Richard Linklater’s fictional adaptation of Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s Big Mac-is-murder exposé, starts with an alarmingly close shot of a fat-filled patty sizzling on a grill at “Mickey’s,” home of “the Big One.” Soon we learn that “there’s shit in the meat,” literally: Seems the “gut table” at the meatpacking plant is making for some especially unhappy meals.
Crappy beef is only one of the subjects of Fast Food Nation, which zooms out from the burger to reveal its origins. Working from the screenplay he cowrote with Schlosser, Linklater wanders, somewhat in the roving style of his debut feature, Slacker, among three loosely connected stories. There’s Don (Greg Kinnear), a burned-out Mickey’s marketing executive who’s ordered to get to the bottom of the company’s fecal matter; Amber (Ashley Johnson), a young Mickey’s employee who gets a whiff of what she’s cooking and considers taking action; and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an undocumented worker at the plant who snuck across the border from Mexico to a job in which she’s essentially treated like meat.
Linklater, following his rotoscoped head trip A Scanner Darkly, has made his second film this year about the culture of addiction and exploitation. As a measure of the director’s rare hunger for realism in the commercial realm, Fast Food Nation is a whopper.
Note: This is an extended version of the interview that appears in the November/December 2006 issue of Mother Jones magazine.
Mother Jones: You’re a prolific filmmaker who chooses from a wide variety of projects. Can you describe the motivation for making this particular project at this time—and in this particular way?
Richard Linklater: It’s never a fully conscious choice; it’s just something that kind of comes over you and kind of compels you. I like the book a lot and met Eric Schlosser when he came to town—here to Austin, where I live. And we got to talking about it as a potential movie and it just went from there. I guess my personal interest in the subject matter goes back a long way on all levels. I’ve been trying to make a movie for years about industrial workers. I wrote a script a script about a guy working on the automobile assembly line; I never could get money for that. I did a pilot about minimum wage workers for HBO that didn’t get picked up; they thought it was depressing, even though it was a comedy. I’ve always been interested the industrialization of our food; it’s been an issue for me from an environmental and animal rights and human health perspective. Fast Food Nation for me was an opportunity for me to delve into a lot of things that I felt connected to. For one thing, I saw the movie as a way to depict these workers—looking at the issues through these people’s lives. In a way, I’ve been trying to make this movie for years; Fast Food Nation provided the perfect jumping-off point.
MJ: The film is fiction, of course. Did you ever think of making it as a documentary?
RL: That would have been redundant. The book is a brilliant piece of nonfiction. Also, in directing, you have to find your way to the subject. For me, the movie represents myself at different phases of my life. In my early 20s I was an offshore oil worker for about two and a half years; I always wanted to depict an industry as seen from the bottom, looking up. So it was easy to make that jump to the boots-and-hard-hat world of the meat-processing plant. Then there’s the powerless student figuring out what’s appropriate when you think something’s not right. And then there’s Don, who finds out something’s wrong and chooses not to pursue it too much, accepts the status quo, and walks out of our movie altogether. He’s kind of myself, too—or all of us, when you’re not actively combating what you know is wrong. . It brings up the question: What do you do? You can vote with your consumer dollars, you can vote in elections—supposedly. But is that enough? What should you be doing? What’s the proper response. I mean, he’s not a bad guy. He assimilates information and moves on; he tucks it away and says, Well, I guess that’s the way it is, I don’t want to threaten my position in this world. That kind of complacency is so prevalent that it’s not even like writing a character.