On the front lines against the U.S.'s cozy relationship with one of the worst governments in the world.
Director Charles Ferguson’s first film, No End in Sight, snagged an Academy Award nomination. Ferguson’s second doc, Inside Job, won the Best Documentary Oscar. His acceptance speech was the finest moment of this year’s otherwise exceptionally boring Academy Awards ceremony.
Ferguson’s nonfiction exposés are bookends of the Bush-Cheney regime. No End in Sight (2007) documents the Iraq War debacle, while Inside Job (2010) reveals the disastrous domestic incompetence of the Bush government.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Ferguson, fifty-six, majored in mathematics at Berkeley, and then took time off to study in France and travel around Europe. He attended graduate school at M.I.T., earning his Ph.D. in political science in 1989.
Ferguson did his postdoctoral program at M.I.T., too, researching and writing on international economic and technology policy. This led to his becoming a consultant for high-level government and business entities. At the beginning of the Internet era, Ferguson co-founded the high-tech company Vermeer Technologies, which created the visual website development tool FrontPage. The company was reportedly sold to Microsoft for $133 million in 1996. (Ferguson wrote about the experience in his book High Stakes, No Prisoners.)
Silicon Valley’s loss has been cinema’s gain.
Q: How did you become a successful documentary filmmaker with no formal training?
Charles Ferguson: I’d been a film maniac since I was very young; by the time I was eight or nine years old, I was hooked on movies.
I sort of plunged into filmmaking. I decided I’d jump off the deep end, so I started thinking about what kind of a movie I should try to make. First, I thought I should try something relatively inexpensive, relatively contained, relatively small. I started working on a feature, a film I’d still like to make: a very talky film of people and ideas about our contemporary state with regard to relationships, marriage, sex, and romance. I started trying to educate myself about filmmaking.
And then George W. Bush gave us the Iraq War. Six months after the war, I started speaking with friends of mine whom I knew from my prior background in political science and policy work. Several started telling me, “You know, this is actually not going very well, it’s not like what you see on television every day. There are big problems.” So I started looking into that. Eventually, I was persuaded that was true.
Realizing that I basically didn’t know anything about filmmaking, I got in touch with several documentary filmmakers whose films I had admired, and discussed with them the possibility of their consulting on my making a film. And Alex [Gibney] agreed. He’d look over my shoulder, and I’d come to him with questions and advice. He was wonderful—a totally great guy.
Q: How did Inside Job come to be?
Ferguson: After I made No End in Sight, I started thinking about what film I’d make next. I had several ideas, both documentary and feature films. But once again, when the financial crisis arrived, it seemed to me that this was something I had to make a movie about.
Q: In your Inside Job Oscar acceptance speech, you said: “Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong.” Many feel there were ethical breaches committed by Wall Streeters. But what actual laws were broken?
Ferguson: Were laws actually broken? Yes. In fact, Charles Morris—who appears in the film and wrote one of the first books [The Trillion Dollar Meltdown] about the coming of the crisis and its causes—Charles Morris and I are now writing a book which will appear next year, published by Crown Random House, in which we’re going to go through those questions in considerable detail. We’ve already persuaded ourselves that there was a large quantity of fraud and probably also a fair amount of perjury when various financial executives testified in Congress and before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, as well as in a number of civil cases in which they’d been deposed. Given the evidence we’ve seen thus far, we think that there was undoubtedly a great deal of criminality at high levels in the financial sector.
Q: So why hasn’t anybody gone to the slammer?
Ferguson: The primary reason is the financial and political power of the financial services industry. There are other, secondary reasons. Many people were legitimately, reasonably terrified that anything that caused further disruption and further uncertainty could lead to an uncontrollable financial crisis that would in turn lead to a major, really catastrophic depression. Another secondary reason is that these cases are complicated and difficult. But when the U.S. government is serious about doing something that’s complicated and difficult, it can do it. The reason it hasn’t been done is that it hasn’t been made a priority. The reason it hasn’t been made a priority is because of the financial and political power of this industry.
Q: What do you think when conservatives say that to improve the economy we need to unshackle it from rules and regulations and to free the entrepreneurial spirit?
Ferguson: Oh, I’m actually all in favor of freeing the entrepreneurial spirit—but it turns out, interestingly, that you actually need very strict regulations to free the entrepreneurial spirit, because in the absence of tight regulations, the financial sector has become extraordinarily concentrated and very oligopolistic, quasi-cartel, with a very small number of firms holding extremely high shares of very important markets. So Charles Morris and I both believe that some of the largest banks should be broken up. And we should have a less concentrated and therefore more competitive industry.
Q: What about the recent Wall Street reforms and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? Are they enough to prevent another round of these shenanigans?
Ferguson: We tend not to think so, and that’s a view that’s fairly widely shared. There isn’t going to be another similar bubble in the U.S. immediately because people’s memories are very fresh and their wounds are still raw. But the fundamental problems in the industry haven’t been fixed. In another ten or fifteen years, something like this could happen again.
Q: Why did Obama take Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers instead of people like Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz?
Ferguson: Obama’s inexperience with economic and financial matters and with business matters is one possible reason. The fact that he had been working with those guys for a couple of years on his campaign so he knew them is another. There were other people he didn’t know. Then, of course, cold-blooded political self-interest: the desire to continue to be on reasonably good terms with a lot of the financial sector.
Q: They’re also big campaign donors.
Ferguson: Campaign donors. Yes.
Q: Why wouldn’t Geithner and Summers be interviewed by you for your film?
Ferguson: I suspect that part of the answer is Larry Summers knows me well enough to realize that probably he’d have a pretty rough interview.
Q: The heads of Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and Bank of America also turned your interview requests down. Why?
Ferguson: I would imagine that once again they had some concern they’d have a pretty rough time.
Q: You also indict corrupt academics and economists in Inside Job. Why?
Ferguson: Because it’s a major problem. It’s something I became aware of when I was an academic. I’d seen this problem getting more and more serious, and I knew there was something to look for. It turned out there was a lot there.
So I thought it was important to show, particularly because it was something that wasn’t as well known as some of the other things about the financial industry.
Q: How did you get Matt Damon to narrate Inside Job?
Ferguson: We asked him, and he said yes. It turned out that he’d seen No End in Sight when he was preparing for his role in Green Zone, which is a thriller that takes place inside occupied Iraq. He also just turned out to be a very, very nice guy, an intelligent, helpful man. It was a pleasure to work with him.
Q: How did making Inside Job change your views on how capitalism works?
Ferguson: Unfortunately, it made it clearer to me that America really has changed a great deal in the last thirty years. One aspect of that change has been this extraordinary growth in the power of the financial sector and also the growth of this ultrawealthy class. There’s now an extraordinary concentration of wealth and financial power in a way that was not true thirty years ago. The financial crisis was in many ways a result of that change.
I believe that now the top 1 percent of the population has a quarter of America’s total income. Just as disturbingly, the bottom 10 percent has seen its wealth deteriorate very sharply and now has basically nothing.
Q: How do you rectify this income inequality?
Ferguson:I think it’s quite difficult and will take some kind of mass social or political movement.
Q: Tell us about your next film.
Ferguson: It’s about WikiLeaks. It’s fascinating, and important. WikiLeaks combines several of my prior interests in technology, policy questions, and journalism. It’s not a documentary; it’s a feature film for HBO with an actor playing Julian Assange. I’ll be involved in writing it, and we’re hiring a screenwriter. I’ll direct the film. We intend for the film to be rigorously accurate.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is the author of “Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States,” an editor of HollywoodProgressive.com, and co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle, an international left-leaning group of critics who annually award the Progies for Best Progressive Films and Filmmakers. Rampell interviewed Ed Asner, James Cromwell, Oliver Stone, and W. S. Merwin for The Progressive in 2010.