Versatile author Eric Schlosser has written a novel, a play (Americans, about the turn-of-the-century assasination of William McKinley), and numerous articles, but he's best known for his non-fiction books Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market and Fast Food Nation. His work on the latter became the basis for a children's book (Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food) and the inspiration for a feature-film collaboration with director and co-screenwriter Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly). I spoke to Schlosser at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where the author stopped to promote the film. Primarily, Schlosser explained the project's origins and passage to the big screen:
Eric Schlosser: It began as an assignment from Rolling Stone. They had read an article I had written about strawberries. And the article was about illegal immigrants; it was about migrant workers in California. I spent a year in California following the strawberry harvest. And I told a really complicated story...at that time, illegal immigrants were being portrayed by governor Pete Wilson as welfare cheats and parasites on the state. And the more I looked into it, I realized that the biggest industry of the state was agriculture, which had become totally dependent on illegal immigrants. Some of Governor Wilson's biggest campaign contributors were actually earning a lot of money off of illegal immigrants. And so there is this really complicated story about immigration, farm-labor economics, migrants, and I told it though something very simple and concrete: a strawberry. I like strawberries. We like strawberries. You want a lot of strawberries, it takes a lot of hands to pick them because every one of the strawberries is carefully picked by hand. The editors of Rolling Stone read that and Jann Wenner, who is the owner and editor of Rolling Stone asked me to do the same thing for fast food. To go behind the counter. Where does this food come from? What are the systems that produce it? And he really didn't know anything about the industry and neither did Will Dana, the other editor. And Will said, "We want you to call it 'Fast Food Nation'—we just don't know any more about it." And it sounds like such a great idea now, but at the time I really didn't jump to take the assignment. I went to McDonalds; I liked the food. I'm not a gourmet type of guy. I didn't want to write something that was putting down hamburgers and french fries, or putting down McDonalds because I've gone there all my life. I said I'd think about it, and I started reading about the industry. I was amazed by what I learned. I was amazed that I had been eating the food my whole life without understanding basic changes in agriculture, basic changes in labor practices, basic changes in the food itself. So it was like: wow. So I was talking to my other friends, a lot of whom are journalists, and they didn't know this. And they're really fucking smart, and they didn't know. So suddenly it felt like here is this world that has been deliberately hidden, and it's important. So I spent almost a year for "Fast Food Nation" for Rolling Stone, a big investigative piece. And at the end of it, I still really cared about the subject. I had never written a book before. I had enough years of lack of success as a writer that I felt very much like—unless someone was going to give me five million dollars to do a book, you need to care about what you're writing about because you're going to spend two years. There's no way of knowing if it's going to be successful. There's no way of knowing if people are going to write good reviews of it. But I cared about the subject. I heard about the flavor industry. I heard about a bunch of things I wasn't able to investigate. I thought there was this real connection between the meat-packing industry and what it was doing to illegal immigrants. what I'd already seen in California agriculture. The system exploiting illegal immigrants began in this state. It's just that every other industry said, "That looks like a great way to treat workers." So I got a book contract, but none of the big New York publishers were interested. I got a book contract from one of the last independent book distributors, based in Boston. They gave me a big enough advance so that I could write the book, but it wasn't a gigantic advance in any way. The book came out, and there were no expectations that it would be a bestseller. The publishing house didn't think it would be a best seller. I didn't. I wanted it to be read, and I wanted it to be successful enough so I could write another book. And it turned out to be more successful than my maniacal fantasies would have allowed. And when the book came out, I was approached by a bunch of documentary filmmakers about making a documentary based on it. Which seemed like a great idea, which I really wanted to have happen, but I spent about a year and a half meeting with different documentary filmmakers, and each of the options ultimately made me uneasy. This was before Bowling for Columbine, and it wasn't clear that documentaries really had a theatrical life. I liked the filmmakers I was meeting with for the most part, but I didn't ultimately trust the networks that were going to be putting up the money. And the book had succeeded so far beyond what I had thought would happen that I felt very strongly that no film should ever be made on the book. I'd rather there not be something that was a "sell out" or a compromise. The Bush administration was putting pressure on PBS. McDonalds was funding Sesame Street. It was just hard for me to find a network that wasn't in bed somehow, someway with these companies. These big, tough companies. I spent an enormous amount of time, trying to figure this out. And in the midst of that, sometime in 2002, I was approached by Jeremy Thomas, who is this British producer who had been given the book by Malcolm McLaren, who is behind the Sex Pistols. And Jeremy had this idea of making a fictional film based on the book, which didn't necessarily make sense to me at all. But Jeremy Thomas is not someone to be easily dismissed. If you look at the films he's made, and you look at the filmmakers he's worked with, it's very impressive. He works entirely outside the Hollywood system. He raises the money independently. And the thing I heard from him the very first time we met, which struck a chord with me, is that he is a great believer in the primacy of the director. And I'd worked for an independent film company in New York. I'd been a playwright and a novelist and had worked as a screenwriter before I had ever become an investigative journalist. And I really came to believe that it's a directors medium, and that a good film happens when a really good director is empowered to make a film that he or she wants to make. So I liked that about Jeremy. I liked the fact that he was an independent. But there was no scheme of how this would work. And I said, it's great to meet you, and I enjoyed his company, and I'd think about it. I was on a book tour in Austin and Jeremy Thomas had approached me, and when I think of the directors, the contemporaries of this country, the work I really respect and admire, there is just a handful who really are the great ones. And one of them is Rick Linklater; another one is Alexander Payne; another one is Paul Thomas Anderson. Steven Soderbergh takes very bold risks. And if you're going to have a fictional version that has any integrity, it has to be done by a director who is empowered and has a vision which is all their own. And that was Rick. We talked about it, and it didn't seem like necessarily a good idea. We talked about how would this work. There is this book that we both had read and loved, and it kind of gave us a suggestion of how it might work. The book was Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It's a portrait of a town at a very particular moment. And it's just about the lives of these ordinary people in this town and how they intersect. And so it was very clear that it could work as a film, and it would involve taking the title of my book, taking several scenes and maybe the spirit of the book... and not even wanting or caring about a literal adaptation. So Rick and I said, "Hey, lets think about this." And we would get together every few months and we would talk about it, think about it. I didn't sign over the rights to my book until it was clear that Rick wanted to do this, that Rick would have total creative control and be empowered to make the film he wanted to make, and that the money was going to be raised outside of the Hollywood system without any studio having any say in what was going to happen on screen. And once that was clear, I signed on the dotted line. And in order for it to be made, it had to be made on a low budget—in order to be made independent of a studio. And I was really clear with Rick—because I've grown up around film and worked in film—I wanted it to be his vision of this subject. And I would have been fine giving him my book and showing up a year and a half later to see Rick Linklater's interpretation. He wanted me to stay more involved. And I didn't anticipate writing the screenplay . And I didn't anticipate being as involved as I was. But I was there to be useful and to be helpful... This is a Rick Linklater film. If you've seen Slacker, Dazed and Confused, a really great filmmaker has a voice in the same way that a novelist has a voice. And this is his film, but it was a pleasure to be involved and collaborate with him. And it doesn't make sense. It's not a logical thing, but if you step back from it...I've done work writing fiction, short stories, a novel. I've done work as a playwright. I've done investigative journalism. I've written a screenplay. And what it's led me to appreciate is that each one of these writing [forms is]...totally valid. When I worked for this independent film company in New York, I read hundreds of screenplays. I was a script reader. It made me realize that a really good screenplay is as valid of a piece of writing as a novel. It's hard to write a good screenplay. And screenwriters are treated like shit. And they're disrespected. But it has nothing to do with the craft, and has everything to do with the industry. This film is Rick Linklater's vision of this subject. And it's not my book. My book is investigative journalism. If someone wanted to write a play about a meat-packing plant, that would be different. But that's just as valid a way to look at it. It's an unlikely pairing. It's kind of ironic that this book and this film, which are about America, had to be financed largely, to a big extent, outside of this country. The BBC is one of the funders of it, and I think there is some British lottery money. That's what it took to get this film made...
G: Can you talk a bit about the collaborative writing process? Richard Linklater talked about that you're a dramatist. Not many people know about it. Do you guys sit together? Rewrite each other's drafts?
ES: You know, it worked a number of different ways. But what was helpful was that we both had a very similar approach to what we write. We both tend to believe in structure. And we really work hard to figure out the structure, no matter how intricate it is when we're writing. There are other writers, and there is no one way to do it. The other writers I know would write and write and write, and stop and look back, and cut and paste. And there is no one way to do it; it just so happens that Rick and I both really structure our works before we sit down to write them. So it was actually a really easy and natural collaboration. We spent a lot of time in a room thinking about who we were going to write about, thinking about what kind of scenes we wanted to have...putting them in the right kind of order. There were sometimes when we had a laptop, and we would pass it back and forth. There were other times where I would write something and send it to him. He would make changes then I would make changes. It was a very collegial process. I think one of the really great things about Rick is he has an enormous ego. And people who have an ego like that actually become humble and are secure...and they're a pleasure to work with. People who are difficult to work with don't have a big enough ego [and] ultimately become insecure and petty. All you have to do is look at Before Sunset, and that's a beautifully written work, and it's a collaborative work. It's very unusual for a director to not only work with actors in that way but to give actors a screen credit. That's a sign of a secure person. I have friends who are screenwriters. First thing the director does is change the character names, randomly changes scenes in order to get a screenwriting credit. And that is just so not what Rick is about. And watching him work with actors—again, you need to be grounded and secure to be able to listen and take a cue from the sound guy—if it's a good idea it doesn't matter where it comes from. And that's why this process was a pleasure. I, quite honestly, would have been fine giving him my book, and once he really agreed this is what he wanted to do and once it was clear he would have full creative control, I would have been fine giving him the book and showing up a year and a half later and seeing the film. He's one of three or four American directors now whose work I really respect and admire. And it's a director's medium. So I was involved to the degree that he wanted me to be involved, and I wound up being much more involved...But I would have been fine seeing a Richard Linklater interpretation of the subject matter, which it is...
G: Going back to the process of writing the book. How do you know, when you're dealing with a sprawling subject matter, when you're done? And it's time to shape what you have into a final product?
ES: That's a great question. I'm writing a book on prisons right now and I've been working on it for years. Knowing when to stop is crucial, and especially for the kind of things I've written. I want them to be complex. I want them to be rich. I want them to go off on tangents and come back to the central idea but it's tough to know when you've gone too far on a tangent and you need to come back in. Fast Food Nation and also the prison book I'm working on have challenging structures. They don't have a chronological structure. They don't have a narrative: "I'm the protagonist and it's all about my journey into the world of prisons or the world of fast food." I'm trying to structure them thematically. It's complicated, you know? And this prison book has taken me a lot longer than I thought it would. And I had a lot more hair before I did this. (Laughs.)...I have a working title that I'm not crazy about. I'm open to all kinds—I'm open to suggestions. I have a subtitle, which I absolutely feel is the book. The title right now is "Concrete and Barbed Wire." It's from a Lucinda Williams song. It just doesn't feel completely right. The subtitle is "How the Land of the Free became a Nation Behind Bars." And that's what the book is about. And that's it: that's the book. So I need a title, and I have to feel confident that one will come. Maybe when I'm done with the book a friend of mine or relative will read it and will find a phrase or something...
G: The character that Greg Kinnear plays in the movie, the fast food executive...in what ways does he represent your experience talking to fast food executives?
ES: The goal, and I can't sit here and persuade you that we achieved it, but we really, really, really tried for each character to seem like a believable person and not a symbol. We really tried for there not to be this system of good guys and bad guys. And the Bruce Willis character, who you might think is a bad guy, actually says some things I totally believe. And some of the things that the radical environmentalist, which may seem like the mouthpiece of the author, I actually don't agree with. In the case of the fast-food executive, I spent time with people in the industry, and I don't think they're bad guys who are deliberately trying to poison customers. I think a lot of them are really nice people. And what's interesting to me thematically is how nice people and well-intended people become complicit in things that are not very nice and things that are harmful. And that to me is more truthful to reality than "Those are bad guys, and we are good guys." Not to demonize, not to do a film that has the answers. A more conventional narrative would have had the Greg Kinnear character become the whistle-blower type, before Congress; all the cameras are snapping as he walks out. A more conventional film might have the cattle all over the Colorado landscape and the helicopter and the news crew...A more conventional film would have had the meat-packing worker get on top of the table and give a speech about the Union, and they all walk out; the main supervisor is left there by himself. We wanted, if we could, to do a film that when you left the theater you felt: that's happening somewhere in this country right now, and something like that is going to happen tomorrow. So it wasn't so much as an effort to deflate expectations; it was to show what happened. And you know, as a genre...I was at a Berkeley screening of it last night, and someone asked, "Is this film a form of journalism?" No. This film is a form of realism. There is realism in fiction; there is realism in film. Certainly the seventies was full of films that were trying to show things truthfully and accurately and not needing for everything to be resolved neatly, and not needing everyone to leave the theater feeling good and happy, humming the pop-song theme. And that's what we tried to do.
G: Did you visit the set, and if so, what portions of the filming? And can you give some insight into the editing process? Did much end up on the cutting room floor?
ES: I was there for rehearsals and I was there for most of the shooting. But I was not a central figure in the production of the film. I was there in case there was a line change, in case there was a suggestion. I was just there to be useful and helpful. And Rick is the director. He listens and will listen to the actor. He has a strong ego that is secure. So I was there to be useful. This film was very carefully plotted and very carefully structured. And what you see on the screen is remarkably faithful and similar to the shooting script. I mean, there was no margin for error. And the editing was really brilliantly done. But it's the kind of editing that's setting pace and juxtaposing images more than it is taking a scene from the beginning and putting it in the end. There were some minor scenes that were left out. There were scenes that were trimmed. The Bruce Willis scene was even longer, and there were some moments in it that I really loved that are gone, but it was just a very long scene between two people. But the film is remarkably similar to what we were talking about in a room like this over a table. I feel very proud of it, and I think he achieved what we talked about trying to do. I mean, how many screenwriters do you ever talk to that feel like the director not only behaved honorably but fulfilled the original vision?...The fact that the writer's guild requires the writer to get two fucking tickets to the opening shows the role of the writer. The fact that we must get that contractually...This whole thing was handled completely differently from the way Hollywood films are made. And it would be interesting to talk to Jeremy Thomas about it. Again, think about a writer who now having known his producer for four years and likes him even more now than when I first met him...I have tremendous respect for his personal integrity, for his taste and his willingness to take real risks. I don't know if you read Young Adam, the Alexander Trocchi novel that was made into a film. Now the film succeeds in some way, but you read this novel and you think, "God, who would ever dare to make that into a movie?" It is a dark, hardcore, nihilistic, existentialist Scottish thing. So Jeremy is, you know—there should be ten of him. It would be good if there were ten of him.
[For Groucho's review of Fast Food Nation, click here.]