Eric Schlosser, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, had already received a number of journalistic honors—including a National Magazine Award for an Atlantic article he wrote about marijuana and the war on drugs—when he authored his first book, Fast Food Nation, wherein he wrote: "What we eat has changed more in the last forty years than in the last forty thousand." His investigation of the fast food industry unflinchingly exposed the "dark side of the All-American meal" as well as how the industry had brought about the "homogenization of our society" and "unleashed the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, spawned an epidemic of obesity, and propelled the juggernaut of American cultural imperialism abroad." The book proved controversial and popular and, as might be expected, was soundly renounced by the various constituents of the fast food industry upon its release. Now they have a chance to go a second round with Richard Linklater's film adaptation of Schlosser's book.
As ever, Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily has provided a compendium of current reviews on the Linklater adaptation so there's really no need for me to add another drop of milk to that already overflowing bucket; but, when I was offered the chance to sit down with Eric Schosser at the Ritz Carlton with a couple of other journalists to discuss the film adaptation, I couldn't resist. I want to be sure to emphasize that—though structured as a one-on-one interview with The Evening Class—the following interview with Eric Schlosser incorporates the shared queries of a round table discussion with Pam Grady of Film Stew / Reel.Com and Yumi Doi of the Nichi Bei Times. I thank them both for their mannered intelligence.
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The Evening Class: Eric, why did you choose to fictionalize your book? Why didn't you film it as a straightforward documentary?
Eric Schlosser: The film is different than the book. It's really a Richard Linklater film and it's his vision of the same subject as the book. For about a year and a half after the book came out, I tried to get a documentary based on the book—and a documentary would be a very logical thing to do and I think a really good documentary could still be made, not necessarily on my book, but on the same subject and the same theme—but, this was before Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine had really shown there was a real interest and a big interest in theatrically-released documentaries. I was dealing mainly with some very good filmmakers but they were all affiliated with one kind of network or another and it made me uneasy. I decided I'd rather no film ever be made based on the book than something that was a compromise or felt like a sell-out.
I was still meeting with documentary filmmakers when Jeremy Thomas contacted me. Jeremy is one of the last true independent producers. Saul Zaentz is another but there aren't very many left. Jeremy Thomas works with some of the best European directors. He raises the money totally outside of the system and he has real integrity. I met with him. He had been given the book by Malcolm McLaren, the wild impresario of the Sex Pistols, and I really enjoyed meeting them and talking with them; but, I didn't give them the rights to my book. There wasn't really a clear idea of how they would approach it yet. They just felt like this might be a good idea.
I was on a book tour in Austin, Texas, and I met with Rick and he and I both felt the same way: this could be terrible or it could be something that was interesting to try to do. When I think of the directors right now who are roughly my contemporaries in this country—Rick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh—these are directors who are often really pushing the limits and their work, each one has a distinctive voice as a filmmaker, and so I loved Rick's films and we agreed to just talk about it. From our first meeting, the only way it was conceivable to do this was to take the title of the book, take some of the themes from the book, maybe the spirit of the book, just put aside the book, and whatever film Rick was going to make was going to be just completely different from the book; but, to me, that's totally valid. I started out as a playwright and I was a novelist. I worked for an independent film company in New York and actually was commissioned to do the screenplays so I had the beginnings of a career as a screenwriter. This was all before I became an investigative journalist. So that really led me to see that no one form of writing is more valid than another. No one way of approaching a subject is more valid than another. My book is a work of investigative journalism, heavily footnoted and annotated, but, why not do a fictional film on the same subject? It's going to be different but it's going to be equally valid.
So Rick and I got together on and off for about a year and a half. I didn't sign over the rights to my book. But once it became clear that he felt passionately about this and he wanted to do it and once it became clear that he would be completely empowered to do it, that he would have final cut and total creative control—my work in the film world and my own experience of the film world convinced me completely it's a director's medium and for a good film to be made you need a good director empowered to do what he or she wants to do—and the third thing that was important to me was that this film be financed outside the Hollywood system, that there not be a studio involved giving notes and putting pressure to make the film one way or the other. Jeremy agreed with all that. Jeremy was able to raise the money and Rick was able to have full creative control. I was quite clear with him from the beginning because of how much I respected his work that—if he just wanted to take the book and make a film that he wanted to make—I'd be glad to show up for when it opened. I'd be really interested to see Rick Linklater's vision of this subject. He wanted me to stay involved. I wound up working closely with him writing the screenplay, but, that was up to him.
I feel very proud of the film. I feel like it is uncompromised. I think it's ironic that it was easier for me to get an uncompromising tough film on this subject made with British producers and an American feature film director than it was at the time. I think right now—if Fast Food Nation were to come out right now in the year 2006—it would be very easy to get a documentary set-up and get theatrical release. But it was a different world back then. I just didn't trust 100%—not the filmmakers I was meeting with—but who was behind them. In Rick's case, I trusted him completely because his work spoke so clearly about who he was. The more time we spent together, I trusted him as a person. So it took quite a while of our spending time together before I said, "Yeah, let's do this." I don't think that we really got to work in earnest on this screenplay until 2004. That was after a year and a half, two years, of informally getting together socially and also professionally talking about it. I didn't option, I didn't sell the rights to my book and hand it over without being sure that Rick could direct it the way he wanted to direct it. So that's how it came about. It's a counter-intuitive kind of thing but I really like what he did.
The Evening Class: Once it was clear that you were going to be involved in the writing of the screenplay, was there any one thing from the book that you knew you wanted in the film?
Schlosser: It's remarkable how much we were in agreement about what this could be. There was a book that we both loved that in many ways gave us the sense of how to do this as a film, and that's Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. It's a beautiful little novel. It's about a place at a certain time told through the lives of these very different characters, whose lives sometimes intersect and sometimes don't intersect. By doing that about a small town in Colorado, a lot of the themes of the book would be present in these lives. But we really tried not to impose ideas and philosophies. There are guys who talk about politics in the film and there are rants about this and that, but, we tried to be tough and make it seem true to the character. Some people think that what the environmentalist students say is what we actually believe and it's not the case. Some of the comments that the Bruce Willis character makes, I completely agree with. We tried to make complex characters. But getting back to it, we were both completely in agreement on what the fundamental approach should be. The part of the book that meant the most to me and I think the part of the book that resonated most strongly with him was about what's happening to workers in America, particularly the exploitation of illegal immigrants. That's the thread of the film that's set up in a certain way, the structure of the film is leading to that being the emotional core and the heart and soul of the film is what's happening to these poor meatpacking workers. It's the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Jungle this year and we were aware of that and the film in a number of ways pays homage to The Jungle consciously and deliberately.
[Rick had] made a few other films that were ensemble pieces and yet there were real literary influences to what we were doing. I mentioned Winesburg, Ohio and The Jungle and another work of fiction that was hugely important to me and influential was The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos, in which you have all these lives but no protagonist. The protagonist is this country. That was influential on me when I was writing Fast Food Nation and I think in this film we talk about it. The film is ostensibly about fast food and meatpacking but we could have titled it U.S.A. (except it'd been used).
The Evening Class: I admire your admitted homage to Sherwood Anderson and that you're keen about this alignment between narrative collage and cinematic ensemble. What did you gain personally as a writer from this film experience that could be differentiated from your investigative journalism?
Schlosser: It was such a pleasure. I love the writing that I do on my own. I'm not quitting my day job. I'm doing a book on prisons and it's incredibly rewarding, but, I started out as a playwright and I had a play produced in London a few years ago. I loved it. I love the collaborative process. I really enjoy working with actors. I'm talking about the theater experience that I had. The director and I have become very good friends. It's just very different and it's equally valid. Again, I come to it having done enough types of writing that there's just no one way. There are different things that are good and [that] are challenging about each formula. Because on a personal level I felt that Rick and I got along, it was a pleasure to work with him. A lot of it was written just in the same room with us passing the laptop back and forth. He invited me to be part of the rehearsal process, which was similar to me in a number of ways to the rehearsal process of the play that I had. Actors were treated with respect and actors have a lot to contribute. Rick does not treat his actors like they're puppets who are yelled at, who have to do something a certain way. I just saw this dvd on the making of The Exorcist about how William Friedkin treated actors in the making of The Exorcist. Oh my god.
The Evening Class: He was more horrifying than the Devil.
Schlosser: [Laughs.] Have you seen that? It's worth watching. Even the actors who like him talk about what kinds of things [Friedkin] did to them. There was none of that [on Fast Food Nation], it was a very good spirit in this cast. This film was made for a remarkably low amount of money. The actors who were involved were there because they felt passionate about the project. The spirit of the production of this film felt perfectly in keeping with the spirit of how I go about my own work and the spirit of the book. It's being released by Fox Searchlight, which is a really good independent film distributor, but it was done without any Hollywood bullshit whatsoever. Bruce Willis worked really hard for no money, was in rehearsal and working on his character with Rick, and people were there because they wanted to be. They [weren't] there for a paycheck. There was no ego anything. People stayed in lousy hotels and motels, didn't have fancy dressing rooms.
The Evening Class: You were around for rehearsal, but were you also around for the filming?
Schlosser: I was there for a lot of it. I enjoyed watching it. It's his film. It's really a Rick Linklater film but I wanted to be useful and available. He has an enormous ego and it's the best kind of ego. It's one that is secure and, therefore, really open. Not just open to my point of view but open to other people's point of view. The collaborators who are really difficult to deal with are people who don't have a big enough ego and that makes them petty and insecure and needing to insist on something their own way even if they're totally wrong. It's Rick's sense of security as a person that allows him to work in the manner he does. Not just with me as the co-writer but with the actors. He draws out really interesting performances from all kinds of actors—who haven't given that sort of performance before—because they trust him, because he treats them with respect, and he includes them in the process. It was interesting to watch him at work. Now, looking at his other films, I really see how they came to be that way.
One of the other things that really helped us work together is that, as writers, we have a very similar writing process. Which is to say, I heavily, carefully structure what I write before I really write it. What I do may be good, may be bad, but it's deliberate, it's not inadvertent. Rick, as a writer, is the same way. His films are incredibly carefully worked out and structured. It was interesting talking to him about Before Sunset. It feels so loose and improvisational but every scene was carefully worked out and rehearsed. For Fast Food Nation, he didn't have that long of a rehearsal period. He likes a long rehearsal period, again like a play, in which things are figured out and are worked out and it allows him to do things on a very tight budget that—if there were time for improve and 30 takes—he would never be able to do. When he was shooting this film, there were a certain number of scenes that had to be shot every day. There was no margin for error. There was no ability to do 40 takes. There just wasn't the money to do it. Anyway, in writing with him, we work very similarly. We worked on the structure and that sort of thing.
The Evening Class: How were your characters developed out of your nonfiction piece? Did you just banter ideas between each other?
Schlosser. Yeah. We thought about this town. Very early on before we even decided, "Yeah, we're definitely going to do this", we went to Colorado and I took him into a slaughterhouse, introduced him to ranchers and gave him a real strong sense of place and of the setting and then we just thought of, "Who are these people?" We came up with people who would be in that town and tried really hard not to make these people symbols of things. The fast food executive is a nice guy. He wants to do the right thing. He doesn't. That's what happens most of the time. McDonalds is not being run by evil people. It's being run by family men and family women who become complicit in things that are harmful but that's because of the system; it's not because of the individuals. So we really tried to think about each one of these characters as a person and not as a symbol for an idea. We drew upon people I knew, that he knew, and tried to make it feel true to life.
The Evening Class: I was really happy that you guys resisted the opportunities for melodrama. There's that one part in the movie where Paul Dano starts talking about robbing the place and I remember reading in your book about people getting killed, basically by former employees. I thought, please don't go there, please don't have this kid killing Ashley Johnson, that would be horrible.
Schlosser: I'm sorry you had to worry about that. [Laughs.] She's so sweet. That would have been horrible. We wanted to do a film that felt completely true to life and left the audience feeling, yeah, something like that may be happening right now somewhere in the United States, and is going to happen tomorrow in the same way. So the fast food executive doesn't become a whistleblower who testifies before Congress, and the scheme to liberate the cows doesn't turn into 100,000 cows with t.v. helicopters showing, "Oh my gosh, look what's happened!" and there's never a moment in which one of the workers stands on the table and gives a speech about the union and all the workers walk out and they get the sexual-harassing supervisor fired. This film tries to show what's happening right now and it's not pleasant. People can deal with it or people can not deal with it. I hope people go to see the film. If they don't, I sleep soundly about the film. It really feels right to me in terms of what's happening.
I was at a screening in Denver the other night and some people I interviewed for Fast Food Nation, the book, came to see it—a rancher and some meatpacking workers—and I was very anxious about what they thought. They liked the film, which was gratifying, but I was really probing them about what didn't feel right, what didn't feel true, and all I got from one of the meatpacking workers was that the meatpacking plant was too clean, it wasn't dirty enough. It's true. That meatpacking plant was much more modern, much more clean, much smaller. The meatpacking plant in the film slaughters about 175 cattle a day. The one I visited for the book slaughtered about 350-400 an hour. We're talking about whatever that looked like in the film, magnify it on just a gargantuan scale. This wasn't a $30,000,000 film. Rick couldn't build a realistic-looking slaughterhouse. Rick had three hours to shoot in that slaughterhouse and it's incredible he was even able to do that.
The Evening Class: What amazes me is the American incapability to accept visual truth, let alone the truth of an idea, and nowhere is that more apparent than in graphic depictions of the slaughterhouse. The final scenes of Fast Food Nation, I'm sure, will have people squirming in their seats. As a Chicano, I was pleased with the diversity of your Chicano personalities. Having come from a migrant labor background, I was pleased to see how you showed the compromised situations of these personalities in their character development.
Schlosser: We also really wanted to bring to the screen people who are central to the economy of this country and who are kept invisible. I was talking to a union executive the other day who has been involved in organizing meatpacking workers [and] neither of us could remember a single news segment about meatpacking workers in the past five years. Beef is the largest—in terms of dollars spent—aspect of the food economy in the United States. Americans spend more money on beef than on any other thing that they eat. There's like a 150,000 meatpacking workers. 80% of them are Latino. A huge percentage of them are illegal immigrants. They're invisible. You never see them. You just don't see them. That was something we felt strongly about doing.
The Evening Class: I was moved by the story of the two sisters and their fate. Did you consciously intend for these two women to be so emotionally resonant?
Schlosser: The movie was deliberately and consciously structured so that everything would lead you to the kill floor. And to lead you to the kill floor not to show the cruelty to animals—although that's part of the system—but to show the humiliation and the degradation of this young woman [Sylvia, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno] and how she's turned into a piece of meat and how she's turned into another cog in the machine, despite hoping to resist it, hoping to not have that fate. The sister relationship is really important because one sister, in one way, has a more cynical view of the world and is willing to do what you need to do within that system to get what you want, and she does. She has a drug problem at one point. The emotional soul of the film is really the two sisters and Raul [Wilmer Valderrama]. That's where it was all meant to go. Wilmer Valderrama's performance is absolutely wonderful and, for me, one of the most poignant moments is when this character who's been so positive and so optimistic, he's literally doing the worst job in the slaughterhouse, it's even worse than pulling kidneys—but, he still maintains this upbeat thing and at the end there is a kind of a sadness in him and that spirit is gone.
The Evening Class: It's a kind of death as he's lying there disabled on the couch.
Schlosser: But it's not played in a melodramatic way. It's played in a subtle way. "These kids, can't you tell them about the kids?" He still loves them and there's still a moment of affection between them but he's laid low.
The Evening Class: His situation is further complicated by the fact that he's denied medical benefits because of the traces of methamphetamine found in his system and he probably was taking drugs to handle the situation he was in….
Schlosser: That's something that people debate.
The Evening Class: It's left open.
Schlosser: I think he probably was.
The Evening Class: I agree. And that's why he had the compassion he expressed towards the younger sister when she had her drug problem. At least, that's how I interpret it. I felt all of that was lucidly presented without judgment and with an open heart.
Schlosser: Yeah. Even that meatpacking executive who comes in and is the head of human resources and he seems so callous and cold; he's pissed off. It's a terrible accident and this guy has been using metamphetamine on the job. In his world view, "I don't have to have pity for this guy. This guy's endangering my other workers by using crank on the job." He may come off as this heartless villain in a dark suit but he's got a point: don't be using crank when you're working around really dangerous machinery. Now, you could argue with him that conditions are so bad that the workers have to use crank; but, he can't go there on his own mentality. It's cultural. "Drugs are wrong. If you use drugs, you should go to prison for five years." There are people who really believe that and in his world view well this fucking guy is using drugs on the job. "I'm glad he's not really hurt, he's going to recover, but I don't owe him a thing."
I met a meatpacking worker whose father had worked at the plant; this worker had been at the plant since he was a young boy visiting his father; he had been hired at the plant when he was 16—so his whole life had revolved around this meatpacking plant. His hand was completely mangled in the machinery. He was in the most unbelievable excrutiating pain and they wouldn't give him any painkillers and he didn't understand. They kept on telling him that he needed to pee before they would give him the painkillers. Finally, he said, "Why do you want me to pee? I can't pee." They needed to do a drug test before they could give him the painkillers. And he couldn't pee. He wasn't in shock but he had a hand that was totally mangled. He finally could pee, he passed his drug test, but, his bitterness towards this company that his father had worked for, that he'd been loyal to since he was a little kid, and it was more important to them to get an accurate drug test than to give him a painkiller. He was in excrutiating pain for like two or three hours. They could have [he snaps his finger] given him a painkiller like that. That's what's happening right now. You don't see it in the news. Hopefully you will see it in this film.
Cross-posted at Twitch.
11/17/06 UPDATE: The Greencine Daily has generated a compendium of Schlosser interviews and reviews on Fast Food Nation, including their own interview via Susan Gerhard.
Further, David Lowery posted his conversation with director Linklater at Drifting. David asked Linklater about Greg Kinnear's character and his failed opportunity to be a whistleblower. Linklater explained, "The corporate structure allows anyone absolution."