Bright Lights Film Journal

What’s Wrong with Fast Food? A Conversation with Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser on Fast Food Nation

With additional comments by Catalina Sandino Moreno and Ethan Hawke

Introduction

The distributor’s website describes Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, a dramatic feature based on Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, as follows.

Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear), a marketing executive at Mickey’s Fast Food Restaurant chain, home of “The Big One,” has a problem. Contaminated meat is getting into the frozen patties of the company’s best-selling burger. To find out why, he’ll have to take a journey to the dark side of the All-American meal. Leaving the cushy confines of the company’s Southern California boardroom for the immigrant-staffed slaughterhouses, teeming feedlots, and cookie cutter strip malls of Middle America, what Don discovers is a “Fast Food Nation” of consumers who haven’t realized it is they who are being consumed by an industry with a seemingly endless appetite for fresh meat. The ensemble cast includes Patricia Arquette, Bobby Cannavale, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Ashley Johnson, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Avril Lavigne, Esai Morales, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Lou Taylor Pucci, Ana Claudia Talancon, and Wilmer Valderrama. Shot in Mexico, Fast Food Nation is scheduled for commercial release in the U.S. on November 17, 2006.

Bright Lights contributor Karen Badt watched the film at Cannes, where she caught up with Linklater, Schlosser, Ethan Hawke, and Catalina Sandino Moreno to chat about it.

Karen Badt: Why did you decide to make Fastfood Nation?

Richard LINKLATER: I met Eric. He came to the town where I live in Austin, Texas. I thought the conversation would be brief, as I thought he should get a documentary guy and I don’t do documentaries. I do character-based work. Eric had the idea to make it a character piece, looking at the people behind the book.

Eric SCHLOSSER: I had met with documentary filmmakers and was very worried that the book would be watered down, for the television networks would be putting up the money for the documentary. I didn’t trust in the political climate that there wouldn’t be pressure to soften it. After meeting with Jeremy Thomas, who was interested in doing it as a feature, I started thinking about it as a feature. Jeremy finances his films without going through a Hollywood system.

I love the novel Winesburg Ohio, written in the 1920s, which is the portrait of one town, but in looking at this one town, it is looking at America. Rick likes the novel as well. Suddenly it seemed like not an obvious way to approach the book.

What did you think of the fast food industry before making this film?

LINKLATER: My trajectory was similar to the character Amber [right] in the film. I grew up in east Texas eating fast food, not thinking much about food, with a health teacher in high school telling me that a burger, fries, and a shake is a well-balanced meal, because all the food groups are represented. I had the impression that if you didn’t eat meat, you would just blow up and die. Vegetarians were fools. Then I got older, and realised how the meat and chicken industries seemed like a big cost for the environment. But then the health costs are the next rung.

Could you compare the situation of meatpacking today to that depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle?

SCHLOSSER: Today is the l00th anniversary of The Jungle. What’s sad is that you see how similar things are today. Things got better for meatpackers since the 1930s, but in the last 20 years, things have gotten much worse. As late as the l980s, being a meatpacker was one of the best-paid positions in the United States, equivalent to being an auto worker, but then big meatpacking industries brought in illegal immigrants and recent immigrants, and cut wages by fifty, sixty percent. It’s very significant that on May lst, when there were immigrant protests in the United States, the slaughterhouses shut down because there was nobody to process the meat. It would be great if The Jungle could only be viewed as a historical artifact, in the way of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.But there are passages of The Jungle that could have been written today.

I see your book as not only about the meatpacking industry, but about how industry works in general in the United States.

SCHLOSSER: I think you could look at several different industries in the United States and write the same sort of book. Looking at the changes in the fast food industry over the last thirty years, you see the changes in America. I am writing a book right now on prisons in America, interviewing wardens, guards, and families, and that’s another way to look at America. I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist, but the same year that we were building a fast food industry, devoted to uniformity and conformity, we’re building prisons. If you look at the prisons and the feedlocks for these industrial animal operations, it’s a very similar kind of mentality. It’s a way of thinking, an attitude towards people and animals that is control oriented, dominant oriented.

LINKLATER: The prison population has quadrupled in twenty years. It doesn’t take much to be put in prison. It’s people with small drug offenses mostly.

When is this prison work coming out?

Schlosser. This fall. It’s a really dark topic.

Richard, you had to select which elements of Schosser’s book to focus on. Why did you eliminate the issue of American obesity, which is so important in the book?

LINKLATER: Yes it is a big issue in the book. But this is a dramatization. It would be hard to show a character getting obese in such a short time span. How do you take it on as an issue?

Instead, you emphasize Schlosser’s point about how flavors are artificially produced.

LINKLATER: I included the scene of the laboratory which does scents so that people can see how they are being manipulated. We built that lab for the film.

SCHLOSSER: The flavor industry came out of the perfume industry. When they were making processed foods, and they needed these aroma chemicals — because when you process the food, you destroy the delicate flavor aromas — they turned to the perfume industry which had all this specialized knowledge on how to deal with essential oils. It is the European perfume industry that really created the flavor industry in the United States. Now many of the flavors are European, appealing to very sophisticated palates. A lot of the smell and taste of very healthy foods come from the same factories. You can use this same knowledge to make healthy food or barbecued Big Ones.

Why is the mother-daughter story in your film?

LINKLATER: The single working mom — we wanted Patricia Arquette to play that character — is out of it in a working-class way: she’s eating microwaved food for breakfast, works at a pet store, and is still an adolescent herself, had a child young, and is struggling just to stay afloat. She seems like a lot of people who don’t have time in their lives after working to consider the bigger picture. It’s unfortunate, the issue of health is a class issue. If you are middle class, you can sit around a dorm and talk about these things in a social situation, but if you are lower class or don’t speak the language, you don’t have time to dig into the issues very much. Now if you want to eat healthy, you are elitist.

Eric, you mentioned in the press conference that you could imagine a documentary as a companion piece to this fiction. What could a documentary add to this film that the film now does not have?

SCHLOSSER: Good question. One thing the documentary could do very well with this book, that the film does not, is show how these issues of fast food and its changes are directly tied to changes in our history. When you go to a McDonalds anywhere in the world — you go to one right now in Shanghai — you are stepping into Southern California in l954. The ideology is that technology is part of the food, science is perfect.

Is the problem that fast food is unhealthy, or part of a bad system?

SCHLOSSER: You can have fast food that is healthy food: food made in a wok, for example. One of the reasons this fast food is so bad is that they don’t want to pay any worker to cook anything. Because if you have a trained cook, you have to pay a good wage. So all the food just has to be processed and frozen and freeze-dried. So if you just let go of this model of total control, cutting costs, and treating people like objects, you could have very healthy food.

Immigrants also work making “healthy food” — for example, all the Mexicans in the kitchens of fine restaurants — and they are still being exploited. How would you distinguish the plight of workers of healthy versus unhealthy food?

SCHLOSSER: Those workers are not being paid very good wages either, so that ties into a bigger issue of immigration, but at those restaurants there are bus boys who become waiters, earn more money, and I know some of them now who have the other uniform on, and they make much more than fast food workers do. Fast food workers are at the bottom of the industry.

LINKLATER: This efficiency model that my film demonstrates runs our world of mass production: we could take that same model and just be healthier with it. If consumers demanded it, and just demanded more healthy food — it’s that simple — the market would provide it for them.

But isn’t the efficiency model in itself suspect? Doesn’t it objectify people?

LINKLATER: Well, yeah. That is the product of the last hundred years of our so-called progress, but it is the world we live in, with no care about the people or the environment. It is an efficiency model, and that’s not just American, it’s everywhere.

SCHLOSSER: Efficiency is a myth. You have these notions of efficiency, but that model isn’t including these huge costs: the thousands of people getting poisoned, the wastes being dumped in the river. The reality is that these animals are pumped with antibiotics and steroids, and their wastes are polluting the rivers, so that is not very efficient. It’s an illusion.

Can you comment on the expected impact of Fast Food Nation?

LINKLATER: I’d be really happy if people saw my film and learn to be healthier. It’s a good time to eat healthier. The products are out there It’s an irony that in a culture where people are watching 8 hours of television a day, people can’t spend an extra 15 minutes making food for their families. I’m most proud that the movie makes you think about people you don’t know who are in your food chain.

SCHLOSSER: The success of the book has raised awareness about food. But when it comes to the lives of meatpacking workers, things are worse; when it comes to food safety, things are worse. The meatpacking industry gives 80-90 percent of its money to the right wing of the Republican party, and the government agencies which are supposed to be regulating the industry are completely controlled by the meatpacking industry.

How does this film compare to Supersize Me?

LINKLATER: I think Supersize Me was inspired by Eric’s book. If we put our two films together, his [director and star Morgan Spurlock’s] is in front of the burger — on its effects on the body as it enters the body — while mine is on what is behind the burger: the workers and the animals.

Richard, you made two films this year. What are the parallels between Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation?

LINKLATER: (laughs) They’re both on issues being publicized by the Bush administration. One film is on domestic immigration, the other is on spying. The theme of both is monolithic control over lies.[Q: Karen, should that be “lives” rather than “lies”?]

There is a scene in your movie where the idealist frees the cows, yet they do not leave. How much is this a metaphor for how Americans voluntarily refuse to free themselves from mass industries?

LINKLATER: We don’t know that they don’t leave. The last thing we see, the fence is down, and the cows are standing there, and maybe sometime later, the next evening, they get up the courage to get up and wander out. That’s a metaphor in itself for awakening and moving forward. Well, I guess it is an obvious metaphor. We’re all the cows. We’re encouraged to treat others like cows, to not care about them.

THE ACTORS COMMENT

Catalina Sandino Moreno (Sylvia)

Karen Badt: You are from Columbia, so you too are an immigrant. Do you have the same critical view of America as the film? Do you also think that Americans exploit immigrants?

MORENO: Yes, it’s a tough place. Everybody comes to America to search their American dream. I talked to lots of immigrants who are there to send money back to their families. I think that people have to do that. In their countries they don’t have the money. A lot of people go to America for the American Dream.

Did the American Dream work for you?

MORENO: Yes. My case is different. I came to the U.S. with “Moreno Full of Grace.” When I got to New York, I had lawyers who helped me. I know how frustrating and demoralizing it can be because you have to go through so much process just to stay in the United States. I just needed to stay here to study — six months at the Strasburg Acting Studio — so I didn’t have to have tons of papers. But I know my case is different from 90 percent of people who go to the States. They have no one. They don’t speak the language. I had a lot of people in New York helping me do everything.

Why did you do Fast Food Nation?

MORENO: I liked the script. When Fastfood Nation came, I couldn’t stop reading it. I loved giving a face and a voice to people you usually don’t think about. I thought it was an important story to tell. I read the book after the script and realized how smart and brave Eric and Richard are to tell this story. They have names and numbers. The book tells the story of how this all began with this guy selling hotdogs, and I didn’t know that.

What is wrong with fast food, in your opinion? The movie has different takes on the subject. Which for you was the most important?

MORENO: Yes, this movie takes a lot of subjects, such as the immigrant story. That is the most powerful for me because they are the ones who are risking their lives. You can see people without hands. The supervisor just makes them go fast and keep working. You can see that in the movie. It’s the whole system’s fault. It is taking advantage of people.

What is Linklater’s style as a director?

MORENO: You do a scene without any direction. He just wants to see what an actor can give to a character. Then he pulls you aside and guides you: “I liked this, but not this. Are you okay with that?”

What was it like to be on the set?

MORENO: We were very lucky to shoot in a real slaughterhouse in Mexico. You would see the cattle grazing in the grass as you drive down, looking so happy and free, and you get in, and they are hanging upside down, and you turn your head, and there is half a cow, hanging with its muscles twitching. Everywhere is blood. I was with real workers on the line. They were still killing cows as we were making the movie. Sometimes you see a big thing going down the line, and they grab this thing and put it on the table and open it, and there’s a little baby cow. They take the blood of the baby cow and they put it in an IV bag, and they freeze that, it’s a Japanese specialty. Then they throw the baby cow in a bucket. That was difficult to shoot, because you also had to be fast.

You just made a movie directed by Ethan Hawke?

MORENO: Yes, I first met Ethan in New York, when he was acting in Hurly Burly, the play. A couple months later, he called and said he had a script based on his novel, a very romantic script. I was in a point in my life where I was very soft, and I thought the script was so lovely, I decided to do it. The character is the closest to me. It’s not a poor girl, an immigrant, trying to do something. She immigrated a long time ago with her mother with a dream to be a singer, and she knows what she wants, and she is a very nice person to know.

Ethan Hawke (Pete)

Karen Badt: Can you comment on your relation with Linklater?

ETHAN HAWKE: This is my sixth movie I made with Richard. I’m really here to support him. I did the part because I believe in him so much. We’re kind of like in a band together, and I play a certain steel guitar, and when he needs that, he calls me. There are very few directors like him. I like his sensibility. He’s not interesting in glamorizing anything. This year marks the first time in his life that he goes so political. He has always has a keen political mind, and with this film and Scanner Darkly, he bends his mind that direction. I am proud of him.

Rick and Eric wanted to dramatize this subject of “fast food,” make a tapestry of how real people are touched by this industry. Rick wanted to show how people believe their lives don’t matter: “What can I do to change anything?” The truth is that the whole ripple effect works. If you meet someone who doesn’t lie, all those people around that person know somebody who doesn’t lie. Then you can’t say, “Everybody lies.” The shame factor works. My role in the film is to be that person who gives other people a possibility to be different.

I love structurally what the movie does: it sets up an average white male protagonist who acts as a detective; and in a normal movie, in the second half of the movie, in the arc of the narrative, this character would solve things. But Linklater just lets the second half drop him.

Your relation to fast food?

HAWKE: I grew up on fast food. I worked at Burger King in high school. When I became a father, I stopped eating fast food. Before, it’s cheap and convenient. But I feel a sense of shame if I take my kids there, so I don’t.

The film takes different angles on what’s wrong with fast food. For you, after having done this movie, what is the strongest thing that is wrong with fast food?

HAWKE: To my mind, the movie is not so much about fast food, it is more about corporate America. When my grandfather was a kid, America was known as a democratic experiment. Now, all across the world, America is known as the capitalist country, not a democracy. We’re about making money. When the criterion for all your movements is making money, there’s going to be cold-hearted ramifications on people and our lifestyle, and the kind of world we live in. I live in New York City. You see it everywhere, whether it’s in the lack of individual thought, whether it’s a people not take responsibility for itself, whether it’s seeing a president mislead a country into war and get re-elected. You see this massive dumbing down. You see so much propaganda.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I thought we lived in such a boring period; nothing seemed to happen. Now I don’t say that. Technology is changing so much. The country has changed so much. It’s certainly good for art. The more angry people get, it makes the dialogue more substantive. That’s the only good thing that can be said for war and injustice . . . it makes people dig a little deeper.

You just finished directing your own movie?

HAWKE: Yes, based on my novel The Hottest Day: the story of first love. My first love is the theatre, then writing, then directing. I enjoy doing them all.

What impact do you wish this film to have?

HAWKE: I think there are a lot of people who in the back of their mind know there is something wrong with the fast food industry. You can smell it. That there are twenty chicken sandwiches at every shop, everywhere. We all know that the .1 percent of the wealthiest of people in the world consume most of our products. One great start would be young people realizing that and being energized by it. In the same way that civil rights were the main issue for my parents’ generation, the main issue for my children’s generation will be the environment. The whole future is about the environment, and the food industry plays a huge role.