'Watergate': Academy Award winner Charles Ferguson on drawing parallels between Nixon and Trump
Charles Ferguson's latest, 'Watergate,' releases on A&E November 2, and the director reveals how the documentary came about
Documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson has a knack for condensing what many may perceive as controversial and politically-charged themes into easily digestible and intelligible pieces of film that play out on your screen over two-odd hours. It's a skill that's often underappreciated considering the sheer legwork and investigative ingenuity, as well as artistic chutzpah it involves to piece these documentaries together.
Nonetheless, Ferguson practically hit it out of the park with his very first one. Having founded Representative Pictures Inc. in mid-2005, Ferguson began production on 'No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq.' The documentary focused on the two-year period following the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and laid bare the catastrophic mistakes made by the Bush administration that resulted in a host of problems in the country that are prevalent to this day.
It premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize for Documentaries, also becoming one of five films to be nominated for the 'Best Documentary Feature' category at that year's Oscars. While 'No End in Sight' would miss out on the prize, the film industry's most prestigious honor wouldn't evade Ferguson for much longer.
The now-63-year-old cemented himself as one of the heavyweights in the genre with 2010's 'Inside Job,' which explored the late-2000s financial crisis and which Ferguson himself described as a film about "the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial services industry and the consequences of that systemic corruption." 'Inside Job' would go on to be nominated for practically every major award on offer, winning 'Best Documentary Feature' at the Oscars, as well as 'Best Documentary' at the Directors Guild of America Awards and 'Best Documentary Screenplay' at the 'Writers Guild of America Awards.'
Since then, Ferguson has been involved in varying capacities in documentaries such as 'Invisible Hands,' a feature that exposes child labor and child trafficking within the supply chains of the world's biggest corporations, and 'Time to Choose,' a piece that attempts to address worldwide climate change challenges and solutions. However, he had not yet documented anything one could view as explicitly political. That is, until now.
Ferguson's latest will be a comprehensive breakdown of the Watergate scandal that saw Richard Nixon's presidency untenable and left him with little choice but to step down. Titled 'Watergate: Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President,' the documentary seemed to have been timed for a release to coincide with the current Trump administration. Ferguson, in an exclusive interview with Meaww, insisted that isn't the case.
Soft-spoken and exceedingly polite, Ferguson disagrees with my assertion that this was the first time he had covered something so explicitly political. "If I can just tell you, I didn't see it that way," he said. "I didn't think I'm going to do something political for the first time, and actually, I should say I had the idea for this film long before current events made it so relevant."
"I had the idea to make this film for the first time over five years ago," he explained. "And well, I think it was about three years ago when I finally had the time to get serious about it. We signed a contract and A&E handed me a cheque and I started making it, and this would have been late 2015 or early 2016. I think that Donald Trump was already a candidate but it was well before anyone thought he would be Republican nominee, much less POTUS."
As one watches 'Watergate,' the parallels between the Nixon administration and the current Trump administration become quite apparent and are quite frankly a little disconcerting. Ferguson said the documentary did evolve as it became more and more evident that history may just have been repeating itself. "I will say that as events unfolded and it became clear that there were various striking parallels between then and now, and the possible criminal investigation and or impeachment of President Trump was increasingly conceivable and maybe even likely, I did take notice of that and the film did change as a result," he admitted.
"But I wouldn't say it changed by becoming more political," he insisted. "Originally, when I first had the idea to make this film, it was actually as kind of entertainment. It was always going to be an accurate documentary, but it was originally going to be something that was a real-life political thriller and a real-life House of Cards taken from history with absolutely no intended contemporary relevance. Just, you know, here's something really interesting that occurred once upon a time and if you're under 50-years-old you probably don't know about it, and it's a really wild tale and very much a political thriller and a lot of fun and interesting to watch."
Ferguson revealed he had to adapt 'Watergate' to these shifting times by bringing about two major thematic changes. "As it became clear that there was going to be a lot of contemporary relevance, the way I changed it was, first of all, I just made it a lot more serious and less humorous," he said. "And the other thing that I did that was more important was that I put in much more about, 'Okay, okay in these circumstances, here's what the constitution says. Here's how the system is supposed to work. Here's how the system did work. Here were the things in the system that worked well. Here were the things in the system that didn't work well.'"
"So, that was how it changed," he continued. "It was much more an examination of 'Did the system work? If so, why? If not, why not? How dependent was the system on the judgment of a small number of individuals? etc. etc.'"
Another hint 'Watergate' has more to it than meets the eye, comes in the form of the appearance of the late Senator John McCain in the documentary. In his close to five decades in politics, McCain had developed a reputation as a sort of maverick who went against the grain and did not tow party lines. One of his last actions before stepping aside from politics due to his aggressive brain tumor was to give the dramatic thumbs down during the crucial vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
It was an act of defiance that was in tune with his former stances as well as his open dislike and disdain for president Trump. Why else would someone, who had so little to do with the Watergate scandal, appear in a documentary that covers it? But again, Ferguson said his intentions for interviewing the senator were sincere.
"Well, no," he replied when I asked him if McCain appears because of the relevance his words have on what's going on in the country today. "I interviewed him before, well it was after some of it was already clear." Ferguson began thinking out loud at this point, losing his words a little as he tried to pinpoint when exactly he had spoken to McCain.
"It probably would have been just after Trump took office," he confirmed. "And again, motivations changed over time but the original motivation I had for interviewing him was because of his experiences in Vietnam. As you may or may not know he came from a long, very distinguished military family. His father was the commander of all naval forces in Asia, including those operating in Vietnam and including the aircraft carrier from which McCain flew. And yes, McCain was shot down and was a prisoner of war for seven years but was returned in 1973 as a result of the Paris Accords that Kissinger negotiated."
"And actually, McCain met Nixon as president," he continued. "Nixon gave a huge party for all POWs in April of 1973, I believe, and McCain was present there and met Nixon and first became potentially interested in entering politics around that time. And it was for those kinds of reasons that I originally wanted to interview him about his experiences around that time. So, that was the original motivation. And I did ask McCain a lot about that and it ended up not making its way into the film but then I also asked him about more general questions."
However, he added, there was a more wholesome reason he wanted to include McCain. "I also have to say, I confess, that I put him in, in part, because I've always liked him," he said, not without a hint of reverence. "He and I obviously did not have identical political opinions and I wouldn't say that I got to know him but I met him a number of times and had a number of conversations with him, and I always found him a very impressive human being."
Besides McCain, Ferguson also managed to put together quite the potent ensemble of interviewees with significant first-hand insight into the scandal and who came forth with their own experiences from a time the country was very much experiencing a constitutional crisis. The likes of Dan Rather, Daniel Ellsberg, Morton Halperin, John Dean, and Carl Bernstein all feature as he draws out the timeline of events that led from Nixon winning his re-election by a landslide to him exiting the White House with his tail between his legs in 1974. But, I ask, was there anyone whose perspective he wanted to include but couldn't?
"Well, the two people who turned me down — Henry Kissinger and Donald Segretti," he stated without hesitation. "For many obvious reasons, it would have been interesting to interview Kissinger," he added. "I didn't think that he would agree, and indeed, he did not agree. There's one other person who I tried to interview and declined and that was Henry Paulson."
"Not many people know it, and he certainly doesn't go out of his way to publicize it, but roughly for the last 18 months of John Ehrlichmann being the domestic policy advisor to the very day Ehrlichmann was fired on April 30, 1973, Henry Paulson was Ehrlichman's assistant and it's extremely difficult for me to believe that he did not have any understanding of what was going on," he said, ending with a hearty, almost sarcastic laugh.
Ferguson is clearly someone who likes to keep himself busy. Despite gearing up for the release of 'Watergate,' the 63-year-old divulges he has other projects on the boil too. "I'm working on or thinking about three things currently," he said. "One is a documentary about our current mess, our current difficulties that democracy and democratic govts are having around the world."
"The second is, I've written a script for a thriller, a scripted narrative fiction film, and some people are interested in making that and if so, I would direct it and it would be a lot of fun. So, I might do that. And I'm also thinking about a start-up that's in the digital media space."
At six crisp episodes clocking in at 45-odd minutes each, 'Watergate' has managed to cover one of the nation's most infamous historical events with detail and precision and without, as such documentaries are wont to do, becoming excessively self-indulgent. Ferguson has maintained the high standards that have made his previous works so highly appraised, and if you are someone whose knowledge on the scandal is surface-level, I recommend you give it a watch.