think, to some extent, I succeeded.
You have said that it's surprisingly easy to get subjects to sit down with you and that they've probably regretted it. These are people, as you say, who aren't used to being challenged. Who has been your most difficult interview... the most unwilling to give you information, maybe even combative? Is there someone who actually made you feel uncomfortable?
Well, I didn't feel uncomfortable, but several times the people I was interviewing were clearly very uncomfortable! [Laughs] There were a number of people who were really not very forthcoming. Glenn Hubbard would have to be very close to the top of the list if not the top of the list. Glenn Hubbard, Frederic Mishkin and David McCormick... and then, of course, in a different way, Scott Talbott, the financial industry lobbyist. It's his job to represent the financial industry, and I was quite surprised that he was able to say some of the things that he did with a straight face. Glenn Hubbard is a more dangerous person because people tend to regard him and people like him -- senior academics, people who've been in elite universities and have degrees from elite universities -- as being objective and, in fact, they're not sometimes because they have ideological or political interests and also, as the film shows, because they often have financial interests and they're being paid by the people whose policies they're talking about. I felt that Hubbard was not being truthful.
Inside Job delves into the psychology of greed and excess and what drives Wall Street executives to conduct their professional and personal lives the way they do. Can you talk about the decision to include in your film thoughts from Dr. Jonathan Alpert, the Manhattan psychotherapist?
I thought that side of it was important. The sheer amounts of money that these people were making began to distort their thinking. That's part of why I showed not only the footage with Alpert and his view as a therapist, but it's also why I had some of the material about the private jets, the private elevators, the art collections, the gigantic houses; these people started living in a bubble where they really became very disconnected from anybody who would tell them that they were doing something wrong and also very disconnected from any evidence of the consequences of their behavior. And then I think that made their behavior worse, and there is some kind of pathology that I don't pretend to completely understand about some of these people. If I already had 400 million dollars, I can't imagine doing this kind of thing to my own company, to the industry in which I work, to my country, to the world economy to get another 100 million dollars. It's not even a matter of ethics; it just doesn't seem entirely sane. There's something not normal about it, and I wanted to show something about the culture of this industry and how disconnected it became from sanity and from the concerns of normal people.
You and I attended the same screening, and the audience was audibly exasperated during numerous points. There's definite outrage at Wall Street's mendacity as well as the U.S. government's ineptitude to halt it. What goes through your head when you see audiences shaking their heads in disgust and disbelief as they watch your film?
I am gratified that the film seems to be having an effect. I made the film so that people could understand what happened here and also, to some extent, to spur people to think about it and to take action about it. And I hope that the film does have some effect in that regard, that it does make people realize that something very bad happened here and that it hasn't yet been fixed and that it's up to all of us collectively to fix it... people other than film industry professionals or film critics started seeing the film at film festivals just a few weeks ago, and I really didn't know until then whether I had made the film well enough that people would get it and would react the way in the way I had hoped, and so far, it seems that people are, and I find that very gratifying. It's why I became a filmmaker.
Michael Moore and his camera crew walk around Capitol Hill and elsewhere and a lot of people run in the other direction. How do you reconcile with developing a possible reputation as a truth-seeking lid-blower who people may fear on a certain level?
I don't know how big an issue it might become. Certainly there were a considerable number of people who refused to speak with me this time even though I didn't get out of that reputation, and there were many other people who were willing to speak with me this time. How that's going to change if I do acquire a more public reputation because of this film, I don't know. My guess is that there will be some people who will, indeed, run in the other direction, and there will be other people who will welcome speaking with me.
How that will affect my ability to make films is yet to be determined. I'm optimistic that it will continue to be possible for me to find interesting people and situations to make films about.
There's Oscar buzz for Inside Job. After being nominated for No End in Sight, how do you feel going into the awards race this time around?
[Laughs] Those things are for other people to decide. Of course I want the film to do well; I want the film to be recognized because that will enable more people to see it and will hopefully make even more people aware of these issues. Of course I would be delighted if the film gets nominated for awards and/or wins awards, but it's not why I made the film. Those decisions are made by other people than myself I'm happy to say.
Inside Job's release dates and cities are listed here.