Academy Award-nominated documentarian Charles Ferguson was given a copy of The Trillion Dollar Meltdown by the author and his friend, Charles Morris, who laid out, in no uncertain terms, the calamity that was coming to decimate global markets. A respected academic and economist, Ferguson had heard the warnings from others before. But Morris's book, he says, rocked him to the core.
"I remember calling Charlie up, and saying, 'I read your book. It's very good. It's very sobering. But isn't it a little extreme? I mean a trillion dollars?' All he said to me was, 'Just you wait.' "
His friend was right.
Ferguson's new documentary, Inside Job, which opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Friday, is a grim, clinical reveal of how the fat cats in the private and public sectors were responsible for 2008's colossal market meltdown - one that cost $20-trillion and thousands of people, mostly lower-income, their livelihoods. Ferguson, who was in Toronto last month to premiere his documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival, talked candidly about how the greed and narcissism among bankers, market regulators, economists and Ivy League academics combined to land us in this collective mess, which could spill over again.
How in the world did you get these people, who are left visibly squirming, to agree to be interviewed for this film?
I think there were two things. One was my own background [BA in math from Berkeley; PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] I've been in business a long time so I'm not a bomb-throwing anarchist. And the other - which I regret to say, but is likely far more important - is that I don't think they're used to being challenged. They're used to being deferred to, by journalists, by their colleagues, by their subordinates. It was very clear they were shocked by being challenged. In each case, there was this moment when they realized, "Whoa, he's not going to let me get away with it. I can't just say what I want."
This was clearly a passion project for you. What motivated you to take on such a sticky subject and risk making such powerful enemies?
By the time the implosion occurred, it was clear this was a major event in world history. So just on those terms, it was an important thing. Plus, my friends had been warning me this could happen for some time, and by the time Lehman Brothers collapsed, I realized they'd been telling me very disturbing things that were not then in the public discourse. And it was something the public had a right to know.
It was interesting that you laid a lot of the blame at the feet of the Clinton administration and less so George W. Bush.
I wanted to place responsibility wherever it happened to fall. And if you look at what happened, it does, in fact, fall on that administration and those people. And I certainly wasn't going to go easy on them because they were Democrats and I liked President Clinton's view about something else. It was a little bit more difficult to implement that same principle with regard to [President Barack]Obama. And I did actually hesitate because I felt some sympathy for his position - at least his initial position. He had relatively little experience in the world, no experience in business or finance, and he became President when the world economy had just been totally screwed up. But what persuaded me that I should [not go easy on Obama]was that, with the passage of time, it hasn't gotten any better; in fact, it's gotten worse. He has the same economic team, and there still have been no criminal prosecutions.
What will Obama have to do to clean up the mess?
There are two possible ways the situation can get better. One way is for President Obama to decide he has to do something and replace the people with blood on their hands, so to speak. The other is if he appoints an independent special prosecutor to look into this. If he doesn't, then it's going to be up to the American people to make their leaders follow. It's happened before. Fifty years ago, there was no environmental movement, no environmental laws. So to the extent that we've made progress in that domain, it gives me hope.
How did you get Matt Damon to narrate?
We asked him and he said yes immediately. He's an activist on so many different levels. He was a great contributor to the film and made good suggestions on parts we knew were weak. The ending, for instance, was convoluted. And Matt said, "Look, it doesn't have to be that complicated. Yes, they're powerful. And, yes, they are going to fight. But this topic, and this documentary, is worth fighting for. Just say that." So the language in the ending of the narration owes quite a bit to him.
This interview has been condensed and edited.