Charles Ferguson on Inside Job, Confronting Arrogance and How Obama 'Blew It'

charles_ferguson_tmi_225.jpgThree years after delivering No End in Sight -- the definitive, devastating record of America's misbegotten march to war in Iraq -- director Charles Ferguson returns this week with the equally definitive, equally devastating Inside Job. This time around Ferguson takes on the global financial crisis, turning his eye to the mendacity, rapaciousness and thoroughly reckless deregulation that led to worst economic tailspin since the Great Depression. Watch out, Wall Street.

Matt Damon narrates, while Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank, George Soros and even a notorious Wall Street madam are among the nearly four dozen interviewees delivering the broadest picture of the crash to date. Ferguson recently talked to Movieline about holding the appropriate parties accountable, standing up to the bad guys, his optimism and Inside Job's admitted blind spot.

So there's been a lot of interest greeting this film, which I imagine translates to not just a little pressure. How do you deal with the build-up to your work?

Well, this is only the second film I've made, so I wouldn't say I have a routine down. In fact I definitely don't have a routine down. This one, at least in terms of interest and the money at stake, it's a big multiple of the first one. That's evident in a variety of ways ranging from the net worth of the people who come to see the film -- and focus on it rather intently -- to the way my distributor is treating it. It's very hectic.

Do you remember when and how you decided to tell this story?

Yes. I started thinking about it quite early, because I have two friends -- well, professional colleagues, but we're friendly also -- whom I've known for a very long time. Charlie Morris I've known for 20 years at least. Nouriel Roubini is the other one. Both of them are in the film -- two of the people who started warning about this earliest. In 2007, both of them started telling me, "We're going to have problems. Something's coming." In fact, in late 2007, [when] Nouriel had already written some articles and made some speeches, Charles Morris finished a book manuscript. The book was published in February of 2008, one month before Bear Stearns went belly up. I read the manuscript in late 2007, and the title of it was The Trillion-Dollar Meldown. I remember calling Charlie up and saying, "This is rather scary, Charlie, but is it really that bad? Aren't you exaggerating a bit? Things look calm in the world." And he said, "Just you wait."And then major financial institutions began collapsing on a regular basis.

So I started thinking more seriously about it and wondering how far this was going to go. After what's generally called the Lehman Weekend -- which was actually the Lehman/Merrill Lynch/AIG weekend, when all three of those institutions collapsed simultaneously -- I thought, "This is world history." And also good drama.

How did you settle on these interview subjects?

There were a few individuals I knew I wanted from the beginning, including Nouriel and Charlie. And there were a few other particular people I knew I wanted. For the rest I wanted a representative group; I wanted some people from American finance. I wanted some people from European and Asian finance. I wanted some journalists. I wanted some academics. I wanted some people from government. I wanted some outsiders. I wanted some insiders. So we looked for the best, most interesting people to talk to.

How did you approach them? I imagine if they'd done any homework or background research on you at all, they'd have had some insight as to your bullishness and thoroughness as an interviewer.

It varied. Some people asked for a lot and seemed to have done their homework, and others not. We were very open with people; we told them, "We're making a broad film that is a broad look at the financial crisis. The director is Charles Ferguson." Some people asked for my CV; I gave it to them if they wanted it. Some people asked to speak with me; not too many, but some. I did if they wanted. A couple of people had seen my first film; not too many, but a few. It was fairly straightforward. I think the way caution and alarm were principally reflected was simply in people refusing to be interviewed, which many people did. In many cases it was definitely in their self interest not to be interviewed.

How do you feel about yourself as an interviewer? How do you feel you've evolved or changed since No End in Sight?

I've certainly become less hesitant to challenge people. In the first film, I did challenge a few people a few times, and you see that. But for most part, that was partially me, partially the subject matter, and partially the people I was talking to. This is different. Iraq was a tragedy; there was some dishonesty in it, but it was a tragedy. This is different. This was a crime -- sometimes even literally so, I think, and even when not literally so, then in the ethical or moral sense it was. It involved a great deal of dishonesty on the part of a great number of people, sometimes for political gain, but most often for direct monetary gain. And it just seemed that it was appropriate and necessary to challenge people when it seemed they should be challenged.

Do you think there's a point -- maybe your next film, maybe two or three films down the line -- where you'll reach a point of resistance with potential interview subjects that actually compromises the work you want to do?

A couple people have asked me that question. It might, but I doubt it will be a major problem. Why do I say that?

The reason I ask is because I don't think of you as an activist filmmaker, really. You have a point of view, but I don't envision you doing a story whether people will talk to you or not.

Well, I think I'll always try to evaluate based on many different criteria whether or not there's an opportunity to make a good film. One element of that is whether you can get anybody to talk to you, of course. But in general I doubt it will be a major problem. I mean, look: In this film, a lot of people with an awful lot to hide didn't talk to me, but I think I still got the goods, basically. There may be situations where that's not true. But first of all, with regard to people who have lots to hide, there's a large supply of arrogance in the world. And with some of the people who agreed to be interviewed for the film -- and who probably regret that decision -- I gradually realized after I'd done a few of these interviews that these people weren't used to being challenged. They had never been challenged before. So I realized it didn't really matter to them what my background was. Their view was, "I'm above all that; people don't do this to me." And they never have. My guess is that there are a lot of those [people] in a lot of different domains in the world. But we'll see. I'm optimistic that I'll still be able to make my films.

Like No End in Sight, I think this film has somewhat of an Achilles' heel: It doesn't examine the media's complicity in this whole economic schema. Why?

That's an interesting observation, and I guess I would partially agree. [Pause] Well, first of all, it certainly wasn't conscious. [Long pause] Let me think about that. The issue certainly crossed my mind. I think it's more of a mixed case than in Iraq. I would agree with you more about the Iraq film than with this one. In the years leading up to the crisis, I wouldn't give the media a triple-A+, but I wouldn't give them an F, either. It's not like nobody warned about this, and its not like there were no articles about it. Were there as many as there should have been? No. Were they as pointed as they should have been? No. Was there as much hard, tough investigation as there should have been? No. That's true. But Gillian Tett [of the Financial Times] was writing her stuff, and Nouriel was writing his stuff. It got published. Charlie Morris was writing his book, and it got published by Public Affairs press. It's not like nobody was willing to. But you're still right that there is something of an issue. Why didn't I examine it more in the film? I think it was principally just a matter of time and space.

There were many things I didn't put in the film that I would have liked to. I would say that a more substantial omission in the film is about the role of Congress. There's not too much about the role of Congress in this. It's there; we have Sen. Phil Gramm, and we have the laws named after the congressmen, and we point out [details] about the lobbying. But it was actually a very large role. Another five minutes about that would have been good.

To the extent you did come to this subject exhaustively and definitively, you also come to it optimistically -- at least by the end. Do you think, though, you came to it too late to change anything?

No. But... I don't know President Obama personally. Would it have made a difference if this film had come out during his election campaign? Or if he had seen it and the world had seen it during his election campaign? There are two ways, conceivably, it could have made a difference. One, I don't know how educated he was about all this. His background suggests that he wouldn't have naturally known a lot about it. He doesn't have a background in either economics or finance. He had had no private sector experience at all. He didn't even have experience managing his own personal money. He only became a wealthy person very shortly before he ran for president -- based on his books. His contact with the financial world and with the issues related to this crisis -- or with the world of economics -- was extremely limited.

So there are several partially competing, partially complementary explanations to why he chose to behave as he did when he became president. One is that he didn't know. The second was that he was told he needed to have experienced people who wouldn't rock the boat on Wall Street, because that would roil the markets and cause further panic and so on. Third is cold-blooded political calculation: what he could get away with, where the net balance of his interests lay. With two of those three things, this film could have had an effect.

This is an indirect answer to your question, but I do think that his election was a pivotal moment and a pivotal opportunity. He had a chance to really do something, and I think it's a huge historic tragedy for this country that he didn't. I don't think we're going to get an equivalently clear chance for quite a while. So with regard to my optimism, what I'm optimistic about is that over some period of time, the American people will get angry enough and get organized enough to do something about this. But it's going to be much harder and much slower now than it could have been had President Obama made a different set of choices in a 60-day period. That was a very important, fundamental juncture, and he blew it.

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