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.
Mother Jones: The film is fiction, of course. Did you ever think of making it as a documentary?
Richard Linklater: 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.
MJ: It's rare for an American movie to tell a story that's the rule rather than the exception. Usually it's the Remarkable Story of a Guy Who Bucked the Odds in Pursuit of Truth and Justice.
RL: Eric and I were pretty adamant about saying no to that. Don is no Erin Brockovich. The film pushes responsibility back on the audience.
MJ: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the movie?
RL: I met a lot of ranchers; I went to slaughterhouses; I met workers in Mexico. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us on the movie. That's why you do it: the personal journey. I saw the plight of many ranchers: how they're being squeezed, how industrialization is just eating them.
MJ: What were some of the challenges of making the movie, knowing that the fast food industry had you on its radar?
RL: Well, it's funny how McDonald's is like the insecure teenager: They assume the movie is all about them. We were pretty much an underground production, trying to be as low-key as possible to get access. I've never made a movie where from the outset we were a target, because of the impact of the book and the enemies it made. It's amazing what you can get away with in this culture. But when you threaten a huge, powerful corporation, then, man, they really pay attention. I heard that some people who let us film in their businesses are in trouble with their corporate elders.
MJ: Are you seeing a campaign developing against the film?
RL: Yes, but they got outed. McDonald's leaked its countercampaign last spring. There was a big Wall Street Journal article about it. We all laughed; it was funny how seriously it was taking us. It smartly pulled back, said it wasn't doing anything. It's clever about never taking you straight on. It pays shadow organizations to do its dirty work.
MJ: Do you see a certain "Swift Boating" of muckrakers happening?
RL: Believe it or not, McDonald's worked with the same people behind Swift Boat.
MJ: The DCI Group? The same people behind that YouTube spoof of An Inconvenient Truth?
RL: Yes. Eric was confronted by them at readings; they were handing out flyers accusing him of telling lies. They make it seem like some citizens' protest. When you talk to them, you find out that they're on the payroll—10 bucks an hour to hand out flyers. That's how it works: You announce yourself as being one of two sides, and the media portrays it as a debate. Maybe there's global warming and maybe there's not! Maybe there's evolution, maybe there's creationism! Everyone can just believe what they want to believe.
MJ: How do you see your work responding to the new political realities of the world?
RL: I don't think I've changed; it's more that the culture is allowing the movies I want to make to get green-lit. I'm trying to get one made that deals with the Iraq war. It's about three old guys, one of whom has lost a kid in the war. It's the war as seen through the eyes of a grieving parent. I'll always be interested in depicting life from more of a working-class angle.
MJ: Which is rare in American movies.
RL: It's not that uncommon. People give Hollywood crap for being full of "outspoken liberals," blah blah blah. But the entertainment industry is one of the only industries where you have people—actors and musicians—who have a voice but don't have privileged backgrounds, or college degrees.
MJ: Do you hope the film will change people's eating habits? Did it change yours?
RL: My eating habits were already set. You think you know about fast food—I mean, I knew it wasn't, like, one cow, one hamburger—but when you see everything that goes into it, it's shocking. The meat on the conveyor belt goes into a big vat along with a bunch of this white stuff. I asked, "What's that?" They said, "Oh, that's fat, to give it that sizzling quality." And they add beef hearts to give it color. I put that in the movie. Once you see what goes into your burger, why not choose a healthy alternative, like a veggie burger?
MJ: Do you advocate vegetarianism?
RL: I don't know. Eric is not a vegetarian. I am. But we both agree that if you eat meat, you should know where it comes from and support the people who are doing it right. Get a good cut of meat from a free-range, nonexploitative, nonindustrial ranch. We have this image of a healthy family farm with some pigs and a cow and all these different crops. Puncture that myth and you realize that it's an industrial farm where there's only corn or only lettuce and it's sprayed with pesticides, and all these pigs live in this tiny space, never get to touch the ground, eat crap all day, and they can't even turn around. Every person has to understand that.
MJ: And the film will help that?
RL: I don't have any delusions that the movie is gonna change much. [Laughs.] Yet at the one U.S. screening we had, a lady came up and said, "I can't eat this stuff and not think about everything that's behind it—the workers and the whole system." So that's a good start. I want to know what's behind everything I'm asked to buy—whether it's my food or my government's policy on another country. I have the right to know the real cost.
For an extended version of this interview, go here.