You can tell by their titles — the Oscar-nominated "No End in Sight" and "Inside Job," which is having its world premiere at the Festival de Cannes — that the documentaries Charles Ferguson makes are not heartwarming documentaries. But that isn't what sets him apart from other filmmakers and isn't what makes his films so extraordinary.
Because of his personal and professional background, his intelligence and his inclinations, Ferguson is especially well-suited to creating knockout documentaries that cogently and carefully lay out all the particulars of a significant situation. These are films that both enable you to understand complex circumstances and encourage your fury at what went wrong.
That's what Ferguson did with the American occupation of Iraq in 2007's "No End in Sight" and what he does with the global economic crisis in "Inside Job." This film lays out in exceptional but always understandable detail the argument that the meltdown of 2008 was "not an accident" but rather the result of an out-of-control finance industry that took unethical advantage of decades of deregulation.
It's a powerhouse of a documentary that will leave you both thunderstruck and boiling with rage. Which is exactly how the filmmaker himself felt.
"When I finally figured out what had gone on here, yeah, those were my feelings," says Ferguson, casual in jeans, black T-shirt and sports jacket. "This is too important, these are huge things that happened."
One of the things that makes Ferguson's documentaries stand out is the access he gets to key figures with specific knowledge of a situation. For "Inside Job," he secured interviews with dozens of articulate insiders, including International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French Minister of Finance Christine Lagarde and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. "I know who they are, and they're not always obvious people, and they know who I am," he explains. And exactly who he is is a story in itself.
For Ferguson is not some dreamy film school graduate. He is instead, in his own words, "a niche product" as a director: a plugged-in academic who has a PhD in political science from MIT and spent a decade consulting around the world. Making his films rigorously factual is important to him because "I spent eight years getting that PhD and I want to still be able to talk to those people."
Ferguson has also "loved movies since I was a kid. For 30 years it was a secret dream of mine to make movies." Then, in 1996, he sold Vermeer Technologies, a software company he founded, to Microsoft for $130 million. "I owned only a tiny percentage of the company, but, and this is the term used in Silicon Valley, it was enough to give me … money. I don't have a mansion or a private jet or an island, but I don't have to do anything I don't want to." Enter the movie-making experience.
After "No End in Sight" was finished and Ferguson was looking around for something else to do, two friends, including book author Charles R. Morris, whose "The Trillion Dollar Meltdown" predicted the crash, told him about their fears for the financial world. "I said, 'Trillion-dollar meltdown? Isn't this kind of alarmist?' And they said, 'Charlie, just you wait.' "
As someone who made a large sum of money by founding and selling a company, Ferguson is hardly an enemy of capitalism, and he further describes himself as "not an ideological person. I'm a moderate, I'm pragmatic, I try to take the facts as they are."
The facts he discovered horrified him. "Imagine if I, personally, [as] some random guy, set myself up to launder money for Iran's nuclear program," he says. "If I was caught doing that, do you think I'd get a fine equivalent to two months of my wages, which is what happened to Credit Suisse? I think the result would maybe be a little different. After 200 to 300 things like that," he adds, you get pretty upset.
One of the remarkable things about "Inside Job" is the extent to which Ferguson, as the interviewer, can be heard challenging the people he is talking to, occasionally saying things like "you can't be serious" and "forgive me, that's clearly not true" when he feels he's being snowed. The result is often looks of astonishment. "I don't think they're used to being challenged," Ferguson says.
This kind of confrontational attitude comes naturally to Ferguson. "I'm a tough guy, I've always been a tough guy," says Ferguson, who grew up in San Francisco. "I came from a somewhat rough background and earlier in my life I was too tough a guy but I think and hope I've brought that under control. When I was younger I was angry, suspicious, skeptical, impatient. So when you see me in the film reacting to anything forced or artificial, that's totally natural."
Ferguson is also thoughtful and articulate, and when asked if he's always been opposed to deregulation, he says: "You could say I've been somewhat radicalized by recent events, but I don't think that's it. I think it's that behavior became so much worse, and that's an important distinction.
"There's general agreement that people shouldn't rob banks, but then you have 50,000 people who are running banks and robbing them. I haven't become more radicalized, people have changed. Something has happened to us, and I hope we can un-happen it."
Something has happened to Ferguson as well: He's become passionate about the filmmaking process. "After doing something like this, it's hard to go back to an office and write a paper for the Journal of Economic Perspectives," he says. "I really don't think so."