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Eric Schlosser: Our Fast Food Nation's Whistle-Blower
By Susan Gerhard
November 17, 2006 - 4:34 AM PST

"It seemed like the only way to do this would be to take the title of the book, the spirit of the book, and put aside the book."

The book Fast Food Nation - a richly reported and thickly described literary investigation into the bowels of your everyday burger - was initially an article in Rolling Stone before it became a bestseller, spawned a children's book, instigated a movement, and morphed into a movie by Richard Linklater. If it didn't feel so wrong, you could almost say that it has, by now, become franchised. As the collaborative Eric Schlosser-Richard Linklater incarnation of the catch phrase gets its theatrical release, it's clear that Fast Food Nation is not just a title, but also, clearly, a zeitgeist.

Linklater taps it by melding slow food philosophy with Slacker-era introspection. He and Schlosser have decided to personalize the project and run the issues through the lives of characters who populate a small strip-malled town overtaken by corporate logos: immigrants being exploited in a meat-processing plant, teens working the local franchise of the multinational burger joint, a family coping on a single mom's chain-retail-job budget, and a marketer visiting from the big city to find out why the meat seems to be infected with, well, shit.

I got a chance to speak with an eloquent and alert Eric Schlosser at 8 am at the Ritz Carlton on a recent visit to San Francisco about the ambitions of his screenplay, the inception of the book, and the new attacks against him.

How did this film get made?

When the book came out in 2001, I was approached by a number of filmmakers who wanted to make a documentary based on the book. And I was very eager for there to be documentary based on the book. It seemed like a logical thing to do. I met with a number of filmmakers and I liked them a lot. But there was something about each one of the options that made me uneasy. This was before Bowling for Columbine had shown that documentaries could get a wide theatrical release. So all these filmmakers were being represented by different networks, cable, or whatever. I just didn't feel confidant that the film that would be made would be true to the book. So I never signed on the dotted line. In my own mind, I said to myself that I would prefer that no film be made based on the book than a film be made that I thought was a compromise or a sellout.

So about a year, year and a half after the book came out, I was approached by Jeremy Thomas, who is a British film producer who really does interesting films, and he works entirely outside the system. He raises all the money for his films without a distributor. He produces all of Bertolucci's films and a wide variety of really interesting, mainly European, directors. And he had been given a copy of the book by Malcolm McLaren, who was the impresario behind the Sex Pistols.

So these were very interesting people, and I really enjoyed meeting with them and talking about it, but it wasn't entirely clear what a fictional film based on the book would be. And I was on a book tour in Austin, Texas, and I met with Rick Linklater and we talked about it. It wasn't clear whether this was a good idea or a terrible idea, but the idea was to root it in some lives in a small town. It seemed like the only way to do this would be to take the title of the book, the spirit of the book, and put aside the book. Not go near trying to do a literal anything.

Rick and I just got together over the course of the next year, year and a half. I didn't sign over the rights to my book. It was just something I thought about. When it was clear this was something he wanted to do, and it was clear that he would have total creative control over it, and that all the money would be raised outside the studio system, so there would be no pressures from above, that's when I signed over the rights to Rick.

There are a handful of directors in this country at the moment, who I think are amazing, my contemporaries, and he's one of them. Paul Thomas Anderson is another. Alexander Payne is another. So I was just eager to see a film by Richard Linklater on the subject matter. But I wound up getting much more involved than I had planned to. I made clear to him that I would be helpful and useful, and I wound up writing the screenplay with him, taking him around Colorado, showing him around. So that's how it came to be.

I was particularly interested in how you brought activism, which wasn't present so much in the book, into the film, grafting the Patriot Act onto the issue. Can you talk about "putting aside the book," but also what you created when you did?

The book is a work of investigative journalism by me. The film is a Richard Linklater film. Two totally different people are having their say on the same subject. They're just really different. I think the only way the film could be good was if it's totally different, if it obeys its own rules.

I started out as a playwright, and a novelist. I worked at an independent film company in New York. I was a script reader, and eventually did a screenplay for it. And that was before I became a journalist. What it gave me was a real appreciation for different kinds of writing. Not one being more valid than another, just different ways to get at the same reality. So in this case, in putting aside the book, the idea was to just get a town, think about the lives in the town, people in the town. To the degree that bigger issues and themes are present in the film, if the film works, they seem to come organically from the lives of the people.

There was a literary inspiration, a book that we both really loved, which was Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. It's not political at all, but it's a way of capturing a moment and a place through lives that maybe touch one another, but have no central protagonist, no conventional narrative in that sense. Another fictional influence was the U.S.A. trilogy by Dos Passos. The protagonist is the country. The protagonist isn't any one individual character. That all sounds high-minded and literary and pretentious, but those are the kinds of things we were thinking of in thinking about how to do this film.

In terms of the activists - there aren't any activists in the book Fast Food Nation - but what we were trying to do with that character is: There is no shortage of films about the sexual coming of age of a young woman, and they tend to be done by French directors. But what you don't see very often, for a young woman or a young man, is: What's the process by which a woman comes of age and starts to think and see the world? And not in a way that ends with a Speech About the Union and a Victory for the Workers, but ends in some kind of simple moment, in a change of perception. The activists don't free the cows. There's something very youthful, and idealistic, and not quite on-the-ball about it. But maybe, after this film ends, that character, Amber, is going to do something.

Rick has made a number of films that are ensemble pieces that don't have a traditional narrative and don't have a central protagonist. When I say it's his film, I really tried to help and was involved, but the basic sensibility is completely of a piece with Slacker or Dazed and Confused. He has a voice. In the same way that a writer who you like has a voice, I think directors do, too. It's his sensibility applied to the subject that I wrote about in Fast Food Nation.

next >>>

"It seemed like the only way to do this would be to take the title of the book, the spirit of the book, and put aside the book."
"Each one of those characters, they're not symbols, they're people."

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Susan Gerhard
SF360 editor Susan Gerhard is a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian. We interviewed Susan way, way back in the summer of 2002. More recently, we popped her with a summertime question.

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