What’s the beef?

Director Richard Linklater talks about his latest release, the book adaptation of ‘Fast Food Nation.’

Matt Graham

Anybody who has ever seen a film by Richard Linklater, director of “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunset” and “Waking Life,” knows his style is to let his characters do a lot of talking. His dialogue-based directorial style has its share of fans and foes, but it’s clear the 46 year-old from Austin, Texas has a lot on his mind.

So it wasn’t surprising that he had a lot to say when A&E sat down with him a couple of weeks ago to chat about art, the state of the country and his new film, “Fast Food Nation,” based upon Eric Schlosser’s Upton Sinclair-like 2001 expose on the grocery industrial complex and the bigger-is-better American lifestyle that enables it.

What did you learn while making the film?

I thought I knew a lot, but my eyes were really opened. I found out so many things that aren’t even in the movie.

I don’t think anybody really grasps the idea that so many of your sensory perceptions of food (are the result of chemical additives).

Beef is kinda worse than baloney or hot dogs. There’s probably about 70 different cows in your burger. People are just really disconnected from where their food comes from. Food preparation used to be one of the things that brought families together.

Why was the decision made to turn a broad nonfiction book into a fictional narrative, focusing on a marketing executive, a fast food restaurant worker and an undocumented immigrant working a meat plant?

It was actually (Eric Schlosser’s) idea to throw out the book. It sort of ends up as a companion piece.

The film does what movies do well, which is telling a human story. It says ‘Hey, these are just people, they’re not the problem.’ It’s not specifically political or informational, and it seemed like the right balance to strike.

“Fast Food Nation”
DIRECTED BY: Richard Linklater
STARRING: Wilmer Valderrama, Greg Kinnear, Ashley Johnson.
SHOWING AT: Lagoon Cinema, (612) 825-6006

Why the turn towards political themes with this film and the summer’s “A Scanner Darkly?”

Even though they’re both character pieces, you can’t help, if you’re thinking, but see the political ramifications of these films.

I worked on an oil rig in my early 20s and that shaped my views immensely. I’d been trying to get a movie made for years about the industrial worker, and the planets aligned properly with the success of the book and (Morgan Spurlock’s 2003 documentary) ‘Super Size Me.’

What are the larger issues at stake?

The whole ‘Fast Food Nation’ concept is about more than just food, it’s about a mindset.

Nobody is saying corporations are inherently bad. I think it gets bad when they’re driven exclusively by the bottom line. They’re not responsible to people, there’s no moral entity. People design products that kill people and it’s all seen as the cost of doing business.

I’m kind of a free market guy, a libertarian in a lot of ways. Is it OK to legally mandate safety? It’s always a fine line, especially for a country that prides itself on freedom Ö that’s what they always throw in our face, y’know, ‘Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!’

I’m kinda optimistic the power of the consumer dollar does shift practices and perceptions. There’s a right way and a wrong way (to consume) it’s pretty clear, but you have to be educated.

These companies tend to market pretty specifically to lower-income people. The health tax is the ultimate poor tax.

Their marketing to children could cause some legal liability issues. It’s a lot like smoking – they’re a generation behind smoking in a lot of ways. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out in the coming generation.

Can art precipitate social change?

‘Are you so arrogant that you think you can change things?’ It’s the question every artist has to ask himself Ö I think what narrative films do quite well is reflect changing times. They don’t necessarily lead the charge, but they’re part of the puzzle.

We all hear things when we’re ready for it Ö I like to hope that ‘Fast Food Nation’ will, in somebody’s world, be a part of that process of growth and education. It’s all personal experience, mixed with things you know.

Politics and art are like two ships passing in the night. I wanna tell stories, and in some ways entertain people. I’m not really an activist.