The Chronicle Review

'I'll Do This Forever': A Chat With the Filmmaker Charles Ferguson

October 03, 2010

Charles Ferguson, 55, was a mathematics major at the University of California at Berkeley and earned a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During postdoctoral work there, he consulted for the White House, government trade and defense agencies, and American and European technology firms. In 1994 he co-founded Vermeer Technologies, which created the FrontPage Web-site development tool, then sold it to Microsoft two years later. Afterward he lectured or pursued research projects at M.I.T., Berkeley, and the Brookings Institution before becoming a filmmaker. His film No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq was released in 2007. Inside Job, about the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown, comes out this month. We caught up with Ferguson by e-mail last week as he was preparing for the New York Film Festival. 

Q. You have a background in political science, technology, and business. Yet clearly lurking within the entrepreneur was a film geek. When did that start? And how did you decide that filmmaking would be your new career?

A. I have loved film since I was a child and always harbored a secret dream of becoming a filmmaker. Around 2004, I decided that I had run out of excuses not to try.

Q. Is film what you'll stick with from here on in, or are there other career surprises you've contemplated?

A. This is it. If the world lets me continue making films, I'll do this forever. I love it.

Q. Are documentaries your thing, or could you see directing fiction films?

A. In my ideal world, I would alternate between both. I love thrillers. I love adrenaline and classy, shameless entertainment. L.A. Confidential, the Bourne films, Chinatown, Inside Man.

Q. I've read that you made your Iraq-war film because there simply weren't any other major documentaries on the topic in the works. Is that correct? And how did you come to the topic of financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest in your new film?

A. Stunningly, no other film examined the occupation of Iraq in a comprehensive way. There were several other excellent films, but they looked at very specific subjects. As for this new film, I decided to make Inside Job almost instantly after the so-called Lehman weekend, that three day-period in September 2008 when Lehman went bankrupt, Merrill Lynch was sold, and AIG collapsed into the arms of the U.S. government.

Q. Did it feel weird to approach, somewhat confrontationally, government, academic, and business pooh-bahs when you've been an insider yourself in each of those arenas?

A. It didn't feel weird, although it certainly wasn't enjoyable, either. I tried to keep the interviews calm and substantive even when they became extremely confrontational, and I often felt that my interviewee was being dishonest or evasive.

Q. What's your next project going to be?

A. No idea yet. Or rather many ideas, but no decisions.