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Charles Ferguson, Director of the Furious Financial-Meltdown Cannes Doc: Bankers ‘Killed More People Than 9/11’

Weren’t the French supposed to be the radicals? At Cannes, Charles Ferguson’s scathing economic-crisis documentary, Inside Job, is picking up steam — and people are already handicapping its shot at year-end awards (Ferguson's debut doc, No End in Sight, was Oscar nominated in 2008). We spoke with the director about his narrator, Matt Damon’s turn against Obama, and Eliot Spitzer’s opinion that investigators should use Wall Street guys’ personal illegal behavior (drugs, prostitution) as a way of getting them to flip.

You're here with your documentary that rails against the hubris of the wealthy, and here we sit in this beachfront luxury lounge, overlooking the yachts at Cannes.
It’s quite something, eh? [Laughs.] It’s a little surreal. I mean, I like life so I’ve certainly had some fun. And it’s not like I’m against anybody ever making money; I have no problem making money if you make money by doing something that’s honest. The problem I have is with people robbing banks.

Did you see Wall Street 2 here?
It's Wall Street 2: What can you say? I don’t know what people will take from it, but it gets at a point which we make in our movie, which is that playing the game is too much fun and if you let people play the game without imposing rules on them, they get very caught up in [it]: "Mine’s bigger than yours, I go faster than you do" — all that. It’s fun to win, to make money — so fun you have to let people know there are limits.

So your film is very critical of President Obama. Why take him on so directly?It came from my own sense of personal disillusionment. I had been a supporter of Mr. Obama during his campaign and I became very hopeful that he would do something about this. The first disappointment — shock, really, shock — was watching him appoint all those people who caused this crisis to run his government. The second disappointment, which was not surprising given the people he’d appointed, is that they didn’t do anything about it.

Specifically, what do you wish Obama would do?

Well, if greed causes financial instability and this crisis, then we’ve got to control the greed. For instance, you control the compensation of people who run the bank. Everybody in the world agrees on this except the Obama administration. In the film we point out that seven finance ministers signed the letter calling for very strict regulations of executive compensation in banking because we now know what that leads to, but the Obama administration and Mr. Obama himself personally said that he is opposed to controlling or regulating the compensation of bankers. That’s bad.

In the film, you say special prosecutors should go after people in the financial-services industry in the same way we investigate and prosecute the mafia. And you say we should use their personal indiscretions — drugs, prostitution — against them as leverage. Who agrees with you on this?
It isn’t being done yet, but serious people agree that this can and should be done. In fact, I had a rather long conversation with Eliot Spitzer about this question.

Eliot Spitzer is encouraging the prosecution of prostitution or drugs as a way to get at white-collar crime?
Yes, and he told me: “When I was a prosecutor and we were going after organized crime cases, that’s the way we did it. You want to get someone to talk, you find out about their drug habit, you find out about their embezzlement, you find out about their taxes and then you flip them. Then you get them to talk about the real stuff and then you find their boss, and you flip their boss and work all the way up the chain.”

That’s ironic, to say the least — and pretty aggressive.
Look, this was not a storm, this was not a flood, this was not a tornado. This was a crime. It was a more serious crime than any organized-crime case. This killed more people than 9/11 did, so it’s totally appropriate to use those techniques. Forgive me if I’m being impolite and am not going to be invited to dinner parties anymore, but American investment banks became criminal organizations and they should be treated as such.

Did you feel angry while filming some of these interviews?

Yes, I couldn’t always, but mostly I tried to control myself. One thing that helped, and this is a very immature, juvenile thing perhaps, but there is a childish part of me that loves it when someone is trying to conceal something from me. I think “Oh, yup!” Part of me thinks: I’m a cat toying with a mouse. Let’s play with them.

Matt Damon helped Obama get elected. Now he’s really harshly criticizing him through your narration. Do you think some of liberal Hollywood is turning against Obama?
I do think it’s a sign. In fact, when Matt came in to do the narration, I said “Look, I just want to warn you, do you understand this is a very strong statement about the Obama administration that we’re kind of unhappy with what they’re doing?” He said, “Yeah, I’m really angry now. Don’t worry, I’m just as upset as you are.”

Photo: Jordan Strauss/WireImage