Who would have ever thought that I–a Ph. D.-economist, middle-aged, suburban mom of four, working inside the DC “Beltway”–would be working with a southern CA movie director?… OMG!!!…
Yet here I am today to introduce as EconomistMom’s (first) co-blogger–for the next several months leading up to the next President’s inauguration–Patrick Creadon, director of the movie I.O.U.S.A., or as I am christening him before the blogosphere: “DirectorDad.”
So with great pleasure, here’s DirectorDad’s (Patrick Creadon’s) premiere post on EconomistMom.com…
By DirectorDad, 10/17/08:
“You’re making a documentary about the national debt? Wow… what an incredibly bad idea.”
– filmmaker colleague, November 2006
In November 2006, my wife Christine and I were finishing up work on our documentary film Wordplay when our phone rang. A producer named Sarah Gibson was looking for a team to adapt the book Empire of Debt into a documentary film. She had seen Wordplay (which starred New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz) and thought we were a good fit to tell a story about the national debt. “You made crossword puzzles cool and fun and exciting… maybe you can do the same with the national debt.” After reading the book we decided to take on the project.
There was only one problem during those beginning stages: we had no idea what we were doing. None whatsoever. The truth is, we didn’t know anything about the topic aside from what I had read in Empire of Debt, and a lot of what was in the book seemed… well, kind of boring to me. But the challenge of telling this particular story, and the prospects of releasing this film 18 months later during a Presidential campaign, was quite compelling. We’ve always felt that good storytellers can tackle any topic, no matter how difficult the subject matter. Christine and I decided to put that theory to test with a movie about the national debt.
Addison Wiggin, the co-author of Empire of Debt along with Bill Bonner, had decided to produce the film and had raised funding for it. Addison served as Executive Producer and co-writer of the film, which eventually was titled “I.O.U.S.A.”, a play on the words “I.O.U.” and “U.S.A.” Addison is a financial writer, and he and his company Agora Financial have over 2 million readers around the country. Most of his readers are quite familiar with economics and financial matters, and thus his writing reflects that. But we knew our film had to take a much different approach. “We don’t want to make this film for your readers,” we told him. “We want to make it for their spouses or kids or colleagues who — like us — don’t know anything about any of this stuff.” Luckily, he agreed … and we were on our way.
One thing became apparent right off the bat: there’s a reason people call economics the “dismal science”. By its very nature, economics is incredibly nuanced and complex and difficult (impossible?) to ever really “figure out”. During our interview with Robert Rubin, the 70th Treasury Secretary of the United States (you see his name written in the lower right hand corner of US currency notes from 1995 thru 1999), he explained that this is why he loved economics so much. “You can spend an entire lifetime studying these issues and never quite figure them all out. It’s endlessly fascinating, which is part of its appeal to me.” In time I grew to appreciate the intricacies of our story and realized we had to try a different approach in telling it.
With so many large and complex issues that we discussed in our film (like the national debt, trade imbalances, personal savings deficits, foreign ownership of U.S. debt, federal tax policy, etc…) we decided it would be foolish to try to “figure out” all the various facets of our story and present them in a way that felt like a definitive statement about each topic. Instead, we felt the real value of the film would be in explaining these various fundamentals of macroeconomics, the way a professor of Macroeconomics 101 might present this material.
For example, in the section of the film where we discuss the historical levels of our country’s national debt, we decided to create a snapshot of America’s national debt… where it was on the first day of our federal government (March 4, 1789), where it’s been through history, where it is today, and where it’s heading in the future. We never trot out an expert who declares what the “proper” national debt level should be. That would be foolish since there are so many different opinions about that. A person new to this material will learn in the film, for example, that in the 219 years since the federal government of the U.S. was formed, the five highest levels of debt (as a share of our economy) that our country has experienced were, from fifth-highest to all-time-highest: The Civil War, World War I, The Great Depression, today’s debt level, and World War II. We also explain through the use of dynamic motion graphics, that if our present tax and spending policies remain unchanged, by the time my young children are my age (41), our national debt levels will be twice what it was at the height of World War II.
There’s another important reason why we decided to explain the fundamentals of economics as opposed to skipping past the basics and advocating certain policies and conclusions instead. We had no interest in making a film that would preach to one choir and alienate another. Instead, we wanted to make a film about America’s debt crisis that would start a conversation between all political camps. This is another reason why the film spends most of its time explaining topics and trends and very little time laying blame at the foot of one person or one party. The truth is there’s a lot of blame to go around, and the sooner we realize how serious this situation is, the sooner we as a nation can begin to address ways to fix it.
By examining and explaining our issue and trying to avoid excessive finger-pointing as to whose fault it is, we were able to assemble an incredibly diverse group of people to appear in the film. The film stars David Walker, the former Comptroller General of the United States who 60 Minutes refers to as “the nation’s top accountant”. A registered independent, Dave has received three presidential appointments (one from Reagan, one from Bush #41, and the most recent appointment from Clinton). The film also follows Bob Bixby, Executive Director of the non-partisan Concord Coalition. Bob is an expert on the budget of the U.S. government and he and his group are among the leading advocates of fiscal responsibility in Washington. We also feature financial experts Warren Buffett and Peter G. Peterson (a Democrat and a Republican, respectively), Former Federal Reserve Chairmen Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan (a Democrat and a Republican), Former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Paul O’Neill (a Democrat and a Republican), and Senate Budget Committee leaders Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg (you guessed it — a Democrat and a Republican). And the film also includes interviews with MacArthur Genius recipient and federal budget expert Alice Rivlin, U.S. Congressman Ron Paul, and author Bill Bonner. Getting this diverse group to completely agree on almost anything would be impossible. Yet every single one of them agrees with the premise of the film: America is living a lifestyle it can no longer afford, and if we do nothing about it we will eventually drive right off a cliff.
This goal of being non-partisan was very important to our whole team. We knew the success of the film relied heavily on whether or not we achieved this goal. (On opening night I was happy — and a bit relieved — to read that the The New York Times called the film “resolutely non-partisan” and declared it was a documentary “everyone should see.”)
Twelve months after Sarah Gibson called, we received another phone call. “I.O.U.S.A.” had been accepted to the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. We were chosen from among 953 films to premiere in the prestigious American Documentary Competition. We went on to be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the festival that year. I ran into one of the programmers at Sundance and asked them why they had chosen “I.O.U.S.A.” from among all the other excellent films that were submitted. “Simple… you took a very important and complicated topic and made it accessible to a general audience. If our country isn’t careful, this could become the biggest issue in the 2008 election.” They couldn’t have been more right.
Our film was released nationwide on August 21, 2008, in the middle of what many experts are calling the worst economic crisis our country has seen since The Great Depression. There are many reasons we got into this situation, but the consensus seems to be that America has taken on much more debt than it should have, and now it’s time to “pay the piper”. There has never been a better time for America to sit down and take a long, hard look at its own financial health.
On opening night the film was simulcast digitally to 430 theaters in 43 different states. Over 45,000 people saw the film that first night. In addition, the live simulcast of the film was followed immediately by a live town hall meeting featuring former Comptroller General David Walker (the film’s star), Warren Buffett, Peter G. Peterson, and others discussing the financial health of America’s economy and federal government. Somehow we’d been able to bring a very large crowd together to learn about America’s national debt and to take part in a lively discussion afterward about how to address our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges. The film has gone on to rank among the year’s Top 10 documentaries with overwhelmingly positive reviews.
But best of all, after spending so much time studying this topic, Christine and I have become much better informed citizens. The other night we watched one of the presidential debates with our kids. As one candidate spent a considerable amount of time railing against excessive earmark spending, I’d finally had enough. “Stop talking about earmarks. They’re less than one percent of our annual federal spending. The real problem is the rising cost of health care and how we’re going to pay for it.” My six-year-old daughter looked at me as if to say “Dad, you’re weird.” Perhaps, but now I know what the real challenges facing our nation’s financial health are, and that if we don’t address these issues soon, our kids and grandkids will be paying dearly for them. Maybe someday she’ll thank me for that.
Patrick Creadon is a documentary filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. He and his wife Christine O’Malley have three young children. Their current film is “I.O.U.S.A.”, an in-depth look at America’s rising national debt and its effect on future generations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.