Rampell, Ed, The Progressive
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 exposes 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. …