Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight" is another in a long line of important Iraq documentaries. But the film's precision, what the New York Times calls a "mathematical" indictment of the current administration, is what separates it as a closely observed, investigative piece. Ferguson answered some iW questions on the brink of the doc's release by Magnolia Pictures.
What attracted you to filmmaking?
I have loved film since I was a young child, and have always wanted to make films at some point in my life. Several years ago, I finally decided that I had no further excuses not to try. I initially intended to start with a completely different film, not a political documentary at all, but the Iraq issue seemed so important, and so closely related to my previous life in political science and foreign policy, that I felt I had to do it.
What other aspects of filmmaking would like to explore?
I would like to direct both documentaries and features, would like to produce films, and may also try to write a screenplay for a thriller. I love thrillers and hope to make one soon.
How did the initial idea for "No End in Sight" come about?
By late 2003 or early 2004 I realized that the occupation of Iraq wasn't going nearly as well as either the Administration or the media claimed. I began talking with journalists and policy specialists, including George Packer, who told me many disturbing things that weren't being widely reported or discussed. By 2005, there were several good books about Iraq, but still no films, and when I asked around, I was told that no such film was being made. At that point I felt that I simply had to do it.
What were some of your influences in making the film?
I would say that in substantive terms, my largest influences came from investigative journalism and from the academic and policy people I admire. I wanted to translate their determination and rigor into a film. In terms of film style, I suppose that in some ways I followed Melville, whose features - "Le Cercle Rouge", "Army of Shadows" - all have a superficially artless, plain style. His films say: here are the facts; here was the choice this person had; here is the path they chose; here are the (usually very grim) consequences of that path. Of course his films are in fact very stylish, far more so than mine.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
At first, it was very difficult to get people to speak on camera. One difference between books and films is that in books, you can use anonymous sources far more than in film. But over time, I was able to find and convince more and more people to speak out.
Another difficulty, of course, was filming in Iraq in 2006, but I had the benefit of many experienced people who helped me through that.
Securing distribution was complicated, in part because I was inexperienced. But I'm very gratified that Magnolia Pictures has decided to distribute the film.
How did the financing come together?
I financed it myself. I probably could have obtained external financing, but since I was a first-time filmmaker, it would have been difficult, taken a lot of time, and perhaps would have constrained my freedom, so I chose to finance it myself. Of course most filmmakers cannot do that, and I couldn't keep doing it. But I think that this was an extraordinary situation and subject, and I'm happy with my decision. Let's see if I get my money back!
Who or what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest
impact on you?
There are so many - it would be difficult to name just one, or even just a few. I will say however that when I saw my friend Jason Kohn's film "Manda Bala" at Sundance - we were in competition there together, and my film was therefore already finished - I thought, my God, that's how documentaries should be made. That it was his first film is quite staggering.
What other stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
Ideally I would like to alternate between documentaries and features, and in both of those, between serious political or social subjects and sheer escapist fun. I love tight clever witty thrillers - "The Sweet Smell of Success", "Chinatown", "The Maltese Falcon", "LA Confidential", "The Thomas Crown Affair" (both of them) - and would love to make one. But I also want to keep making documentaries about important issues.
I hope next to make a film that combines documentary and feature elements, and whose subject is our collective, contemporary dilemmas about relationships, commitment, and sexuality. After that, I hope, a thriller. I have been writing a thriller part-time for a couple of years now. Very complicated.
What is your definition of "independent film?"
The conventional definition, of course, is a film not controlled by a studio. Another definition, certainly relevant to "No End In Sight", is a film whose content is not controlled by anyone else. I certainly cherished the independence I had, and I wonder whether I'll ever have it again. I hope so, and I'm optimistic.
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
How to choose? "The Seventh Seal"; "Ran"; Patrice LeConte's "Ridicule"; "Solaris"; Kieslowski's "Red" and "Double Life of Veronique." But I love classy fun, too - the spaghetti Westerns - film noir - "Dragon Inn." Recently - "The Lives of Others" was stunning. So is "Manda Bala", which will be released soon.
What are your interests outside of film?
Politics and policy, obviously. Jazz. Being athletic. Food. Friends. The arts.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
I don't think I am qualified to give anyone advice at this point.
Share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
I've written three books, and I think all three have stood the test of time quite well. This film, actually. It has many flaws, but I think it tells an important story still not sufficiently widely known.