Stephen Applebaum met Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser in 2006 to discuss their collaboration on the movie, Fast Food Nation. The following article appeared in The Scotsman newspaper.
Big Macs and Whoppers did not look so tasty after the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation in 2001. Painstakingly researched investigative journalism, the bestseller uncovered a litany of unappetising truths about the global fast food industry, revealing how its drive for efficiency and a big bottom line superseded compassion for its workers and concern for its social, cultural and environmental impact.
Whereas Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me would show the damaging effects of a McDonald’s only diet, Schlosser made it damningly apparent that you did not even have to eat burgers to suffer the consequences of the way that the fast food industry operated.
The author and his book became such specific targets for the likes of McDonald's that when Richard Linklater made his film based on Fast Food Nation, he initially gave it a fake name as a cover. This is not unusual, but in this case it was a necessity.
“We could only imagine what they would do when they heard a film was being made, so we just stayed under the radar,” says the film-maker, his T-shirt and shorts out of place amidst the chintz of a London hotel suite. “We were like a guerrilla operation: we stole locations and were very underground in our approach.”
The truth leaked out eventually and they lost some locations. But they still managed to shoot inside a meatpacking plant in Mexico, its ‘kill floor’ - where the animals are slaughtered, skinned, gutted and dismembered - providing some of the film’s most disturbing images.
Linklater, who gave up eating meat at 23, is surprised when people tell him the sequence is graphic. “It’s amazing how we’re very disconnected from our food sources. That’s the reality! I’m like, ‘Jeez, this goes on 10 billion times a year. This is the real world.’ I just think to acknowledge the reality of anything is a good starting place.”
He mentions the sanitised images on American television from the Iraq war and how little they are shown. “We live in a world where we can live in our mythical minds about what’s going on and where everything comes from, but they really are going way out of their way for you not to see the reality. That’s in corporate, that’s in government, it’s kind of in everything,” he argues. “It’s like this obsession with pop culture. Jessica Simpson’s getting divorced, let’s analyse the shit out of that. But let’s not analyse something that really means something. What could be more important than the food that you eat, for your family, for the health of a culture?”
Linklater actually wonders whether people are being deliberately encouraged to be unhealthy. Because of the money being made out of ill health, he says his “paranoid spectrum goes: OK, eat crappy food without question, you're a consumer there, and then at some point you join the medical-industrial complex, treating your symptoms. There’s a lot of dollars to be made out of surgeries you will have to have. You then die 20 years before you should, so you don’t collect benefits. The real title of this movie should be Fast Food, Slow Death Nation. It’s a slow death. It’s not murder, it’s a self-inflicted thing over time, by choice,” he laughs, ironically.
A work of fiction rather than documentary, his Fast Food Nation filters Schlosser’s concerns through the lives of a handful of characters based on people in the book. In it, Greg Kinnear plays an executive from a hamburger chain called Mickey’s who visits a Colorado meatpacking town to investigate claims that animal faecal matter has been found in the meat used in the company’s popular sandwich, the Big One. The plant is staffed by illegal immigrants who work long hours, in dangerous conditions, for very little pay. Other threads include the burgeoning politicisation of a teenage Mickey’s employee and a haphazard attempt by students to free burger-bound cattle.
Schlosser says it was important to him that the meatpacking plant figured centrally in the film. His work has always looked at what is “happening at the bottom of society as a way of looking at the whole,” he explains, and in the book the meatpacking section provided a metaphor for “the way that the people at the bottom are literally being ground up.” In the film, “the way the whole plot eventually leads you to the kill floor is a good symbol for much of what is happening in my country right now”.
The film gave Linklater the opportunity to fulfil a dream and make something about industrial workers. He had personally experienced what it feels like to be at the “absolute labour-intensive, crappy bottom” of an industry when he worked as an offshore oil worker, and he wanted to explore those emotions in film.
He first wrote a script about auto-assembly line workers in Flint, Michigan, but could never raise the funds to make it. He then did a pilot for HBO called Five-fifteen and Hour (“my alternate title for it was Shit Job”), which would have been a series of comedies about people working in the service industry, but it was not picked up. Fast Food Nation finally gave him the chance to put on screen what it feels like to be told, as he was when he worked offshore, “’Hey, you’re only getting from here [points to his neck] down.’ I will never forget that. I’ll use it in a movie some day.”
More importantly, perhaps, Fast Food Nation allowed Linklater to dramatise the experiences of Mexican immigrants. It was this strand of the film which had excited the meatpacking plant owners in Mexico. “We told them it dealt with the plight of Mexican workers going north and they liked that – and that’s all we told them. But that’s not a story that gets seen much, that’s kind of absent from the media landscape.” Living in a border state in Texas, though, Linklater is well aware of the risks people take to cross into North America, and he is shocked by the disregard that people have for them.
“I have always been really struck by how many people die in the desert, crossing into our country,” he says. “It used to be 50 or 60 a year and now it’s nearer 500. Yet, these aren’t seen as tragedies, they’re seen as inevitabilities. And for the families, the people back home, there’s no feeling. I’m amazed.” People are reduced to abstract statistics, he says, and people don’t care. “There’s this huge modern disconnect. So I think what we were trying to do is put a human face on this whole world behind it.”
The film ends with Linklater’s first freeze frame, as a people smuggler hands new arrivals bags of Micky’s burgers as a welcome gift. We know from what we have seen that they’re full of artificial flavourings and possibly contain traces of animal faeces. I ask Linklater if he is saying, ‘Look, for you the American Dream is a lie. For you, it’s shit’? He laughs. “Tastes good though. But yeah, that’s the implication.”
This seems like a particularly bleak ending, and not in character with Schlosser’s professed optimism. Both director and author, who co-wrote the screenplay, say the film is not pessimistic. However, “I think to be honest about what’s happening in the United States right now, you can’t sugar the pill,” says Schlosser. “Things are bad. It would have been a lie to have it neatly resolved in any happy way.” He has a thought. “I’ll give you grounds for optimism. Those of us who criticised the Iraq war three years ago were called ‘traitors’ and ‘un-American’, and now we’re in the majority. So that’s significant.
“People are beginning to see through the lies. So there’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I write about really dark subjects but I see how none of it was inevitable. And if it’s not inevitable it doesn’t have to be that way, and that leaves a margin for . . . something.”
Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014