If you ever hope to enjoy a guilt-free fast-food meal again — or, actually, ever eat one at all — then please feel free to avoid Richard Linklater’s new drama, Fast Food Nation. Adapted from journalist Eric Schlosser’s 2001 best-selling exposé, the movie often makes Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me documentary look like a McDonald’s infomercial as it puts a set of very human faces to Schlosser’s nonfiction source material. Critiquing the fast-food industry from top to bottom, Fast Food Nation effectively seeks to do for the franchise restaurant what Syriana did for the oil industry, with Linklater introducing us to a vast array of characters, from Greg Kinnear’s increasingly conflicted marketing executive to Wilmer Valderrama’s Mexican immigrant, who finds himself working in a hellhole of a slaughterhouse. EW talked to the Austin-based director of Dazed and Confused and School of Rock about corporate misdeeds, on-the-fly filmmaking, and why it’s time George Clooney stuck up for the rights of poultry.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I was actually surprised that the film wasn’t more one-sided. Bruce Willis, who plays a fast-food company employee, actually comes across as a somewhat sympathetic character, even as he’s ‘fessing up to the fact that his burgers contain cow manure.
RICHARD LINKLATER: Yeah, this isn’t about good people and bad people. This is about the machine. I think we can all agree that the big corporate machine runs our culture and it doesn’t have a soul, it doesn’t have a human consciousness, and it’s up to people to check it. We all have to check that machine in whatever capacity. As a reporter you can write about it; as a filmmaker I can make a film about it.
But what can ordinary people do? Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders once famously advocated the firebombing of McDonald’s restaurants — presumably you’re not suggesting that.
No. But certainly the industry’s not going to police itself. And the government’s not going to regulate it. I think the only hope is an awareness of consumers. There can be these reversals of perspective based on consumer information. If you find out that some product you’re buying is manufactured by slave labor, then you can go, ”Oh, no, wait, that doesn’t fit my value system; I don’t want to buy that.” And that company will quit doing it. The only thing this market responds to is market forces. So I think when people can really look at the industrialization of food and say, ”Well, maybe let’s pull back from a model that pollutes the environment, that’s bad for workers, that’s really systematically cruel for animals and, at the end, is an unhealthy product.” With food, it’s like we’re all fair game for the corporations to feed off. And unfortunately, the marketing dollars are aimed at poor people. It’s the ultimate poor tax.
Speaking of which, I suspect the fast-food corporations spend your film’s entire marketing budget in a single day…
Oh, since we’ve been talking they’ve spent as much as the whole marketing budget!
The British have a saying: ”You’re pissing in the wind.”
[Laughs] The thought has definitely crossed my mind. Somebody said this movie was just a spit into a big ocean. Maybe so.
Did you, if only for self-amusement purposes, see if any fast-food companies were interested in a marketing tie-in?
We knew we’d never get any participation. The book was kryptonite, you know. We had to shoot under an assumed name quite often. It was sort of like being undercover, just to get access to certain locations. It almost felt like a first film. You’d rehearse, you’d go the parking lot and shoot, and then you’d leave.
The interesting thing is that there are people of all political stripes that would agree with what the film is saying. I suspect Ted Nugent, a staunch Republican and avid hunter, would love the movie.
Yeah. And I kind of love Ted Nugent because, even though I’m a vegetarian, I grew up around hunting. My thing is, if you can’t kill the animal yourself, you shouldn’t be consuming it. I mean, I choose not to do that. I don’t want to kill deer. I think they’re expressing a preference to go on living, and I respect that preference! But there is something there. The factory model is almost like a dirty war that you don’t even know about, where they’re killing for your country’s imperialist desires. It’s like everything’s hidden and you’re certainly not supposed to analyze it. You know, we grew up with this myth of a family farm. There are some chickens running around and someone’s throwing them some corn, and then there’s some pigs over there and they have a couple of cows and it’s all healthy. But that chicken you just ate lived in a tiny cage with five other chickens with its beak cut off. It never saw sunlight and its feet never touched the earth. That’s the reality.
One of the few celebrities who has protested the plight of battery-farmed chickens is Pamela Anderson, who, even with the best will in the world, may not be the best frontperson for a campaign. You know, where’s George Clooney when the chickens need him?
Probably likes to eat chicken, I don’t know. But no one’s speaking for the living things that can’t speak for themselves.
Are you worried about waking up one day and finding that one of the fast-food companies has put a Godfather-style cow’s head in your bed?
No. They don’t come at you directly. They have these other front organizations that they fund that come on TV and talk about freedom of choice. Be leery when someone talks about that a little too much. Choice, freedom — that’s McDonald’s whole thing right now. They have a few healthy items on their menu, so it’s about choice. Freedom of choice — that’s American! Who can’t get behind that? But follow where they’re making their profits. It’s the 99-cent cheeseburger.
The film’s also got a really interesting soundtrack, largely by desert rockers the Friends of Dean Martinez. Why did you use them?
They’ve got an Austin presence, you know. Just like produce, I like to buy local!