Jason: Many people associate Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation principally with food and its nutritional value (or lack thereof). Was it important for yourself and Richard Linklater and others to encompass all the other themes that you brought into the film: immigration, worker exploitation and so on?
Jeremy: Well, yes. Fast Food Nation is a metaphor for many ‘Fast Food Nations’: The end of shops as we know it because of the big shopping centre on the outside of town; all the things are the same everywhere, whether you’re here in Dublin, Glasgow, Tokyo… it’s all the same stuff, made by the same sweat shops in Asia. It’s become very, very difficult to sort of understand where things are coming from. So it’s the same with food. So you get something on your plate, you eat something which is incredibly cheap and tastes good, but then you find out that it has nothing got to do with what you thought it had. It tastes like that because it’s full of taste chemicals, like it shows in the movie, and it’s being made for unbelievable profits and you’re eating something that is really revolting – that is the sort of premise of the movie. And the exploitation of all these people around that – be it the illegal immigrants working for very little, or the food that is processed or grown in such a way as for maximum benefit and gain, to the people who are working in the actual selling of it, to the people who are involved making it. And there was the dramatic story of theirs which we took out of the book to make it a multi-strand story.
Was that always the way you planned making the movie?
Initially, when I first read the book, I didn’t really see it as a movie. I didn’t really see it as a dramatic film, I just found it fascinating. The book is beautifully written, and when you pick it up you can’t put it down. It’s a very entertaining book and we wanted to make a film that wasn’t a documentary, because we’ve had documentaries about this. So we wanted to make a dramatic film about these lives that approximate to lives in any Western or affluent country which has these same problems or situation going on –people coming to work for little, making stuff for little, which is then sold as cheaply as possible to get as many people buying it as possible – and then what’s underneath that and how it happens. So that was what we took out of that book. It was always like that from the beginning. Eric met Rick in Austin, Texas at a signing of his book. Rick had read the book and said ‘I’m really interested in making this into a movie’. So when we approached Eric Schlosser, he said that Rick Linklater already wants to do it. So, it immediately reminded me that I loved his Dazed and Confused, Slackers, School of Rock, and I thought ‘Wow, this director, he can make a film that’s somehow plugged into what young people want to see’. He’s already got a taste of that and he could make a political teen movie. Make a movie that instead of being a silly movie for young people it’s a movie that has political ideas in it. Now that was the idea – whether it happened or not I don’t know. But I’m hoping people of all ages like it. You don’t want to tell people who know everything something; you’d like to tell people who don’t know. Hopefully people of all ages can take something away from it and be entertained.
Ethan Hawke’s character in particular seems to fit into that idea. It felt like he was the character that was expressing most what the filmmakers believed.
Well obviously he was expressing a lot of what a lot of us think about. Because from growing up and having the ideology that you have, it’s closer in line to his ideology than perhaps to someone like Bruce Willis’s character (Harry Rydell, worker for United Meat Products (UMP)). Kris Kristoffersen’s character, as well as Ethan Hawke’s, says similar things but in a different way.
It’s an impressive cast, including people such as Bruce Willis, Avril Lavigne, and Wilmer Valderrama…
We had a fantastic cast; Linklater is a celebrated indie director and all actors want to work with him. Secondly, everybody had read that book. It was huge and had an impact and in fact, some would say, it changed some things going on in that industry – i.e. trans-fatty acids that clog up your veins, they’ve started moving that away from cooking so it’s had some impact on the long-term health of lots of people. And actors wanted to be part of that, even people like Avril Lavigne, who has a small part. A lot of people were interested to see she was interested in making the movie. Casting is always a big decision for a movie, but this movie turned out easier than most.
Was there any actor in particular that you saw as crucial to making the movie, or when you get that many good actors is that a factor?
I’m sure there were some actors missing, but it was one of the simplest movies I’ve ever had to cast. For every role there was an actor. A lot of the young actors he wanted already. He wanted Paul Dano, he wanted Lou Pucci, he wanted Ana Claudia [who played Catalina’s sister, Coco] who’s a very famous actress in Mexico.
The two actresses cast as the Mexican female characters Coco and Sylvia are the pivot of the story. Is that how it was planned?
Catalina [who plays Sylvia] is. Her story is terrible; she comes over as this pure person who wants to find a better life, but not a very worthy upstanding person with morality. She couldn’t work in the slaughterhouse so she goes to work in the hotel. Then her husband falls off the line and they say he’s been taking amphetamines on the job. Was he or wasn’t he? We don’t know. Then they say there’s no insurance. And then he’s in bed with no money and finally she has to go and prostrate herself for the horrible boss to get the job pulling kidneys, and it end likes that. And people were saying, ‘it’s not very tough, the story’. But how can it be tougher than that? In terms of what happens to her, her story… She’s so dignified throughout. Even to the last shot when she cries… Catalina is an amazing actress…
In the States, the film didn’t go down terribly well. Why do you think that was?
When I went over to the States, I suddenly understood what it was. I was like, ‘hang on, I understand’. I went to a multiplex where it was showing; a multiplex of twenty screens with regular multiplex fare. That multiplex had six fast-food outlets in it and the whole place was permeated with the smell of fries, nuggets, burgers and all the stuff. We were sort of presenting a movie which was saying ‘what you love is absolutely revolting – what you’re going to have after you leave this theatre,’ and there was a sort of conflict in that. And in a way there was a sort of poison pill in the film in terms of the subject matter, and trying to put it out into the mainstream in shopping malls – because that’s where it exists. Our new cathedral is the shopping mall, even in their design shopping malls tend to look like cathedrals. And the heart of the nutritional value of that is the fast-food meal, it’s true.
Do you think the American critics are still wary of accepting films such as this one and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth?
Well the US don’t think Global Warming is here. They didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocol. It’s another world. We’re coming from a different place. Ireland is a different place. Their line is ‘fossil Fuel usage is not a problem. GM is not causing a problem. There is no Global Warming. There is no problem. We’re going on because we’re making money and we’re going to keep on making money until the cows come home.’
I’m guessing Eric Schlosser faced opposition when he was writing his book. Did you face any opposition when you were making the film?
Well yeah, there was opposition to making the film in the communities, these enormous communities of the meat business, the wheat business, the potato business, and everything that goes into the Fast Food Nation. Plus all the processing plants of that. Plus all the outlets of that. They were not happy with Eric Schlosser who wrote this book. And he has been attacked and barracked and under surveillance and phone tapped and God knows what else. We changed the name of the movie while we were shooting it. We couldn’t film any of the slaughterhouse scenes in America. We had to sort of grab stuff in the shopping malls and things like that, and even had to digitally change names to protect ourselves from lawsuits.
There’s a shot of Grek Kinnear’s character in front of a real McDonald’s, but the principal fast-food chain in the movie is called ‘Mickey’s’. Were there legal issues involved?
Well, Mickey’s was made up by us. We were nervous. On one side, I wanted to be attacked and sued as that would have given the film a notoriety. But on the other side I didn’t want to get sued by a corporation as big as that, cause I – and we – didn’t want to lose my life. So we had to thread a careful line, and the lawyers looked at it for legal reasons. We had to change some lettering for legal reasons, but the McDonald’s shot and the other shots of the places that were real, we were allowed to have that. That was permissible because we weren’t implying anything.
Greg Kinnear’s character is interesting because he’s a compassionate fast-food executive. Was it important to add this element and negate clichés of executives never caring about customers?
Well I wanted him – and I think we all want him – to be a whistleblower. But he thinks of what Bruce Willis’s character said to him – ‘Don’t meddle in this. Do you want to get your tit caught in a ringer?’. Bruce’s character is incredibly wicked. He’s played light but he’s really unpleasant. Everything he says is horrible and is promoted in a way that is sort of believable. ‘The meat is no good? Just cook it more. Just turn up the grill. Calibrate the grill. It will kill that stuff.’
Do you think that people are starting to think more about the issues raised after seeing the film?
Well I think the book has definitely had an impact. They’re taking the trans-fatty acids out of the chips so you’re not clogging up, they’re changing slowly and trying to be more open about what’s in the food. Because when you see what’s in it you wouldn’t want to eat it. I think there’s been some impact – the activism has created a movement, or at least an awareness among parents and of the underhand marketing tactics used by fast-food outlets – as soon as a school opens, there is a fast-food outlet at the gate. As soon as there is a school there, there is a fizzy drinks machine in the lobby. You know how early you get sucked on one favourite drink – I’m a certain brand. You get them young. Even in England there’s a certain watershed for advertising this stuff now. Fast food has played a part in the ruining of the family meal and the family unit, because people don’t bother eating anymore – you used to go home to eat.
You see that message in the character of Amber and her mother…
Amber sits at her computer and her mother has a meal out of the microwave. So a meal sitting down and talking doesn’t exist, except maybe in some homes on a Sunday. But it’s a very rare item. And everybody’s involved in it. It’s like supermarkets and packaging. A srong example somebody gave me: look at the swede or the potato. Nature’s greatest protection is on it – it’s got a skin on it. You peel it to eat it. And it doesn’t need three layers of plastic. When you buy it in a supermarket its wrapped in plastic, and when you get home at the end of the day and you put your food and shopping into the cupboard and fridge, look at the pile of stuff you’re throwing away. It’s all gone mad. And the time when you could go into a shop and say ‘I’ll have two lemons please’ and you put it in your bag and took it away in a paper bag, it’s not like that anymore. We’re all a part of it, and it’s very hard not to be a part of it.
From your own perspective, when did you start getting interested in these issues or have you been from an early age?
From an early age. I’m a consumer like everybody else, but I’m very careful and have been very careful about the food stuff, and because I just don’t fancy it. I’ve been lucky enough not to have it. It’s very hard not to have a pizza occasionally, but I certainly amn’t into deep fried myself, and certainly now not at all. I wouldn’t even eat it when I’m hungry. But the film is not meant to be some sort of political tract, it’s just meant to be an awareness, a cautionary tale you know?
Did the somewhat negative reviews in the US affect yourself, Richard and others, or were they to be expected?
Well the reviews in the US were actually really good you see. If you look at the New York Times, the LA Times, and the Chicago papers – it got five-star reviews. And if you look at the reviews in the Mid-West, it got one-star reviews. It was meant to be like that – we made it like that. Often the most important thing about a film is the thing that people don’t like about it. So we couldn’t expect people [in the Mid-West etc.] to like the film. So the reviews were very, very good. The reviews from Cannes were very negative, and I think that was because we showed the film in the main competition. The film was less political than they wanted to be – intentionally, because we were trying to make a teen movie. Not even, we were making a movie that had broad ideas rather than something which was really knocking something on the head.
Just in terms of some of the issues regarding the Mid-West and some of the issues regarding illegal immigration etc that emerge in the film, were you interested in these before making the movie?
I’m very interested in all those sort of issues and they’re the sort of things that wind me up and wind us all up. And that was interesting… ’cause it’s the same thing here in the UK and it’s the same in every affluent country – the affluent will exploit the people that want to come work in those countries, especially if they come in illegally ‘cause you can exploit them even more.
Do a lot of people come to the film with a preconceived idea that the film is a dramatic version of Super Size Me?
That’s a problem and still is a problem. Even yesterday: ‘You mean Super Size Me?’, ‘No, I mean Fast Food Nation’. People really think they’re the same thing.
Was there any kind of intention from the start to distant yourself from Super Size Me?
Morgan Spurlock [director of documentary Super Size Me] gave a lot of credit to Eric Schlosser. Eric Schlosser’s book was out before he ‘super sized up’, so Eric Schlosser is a trailblazer on this. He’s doing the same thing with prisons at the moment, because prisons are such a gigantic business. We have no idea what a big business prisons are.
Would you like to work with Eric in the future? And Richard?
I would love to work with Eric in the future, he’s a wonderful man. And Richard. I like working with directors more than once, if you get on well with them. When you end a film after – say a year, and you become incredibly friendly with somebody, then you don’t see them again and that’s sad. I worked with Nic Roeg once, and I wanted to work with him again and again. Same with David Cronenberg, Nagisa Oshima – people that I worked with I wanted to work with again.
Fast Food Nation is released on 4th May 2007.
Read review here