Monday, December 04, 2006

Fast Food Nation: Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser (Q & A)

Q: With the book, did you ever set out to maybe make it more documentary than a mockumentary? Is it a mockumentary?

Eric Schlosser: No, it's a drama.

Q: Drama?

ES: Yeah, I spent about a year and a half meeting with documentary filmmakers and I worked really hard to get a documentary set up and I wasn't able to do it in a way that I felt comfortable with. I came close but I wouldn't sign over the rights to my book unless I felt that the filmmaker was going to be empowered to do something very tough and uncompromised. There was never an arrangement that met that criteria so I was fine with there never being any kind of film based on the book. The book was so much more successful than I ever thought it would be and it was in that period that I got approached by this British producer Jeremy Thomas about doing a fictional film which seemed like an unlikely idea, but he has made so many amazing films. I had a respect for where he was coming from and I started thinking about how it might work and then met with Rick and once it was clear that Rick wanted to do it and that he would have total creative control and that the money would come from outside of Hollywood, that's when I signed over the rights to the book and so it's kind of an unexpected path to the screen but I really feel like the film Rick made has integrity and is completely uncompromised and it's ... I feel very happy with how it's going.

Q: Do you feel people crave for the truth or revelations but then they starve when it comes to actually doing something against it?

ES: You know...(to Richard Linklater) What do you think?

Richard Linklater: People like all of us, you mean?

Q: Just humankind. Do we crave to know? I felt, me personally included, we like to be blind.

RL: To certain things. Yeah, I mean I think we have our areas of interest that we want to get at the truth and then there's others things. We're all guilty of it like just look at the way you read a paper. Like okay, here's a section you want and then there's these pages and pages of genocide in the Darfur region. You know, sometimes you just don't have the psychic capacity to take in all the horror and pain in the world so you willfully put your blinders down. We very selectively do that as functioning people in this world I guess. But I in general want to know the truth behind everything. I think that's a great place to start whether it's a government policy or whether it's what's behind the corporate product we're asked to consume. The truth and the full effects and what it really means is a great place to start and then you can really make your decisions based on that, but when people are so willfully ignorant and entire industries just rely on people's lack of [awareness] and not wanting to know. So I think that's a lot of the food industry in general, but it changes. People are becoming more aware that there are these global ramifications to something so innocuous as a fast food purchase. Once you realize 'Oh gosh, it is a big world and there are some workers and there's a lot of issues here with the environment and the animals and not to mention the health of the food you're buying and that's when...It's very complex, but I think people are slowly waking up. It starts among educated, well-to-do people, then it just sort of trickles down so ultimately it's a big class issue. I think the ultimate poor tax on this culture... It's bad enough being poor on every level but then to be unhealthy because you are poor when you don't have to be. You know, that's kind of the huge ethical dimension to this I think.

Q: What do you hope people will take from your film?

RL: Wow, um, what they'll take? I hope they care about the people in it, you know, the characters. It's a character piece. I hope they'll spend this hundred plus minutes and get a glimpse of and feel on a human-like connected level to these people who are in our media landscape forgotten. You're not supposed to think about them, you're not supposed to care. So if it makes you care about people, and in particular I think the Mexican workers in our country that are currently being demonized, they're a cut above terrorists. In fact, our terrorist money is kind of going against them now if they ever build this wall which I don't think they will or I hope they don't. If you can just put a face to it because we're all disconnected and it's pretty abstract. You can't really... It's one thing to read something but until you see that picture or you see that connection, it's no coincidence that we're not allowed to see coffins with flags over them from Iraq because then... or a parent maybe going to greet that coffin and that's a poignant moment we don't want anyone to share in because you might care, you might start questioning. And it's the same thing in this industry. You're not supposed to really think at the end of the line that there's cows getting shot in the head as we speak, you know, the billions of animals every year raised for human consumption and slaughtered and that's just the fact. You don't want to think about it but it's probably healthy for everybody if you do. So, I don't know, just a general awareness, but hopefully just think about the people in the movie, I hope. I don't know.

Q: You said yesterday after the screening that you were actually shooting at an actual meat packing plant, that those people were not extras, that they were workers. How did they let you...did they read the script? You know, you would think they don't look so good in this so...?

RL: Well, where we were shooting, we weren't wasn't a critique of them. We were shooting in Mexico and we were saying this is the U.S., you know, this is a plant in the U.S. So that sort of left them off the hook.

Q: So it's a plant in Mexico?

RL: Yeah. They liked the story I think of the Mexican workers down there. We sort of emphasized that. But no, they didn't read the script. We just kind of described it to them. You know, they only let us in for a few hours here and there under really extreme limitations.

Q: Did you try to shoot in any plants in the U.S?.

RL: No, I don't think we even...we didn't even attempt to. Eric's friendly and I met a guy who had a plant here and even he wouldn't let us. He liked us and he liked what our film was about but he couldn't let us use his facility so we knew people who don't particularly like the existence of Eric's book wouldn't be much more helpful.

Q: There was an ongoing comparison of social class during the film. Like the scene where all the Mexicans who just arrived are all in this one room and then it changes to Don Anderson who's unpacking his suitcase in his room.

RL: Yeah. (laughs) I'm glad you picked up on that, how you... the transportation. [means contract between how each arrives at their location]

Q: I think that was brilliant but do you think the lack of interaction between social classes is what creates sort of this ignorance of the issues that is happening right under our noses?

RL: Well, I mean we're certainly disconnected from one another and I think it's always been that way to some degree and I don't know if that's... It's hard to say if that's by design or if that's just the way it is but I think it's just important for the Don Henderson's of the world, Greg's character, to at least be aware. It's one thing to, you know, if you don't interact much, but one another thing to be actively doing things that aren't compassionate or that don't help people. So I don't know, if you're completely ignorant, you're not helping anything.

ES: I think it's an interesting point though because we do interact. I mean we could be in here right now and someone would drop off the tray, and the interaction would always be on our terms, you know, 'Thanks for bringing it. Now leave.' Or, you know, 'Here's a tip.' But in terms of that worker as a person, that worker as someone with a life and family, it's discouraged, it's hugely discouraged by the hierarchy that we have at the moment. You know, Don interacts with the workers but it's all very formal. So much of what my own work has allowed me to do is to lead [leave?] my normal, upper middle class life and to go into other worlds and to see people in context and it's very humbling. It's like... It's left me feeling 'there but for the grace of God go I.' I mean I have ancestors who are immigrants and I have ancestors who I'm sure were dirt poor and it's just a very... No matter how wealthy and powerful you are it's a good reminder of how fragile it is and hopefully that creates compassion instead of denial. Your question (referring to earlier question), you know, my answer would be, 'I'm amazingly optimistic. I genuinely believe and so much of what motivates my work is that once people know, things will be different, and the only reason that things are as bad as they are is because there's so much denial and complacency. How do you cut through all the bullshit that the mainstream media is feeding you as distraction and diversion and just try to tell people what's happening and when they see it, I think most people are good and decent and they act differently or they think differently or they vote differently. But then maybe I'm deluded but that's what...

RL: When people are given the facts, they're very capable of acting in the common good. I think it's just natural to our species and survival if you're given the facts and what you need to do, people as a whole - all 3 hundred million of us or 6 billion of us -- can and will act in a way that's positive like that but not when you're distracted and you're just not connected to the problems.

Q: Immigration is an issue right now and everyone is seeing whatever they want to see? Are you still able to keep your optimism and what is your view on immigration? Is it going to change?

RL: I don't think it's going to change. I think it's been going on for hundreds of years. I think if you're an Irish Catholic coming in to the U.S. in 1860, people throwing stuff at you and calling you a dirty scumbag and 'go back where you came from,' but you get a job and you slowly build your life here, then your kids do better than you do hopefully, and it's a big sacrifice people make when they come to a culture and I'm always touched by the hope people bring with them. If I think of this movie, I think of the hope our three Mexican workers bring as they come across the border. They're very hopeful for their future and I think someone like Don Henderson, Greg's character, he's more in a way insecure than they are. He has something to lose. He's got this middle class life and he's just a few paychecks away from losing his mortgage and he has a family to support so I don't know. I think we all have this ability to hope for a better future and that's always been the immigrant experience and it's a pretty brave one. And I think that' just kills me in our current climate to see people demonized and all they're doing is responding to this borderless, global economy that we live in now and no one kind of understands these factors. If you're a farmer in Mexico and because of NAFTA your crop is not worth 70% of what it used to agreements...all this stuff happens way above you and then they're hiring in Colorado at this plant, they're running an ad on your radio station, you know, in Spanish, and you have friends who are working there. It's just like c'mon that's free market. And up here they've broken the unions in the last 20 years, they've taken away the benefits, they've reduced the wages and the conditions are so bad, and then the company can sit there and go, 'You know, Americans just don't want to do this job.' I mean they did for the last 75 years, but 'Americans don't want to do this anymore.' I mean that's putting out a help wanted sign and so when workers are coming in...if our culture really cared, they would make it illegal to export those jobs, those American jobs. I mean that's a...I just see it as a help wanted sign and they are hiring and people will fill those jobs. But it really pains me to see the people... You know, all of us are just reacting to these forces that are so much bigger than all of us. And to be demonized and actually penalized, the ultimate penalty, you know, death. People die by the hundreds now in the desert. It used to be 60 a year and now it's like 460 a year and next year it'll probably be 500 and if they ever start building a wall, it'll probably be a thousand and it'll be two thousand. I live in Texas. Every year someone's... you know, there's a truck found on the side of the road with people suffocating and half dead and abandoned. It's a nasty world but it's very abstract to people and it's easy for some politician to just demonize the most vulnerable people in our whole economy. So I think it's a real immoral tone and people who talk about protecting borders, it's just crazy to me for people who want to work hard. You know I've already been in Europe with this movie and they say 'Oh well, the immigration.' I said, you know, it's ironic when you're in Paris and they're talking about all your problems with immigrants and you're saying, 'Weren't there riots here last year? Your city was on fire due to these problems. I don't think that's going on in the U.S.' Even the protests of May 1st were peaceful, marching, just letting everyone know, 'Hey, we're here. We're taking notice.' On that day, the entire media industry shut down by the way.

ES: You know, the film is a really dark film but I want to fight against any kind of disillusion. I mean I stay optimistic. You've got to look at who's doing this and why they're doing it. There's a huge bait and switch tactic going on. These guys are saying, 'You know, the problem are the Muslims, the problem are these illegal immigrants, the problem is the gays, the problem is the liberals. And that's always a way of diverting attention from what the problem really is, you know, and who's responsible for the problem. So once we start falling for these tactics, for these diversions, for demonizing one group after another, once we just see through it we say, "Well, I think there's a bigger problem and that's not the real problem.'

RL: Yeah, but unfortunately it takes just a little bit of analytical power to see through that. We all have that knee jerk person in us that it's just so much easier to blame someone else than actually look at a bigger picture. We're so encouraged not to analyze like the causes and effects of this. We're encouraged to analyze and put all of our critical thinking towards things that don't mean anything, you know, television shows, sports, movies, you know, things that truly aren't life and death issues for any of us, we put our certain power to but are we putting any time and effort into things that truly matter for the health of all of us. It's not much. It's completely inverted.

Q: Do you want to put a solution out there? Does the movie even offer any solution?

RL: I think the movie does. I think you have to leave the movie thinking there's a problem out there and I hope you can't be completely divorced from it. Like with our food, certain issues you can say, 'Well, they're taken care of.' You know, you can feel divorced. We vote every day with our food choices whether you want to or not. Like I don't know how many people voted today, whatever percent, not even 50% I'm sure. But we do vote, whether you like it or not, every day so at the consumer level I think that's where it's going to happen and so awareness can beget a consumer demand in the market. It's only programmed really to respond to that.

Q: How has your relationship to food changed in general, not just fast food? Also, how do you eat your steak? Raw, medium or well done?

RL: (laughs) Well, Eric can answer that. I haven't eaten meat since 1983. ES: Medium rare.

Q: And your relationship to food in general? Maybe you question more now what you put into your body? RL: I do. My choices to not eat meat a long time ago really didn't have anything to do with health. It had to do with animal rights, environment, workers, things like that. Health, I guess, was just a side benefit to that. But I've learned a lot more. Maybe it's being a parent. You become more aware. A lot of interesting conundrums when you talk about feeding an entire planet. You know, it's frightening to me everything I read about. You know, like it takes 1,300 gallons of fresh water to go into one burger - the production of that meat and everything. Millions of people a year die for lack of fresh water around the world. Can we take our fresh water and ...? That's just one instance. I mean there's all these issues but you look at our entire food supply and you say, okay, it's really disproportionately and maybe irresponsibly allocated worldwide to feed the entire planet. A few people are eating really well. A lot of people are dying needlessly. It's like 'ahhh!' Q: What are you working on next?

RL: I don't know. You know, I have four different projects, you know, scripts kind of semi-ready to go, all of them, but I really don't know. Hopefully next year some time I'll be in production but I'm not sure which it's going to be. It's a wide variety of projects too.

Q: It seems like every filmmaker I've ever spoken with always has three or four things and they're waiting on either financing or whatever.

RL: You're always waiting on the financing so I'm right there. That's me. That's where we always sit, hat in hand, begging for money, something out of Dickens, you know.

Q: Thank you. RL: Good talking to you...
Fast Food Nation is currently in theaters...


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