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Movies: 'Fast Food Nation'

Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser
Director, Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006 11:30 AM

In his best-selling 2001 book "Fast Food Nation," writer Eric Schlosser investigated the complexity and corruption of America's convenient-meal culture. Now that book has become a movie.

In the film version of "Fast Food Nation," director Richard Linklater , who co-wrote the screenplay with Schlosser, focuses on multiple characters whose lives are impacted by a chain of restaurants called Mickey's. Members of the large, ensemble cast -- including Greg Kinnear, Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Ethan Hawke -- portray the marketing executives, behind-the-counter clerks and meat packing plant employees who struggle daily with the issues raised by the burger-and-fries industry. "Fast Food Nation" releases nationwide on Nov. 17

Linklater and Schlosser were online Friday, Nov. 3 at 11:30 a.m. to answer questions about the film and the book.

Linklater has directed numerous films, including "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise," "School of Rock" and "A Scanner Darkly." In addition to "Fast Food Nation," Schlosser also co-wrote "Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food," a book aimed at young readers.

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Washington, D.C.: Why did you decide to make the book into a movie? Seems strange to me to take a non-fiction book and dramatize it into a film. Wouldn't a documentary have been the better way to go if these conditions really exist in real life?

Eric Schlosser: After "Fast Food Nation" was published in 2001, I was approached by a number of filmmakers who wanted to make a documentary based on the book. And I thought that was a great idea. I thought the subject would lend itself to that sort of approach. For the next year-and-a-half, I tried to get a documentary set up. But in the end, all of the options made me uncomfortable.

This was before Michael Moore had shown that documentaries could be released in theaters. And just about all the filmmakers I was meeting with were backed by networks that had relationships with the fast food chains. Even PBS -- McDonald's is one of the big backers of "Sesame Street." I decided that I would rather no film be made based on my book than that a film be made that was watered-down or a sell-out. Around this period, I met with Rick Linklater and started talking about a different approach. And oddly enough, by doing the film as a fictional drama, we were able to make it independently and totally outside the Hollywood system. Rick's film is not a literal adaptation of the book. But I think it is powerful and uncompromising and true to the spirit of what I wrote.

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Hutto, Tex.: Hi Guys,

I was wondering how many lawyers it took to assure the producers of your film they wouldn't get sued by you-know-who? Best, John

Richard Linklater: I think because the film is officially fiction, we're off the hook to a large degree. That said, lawyers still pour through the script and film and drive you crazy with their extreme cover-their-ass approach. They told us we couldn't use the name Mickey's for our restaurant but Eric did some research and found hundreds and hundreds of restaurants named Mickey's all over the country. If there was only one it might have been an issue. As far as McDonald's is concerned, they're referred to in the movie as a competitor, and we see some golden arches in the background, so no one can say our Mickey's is a stand-in for McDonald's.

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Washington, D.C.: Both "A Scanner Darkly" and "Fast Food Nation" take older texts ("Fast Food Nation" is still fairly contemporary, but a few years old) and comment on a very contemporary world. What are the challenges in creating new themes in older sources?

Richard Linklater: Though "Scanner" is thirty years old, it seemed extremely relevant to our post-9/11 mind-set. Dick was so far ahead of his time, I would say technology and reality are still catching up with him. "Fast Food" is about six years old and not much has changed in that world. McDonald's profits are higher now than when the book came out, so... it still seems uber contemporary.

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Arlington, Va.: Slate.com had a pretty interesting article about "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair and how he originally was more interested in creating empathy for humans in the meat-packing industry, not making the meat CONSUMERS worried about themselves.

But the article's author pointed out that the "fictionalizated" nature of the book distanced the reader from the very real nature of Sinclair's observations. Clearly the characters in the book were modeled from real families but because they were composites and "fictional," it was easy to dismiss them.

Aren't you worried of a similar disconnect? "Oh those characters on the screen aren't 'real people'?"

Eric Schlosser: I haven't read that Slate article. But I disagree with its argument about fiction vs. fact. Steinbeck's "Grapes Of Wrath" created nationwide concern about the plight of farm workers, and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" played a central role in creating public outrage about slavery. As a writer, I've come to see how there's no one form of writing -- and no one medium of expression --that's more important or effective than another. Fiction, non-fiction, film, theater, poetry -- if done well, each can be powerful and true.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Do you think that fast food restaurant executives are becoming a public punching bag like cigarette executives? This seems a bit unfair. Fast food executives never hid nutritional information from the public. It's not as if people always thought this type of food was a part of a well-balanced diet.

Eric Schlosser: I've tried hard not to demonize fast food executives or to say they are bad people. I don't believe that. I don't believe they want to make their customers unhealthy, or mistreat animals, or exploit workers. But I do think they are part of a system encouraging all of those things. And I do think that these executives find it much easier to deny any responsibility, and attack anyone who criticizes them -- instead of engaging in an honest dialogue about the issues. I think it's great that so many chains are now providing nutritional information. But it's taken years of criticism -- and concerns about a nationwide obesity epidemic -- for this industry to do the right thing and let people know what's in their food.

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Houston, Tex.: What's changed in the five years since "Fast Food Nation" was published?

Eric Schlosser: Some things have gotten a lot better. People are much more aware about food safety issues, about the obesity epidemic, about the ways companies are targeting children, about the harms of industrial agriculture, about the health risks of this heavily processed fast food. Well-educated and upper middle class people are changing their diets. They are rejecting fast food and making organics the fastest-growing and most profitable segment of American agriculture. But some things have gotten worse. The fast food industry is now heavily targeting low-income communities -- much like the tobacco industry did, once upper middle class people started to quit smoking. The Bush administration has relaxed food safety standards, and the meatpacking industry has more power over its workers than any other time in decades. So all in all, I'd say it's been two steps forward, one step back.

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washingtonpost.com: Richard and Eric had to head off. They both thank you for all of your questions.

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