A Conversation With Richard Linklater
When Richard Linklater’s new film, an adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, opens today, it could potentially be construed as an act of terrorism. Literally. Congress just passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the wording of which is vague enough to potentially lump an eye-opening film together with plots to blow of animal testing facilities. That would be pretty extreme, of course, but the fact that it’s actually possible is pretty troubling.

I wish I’d interviewed Linklater a week later than I did, so I could have asked him about it. As it is, though, we had a great free-wheeling discussion. I always love it when filmmakers talk about their films without actually talking about their films.

If you don’t mind, I’m just going to open my MacBook here. I like to record interviews straight to my desktop.

Look at that! Now if it could just transcribe too…

There’s software that does that, isn’t there?

They haven’t quite perfected it yet. I’ve been following it for years, believe me. How nice would that be?

Makes the screenwriting easier, right?

“Idea!” And there it is on your computer to edit.

Well, let me kick things off with something I read in an interview with Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser. He said he wasn’t completely comfortable with making his book into a film until he knew for certain that you were going to make it your own, and follow your own vision for it. What exactly was your vision for it?

We got off to a good start with this because Eric knew just enough about the film industry – he had grown up around it a little bit and he’d worked for a film company in New York. He was pretty savvy to how things work, and so, very wisely, he didn’t just sell the book to the industry. He kept the rights, and we started working on it and he was like, “you know, if you just want to take it and make the movie and I’ll see you at the premiere, that’d be great.” And I was like, “no, you’re going to be with me the whole way.” Because I saw him as the conduit to so much of that world, even though…it’s one thing to know it intellectually, but he had such contacts. Like, we’d go to Colorado and he’d introduce me to all these people in the book. He had done a lot of time thinking about it; he had written plays, he’s a natural dramatist. I think he deserves a lot of credit, because he had thought of it, and he had the big central idea. He approached me with that, the idea of just kind of throwing out the book and making it about these workers. and following their lives. And that’s when it clicked with me, and we were off to the races.

But we still spent about three years on the script, off and on, over time. We were both busy doing other things, and it was kind of an ongoing process. It was four and a half years ago when we first met, so it’s been a long haul. We’re both happy. He wrote a really uncompromised book, and I think the film’s completely uncompromised, too.

When was the last time you ate fast food?

Well, I haven’t eaten the fast food depicted in the movie in, like, twenty three years. Well, that’s not true. I kept eating fish for a long time, and I would occasionally have a McDonalds fish sandwich. This was when I liked McDonalds. I remember I was in Vienna, and there’s such a different culture there; at noon on Saturday, everything closes. There’s just nothing. There are some restaurants open, but it took three hours to get lunch. It’s just so frustrating – give me American efficiency! So you’d go to McDonalds and get a couple fish sandwiches. So this is when I appreciated their ‘model of efficiency.’

But I had fast food a couple weeks ago in Austin at P. Terry’s. They built it across from the McDonalds on South Lamar and Barton Spring, and it’s kind of healthy fast food. Really tasty veggie burger, whole wheat bun, no trans-fat in the fries. They pay their workers a living wage, like nine dollars an hour with benefits. And it’s like, wow! There is a way you can do it! This burger costs a buck eighty five – it’s still cheap. Instead of ninety nine cents, which is so artificially low. You have to question anything that costs ninety nine cents. We’re so spoiled. We spend less money now on food than any other time in history.

I wanted to ask you about one specific scene in the film. You set up Greg Kinnear’s advertising executive as the protagonist of the film, and you think maybe he’ll be a whistleblower…

Yeah…

And then all of a sudden he meets Bruce Willis’ character, who deflates any possibility of him taking a stand. That’s my favorite scene in the film…

The analogy here would be Colin Powell, before he goes and speaks in front of the UN. He’s going to speak truth to power, we’re not going to have another Vietnam – he knows. And yet the pressure is unbelievable to just be a good soldier and tote the party line and do your part. Because you’re off the hook, you’re absolved of any responsibility.

The corporate structure allows anyone absolution. Even the CEO. In another country, if your products kill people, you’re under arrest. I remember in the 80s, a chemical planet thing where fourteen thousand people died in India. The CEO flew over to put a good face on it and they arrested him. That’s unthinkable here. You only get arrested for illegal activity, like Ken Lay and those guys, but no one’s responsible for the products. So if the structure allows you to be off the hook…

I just wanted to show that no one’s a bad person. No one wakes up and looks at themselves in the mirror and says “I’m going to exploit, screw over the planet, hurt people….” You don’t think like that. Everyone’s like, “I’m doing my best. I’m providing jobs, helping the economy.” We all live with our own self-justifications, and so it would have been so untruthful to the complexity of this industry and this world to turn everything into personality conflicts. Even politics – it’s so much bigger than that. There are huge forces at work, and we’re all capable of going along with that.

It’s funny, the Mexican workers are striving to live like Greg’s character lives. If they could have that middle class life, that’s what they’re working towards. But what we realize is that he’s as insecure as anybody. We’re all a couple of paychecks away from losing the house. Everyone’s got a mortgage to pay. It’s really tough to be a whistleblower, to stand up. It’s so easy to be convinced that you’re just going to be pissing in a huge ocean, that it’s not going to make any difference. So it’s kind of fun to show that. Like, “grow up, that’s the way things are.” And it was also to show in the same movie the youthful – what some would say naive – view. They [the students] know there’s injustice and something wrong, and they’re going to try to act on it. They have no political power and no money, they’re just poor students. They’re lucky that they’re not poor Mexicans just trying to make a living, that they have this time in their life where they can sit around and bullshit, but they see things pretty clearly. They aren’t a part of a special interest group yet. Once you work for the man, you have an angle, similar to Bruce Willis’ character. He has an angle that serves him. And he’s not lying. Everything he says in that conversation with Kinnear is technically correct. Just cook it. He’s right. They can sell you meat right now with salmonella, they do all the time. Just cook it. He’s correct in everything he says, he’s just not seeing a very big picture.

You’ve got a really impressive cast for such a low-budget film, and I was wondering how many of them signed on because they felt strongly about this subject matter.

I don’t know. Everyone has their own reasons, I guess. I think they liked what the script was getting at, but no actor would do it unless they liked their character. I think we gave actors stuff to do, and I think certain bigger-name actors who came in and worked a day or two – which I’m really thankful for, I mean, I didn’t know Kris Kristoffersen or Bruce Willis, and they don’t know me – I think they just liked those characters. It’s kind of fun to just work a day or two, and if you have something to say through those characters, that means something too.

I know Bruce Willis is somewhat well known for being a Republican, and it’s sort of great to see him in a movie that could be skewed as leftist right up until his character comes along; his presence sort of depoliticizes everything.

Yeah, I really didn’t want it to be some left-wing polemical diatribe. It’s complex; that’s why it’s important to have that voice. But as far as Bruce goes, he doesn’t strike me as any one…he seems like a lot of folks who are free thinkers on any issue. I think that’s what is missing in the public debate. You can’t catch a politician like that, they’re back painted into a corner with their ideological talking points. But I find myself, like, “okay, on that issue, I’m totally libertarian, but on that one…”

We’re all free agents – except for our representatives, unfortunately. I found Bruce that way too. He’s a real working class guy. He had some land in Idaho, and he got a ballot initiative about some environmental issues, some potato farmers polluting something. It seemed like it was for the common good, and he was really out there supporting this thing, and he got totally shut down by that industry. They just make ads, make you look like some sort of….they’re polluting, but they can make it look like it’s you, John Q. Citizen, who is under attack. “Let’s get the government off our backs!” That’s all we need is more regulation!”

I was talking to some young libertarians in Austin recently, and they were asking me about my views. I was like, yeah, I’d love to be libertarian, but there’s just so much corruption, and corporations have been handed the whole store. We all know they don’t regulate themselves, so I think there does need to be some oversight. When they have all the control – well, what do you know! They don’t always act for the common good! So a watchdog, wherever it comes from, is kind of necessary.

During production, the film was operating under codename ‘Coyote’ during the shoot, to keep things undercover. Did you ever actually have any interference from the industries, or…

We made it a couple of weeks, and then we were outed. Someone in Austin explained what we were doing, and then the New York Times picked it up and wrote a big story.

I remember reading that.

It’s funny. There won’t be a story when the film comes out, they won’t do a Sunday piece, but they will write a piece making it more difficult for us to get locations. And we lost a few locations; they just weren’t the major ones.

My last question is sort of a bit of dorky Austin film-scene trivia. I’m always excited to see you working with cinematographer Lee Daniel, since you two go so far back. Is there a certain type of project you’ll call him up for?

It depends on the project. There’s always moving parts with any crew member. It’s like a cast member, when they’re right for something, they’re right. We’ve got a history. I’ve got a history with Ethan [Hawke] too, and when it feels right for the project…

It’s kind of like that with anybody on a production. I just happen to go back further with Lee. I want him to be engaged, emotionally, and this was a subject he could get a lot out of. It’s always fun working with him. My old roommate. There’s an upside to our shorthand, and a downside. Like – “Lee, you’re calling me at one in the morning? If this was our first film together, you wouldn’t be doing that!”