Charles Ferguson has only made three movies, but has already conquered bigger issues than many filmmakers tackle in a lifetime. The former MIT scholar and internet entrepreneur first shifted gears to the documentary arena with “No End in Sight,” a searing look at the institutional forces behind the Iraq war, which he followed up with his Oscar-winning “Inside Job,” a breakdown of the factors behind the 2008 economic crisis. Then, for several years, he stumbled through troubled projects about Julian Assange and Hillary Clinton that never came to fruition.
Over the weekend, Ferguson cropped up at the Telluride Film Festival — which he has attended for 20 years, long before he became a professional documentarian — with a very different sort of exposé: “Time to Choose,” an alarming overview of various ways in which environmental neglect is having a direct impact on global society.
Pairing lush imagery with tragic stories of damaged lives, Ferguson develops a ruminative essay film that methodically explores the various factors involved in environmental problems. The use of coal, electricity, oil, deforestation and processed foods are all scrutinized as Ferguson scours the world for examples of health problems and climate decay. But these upsetting stories come paired with a galvanizing message, as Ferguson offers examples of environmentally-friendly solutions with the capacity to improve the situation. The movie ends by anticipating a December summit in Paris to discuss environmental regulations, making “Time to Choose” the first of Ferguson’s films to include a direct call to action.
Despite his obvious passion for the subject, Ferguson may never have made “Time to Choose” if his career had taken other directions in the aftermath of his Oscar win. At Telluride’s Sheridan bar, Ferguson sat down with Indiewire before his Q&A to discuss those earlier challenges and explain how he shifted gears to focus on his latest work.
It’s been five years since “Inside Job.” What have you been doing in all that time?
This film took up the last two years of my life. Before that, I was involved in one classic and one not-classic movie industry disaster.
I was hired by HBO to make a narrative feature about Julian Assange. That turned out to be this amazing movie industry clusterfuck. It was nobody’s fault, it was everybody’s fault. Get me drunk sometime and I’ll tell you everything that happened.
In general terms, why did the Assange project fall apart?
There were three drafts of the script and it got worse with each one. So did the fights. Finally, everybody just kind of gave up.
So what did you next?
I made an agreement with CNN to make a documentary about Hillary Clinton. That was a very different disaster, but it was also an interesting learning experience about where the dynastic portions of American politics is now.
How did it go awry?
So I make the deal with CNN. They’re great — they give me enough money, they give me final cut. Then I start trying to make the movie, and I encounter a wall of silence the likes of which I have never encountered before. Nobody would talk to me. Nobody who knows the Clintons, nobody who likes the Clintons, nobody who hates the Clintons. At a certain point, the Clinton people got in touch with me directly and said, “We really don’t want you to make this movie. Go away.”
This was after the deal was signed?
Yes. CNN wanted me to go with it. They had a very good intelligence service. They were aware of the film before the contract was signed. The day after it was signed, we got a call from Hillary Clinton’s press secretary, saying, “Let’s talk. We have a problem.”
So after a little while, I went to the head of CNN and said, “Look, they’re trying to make me go away. I think we should make a public announcement that we’re making a film to make it clear to them that we’re not going away.” If they’re just being obstructionist, it’s not going to do any good.
So we did that. Well. [long pause] Twenty-four hours after this public announcement, the chairman of the Republican National Committee calls a press conference and announces that if the film goes forward, the Republicans will wipe out CNN from all presidential debates and presidential coverage. Twenty-four hours after that, a very senior person in the Democratic party did not call a press conference. They privately called a very senior person at CNN and said, “We’re not going to announce anything, but if this film goes forward, we’re going to do the same thing.”
Wow. What did you make of that?
I thought, “These people don’t scare me; I’m not going to let this stop me.” I decided, “I’m going to fucking make this film.” Well, I found out that I wasn’t making the film. I could have done something purely out of archival footage, but even that was an issue, because they were putting pressure on the networks not to give us footage.
Could you have tried to make the movie without CNN?
I had a contract, but nevermind the contract. How am I going to make the film? No one will talk to me. Absolutely no one. It’s not even clear that I can get the archival footage.
Would it be easier to make the movie now that Hillary’s campaign has started?
It’s going to be just as bad now for several reasons. Obviously, wanting to win the election is one of them, and both the Republicans and the Democrats thought I would be a problem for them from that point of view. The other thing is that many of those people want jobs in the Clinton Administration. If they disobey her by talking to me then they won’t get those jobs. But only about 10 percent of those people are actually going to get jobs. So after the election, if she wins, once she announces her cabinet, then it’s going to be much easier to make a film.
Do you still want to do it?
I have an ambivalent feelings about its worth. I know a lot about the Clintons. Their story is interesting. He was always very manipulative. Always. But she was not. She started out as a very sincere, committed person. That remained true for quite a long time. There were some pressures and compromises when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas and she went on the board of Walmart, which was somewhat questionable. But still, she was a very committed person…until what they went through in the White House. Some of that is known, some of it is not. It changed her a lot.
So that would have been the narrative arc?
Yes. Someone did try to make a narrative about this and encountered the same problems.
Did you ever have a moment during this experience or while you were working on the Assange film where you thought, “I won a fucking Oscar. Why is this so hard?”
I wouldn’t say I was shocked. I know a lot of people in the industry who have told me a lot of stories. I’ve read a lot of classic books about movie industry screw-ups. I knew what could happen. It’s just always different when it happens to you. One very clear lesson about the stories and the books is that a lot of these things just happen because it’s a crazy industry. In the case of the Julian Assange film, there were three people that I would have been happy to kill. But most of the people working on it were very well-intentioned. It was just group dynamics, timing, legal problems…
In any case, now your filmography is three very different documentaries about institutional problems — war, the economy and now the environment. How did you wind up shifting onto that third topic?
It’s always important to me to have intellectual variety in my life in a number of different ways. My undergraduate degree is in mathematics and my Phd is in political science; I studied several different things quite seriously. The kind of education I got was very good, general-purpose capital equipment for a lot of things. That’s one thing I loved about making films: Every project can be different.
What was the starting point for the environmental focus in particular?
When I was an undergraduate a long time ago, I spent a year living in rural France. I was 19. This was the late seventies. The idea that you would go to a supermarket to buy food was ridiculous. No one would ever do that. The idea that you would buy something packaged or processed was weird. Nobody did that. The way you bought your food was that you went to the market — that is, the place where all the farmers were four times a week. So I’ve always had an affection for nature, agriculture, food, those kinds of things.
Like everybody else, I saw “An Inconvenient Truth” and thought, “This is a really awful problem and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Then around two years ago, I ran into a guy who said, “Actually, this is a totally solvable problem. People don’t understand this, but solar power has come along way and so has wind power. We don’t have to just sit around and wait for this to kill us.” So that led me to start looking into this. I learned a lot about the problem and the solution.
It’s a huge topic, but your film is divided up into three chapters. How did you start to narrow it down?
The scope of the issue was a surprise to me. When I was stimulated to start looking, I realized fairly quickly this was much larger, more complicated — but also much richer and more interesting — set of issues. In the process of making this film, it really blew my mind. Various friends in the environmental world had told me about the effects of the palm oil industry on deforestation. But there’s nothing anyone can tell you that compares to what you can see. That was totally transformative for me.
In what sense?
The nation of Indonesia is intrinsically beautiful — 3,000 islands, very complicated. It is also one of the darkest, most corrupt, violent, horrific places on earth. If you’ve seen Josh Oppenheimer’s films [“The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”], it really is like that. And it’s being destroyed at a very high rate — unless this stops, in another 10 or 15 years, it will be gone. The whole country will be gone. Someone can tell you this many square miles are being deforested, but you have to see it. It is unimaginable. The smoke from the fires is so dense that we could not get in there for four days because all of the airports in the region were closed. When we finally found an open one and flew, conditions were very bad. No pilot in the United States would take off in those conditions. Visibility was less than a quarter mile. We flew for hours. When you see the vastness of the destruction, it never ends.
Nearly a decade has passed since “An Inconvenient Truth.” Why do you think environmental messages still struggle to reach people?
Until very recently, people couldn’t do anything. If it’s all pessimism, people just tune out. The other thing is that there are enormous public organizations associated with this problem — it’s a global, abstract, long-term collective thing. I wanted to show something that is in fact true: This same long-term, global, abstract problem also causes immediate problems. If we could get away from that, we could really benefit the world right now. Have I succeeded? I don’t know.
What can people do?
Many things. The answer isn’t the same if you’re in Indonesia, China, Brazil or here. It’s different if you’re a mayor of a city or running a business. But there’s a lot that you can do.
Let’s say you’re just somebody who saw the movie at the Telluride Film Festival — the typical Telluride customer who might be upper middle class, but not some hugely influential public figure.
It depends on the details, but you can put solar panels on your house, use LED light bulbs, get a hybrid or electric car. If you can afford a Tesla, they’re incredible cars. The sticker price is high, but you save several thousands of dollar per year on gasoline.
Plus, as you note in the film, they’re very cool.
They’re incredibly cool. The first car that Tesla made was a convertible, which is an absurdly cool car. To have a car like that goes really fast and is incredibly fun to drive — and is also good for the planet — that’s cool.
But it sounds like real change can only happen once these technologies are even cheaper.
We’re getting very close to that point. Of course, oil companies are fighting it. They’re going to lose, but the problem is that they may not lose fast enough. We need to deal with this soon. When you talk to scientific people about the impact — if we don’t fix this, it’s going to get really scary.
Do you feel as though awareness has shifted in any substantial way?
Some of the immediate problems are themselves getting noticed. For example, air pollution and food problems in China. Chinese people are obsessed with this. When I went back twice for this film, I hadn’t been for about five years. I was stunned. The air in Beijing isn’t as bad as Indonesia but it’s really bad. I would say five percent of pedestrians in Beijing wear masks. And it keeps getting worse. It’s all over the media in China. Everyone is obsessed whether they can raise their child in this, will it kill them, is the food safe. The political leadership actually has to worry about this.
The movie closes by anticipating a gathering of world leaders in Paris this December to discuss environmental policies. What do you think will happen there?
I’d like to know. Whatever happens with commercial distribution, we’re already arranging for a number of screenings in Paris before and during the conference — and also other screenings for various political leaderships.
Do you see any hope on the horizon?
People do seem to be moderately optimistic that for the first time we’ll actually make some progress. It won’t be perfect or definitive. It’s not like we’ll get a treaty this December and then we can all walk away. But people do think there’s a good shot at getting to the first step. Part of the reason for that is that people who understand these things are really getting scared. This isn’t 50 years ago. We have really serious problems now. Beyond the necessity for it, there’s the opportunity — we actually can do something about this.