NEAL CONAN, host:
Eric Schlosser's non-fiction book Fast Food Nation was a stomach-churning bestseller when it came out in 2001. It traced the dark realities behind America's favorite restaurants - what they serve, who serves it - and is widely hailed as the successor to The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's turn-of-the-century expose of Chicago meatpackers.
Now, in The Jungle's hundredth anniversary year, Fast Food Nation is reborn on the big screen, not as a documentary but as a feature film with a cast that includes a lot of famous names. The picture was co-written by Eric Schlosser and Richard Linklater, who also directed, and they join us in a moment.
If you have questions about the book or the film or the process of adaptation, our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Eric Schlosser and Richard Linklater join us from our bureau in New York, and it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Mr. ERIC SCHLOSSER (Author, Fast Food Nation): Thanks for having us.
Mr. RICHARD LINKLATER (Director): Thank you.
CONAN: And let me begin with you, Richard. Why did you decide that the movie should be fiction rather than a documentary?
Mr. LINKLATER: Well, it wasn't really my decision. I read the book like so many other people, and when I met Eric, it was actually - we were talking about it, and it was his idea. He presented it to me, what if we made this as a fictional film based in a town and covered the lives of these workers? You could kind of see what's behind this industry via the view of how these workers live.
CONAN: And Eric, why did you decided to switch it around that way?
Mr. SCHLOSSER: After the book came out, I spent about a year and a half trying to get a documentary set up based on the book, and I came very close to signing over the rights, but none of the options made me feel comfortable. They were all involved with one network or another that had a relationship with the fast-food industry, even PBS. Sesame Street is funded in large part by McDonald's, and I decided I'd rather there never be a film than a film that was a sell-out or a compromise.
I was approached by a British producer, Jeremy Thomas, who had the notion of doing it as a fictional film, and when I met Rick and we first started talking about it, I really was curious to hear if he thought this was a good idea or a terrible idea.
CONAN: It's interesting. In terms of adapting it, though, you seem to go back to some of the same sets, really, that you used in the book for settings.
Mr. SCHLOSSER: Well, you know, the idea to adapt it was to take the title of the book and the spirit of the book and then put aside the book. But we kept some of the themes. The book is set in a small town in Colorado, a meat-packing town, and the part of the book that I care the most about was the exploitation of these poor, immigrant meat-packing workers, and in many ways that's the heart and soul of the film as well.
CONAN: All right. Let's listen to a clip from the movie. The fictional town that you pick out is Cody, Colorado, and in this scene, Ethan Hawke, as one of the characters there, enlightens his niece, played by Ashley Johnson, about the town of Cody.
(Soundbite of film "Fast Food Nation")
Mr. ETHAN HAWKE (Actor): (As Pete) Is Cody a better town today, or back when we were kids?
Ms. PATRICIA ARQUETTE (Actress): (As Cindy) Well, I know what you would say.
Mr. HAWKE: (As Pete) What?
Ms. ARQUETTE: (As Cindy) Your uncle hates everything, Amber. You know, I actually think it's better now. There's more stuff to do.
Mr. HAWKE: (As Pete) Oh yeah, there's more to do. You've got the Wal-Mart, the K-Mart and the Target, right? I mean, you got Chuck-E-Cheese, you got Taco Bell, you got Arby's, you've got Mickey's, you've got Denny's, you've got Chili's, you've got Applebee's, you've got Wendy's, you've got Hardee's, right? You've got the KFC, the IHOP. Do they still have that Der Wienerschnitzel?
Ms. ASHLEY JOHNSON (Actress): (As Amber) Oh, yeah.
Mr. HAWKE: (As Pete) Oh, thank God it's still hanging in there.
CONAN: That one last local restaurant's still open in Cody, Colorado. And I wonder, Richard Linklater, as you're going through all these, I mean, there's so many variations on that theme of Fast Food Nation.
Mr. LINKLATER: Yeah. I mean, as far as - what, excuse me?
CONAN: There's so many variations in your film of people describing the various ramifications of it.
Mr. LINKLATER: Oh yeah.
CONAN: I mean, for example, there's a rancher played by Kris Kristofferson, who plays a big part in the film, too.
Mr. LINKLATER: Right. He has a key line. This isn't about good people versus bad people. This is about the machine that's taking over this country. And when we talk of Fast Food Nation, we think - it's not just about the food, it's sort of a mentality that permeates our entire culture. You can see it, you know, pervasively.
CONAN: And you - obviously, the book was, you know, an outspoken piece of advocacy when it was written. When you're trying to make a theatrical release out of it, can you retain that sense of advocacy, do you think?
Mr. LINKLATER: Well, it's a fictional drama, so I think it works on the viewer or the reader, you know, in a completely different way. I mean, what we're trying to do in this film is what film can do pretty well. You can form a human connection to these characters who are up on the screen.
So hopefully by the end of the movie you really care about these people and you've - you know, you can only see the film in a way that would probably require some analysis. But we're not handing out a lot of facts and figures. We're not giving 10 steps to, you know, how to solve all these problems, although some of the characters in the movie are concerned with that. We're really just trying to show this world, and then I think you can't help but think about it and hopefully care about it.
You know, a lot of the images, a lot of these subjects, have been kept purposefully hidden from us as consumers, as citizens. It really behooves the people who are profiting off this for us never to see it or to have that human connection to it, whether it's the animals or the workers, the environmental degradation, all these issues.
So I think that's maybe the power of the film, that you can actually have a relation, you know, to it.
Mr. SCHLOSSER: And what we try to do is be totally true to the lives of these characters, and there may be a political speech in there, but it's really not the author through the voice of the character. We try to think of who would be in this town and portray them realistically. So it is a work of fiction, but it comes under the category of realism, and I hope if people see the film and they leave it, they leave it thinking something like that is happening in the United States right now.
CONAN: And has there been any - well, there can't be backlash yet, because the film isn't open yet, but has there been any problems in advance? I mean, have you had - you know, obviously, it's going to be a controversial picture.
Mr. SCHLOSSER: Well, we'll see. The film comes out tomorrow, and look, these industries shouldn't be worried. They spend many billions of dollars every year getting across their point of view. This film is offering a different point of view, and if they believe in democracy and free speech, they should welcome the dialogue.
CONAN: We're speaking with Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation and co-author of the screenplay of the film of the same name with Richard Linklater, who's also our guest in our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Elsa, Elsa with us from Louisville, Kentucky.
ELSA (Caller): Yes. Thank you for having me on the show.
ELSA: I just want to say that my sons are now 12 and 15, and that book really changed our lives. I mean I read that book myself, and I was amazed at what I didn't know. I'm a pediatrician, and I've carried that on to my practice, you know, telling patients that, you know, a hamburger can have 1,000 cals, and it always seems to just get some shock and the shock reaction. But my children have learned to eat so much better, and it all started because of that book. So thank you, can't wait for the movie.
Mr. SCHLOSSER: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Elsa, and let's go to - this'll be David, David with us from Norfolk in Virginia.
DAVID (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
DAVID: I have a - Neal, you my first question, but I had another one, too. I wanted to ask Mr. Linklater - this goes all the way back to Dazed and Confused and some of his other movies - how does he develop - I've noticed over time his sensibility for what he puts on the screen has always been unique, and it's kind of developed over time.
Does he look for each film, does he look for a certain kind of sensibility or atmosphere to the film, or is that just his style? How does he develop that? I'll take it off the air. I was just curious.
CONAN: All right, thanks, David.
Mr. LINKLATER: Yeah. Well, it's not something you think about on a conscious level. I think I've been very lucky in my career to be able to follow my own muse and make films about things I care about or, you know, I have a pretty low threshold of what I think a film can be, you know. I've made some that people wouldn't think you could make a movie about.
So I'm just lucky. I think, you know, we all have a lot of interests in this world, and I'm trying to make films about things I'm most interested in. But - they're always kind of character-based, very realistic. If there's any commonality between all of them, it's probably that. You know, they're about the actors and the characters.
CONAN: Speaking of actors, this is a, by Hollywood standards, a low-budget, fairly low-budget movie.
Mr. LINKLATER: Yes.
CONAN: Nevertheless, you've got some awfully big names in there - Bruce Willis, and I mentioned Kris Kristofferson, and Greg Kinnear, who's in some ways the narrative thread of the movie.
Mr. LINKLATER: Yeah, I feel very fortunate as a filmmaker that actors of this caliber, you know, came aboard and, you know, for very little money. But they liked their characters. I think they liked what the film was - what we were trying to do with it. So yeah, I love actors. It's always fun.
And there are these bigger-name actors, but then there's a lot of young actors. I think some of the best young talent in our country is represented in this film as well. So it's always exciting to see that.
CONAN: The film...
Mr. SCHLOSSER: One of the performances I thought was extraordinary was Wilmer Valderrama, who plays an illegal immigrant. And you know, on That 70's Show he is a comic figure, but in this film he - all of his dialogue is in Spanish, and I think he gives a very powerful and poignant performance just showing what happens to the weakest and poorest workers at the moment.
CONAN: We're going to play another clip from the movie, which really begins as a voyage of exploration for a fast-food executive, played, as I mentioned, by Greg Kinnear. Here he's getting a send-off from a corporate bigwig played by Frank Ertl.
(Soundbite of film "Fast Food Nation")
Mr. FRANK ERTL (Actor): (As Jack Deavers) I have a friend that teaches food science over at A&M, microbiology, and this semester, a couple of his grad students decided to culture some patties from a bunch of fast-food chains. Well, they got a hold of a couple big ones, frozen patties, don't ask me how. And the fecal coliform counts were just off the charts. I'm concerned that this could be a problem for us.
CONAN: And Eric Schlosser, I wonder if that narrative device - Greg Kinnear goes to Cody, Colorado and learns from a lot of different people what's going on - in a sense, is he taking on your role as the narrator here?
Mr. SCHLOSSER: You know, I hadn't really thought of it that way. It's just a way of bringing, in narrative terms, bringing a fast-food executive into this world so that he can find out as well where your big ones come from.
So I didn't think of the Greg Kinnear character being based on me in any way, but it is similar of an outsider coming in and having his eyes opened as to how the industry really and truly operates on the ground.
CONAN: And let me ask you, Richard Linklater. The movie, a lot of it is shot inside restaurants and inside packing plants. Are those sets? Are those real packing plants?
Mr. LINKLATER: No, we were low-budget. We could only really shoot on locations. So we were lucky to get access to the facilities, you know, we needed to tell our story. And we shot in Colorado, Mexico and Austin, Texas. So between those places, we were able to get all our locations.
CONAN: Great. Well, thanks very much for coming in. We appreciate your time today.
MR. LINKLATER: Thank you.
Mr. SCHLOSSER: All right, nice talking to you.
CONAN: Fast Food Nation arrives in theaters around the country on Friday. You can catch a sneak peek at npr.org/talk. Director Richard Linklater and author Eric Schlosser co-wrote the script and joined us from NPR's bureau in New York. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.