James Scurlock‘s “Maxed Out” takes on the elephant in the American living room: dept. Using a wide spectrum of characters — broke college students, a real estate agent riding the property bubble, a banker who’s bank has merged so many times he’s lost count — Scurlock weaves a surreal and troubling lifestyle of “debt-style”: where banks want their customers to be late, where the U.S. pays for war by borrowing from China, and where property lending scams are run by some of the nation’s largest financial institutions. “Maxed Out” screened at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award, and is now playing in theaters.
What attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I was always a curious kid, maybe annoyingly so — like those kids who always ask, “but why? but why?” ad infinitum. And we lived at the bottom of the hill growing up, so I had plenty of time to spend inside my head, and to write. My parents wanted me to be musical and signed me up for piano lessons at a very young age. In fact, I used to compete in these competitions they had in Seattle, where I grew up. So I guess it’s a conflation of those three things — being curious, writing and a love of music — though I think most everyone is seduced by film at one point or another.
I didn’t consider filmmaking seriously until I moved out to L.A. five years ago. I started writing screenplays and realized that no one was going to read them. I’m pretty stubborn, so I decided to make a few documentaries, learn about filmmaking itself, and maybe meet some big-time producers in the process or something like that. Anyway, my first film was an hourlong called “Parents of the Year” that I sold to HBO and some stations in Europe. I did another film called “Stumped!” about the California Recall Election, that literally nobody wanted — no film festivals, no broadcasters, nothing. So for the last doc, after a couple of false starts, I decided to take on the biggest subject I could — debt.
How did the concept for “Maxed Out” come about?
The truth is, I originally wanted to adapt the book “Fast Food Nation” but I couldn’t get the rights. Then I was at Sundance a few years ago, waiting in line to see “Super Size Me” and I realized that it was going to be a huge success and I’d missed the boat. So I thought, “What are the other nasty habits that we just can’t shake?” Debt came to mind. In fact, the top two New Year’s resolutions are always getting out of debt and losing weight. Of course, we get more indebted and fatter every year, so the same contradiction exists. Now, I had planned to do kind of a romp through consumer culture, and that’s how the film starts. But what I started to learn was that the real transformation has been in the behavior of the financial industry, not the behavior of individuals. Some reporters ask me, “What about personal responsibility?” My question is, “What about corporate responsibility?”
What are your goals for the project?
I hate to be presumptuous, but my goal is to ignite a debate that’s been missing, namely, “Should the debt-selling business be held accountable for their actions?” Here we are at this bizarre time when foreclosures, defaults and bankruptcies are at record highs, savings are the lowest since the height of the great depression, and bank profits just keep rising. Something isn’t right. The industry’s response is, “Make it harder for people to go broke and make it easier for us to issue even more debt.” It’s absurd. Debt has become the answer to everything. If you can’t pay for healthcare, get a new credit card. If you can’t pay for a war, borrow from the Chinese, etc. The film suggests maybe debt is actually a liability and not a panacea.
How did the financing come together?
I was fortunate to have the money to finance the project. It’s not true, as has been printed, that I maxed out credit cards. The film is paid for; there’s no debt. Our biggest challenge was getting people to talk to us, which is another absurdity. Here’s a problem almost everyone has, and no one wants to talk about it! You probably can’t get into the West Hollywood AA meetings, but I doubt there’s more than a handful of people in Debtors Anonymous in all of L.A.! People feel a lot of shame with this issue. We got cancelled on quite a bit. As far as distribution goes, that’s got to be the toughest thing right now. I went to a panel with George Hickenlooper, and he was saying how money is a lot easier to find than distribution, which, as difficult as it seems for people to raise money, has to be true. We got lucky in that we had a timely subject and there was a lot of interest off the bat. We also had a fantastic team repping the film — Roger Kass and Josh Braun of Submarine.
What are some of your influences?
Barbara Ehrenreich‘s book, “Nickel and Dimed“, is the gold standard, as far as I’m concerned. She’s a serious journalist who’s also wickedly funny and very, very smart. So as we were doing this, I kept thinking back to her book, the way that she found characters, the way she treated people, especially. There’s a fine line in a documentary like this where you’re dealing with tragedy, and, as much as people won’t say it, you’re exploiting those tragedies. It sounds crass, but using those emotional moments is a necessary evil to get the ideas across, to wake people up, you know, “This is real! There are consequences! These are lives, not just numbers or hypotheticals!” So I was always asking, are we being honest? Are we being intelligent? Is there a humor here that will make it more accessible? My biggest fear is that we won’t do justice to the stories we have and the courage of the people who are willing to share them.
What is your definition of “independent” film?
Independent film means going out there and making something that may or may not be seen, something that doesn’t have distribution lined up already. That’s what can make it so compelling — it’s a huge risk, but there’s an implicit freedom to make something that’s not derivative. The most tragic film you can watch is an independent film that’s trying to lock in distribution as it’s being made. When I started, I gave myself an oath of poverty, so you can guess what the term means on a visceral level.
What are some of your favorite films?
“The Graduate” is a perfect film. So is “Mulholland Drive“, as far as I’m concerned. But a lot of great films you see at someone’s house or at a film festival, and sometimes you don’t even remember the name. I loved “The Garden,” a doc that was at Sundance a few years ago. Also, some friends made a terrific film called “Camp Out” last year. My friend Abby Epstein just made a film called “The Business of Being Born” with Ricki Lake. It premieres at Tribeca, and it’s amazing.
What are some achievements from your career so far that you are most proud of?
I’m proud that I’ve always paid people. I’m proud that I have a good relationship with the people I’ve filmed, even those who didn’t come across so well. I’m proud that I’m still working with the same dp, Jon Aaseng, who’s a lot more talented than I’ll ever be.
What are you working on next?
I just started producing my next documentary, after swearing I’d never do another one. It’s a phenomenal, true story that takes place in Southeast Asia and California. I’m also writing the book, and hoping to make a narrative version in a couple of years.