Film: Director on 'Fast Food Nation'

For a man who has so assiduously cultivated a slacker aura, Richard Linklater is one very productive director. "Fast Food Nation," his fifth movie in three years, opens this week. In an adaptation of the 2001 book, Linklater relies on three loosely intertwining narratives—and a herd of celebrity cameos—to deliver an excoriating, if preachy, critique of America's addiction to fast food and cheap labor. Linklater, who directed this year's "A Scanner Darkly" as well as "Bad News Bears"and "School of Rock," co-wrote "Fast Food Nation" with Eric Schlosser, the muckraker who wrote the book. From border crossings to the boardroom, they deliver a stomach-churning peek at what goes into every Mickey's Big One (a thinly veiled you-know-who's you-know-what). Linklater recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why fictionalize "Fast Food Nation"?

Richard Linklater: It was kind of Eric [Schlosser]'s idea. I had read the book and didn't think there was a movie in there for me. But he said, "What if we fictionalized it, make it about these workers?" I've been trying to get that point of view for a long time. I was an offshore oil-rig worker for two and a half years. I had crappy jobs. I was always the busboy or the dishwasher. I had these really awful jobs when I was younger, so I always see the world through those eyes.

In fictionalizing it, did you worry about limiting the impact of the movie?

Not really. If you think about these issues, there's just a mountain of nonfiction information: Eric's book as a piece of investigative journalism is probably at the top of the heap. There's no one way to delve into this. And I think one fictional version on everyone's plate is a good addition. It can do what film does best. It can really put a face to these workers and these people, particularly the undocumented workers from Mexico. If you really break it down, it's just people trying to get through their lives. They're just responding to the effects of a global economy.

The food we eat is an abstraction, as well.

Oh, everything. This entire world: the workers, the health and safety. Everything about it is kept deliberately hidden. They don't want you to contemplate the facts and figures. But there's something about making a personal connection to things.

Is that your goal with this, to galvanize people? The movie's overall tenor is fairly bleak.

[ Laughs. ] I'm actually, believe it or not, kind of optimistic. But I'm not optimistic that our government is going to regulate or do anything. I'm not optimistic these huge corporations are going to police themselves to do a better job. I think the one area that I'm kind of optimistic in is just sheer consumer demand. That's the only place we really get to vote—consumer dollars. The more people become aware, they go, "God, do I really want to feed my kids stuff that will harden their arteries and make them obese and give them diabetes?"

Do you worry about people feeling like they're being lectured?

I don't think so. It's pretty character-based. We don't have anyone saying anything that their character wouldn't. It's not like Wilmer [Valderamma] leads a unionization effort at the plant.

The book does a great job of illustrating how fast food is disproportionately consumed by the poorest people in this country, but we don't get so much of that in the movie.

I think anyone who knows this stuff knows that it's very much targeted to lower-income people. I read an interview with the main chef of McDonald's talking about how great the food is. They asked him how much he let's his kids eat there and he says no more than once a week. That company is actually marketing this stuff to people to eat twice a day.

Well, Burger King did just yank its advertising from children's programming.

I think they kind of have to. The facts are in. There's no doubt this stuff is not good. You see the obesity and the type 2 diabetes. It's not totally unlike smoking from a generation before. These corporations are eventually are going to have to stand behind their products. Right now I would say they're standing behind free-market, freedom-of-choice issues. But I think when you start targeting children, which is pretty proven, that they're on a little shakier ground.

You're sounding less like a director and more like an activist.

I'm a populist. I think there's a common good, and I'm leery of the corporations that are against that for their own profits. I've always had my feelings about it. If people pulled back their meat consumption we'd be much better off, especially with the crap that they're selling. I think there's a healthy model and an unhealthy model.

The healthy model would be grass fed and organic?

Yeah and just less of it overall. It should be made more of a delicacy, but we've been trained to think "you better eat meat every day or you're going to die."

The scenes from the meatpacking plant were the most compelling. Was that a real plant?

Certainly not something you see much on film. We filmed in a real meatpacking plant. We got access in Mexico to some facilities. Actually, they were much cleaner and nicer and like the way you should do it. They process about 40 or 50 cows an hour whereas the ones here do about 400 an hour. For the workers it seemed like a much more pleasant environment than anything we see in the U.S.

In the screening I went to, people covered their eyes every time the meatpacking-plant scenes came on.

It's so real that it's amazing that it's so verboten to even see it. It's like sex. You can't really see people have sex but it happens so much. You can't see how meat's processed but it's so prevalent. Yet human violence—seeing people shot or killed—is so rare in this world, yet it's everywhere [in movies].