Maxed-Out: James D. Scurlock

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Interview By Hannah Eaves

If you think of debt collectors and sellers as sleazy hucksters with the morals of a used car salesman, James D. Scurlock's Maxed Out will do nothing but rev on your hatred. If you don't even know what a debt seller is, it's about time you saw this film. Lending is one part of the financial industry that touches nearly everyone, probably more so even than health insurance (especially if recent coverage studies are to be trusted). In fact, scary as it is, many people even buy their health coverage with credit.

Maxed Out, an examination of the US financial industry and the people it helps and hurts, is now opening nationally alongside its companion book, Maxed-out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders (that name says it all). Maxed-out is both funny and dark, reaching as it does into the core of an ogre financial industry so big and lobby-happy it has become virtually impossible to regulate.

It seems you've been traveling a lot. What are you working on at the moment?

I just got back from Saipan yesterday. I was in San Francisco last night, shooting, and I went back to LA with the equipment and then came back here this morning. I'm working on a film about a billionaire who disappeared in a plane crash in Southeast Asia sparking this huge estate battle that basically had the state of California competing with a bunch of prostitutes from Southeast Asia for a billion dollar estate. It's a bizarre story. The guy disappeared in 1995. I always remembered it and I really wanted to do it, but it was too intimidating - it was too far away and too many people. But I felt like it was time.

You probably feel a bit more confident having finished Maxed Out.

Yeah. You know, the first time [I made a film] I had no idea that you had to put film and sound on different elements and then actually combine them somewhere, you know what I mean [laughs]? Now I know a little bit more!

But you had made a film before Maxed Out?

The first film I made was Parents of the Year in 2004, about two years ago, and I sold it to HBO. It was an hour long and it did the festival circuit as a short. I am actually writing the book. You know, I wrote a book on Maxed Out, so then I went back to Parents.

Parents was about a Oaxacan woman who came here illegally, got married, had a kid, then lost her job. This was during the Reagan recession, I guess you'd call it, in the early 80s. She was kind of floundering, couldn't find a good job and ended up digging through garbage for a living every day, for bottles and cans. The film was about her eldest son graduating from MIT and her other kids going to college and how that would affect her life, having spent 20-odd years digging through dumpsters and garbage cans in Venice Beach, California.

How did the idea for Maxed Out come then? You had studied business...

I had always studied business. I mean I had always been this really money-obsessed kid. A very greedy kid, really, and my grandfather was a very successful businessman. I always thought that was amazing, so I was reading the Wall Street Journal when I was a teenager and reading business autobiographies. I mean, it was scary when you think about it. I sort of set that aside when I tried to make films and moved to LA four or five years ago. I wanted to adapt Fast Food Nation and then I was at Sundance a couple of years ago and Super Size Me was there. I was literally standing in line to see it and didn't get in. It was clear it was going to be a big hit and I thought, well, someone's done this already. I couldn't get the rights to the book anyway. So I thought, fast food is one addiction, credit cards are another. I probably know more about credit cards anyway; it's a little drier, it seems more academic, but I have a background in business, so it might be easier. Yet it could be like Super Size Me or Fast Food Nation where it's kind of dark, but there's also this comedic aspect, a romp through consumer culture and people spending too much money and being $30,000 millionaires and people who work at McDonalds driving Mercedes and all this kind of crazy stuff, so that was the genesis.

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