Tough Talk

When asked if there's anything that intimidates him, director Charles Ferguson pauses for a moment and then answers with the kind of unflinching resolve that will sound familiar to anyone who has seen one of his documentaries.
November 1, 2010

When asked if there’s anything that intimidates him, director Charles Ferguson pauses for a moment and then answers with the kind of unflinching resolve that will sound familiar to anyone who has seen one of his documentaries.

‘Nothing that I’ve seen so far,’ he says.

Billed as ‘the film that cost $20 trillion to produce’, his sophomore feature Inside Job, distributed in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics and in Canada by Mongrel Media, investigates how years of financial deregulation by the United States government led to the largest global economic crisis since the Depression. Through no-nonsense interviews – many of them uncomfortable – with economists, academics, policymakers, journalists and a Wall Street madam, Ferguson methodically lays out how the financial sector perpetrated a massive fraud that cost many Americans their jobs, their homes and their savings.

Buzz around Inside Job began after the film’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this May, with it being one of two films to top IndieWire‘s critics’ poll following the fest. From there it earned glowing reviews following screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival before opening on two screens in New York on Oct. 8th. It netted $42,000 that weekend, putting its $21,000 per screen average on par with other 2010 doc success stories such as Exit Through the Gift Shop and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

His first film, No End in Sight, was a similarly scathing examination of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq in 2002. While it was well-received by critics, earned $1.4 million at the box office and scored an Oscar nomination, it failed to impact outside a narrow niche of people already interested in foreign affairs.

To ensure Inside Job‘s blunt message of accountability would resonate with as broad an audience as possible for its theatrical roll-out, Ferguson upped the production quality and spent six months researching the subject at a level that he says, ‘compares favorably with many PhD dissertations.’ ‘I’m extremely confident that the film is correct,’ he says. ‘Correct within the detailed actual sense, in that it’s not full of factual errors, and also correct in the large-scale view that it presents. Now we’ll see whether people want to sit down and watch this movie.’

At 55, and with a background in political science and technology, Ferguson is a late blooming filmmaker. After earning his PhD in political science from M.I.T. in 1989 he spent three years researching the confluence of technology, globalization and government policy, consulting for the White House and the Defense Department. In the mid-Nineties he founded Vermeer Technologies, a software company that created the website development tool FrontPage, which he sold to Microsoft for $133 million in 1996. He’s also authored several books, including Computer Wars: The Post-IBM World.

In 2005, Ferguson decided to pursue his burning interest in film and started Representational Pictures. Thus, No End in Sight proved to be a baptism of fire for the director. ‘Essentially with No End in Sight, Charles and I didn’t know what we were doing,’ says Audrey Marrs, the film’s producer and chief operational officer for Representational Pictures. ‘We hired people who taught us how to do our jobs. The other producer taught me how to be a producer and the editors taught Charles how to edit and on and on.’

Formerly Ferguson’s assistant, Marrs quit her post-graduate studies in curatorial practice to become his producer. When production on Inside Job began last year, she was ready to produce on her own. With a budget of $2 million, partially underwritten by Sony Pictures Classics, the film combines original interviews filmed in the US, Iceland, France, England and Singapore with archival footage featuring rapturously-shot aerial imagery of New York City and slick motion graphics sequences by New York design studio Big Star. Hollywood favorite Matt Damon narrates.

Ferguson was acutely aware that talking heads rhyming off financial terminology – securitization, derivatives, hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, et cetera – would most likely put his intended audience to sleep. He tightly framed his most contentious interview subjects and edited the film with a thriller’s brisk pace, cutting out any information deemed too ‘insider.’

One of the film’s themes is conflicts of interest that have distorted the role academic economists had in the financial crisis as they moved between cushy Ivy League teaching jobs and high-powered policy positions for various U.S. governments.

Among the film’s most uncomfortable moments are interviews with Glen Hubbard, chief economic advisor to the Bush administration and dean of Columbia University Business School, and David McCormick, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College who has held several policy positions, such as under secretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Ferguson’s interrogation of Frederic Mishkin, an economist and Columbia Business School professor who sat on the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008, has spilled over into the press since Inside Job‘s release. In the film, Ferguson reports that Mishkin was paid $124,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to write a report praising the Icelandic economy, which crashed hard during the recession. He also notes that Mishkin later changed wording in the report’s title from ‘Financial Stability in Iceland’ to ‘Financial Instability in Iceland’ on his resume.

Mishkin fired back in a riposte published in The Financial Times, arguing his role in the film was predetermined and blamed the rewrite on a typo. Ferguson has since published a response in the same paper reaffirming what he reports in the film.

When Ferguson screened his first cut of Inside Job for his collaborators earlier this year, they likened it to a hit job. ‘[They] said you’re going to have to scale this back or you’re going to produce sympathy [for the interviewees] because you’re destroying them so completely,’ he says. ‘The things I took for the film were by no means the only or embarrassing things about Mishkin, which is true for a number of the interviews.’

Ferguson says his experience in the tech sector helped him grasp not only the managerial side of filmmaking, but also informed his unflappable approach to interviewing. ‘[Microsoft's top management] are really tough guys,’ he says. ‘Not in a vulgar, thug-like way. They’re tough as in, ‘I’m really smart. You’re pretty smart too. I have $40 billion. You don’t. Shall we talk about that?”

During production Ferguson is as serious as his subject matter. In post, the director would break down the complex subject matter by drawing diagrams of securitization chains, for example, to help the editors develop a structure for the film.

‘When we work with Charles, we’re not just cutting his film, we’re talking a graduate level class,’ says Chad Beck who, along with Adam Bolt, edited the film and co-wrote its narration. ‘He really is what a journalist would be without having to try and practice access journalism. He can burn bridges to get to the truth. He’s a filmmaker. He’s not working for The New York Times. He doesn’t have to call these people in the morning.’

Indeed, burned bridges and lost friendships did not intimidate Ferguson. Inside Job succeeds in criticizing several U.S. administrations – from Ronald Reagan’s to Barack Obama’s – for allowing deregulation to flourish and then failing to hold anyone accountable after the market crashed. As a result, he says he’s lost high-placed friends and contacts in the Obama administration.

‘In some cases my feeling is good riddance and in other cases it’s not,’ he says. ‘Some of these people are, I think, basically well-intentioned, very serious, very intelligent, very thoughtful people and they’ve made a decision that overall they’re doing the right thing and this particular fight isn’t worth fighting.

‘I’m very confident that serious economists will not only have no trouble with the film, but will be, if anything, encouraged to speak out more about the situation,’ he avers, before adding, ‘Serious, honest, economists who do not have personal and financial conflicts of interest that compromise their integrity.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.