Fast Food Nation: Behind the Scenes

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Linklaters “Fast Food Nation” is inspired by Eric Schlosser's incendiary bestseller that exposed the hidden facts behind Americas fast food industry comes a powerful drama that takes an eye-opening journey into the dark heart of the All-American meal. The movie traces the birth of an everyday, ordinary burger through a chain of riveting, interlocked human stories from a hopeful, young immigrant couple who cross the border to work in a perilous meat-packing plant, to a teen clerk who dreams of life beyond the counter; to the corporate marketing whiz who is shocked to discover that his latest burger invention The Big One is literally full of manure.

As the film traverses from pristine barbeque smoke labs to the volatile U.S.-Mexican border, it unveils a provocative portrait of all the yearning, ambition, corruption and hope that lies inside what America is biting into.

It all begins when Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), the new marketing hot-shot at the fictional Mickeys Fast Food chain, discovers that nasty contaminants are getting into the frozen patties that form The Big One his companys best-selling burger and the key to his corporate success. Determined to find out how this could happen, Don sets out on a revelatory investigation into just what goes into the making of Mickeys meat. Leaving the cushy confines of his California boardroom, Don heads for the ranches, slaughterhouses and cookie cutter strip malls of Cody, Colorado, where he discovers multiple perspectives on a fast-food world he never knew existed one fraught with hazards, fueled by desperation and misinformation and resonant with deeply human effects.

The film features an accomplished ensemble cast that includes Patricia Arquette, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Dano, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Ashley Johnson, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Avril Lavigne, Esai Morales, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Lou Taylor Pucci, Ana Claudia Talancn and Wilmer Valderrama.

One out of 4 Americans eats a fast food meal a day

How many people really know what goes into that ultra-quick bite to eat–from the epic struggles of the farm workers who help produce it to the gruesome microbes of the packing plants that process it to the madcap escapades of the marketing geniuses who advertise it

In 1997, Eric Schlosser met with legendary Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and began an investigation of the fast food industry for the magazine. What began as a two-part article for Rolling Stone became a best-selling book in 2001 Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal. Thoroughly documented and compulsively readable, the non-fiction book stripped the veil off an industry that had long operated in secret.

Acclaimed by critics, the book shot to the top of best-seller lists and stayed there for months, compelling readers with its portrait of an industry that appeared to be rife with nightmare working conditions, unsanitary practices and a penchant for disinformation that has contributed to an epidemic of poor American health. So provocative, passionate and alarming were Schlossers revelations, that many compared the book to Upton Sinclairs industry-changing literary classic, The Jungle.

But Schlossers book was a work of investigative journalism. Which is why it was so unexpected that Richard Linklater the iconoclastic director who defined an entire generation with his debut film SLACKER and has since become known for such diverse films as BEFORE SUNSET, SCHOOL OF ROCK, WAKING LIFE and DAZED AND CONFUSED would turn the factual material into a deeply human and richly emotional ensemble drama.

Fan of the Book

I was a huge fan of the book but I dont really do documentaries, states Linklater. So it was only when Eric Schlosser started talking about doing the film as a character piece about the lives of all the people who are a part of this fast food world that I got interested. In this version of FAST FOOD NATION, its through seeing real lives and real jobs and what people are actually striving for that the issues behind the story emerge. I think Im most proud that the movie makes you care about all kinds of people that you might never even have thought about before.

The idea for this quintessentially American project originated in England, when Malcolm McLaren sent a copy of the book to producer, Jeremy Thomas. I was very affected by the book and Malcolm and I agreed right away that it should be a feature film, not a documentary.

Schlosser, who had already been courted by a number of studios and production companies about the book, was taken aback, yet intrigued by their unconventional approach. As soon as people started coming to me about doing a movie, I felt very strongly that Id rather do nothing at all than to do something that felt, ultimately, like a sellout, Schlosser explains. I had been trying, for more than a year, to get a documentary based on the book off the ground. But once I got together with Jeremy Thomas, the idea of doing it as a fictional film which sounded crazy at first oddly began to make sense. Jeremy is a true independent, one of the last producers who works entirely outside the Hollywood system and makes films with real integrity.

While on a book tour in Austin, Schlosser raised the idea with Linklater, who started his career on the creative, rebellious fringes of indie movie-making but has also made hit forays into mainstream Hollywood and seemed to combine the best of both worlds — to work on the screenplay and ultimately direct the feature.

Linklater had already been a vegetarian for years, but that didnt stop him from being stunned by the unsettling truth of the fast-food industrys inside secrets and human consequences. Now, intrigued with the idea of turning Schlossers themes into fictional characters, Linklater saw an opportunity to bring the revelations at the heart of the book to a much wider audience through the thing he is best at telling moving, funny, relatable human stories. I think having the chance to relate to believable characters takes the audience beyond politics– and allows people to make up their own minds about what theyve experienced, he says. For me, you always get to the point of things best through human storytelling.

In making the film, Linklater stubbornly refused to indict any of his characters, each of whom has clear reasons for his or her actions, no matter how unsettling. Due to this more directly human approach, Linklater believes the movie of FAST FOOD NATION will hit people in a different way than the book. The book Fast Food Nation had its huge fans, and its huge enemies, too, he admits. But what weve done on screen really isnt the book. I think the people that had problems with the book might not necessarily have problems with the movie. At the end of the day, the movie is really about different people who each are doing what they believe is best. They are everyday people with lives, jobs and responsibilities. If you care about them, you can be on any side of the political spectrum and still find your way into this movie.

The efforts to bring the book to the screen soon attracted the attention of Participant Productions. Participant's mandate — to produce movies that simultaneously entertain and empower clearly seemed to dovetail with the filmmakers' aspirations, and the company approached the FAST FOOD NATION filmmaking team early on in the film's development.

“Of course, we were great admirers of Eric Schlossers book and great fans of Linklater. Their notion of relating the book's themes through intersecting plots and characters seemed ideal, powerful and cinematic and would really speak to audiences on a personal level. We were very interested in coming on board as soon as we could,” says Ricky Strauss, President of Participant.

Participant and HanWay officially joined forces at the 2005 Cannes film festival, where Participant picked up the film's North American rights. With the filmmaking team in place, they next began collaborating on developing the script, casting the films panoply of diverse characters and undertaking the physical production of the film returning just one year later to Cannes to exhibit the film in competition.
From Fact to Fiction

Morphing the provoking facts and figures of Fast Food Nation into a complex fictional world was much easier to casually chat about than to actually accomplish on the page. It took Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser a couple of years to turn the books real life tales of global workers, go-getting corporations and unassuming consumers into entertaining big-screen characters who could embody the materials most controversial themes.

In addition to using Schlossers book, the duo turned for inspiration to a classic novel–Sherwood Andersons Winesburg, Ohio, which tells the story of America through the lives of characters in one small town at the end of the 19th Century. The novel gave them an idea for a foundational structure for the story: they would base most of it inside one prototypical, Middle American town indelibly linked to multiple aspects of bringing burgers-and-fries to the world. Thus was born the imaginary locale of Cody, Colorado, with its besieged ranching community, economically vital but dangerous meat-packing plants and ever-proliferating fast food counters.

We wanted to forge a town that had that kind of very American, fast food-like, strip mall sameness, says Linklater. Colorado came to the fore because its a state that has traditionally been at the forefront of American agriculture and the meat industry. After a research trip there while writing the script, Linklater was convinced it was the perfect location. In Colorado, we met with ranchers, went to a number of meat-packing plants and talked with a lot of people to hear their stories, Linklater explains. It was a pretty crazy, eye-opening trip and just being there really helped me to focus on what this movie was going to be.
With fictional Cody turning into a fully fleshed-out world, Schlosser and Linklater next invented their own national fast food restaurant chain, the enthusiastic but e.coli-spreading Mickeys. They also created UMP, a fictional meat-packing plant that resides on the outskirts of Cody, employing a largely immigrant crew. Then, they began to flesh out the very heart of FAST FOOD NATION its linked web of characters, made up of the workers, bosses and customers who all have a hand in making The Big One.

Different Parts of the Food Industry

Explains Schlosser: Each character represents a different part of the fast food industry in Cody: the minimum-wage workers in the fast food restaurant, the Mexican immigrants who work the conveyer belts in the meat packing plants and the ranching community which is rapidly disappearing into subdivision. Then theres Don, the fast food executive, who starts the story and represents the corporate angle. But with all of the characters, we werent just trying to carve symbols but to create real, living, breathing people you can relate to on a human level.

For Schlosser, an award-winning correspondent for Atlantic Monthly, writing the script with Linklater, an Oscar nominee for his screenplay for BEFORE SUNSET, was an exciting opportunity to switch gears. I had been doing so much investigative reporting which always requires fact checking, footnoting, and legal review that it was an enormous pleasure to be able to make things up, he remarks. I started out as a playwright and a novelist and a screenwriter before I became a journalist, so it was also a lot of fun to go back to those roots.
As the story of FAST FOOD NATION began to come together, Linklater and Schlosser made another bold decision–to tell part of the story, which interweaves the lives of the illegal immigrants who are so central to the fast food industry into the mix, in Spanish. Later, Spanish-speaking actors Bobby Cannavale, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Wilmer Valderrama and Ana Claudia Talancn would bring their characters to life in their natural language.

Not a Lesson Movie

After reading the script, we felt it was important to make the film in the true spoken languages, with subtitles, explains Jeremy Thomas. It gives the characters real credibility. When the script was at last completed, the filmmakers were thrilled that it seemed to touch upon so many of the electrifying and controversial points of Schlossers book, yet in a fresh and dramatic way, and without shoving any particular message down the audiences throat.

It didnt come off at all as some kind of lesson, sums up Thomas. Its an entertaining and enjoyable human story but ultimately, I think you take away from it that same exciting thing that you took away from the book a new view of where your food really comes from.