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How filmmaking is like launching a start-up

Software executive-turned filmmaker Charles Ferguson talks about tech's role in his award-winning documentary on the U.S. occupation in Iraq.

Charles Ferguson's tech industry career ended a decade ago with the sale of his company, Vermeer Technologies--maker of a visual Web site development tool called FrontPage--to Microsoft for a whopping $133 million.

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 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.

While the two activities are by no means identical, there are striking similarities between starting a software company and making a film.

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.

How do you judge whether your documentary is a success?
Ferguson: I don't think it's any one thing. First of all, I would like the film to have an impact on the way Americans think about this war and the question of how to handle Iraqi policy now going forward. I hope the film has an effect on the policy community with regard to that question as well, not just American public opinion, but there is material in the film that isn't generally known yet, even to people who have been following this.

There was a screening of the film for two dozen senators in Washington D.C. about 10 days ago. I was there and I was quite struck at the numbers of senators who were quite shocked and surprised by some of the things in the film...This is not the last time that the United States will go to war. I hope that the next time Americans think about using military force, people who have seen the film will have absorbed the lessons that war is not a video game and that if you don't plan and think very carefully, terrible things will happen.

I think that there is some evidence that the film is having an effect. Just last night I learned that Sid Blumenthal just posted an article for the Salon Web site in which he says that the White House is becoming afraid that the film is going to have a substantial effect and that (for U.S. Deputy Secretary of State) Richard Armitage's appearance in the film is going to lead to other senior administration officials to speak out.

Has it been difficult to balance your academic and policy background with your role as the maker of a film for the general public?
Ferguson: There were times when I felt the tension between my policy-wonk self, the person who had written a 454-page-long Ph.D., (and) trying to make a 102-minute film. But I would say on balance, my background in this case helped a lot...I had studied issues like this for a long time. The other thing that proved to be helpful was getting people to speak with me. It helped that I was credible to them in their world.

I would like the film to have an impact on the way Americans think about this war and the question of how to handle Iraqi policy now going forward.

You made a conscious effort to keep partisan politics out of the film, right?
Ferguson: Yes. I tried very hard to do that. So, for example, the film does not take a stand on the question of whether or not there was a good case for using military force to remove Saddam Hussein. Personally I feel it's an issue about which reasonable people can disagree. On the one hand, Saddam turned out not to posses WMDs...But one could also argue that if it had been done differently, it could have worked, and Saddam was without question a genocidal, ruthless, horrific dictator and he had previously tried to develop nuclear weapons and his regime was being contained only by economic sanctions that were causing enormous damage to the Iraqi people.

I wanted the film to be absolutely about what had in fact occurred. Not about what should have occurred, who was right and who was wrong, but what actually took place. Most of the people in the film, by the way, are Republicans.

How did you stay safe in Iraq? Were you intimated by that part of the filmmaking?
I'd like to think that I wasn't intimidated but I certainly was very aware of it. When you're in Iraq, at least the experience I had, is that you're incredibly tense the entire time. You're incredible alert, you're always on, you always have to look at everything and access everything quickly, you're constantly aware that everything you do has to be done with security in mind. You never make appointments over the telephone with the real time of your appointment. You say you're going to meet someone at 10 and you show up at 9:30. You try to make sure your bodyguards' families aren't in the Baghdad area because if they are, they can be kidnapped...

I stayed safe by trying to be prudent. You travel either high profile or low profile, and I did both. If you travel high profile, which you have to do, for example, when you're filming--when you have cameras there's no way you can hide what you're doing and who you are--I had 8 to 10 guards with automatic weapons and three armored cars.

You could have just retired and played golf.
I'm not that kind of guy.

What lies ahead for you? Do you want to make more films?
Ferguson: The process of making the film was one of the most remarkable, fulfilling, moving, amazing experiences I've had in my life. It was just an extraordinary thing. And if the world lets me, then I'm going to continue making films.

Do you ever have any regrets about leaving technology?
Ferguson: Sure. It's fascinating, and in some ways the technology world is kind of a video game. It's an enormous amount of fun, a lot of smart people cooperating with each other, competing with each other. It's fun to test your wits against other smart, ambitious people. It's fun to do something cool and make money from it. Those are all great things. And I do sometime have regrets about not doing more in the technology world than I am. I still try to keep my hand in a little bit. But of course, making a movie like this, there's no way you can really be serious about the technology sector.

Can you offer any observations about the technology industry today and how it might compare to the days before the bubble burst?
Ferguson: I don't spend a lot of time on it. I do still have friends who are in the sector and very active in it. My impression is that this is different from the bubble and much more real, and I'm actually heartened by a lot of what I see. Of course there are some companies that aren't going to work out and there is still hype in the world, no question about that, but I think something real and quite substantial is happening now.