Expert Q&A

James Scurlock on ‘Maxed Out’ documentary


Filmmaker James Scurlock sits down with to answer questions about ‘Maxed Out,’ his documentary on the credit card industry.

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“Credit card aficionado” was the last title James Scurlock planned on having. This Wharton-educated former restaurant investor ditched 10-K analysis and Boston Chicken ownership to go Hollywood. Five years ago, he moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter and hit the film festival circuit with his first short documentary, scoring an award and a run on HBO. Scurlock’s first feature-length documentary, “Maxed Out” —  which exposes the underbelly of debt culture — hit theaters nationwide in March 2007. sat down with Scurlock, 35, to discuss $30,000 millionaires, Debtors Anonymous and tight-lipped credit card execs.

James What was your motivation for plunging into the labyrinth that is the credit card industry?

James Scurlock: The two New Year’s resolutions every year are lose weight and get out of debt. And every year, Americans get fatter and we’re more indebted, so there’s the natural contradiction and mystery. I wanted to explore why people can’t stop borrowing money\u2014why are we so addicted? That said, I really didn’t know anything about the credit card business, and I thought it was going to be this comedic romp about our obsession with consumption, $30,000 millionaires, and all of the absurdities. Had I known it was going to become a film about the credit card industry, I never would have done it. I would have done something lighter. So at what point in your reporting did you realize the story was changing– that underneath this consumption frenzy, there’s a credit card business that needed to be exposed?

JS: There actually was a literal moment I experienced. Dave Ramsey, the radio host and author, had referred me to this family in Indiana, and we went down to their house to interview them. It was a story of a woman who had a secret life of credit cards and gambling addiction. We’re in her living room and we start the interview, and the daughter of this woman just starts sobbing. I realized then that, wow, this was going to go pretty dark; this is really an emotional issue. It’s not necessarily an academic issue or about mathematics or what FICO is, but it is something that really goes to the core of who we are and really affects us in so many ways. It’s also something people feel a lot of shame about and have a very difficult time dealing with. It’s almost Dickensian– a situation where a lot of people are in debt, they’re never going to get out of debt, and they’re living in a debtor’s prison. It’s not a literal prison, like it was 200 years ago, but it’s a figurative prison, and sometimes that’s worse.  Six months of filming the documentary left you with 120 hours of footage that had to be whittled down to a mere 86 minutes. Any scenes that never made it into the film but still had a profound impact on you?

JS: The Debtors Anonymous meeting I went to was the most depressing hour I’ve spent in my entire life. I had never been to a 12-step meeting before, and you sit in this circle staring at these truisms on the floor that are horribly depressing, and all these people who just don’t understand how they got there. It’s very much a personal-responsibility kind of message, and it should really be called Spenders Anonymous as far as I’m concerned. These people are wrestling with what they did wrong. It’s about admitting you don’t have control over it and giving up control to a higher power. We weren’t allowed to tape the session, but we taped a DA member who, ironically enough, is a finance guy in the federal government. He told me, “I can talk about drug addiction, alcoholism, my sex life, anything, but the only thing I can’t talk about is being in financial trouble because that’s not polite conversation. Everybody’s in debt, but nobody wants to talk about it. You can’t admit that you failed.” One of the voices absent from the film was the credit card industry defending itself. Why didn’t you include these companies?

JS: I don’t think they talk to anyone. You can talk to their PR people sometimes, lobbyists occasionally, but the executives don’t talk. The industry knows that things have gotten out of hand. They know they’re targeting college kids and people on Social Security and on and on and on. I got a letter from a guy at Visa thanking me for making the film and saying he’s been trying to raise these issues at work, but none of the executives want to deal with it. The whole industry is essentially a brick wall, and I think that’s because they can’t defend so many of their actions, like double-cycle billing, universal default and changing the terms and conditions unilaterally whenever they feel like it. There’s a reason they don’t talk. We’ve all heard the classic Hollywood tale of the aspiring filmmaker racking up the bills to shoot his or her dream movie. So I have to ask: Did you go into debt filming “Maxed Out”?

JS: Nope. I don’t have a mortgage or a car loan. I have a MasterCard and an American Express that I use all the time — and pay off every month.

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