‘Fast Food Nation’ author Eric Schlosser ponders the big-screen version of his best-selling read
There’s nothing daring about putting creativity on the side rather than having it be the juiciest of part of a celluloid meal. Fortunately, Fast Food Nation doesn’t do that. In fact, it’s a savory cinematic outing.
Based on Eric Schlosser’s best-selling read of the same name, the provocative new Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life) film is unique in that it is technically a work of fiction, but was adapted from Schlosser’s stirring work of nonfiction, which uncovered the alarming truths behind the nation’s fast food industry—the author’s book sat on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years after its 2001 release. The book boasted numerous factoids— Americans spend more than $130 billion per year on fast food, more than they spend on college tuition, computers, software, or new cars; approximately 3.5 million fast-food workers work in the United States, the largest group of minimum wage earners in the country. And while this super-sized film adaptation incorporates some of those savory nuggets , it favors multi-layered storylines with a centerpiece that chronicles the plight of a group of Mexican immigrants sent to work in a meat-processing factory in fictional Cody, Colo. An all-star cast—from Bruce Willis and Patricia Arquette to Greg Kinnear and Kris Kristofferson—are more like condiments here to the main meal. Linklater and Schlosser seem to want audiences to bite into a bigger metaphor: The corruption facing America today. GT recently caught up with Schlosser, who’s already busy working on his next read.
Good Times: The movie packs a punch and has a large cast.
Eric Schlosser: “I think the intentions of the film and the spirit in which it was made was reflected on the screen. I think once the script was out there and it was starting to cast, and the word got out, there was just a real desire to support the project. The total budget was less than Bruce Willis would get in an action film. He did this, essentially, for nothing. This is truly made as an independent film. The people who lead the film did it because they care about the subject and they really wanted to work with Rick.
The genesis of the project came about you’re your Rolling Stone article.
I was called into the office of Rolling Stone. I had pitched them a story about the California strawberry harvest and writing about migrant farm workers and their exploitation. It was the history of farm labor in California and it was told very simply through the context of the strawberry. If California wanted strawberries they needed a lot of hands to pick them, and this was when Pete Wilson was demonizing illegal immigrants. It was interesting for me to find that the biggest industry in California was being propped up by illegal immigrants, but I was trying to tell a very complicated story very simply … And Rolling Stone had want me to do the same thing with fast food. And they did not know about the industry at all, but the editor and owner asked me to go behind the counter and see where this food comes from and tell this sort of story.
Well, it seemed like such a good idea, but I didn’t think so at the time. I didn’t accept the assignment. I went to McDonalds, and I like hamburgers and French fries. I didn’t want to write something that was snotty and putting down the food. What I did then, and what I do for every story, was that I went into the library. And read about it. I read everything I could about fast food and where it came from. And I was so amazed by what I was learning. I was so amazed that I had been eating this food all my life without even knowing what was happening. And that’s when I go really hooked on the subject. I also realized that it would be such a good metaphor for so many problem in the United States. So, Fast Food Nation, the book, and the film as well, are about the fast food industry, but they are also not. They are also a way of looking at this country, and what is happening right now.
As in …?
Well things are bad. The level of corruption in the congress reminds me of the 1890s, which was probably the most corrupt period in our history. In making the film, Richard and I were both mostly influenced by ‘The Jungle’ by Upton Sinclair, and paid homage to its 100th anniversary this year. Upton Sinclair and he had the ideal of the using meatpacking industry and the slaughterhouse as a metaphor for the corrupt late-19th century capitalism and I think that sort of thing is going on today, unfortunately. It’s not eastern European immigrants being ground into the machinery, it’s Mexican and Gautamalan and Honduran immigrants. It’s all the same things and all the same tactics are being used. The film is about meatpacking, but it’s real about America in 2006.
So, now that we have become aware of all this, what can be done?
I feel that my job as a writer is to help open people’s eyes and with this film, going beyond that, make people feel some compassion. What’s to be done? Well, where do you want to start? I throw it back at people. What do you feel passionately about? I mean, if you feel passionate about food safety. there are so many groups working on that. If you feel passionate about immigrant rights, there couldn’t be a more important issue right now—and on and on and on. On the simplest level, people can make a difference just by what they buy. You know, don’t give your money to these fast food chains. Don’t give your money to companies that are treating people terribly. But I think that changing what you buy isn’t enough. There needs to be a movement and that movement needs to be expressed in social ways and in political ways. Things don’t need to be as bad as they are. There’s a Web site connected to the film www.participate.net. And for each one of the issues in the film, it lists groups working on it.
Do you see the film as a political statement?
The film is not meant as a political program. It doesn’t end with a message or a six-point plan It’s trying to be true to life. And the first step is to make yourself aware. And that’s what the book and the film try to do.
Yes, It’s ‘your life,’ so get involved, right? It’s your life, so you get to design it and be involved as much as you want.
Yeah. Our generation … I mean, I am really sad. I am of the Reagan youth and there’s so much apathy. It’s such a generation characterized by irony and that kind of cynicism and look where it’s landed us. And I think you have to believe you can change the world because if you don’t believe that, you are just going to be at the mercy of the people who do think you can change the world. Now, I totally disagree with almost everything George W. Bush has done, but here is a guy that seems to think he can change things and he has. The [administration] has convinced people, and people who are passionate about a subject can make a difference. It’s totally possible. The worst is a kind of irony and an apathy that is kind of disengaged. Things are too bad right now for that sort of luxury going on.
It’s sort off like this feeling of people being numb—‘No, I don’t want to get involved’—but it is the perfect time to be doing things to change.
Yes. It’s like the whole mentality of not voting and you know, if you don’t vote, I guess you’re fine with other people deciding what wars are going to be passed and what wars are going to be fought. I guess it’s a matter of whether you want to be empowered; or whether you want to be self-serving or subservient. There are some people that like to be told what to do. Not me.
So, do you eat fast food?
I’d go into an In & Out Burger but I don’t want to give my money to businesses with business practices that I totally oppose. I won’t go to McDonald’s or Burger King or KFC, or any of those places. There’s a chain in Oregon and Washington called Burgerville. They treat the workers well and those are the kind of companies I want to support.
ON THE SIDE:
Life in a fast food nation and the stats that are hard to swallow:
•Americans now eat about 13 billion hamburgers a year. If you put all those burgers in a straight
line, they would circle the earth more than 32 times.
•About one out of every eight American workers has at some point received a paycheck from
•The typical American child sees 20,000 junk food ads a year
Almost one out of every three toys that an American child receives every year comes from a fast
•One out of every five American toddlers eats French fries every day
•Four major meatpacking firms slaughter nearly 85 percent of the nation’s cattle, and the majority of the
nation’s beef comes from 13 large slaughterhouses
•Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. In 2001, the rate of serious
injury was three times higher than that in a typical American factory
•In 2003 the Bush administration changed the way injuries are counted in the meatpacking
industry – and instantly, the injury rate dropped by 50 percent
•Every year about 76 million Americans are sickened by something they ate
•At a modern processing plant, a single cow or steer infected with E:coli O157:H7 can
contaminate 32,000 pounds of meat
•A typical fast food hamburger patty can contain pieces of hundreds, if not thousands of cattle.