August 10, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Newsmaker: How filmmaking is like launching a start-upSee all Newsmakers
But while he has since forged a completely different path as an author, self-described "policy wonk" and life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ferguson still reflects on those formative years running a software start-up, a job he says is not too different from his latest venture as a documentary filmmaker.
Ferguson's first film, No End in Sight, hits theaters in major U.S. cities Friday. He sees his documentary, which won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, as a nonpartisan analysis of how the U.S. occupation in Iraq evolved into a violent quagmire.
On the eve of his film's theatrical debut, Ferguson talked to CNET News.com about how he traveled in Baghdad with body guards in armored vehicles, what he hopes to accomplish with his film, and how technology played a role in his moviemaking.
Q: How did you end up choosing the war in Iraq as the topic for your first documentary?
Ferguson: I had a substantial academic and policy analysis background related to foreign affairs and defense policy and national security policy and I've always retained that interest. I've also, for a very long time, had an interest in making films, and so the two collided. I was already thinking of trying to make a film when the Iraq war occurred and in 2004 I had dinner with George Packer, a journalist for The New Yorker. He had just come back from his second or third trip to Iraq, and what he said made it clear to me that this was something very important and that things in Iraq were dramatically different and dramatically worse than generally realized. And that's when I first had the idea to do this.
How do you distinguish your film from other documentaries on Iraq?
Ferguson: I think the primary difference is that I felt it was important to provide an examination of and an analysis of, for lack of a better term, the big picture, how all this happened. How this invasion and war turned into this long terrible quagmire and Iraq into a completely failed state. The other films about the war don't do that. That's not to denigrate them in any way. Some of those films I think are extremely good...But they're very specific and individual and particular and none of them looks at the large-scale questions of how American policy decisions were made and what the consequences of those decisions were and I felt it was important to do that.
Why not do that in a book? You've written and published three others.
Ferguson: There were two reasons. The first was purely personal, namely that I was interested in film. The second, though, is that by the time I decided that this was something I wanted to do, which was mid-2005, it was already clear that there were and were going to be a number of very good books about the Iraq war and the occupation. And that's not to say that there's not room for another one...But there was, I thought, a vast contrast between the availability of good books and the availability of good films that explored, again, the large-scale question of how this happened.
And, for better or worse, I guess this is a third reason, and to me a very important one, Americans don't read books very much. The combined circulation of all of the good books about the Iraq war is probably 1 million, maybe 2. If this film is at all successful, at least reasonably so by the standards of documentary film, then several million people will see it, and I think that's important. I think it's important to communicate what happened in Iraq not just to the policy community and the political community, but to broadly speaking, educated and interested Americans.
How did your knowledge about technology and the computer industry play into your new role as a filmmaker--or did it?
Ferguson: It did actually, to a surprising extent, in two ways. One is that filmmaking is increasingly digital. The entire film was made digitally, filmed with several different high-definition cameras. We used fairly fancy, extensive, high-definition cameras for the United States interviews. We used newly available, much smaller high-definition camcorders for our Iraq footage, which turned out to be a very good choice, although it was difficult, because we got two of the first 40 of these systems that were available in the United States and they were new and they had a somewhat complicated work flow.
Video: Trailer for 'No End In Sight'
Watch a trailer for Charles Ferguson's new documentary on the war in Iraq. The film hits theaters in major U.S. cities Friday.
And things in Iraq are such that if something goes wrong, you don't just call up customer service. Sometimes it was a bit complicated, but it turned out that it was quite helpful that I had a fairly reasonable understanding of how digital systems worked. And of course, all the editing was digital.
And then the other thing that turned out to be very helpful, was that, while the two activities are by no means identical, there are striking similarities between starting a software company and making a film. In both cases you are, in effect, starting a new company. You have to build a team from scratch. You have to acquire talent (and) financing and you have to design your product, think about it, then you have to actually create it. And in both cases there's time pressure and financial pressure. So the experience of having started a company and having an idea and taking it from conception into fruition turned out to be a very relevant and helpful experience.
There was also another very important thing. I found it helpful in both cases to have this somewhat peculiar combination of paranoia and fear on the one hand, self-confidence on the other. The usefulness of the paranoia and fear was that in both cases I was doing something that was new to me and it was very important and very valuable to listen to the people around me, including my employees, who to a very large extent taught me my job.
I tried to have a sense of humility about what I knew relative to what they knew. That turned out to be very helpful. I learned a lot from the people I was working with, who were incredibly generous and great and helpful, in both cases, both with the company and the film. But at the same time, at a certain point, after you've listened to everybody, you have to make decision and sometimes it's a decision that goes against the recommendations of most people.
2 commentsJoin the conversation! Add your comment