Capone has a long-ass interview with Richard Linklater and talks FAST FOOD NATION and Criterion!!!
Published at: Nov. 14, 2006, 8:10 p.m. CST by quint
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here. I've been lucky over the years to talk to a lot of my favorite working directors, but I get an extra special kick out of interviewing the every-growing number of filmmakers that call Austin home. I'd still love to get my mits on Robert Rodriguez at some point, because I have so many questions for him about his entire career. I'm not from Austin, but I've never had a single bad time going there over the last seven years to attend Butt-Numb-a-Thon.
Even before I turned on my tape recorder with quintessential Austin director Richard Linklater, we spent a couple minutes just comparing notes on mutual friends and acquaintances in Austin, as well as some of our favorite haunts. But to the business at hand, Richard came to Chicago to talk about his riveting adaptation of FAST FOOD NATION, and so we did.
Capone: When I was in college, I minored in film history, with a focus on documentary films. And in one of my very first classes, the professor showed us this 20-minute French film from 1949 called BLOOD OF THE BEAST.
Richard Linklater: Yeah!
C:…so you have heard of it?
RL: I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it.
C: It’s remarkably similar to that stuff you have at the end of FAST FOOD NATION, in which you feature the cold and ugly process of slaughtering a live cow, draining the blood, gutting it, sectioning it.
RL: Nothing changes.
C: At the time, they called it ‘ultra-realism.’ It was only 20 minutes, and I had never seen anything like it--beautifully shot black and white. I'll never forget it as long as I live.
RL: Maybe I can get them to put it on the DVD.
C: That would be the greatest extra ever. It might be out there somewhere. I don’t think it’s a rare film.
RL: I have heard about it from numerous people.
C: The footage is remarkably similar, although the French film sort of juxtaposes beautiful shots of Paris, now ‘here’s what’s going on outside of Paris,’ and they show them slaughtering horses and cows and pigs and sheep, everything. People want to see that. So, between Smith’s MEAT IS MURDER album in high school, and then that film in college…
RL: Yeah, well, it’s good to always know the reality behind it. Then you can make the choice. See, I grew up around it. We had livestock and a big garden. It was kind of a rural upbringing in east Texas. It was kind of good. My uncle would go out and kill a deer. It would be great, we can eat then. But, you’re kind of close to the food supply. I’ve never had an attitude about hunters, I mean, the real hunters. Not the Dick Cheney school, you know: Release the ducks from a cage and shoot them kind of hunter. That says a lot right there, I kind of hate that. But, I’ve never had a problem with legitimate hunters.
C: I do want to touch on that some, but let me start from the beginning. How did you and [FAST FOOD NATION author] Eric Schlosser arrive at the decision to make this a narrative piece?
RL: That just seemed the best way to tell the story. Frankly, it was Eric’s idea. I met him when he came through Austin in ’02. I had read his book and liked it a lot, but it never crossed my mind that it was a movie or a documentary. The book is the documentary, you know? And so, he brought up, What about a fictional film about the people behind the scenes, the laborers and all the people around, set in one town.
That narrative device works particularly well in cinema…that you can have these parallel stories. When they invented cinema 110 years ago, you probably wouldn’t have thought that could work, that you can have one story and then cut to another. Then D.W. Griffith figured that out pretty early on. The audience just makes the connection. Even if they don’t realize it, we’re putting a story together in our head.
So, I think that’s traditionally been an interesting storytelling device, when you’re talking about a location or a subject. Altman does it so well, whether it’s NASHVILLE or A WEDDING. It’s just a good storytelling device. But, in this case, I liked it because it kept us away from being a didactic or a polemic with the information. The film just asks you to care about these characters.
But, that’s what I do. I make character-based films that are primarily character pieces. So, this is--while still a highly structured drama, and it is a drama--I hope it feels like you’re just hanging out and getting to know these people and what they’re doing. These are the people that are not represented in our media landscape. No one in the news media cares about them. I mean, they [the illegal Mexican workers working in the meat-packing plant] are at the center political issues, but really, they’re the faceless.
It’s one thing to say, Oh, these illegal immigrants are bad, but then you’ve got 500 people dying in the desert every year and working under tough conditions, and there’s not much in their own specific or global economic frame that’s actually moving everything around. So, I just always would hope that people keep in mind there’s a human element. These are people we either blame or snicker about. These are complex issues.
C: People definitely are going into the film thinking it’s about one thing, but you have jam packed this movie, filled with several hot buttons.
RL: [Chuckles] There’s a lot going on, isn’t there?
C: There really is. You mentioned Altman’s multiple, interconnecting story lines. This is a little different. And, it’s been done similarly before, where it’s more than just a bunch of characters at the same level--it’s people at every strata of society, top to bottom.
C: TRAFFIC did it, and John Sayles' CITY OF HOPE kind of perfected it years ago. Were there any directors you looked to to write and direct multiple storylines like that? I don’t know if you ever really have done anything like that before.
RL: Not really. Yeah, we’re checking in with these people who are definitely at different places on the food chain. The issues in this movie ultimately come down to class. It really says everything about where you are on the ladder and how you’re treated. That to me, I see the world kind of through a class prism. So, I think that’s the big issue here. But, yeah, a lot of people do class films pretty well, like Ken Loach, but he often doesn’t represent the rich, you know? You’re just kind of down there with the workers.
C: Oh, there are definitely filmmakers that handle class levels that you don’t usually see in film. But, I always like to see how the immigrant worker is connected to the big executive or government official or something like that.
RL: Yeah, yeah.
C: Most people don’t really think about those connections.
RL: We’re all connected, but sometimes in a very specific way.
C: Did you go out of your way to avoid any sort of overlapping information with Morgan Spurlock’s SUPER SIZE ME? Obviously, there’s a common theme. Both films are based clearly on the same book, I guess--not officially with his film.
RL: Yeah, he thanks Eric in the end credits. But, I don’t think it was even conscious on our part, because his movie--and I really liked that movie a lot, I think it’s a great piece of activist documentary filmmaking--kind of concerns what's found within a burger and how it effects your body and health--from the time you buy it, put it in your body, and beyond. And, I think, ours is really what’s behind it. If you put them together, you’ve more of an A to Z thing. Ours is really what’s behind the burger, the labor, all those issues, the people behind it, much more than the burger.
C: And, even the people selling it or trying to.
RL: Yeah. So, we’re on different sides of the curtain, I guess. So, it wasn’t really even a thought.
C: Have you caught wind of any counter programming from fast food companies?
RL: You know, it got revealed in May that McDonald’s had a counter campaign. It got leaked. You can always count on something, but this was really early. Eric had a new book coming out called CHEW ON THIS, and it was basically FAST FOOD NATION for kids, written for 11- to 13-year-olds. So it was that and knowing our film was coming out. At that point, they didn’t know when it was going to come out. It might have been summer. So, McDonald’s had a big counter campaign.
But, it got leaked. Somebody at McDonald’s was disgruntled--maybe they weren't happy with their raise or whatever--and they leaked it to The Wall Street Journal. So there was this journalist who was in possession of their counter campaign. And, he wrote a big story in the The Wall Street Journal. I think McDonald’s had to kind of back step and go, Okay, we’ve been busted before. We know how to play. So, I don’t know what they’re doing or not doing. If they’re smart, they’ll probably let us just go away.
C: They never attack directly. With SUPER SIZE ME, they countered with a supposedly healthier menu.
RL: Oh, yeah. What an admission! Like I said, I was just in Australia, and McDonald’s did have a counter campaign. What they’re saying is, This movie is about the United States. It has nothing to do with us. We use only 100 percent Australian beef. And, Schlosser gets on the Internet and, in two hours, finds out that the Australian meat industry in the last year has been purchased by American companies and Japanese companies. So, Australian beef is not even Australian beef anymore. It’s American and Japanese. They’re building an 80,000-head feedlot.
C: It’s all the same technology.
RL: Yes. But, they’re bringing that message, instead of Australian beef, you think cows on the outback eat healthy, natural--and that’s going away. So, we say, It does actually have something to do with it. We’re bringing our methods to you. And, 100 percent Australian beef isn’t going to mean the same thing. But, McDonald’s campaign slogan was “Make up your own mind.” They’re always stressing freedom of choice.
C: Because why would McDonald’s lie to you?
RL: [Laughs] And, they set up the straw cow of “There are those out there saying that it’s not even real beef in our burgers.” And, they have some kids investigating, and they go to a plant. “These are 100 percent Australian beef. Don’t believe them. Make up your own mind.” It sounds so good: freedom of choice, make up your own mind. That’s what they push their menu like. There was that woman, after Morgan’s movie, she lost weight eating at McDonald’s every day.
C: I remember her.
RL: She had salads without dressing or something. She’s stressing choice. Or, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING--choice, choice, choice.
The New York Times had a big exposé on McDonald’s marketing, and they proved that their marketing, all their profitability--and they’re way profitable right now--with the 99-cent cheeseburgers marketed almost exclusively to low-income people, because rich people quit eating fast food, you know, people with money. They’re marketing to lower income and to other countries.
They’re taking the same tactic that cigarettes took a generation ago. Oh, wealthier people, upper-class people think their health is important and their kids’ health. They don’t smoke anymore, ‘cause it’s proven dangerous. But, we’ll keep selling to these people who are told that their lives don’t matter. And then, we’ll really sell it to other countries. So, it’s kind of going the same way--slowly but surely.
C: I’m sure there’s all sorts of reasons for that, but a very obvious reason is that people don’t get as up in arms about lower classes being unhealthier and smoking and eating bad food. Dying, in other words.
RL: Yeah, there’s a lot of money to be made off people’s ill health. They get you to be really paranoid, they get you on both ends. Your ill health and then treating the symptoms. Kind of a lifetime trap: the food industry, agribusiness, fast-food industry, medical-industrial complex.
C: It’s funny, the characters in the film who work in the plant, they almost characterize the kill floor like a haunted house on the end of the block. For a lot of people, those slaughterhouse scenes are going to feel like you’re throwing blood on their fur coats. It’s pretty hardcore. Was that kind of the intention? The shock value is undeniable.
RL: The tricky thing was I wanted it to be…I didn’t show it earlier in the movie for a reason, because we do kind of tease it in. And, I perversely wanted those scenes to be, in a narrative sense, satisfying, like we’ve set this thing up, and it is the big one, the big thing. So, we’ve set it up, so on a narrative level, it’s kind of satisfying to finally get there, but on a character level, it’s Catalina's [Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays another Mexican worker] story. She ends up as bad as it gets. That’s her story. Her having to work the kill floor is so not what we wanted for her. I tried to abstract that footage to a pretty large degree. We cut to her face a lot--it’s bits and pieces, there are only a few that are pretty graphic.
You know, that’s the fucking reality. It’s not a big deal? For the people who work there all day, it’s a big deal. The industry doesn’t think it’s a big deal. I mean, they don’t want anybody to see it. It’s kind of like how we approach, say, civilian casualties in Iraq, by the tens of thousands. We fly to Baghdad. Collateral damage? We don’t want the public to see it.
C: It’s easier to be complacent.
RL: Their afraid people might feel something about it. It’s one thing to know it in your head. You know what it is, but it’s abstracted, so it’s easy to forget the reality, and just hit the policy behind it, you know, just the idea. Anything to take it out of the intellectual realm and just put it on a more human level, I think is important sometimes. That’s how these systems can keep operating, because people aren’t really fully conscious.
C: Did you have to work out something, or explain in advance to animal rights organizations that you were going to be showing the killing of animals?
RL: No, I haven’t heard one thing about that from anyone. I know the people at PETA liked the movie. I did an interview for them. And, I think people understand, when they read the production notes or they know the facilities. That production line was running and we had three hours to film with no lights or anything. Only the cast, sound equipment, very minimal crew was allowed access. So, they were all being killed anyway, and the film doesn’t up the ante.
Believe it or not, the Humane Society--who in general I admire, I admire what they do about treatment of animals, but I always thought it was a little weird. You know, the scene where the workers are on the roof killing rats with the hose? We shot the meat stuff in Mexico, but the rat scene was in Austin, where we were shooting a lot of the other stuff. And, the Humane Society was on the set that night. So, we took care of the rats, and we had 50 rats. We only filmed about 10 of them, but one rat had babies. Okay, the total started at 50, we ended up with 60 that night. And, we were paying attention to all babies. I don’t know if they offered us the Humane label for the movie, but we did care about the animals.
We don’t want to see animals hurt on screen, but I did have a movie where animals were used a lot, and we were offered that ‘no animals were hurt in the making of this movie,’ and I said, I’ll put that if I can put ‘"except all the ones we ate for lunch." I don’t like the distinction, I really don’t, if you’re going to care. That’s just me. Hey, the Chinese, they eat dogs and cats. It’s part of their culture. We’re appalled by it. Most of our fur now is from dogs and cats from China. Another thing they don’t want you to know. It’s pretty gross. They dye it and make it look good.
C: Do you think this is the most mature work that you’ve done? There’s a lot going on here, a lot of very serious issues. I actually went in thinking it was going to be a much more humorous film, because the trailer kind of gives that impression.
RL: [With mock regret] Sorry.
C: No, you know what I mean. But, I was thinking, Wow, this is pretty grown up. You have made quite a few comedies.
RL: Yeah, I tend to be more comedic. There’s even comedy in this movie. I hope that audiences can find some fun along the way. I think they will. Kinnear and a lot of these cast members are funny. What degree of funny is it when a guy drops a burger on the floor and puts it on the bun? That’s kind of funny. A guy spitting on a burger is funny--as long as you don’t have to eat it, it’s kind of funny. But, Kinnear is a funny actor, and even the Bruce Willis scene, I think in a way that’s kind of funny.
But, in answer to your question, yeah, it was just kind of the nature of this film. I kind of knew, you can’t help but watch it and not think of the politics and that it’s going to be analyzed at another level. So, it’s a drama, it’s a pretty hardcore drama that way. It’s not really satire. [Laughs] I don’t know, it’s just one more film. I got plenty of comedies in me. I’m writing my college comedy right now.
C: Great. You have a real gift for working with and discovering younger talent. There’s a lot of great, young up-and-coming people in this film.
RL: Yeah, absolutely.
C: But, I don’t remember you ever mixing them up the younger and older actors quite as much before as you do here. How was that? Did you direct them differently?
RL: It’s one thing to talk about the Bruce Willis's and the Ethan Hawkes and Kris Kristoffersons and these guys…
C: Wilmer Valderrama was the most interesting. I’ve never seen him in anything before, and I very rarely caught any part of "That '70s Show." So he was a real discovery for me.
RL: Absolutely. Wilmer’s going to surprise people. I learned a long time ago: you can’t really judge actors. Oh, you’ve seen them in one thing? That’s just one part. How many parts are in this world? You’d have to have an actor play a hundred parts before you’d really know who they were, fully. And, I feel the same way as a filmmaker. You’d have to make a lot of films. So, it’s hard to judge actors.
Yet, people talk about the bigger name people, but a lot of those were coming in working for a day or two. It’s the younger actors--like Catalina, Ana Claudia [Talancón], Wilmer, Ashley Johnson, Lou Taylor Pucci, Paul Dano, Avril Lavigne, Aaron Himelstein…all these young actors…who I enjoy working with, maybe even more, because we’re hanging out. We’re talking. We get more rehearsal time. We get to work up stuff. I just enjoyed what was happening. Yeah, there’s a lot of talent in that group of younger actors. And, you know, a lot of them have been in things, but it’s good to get them all under one tent.
C: Catalina, I’m glad to see her working.
RL: She’s transcendent. You’re going to see her. She’s in a couple of other movies coming out. To her credit, she didn’t do everything she was offered. You know, you got a camera running on her, she’ll get an offer without any problem. She could have been in POSEIDON, and a bunch of movies. She kind of liked this script, and she waited a year or two. I mean, she could barely pay her rent. People think you’re all rich, ‘cause you’re in one movie, but…
C: I don't think I would have assumed that about her after MARIA FULL OF GRACE.
RL: Right. She’s living in New York and trying to do stuff she cares about, and she sort of held out. And, then this script came along, and then the meeting with her, and she really like that character and accepted the offer.
C: I've have really enjoyed your two Criterion disks, SLACKER and DAZED AND CONFUSED. Are you planning on doing any more of those?
RL: I hope so. I think they’re trying to get the BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET together, because we’ve done nothing special for either of those, so I’d love to do that. I’m trying to get them to…you know, SUBURBIA’s not even on DVD? It’s kind of getting lost.
C: I love that film. I’m a big Eric Bogosian fan from way back.
RL: Yeah, “subUrbia,” I went to the [current revival] opening in New York. It’s playing in New York. Eric kind of updated it a little bit. His wife, Jo [Bonney], directed it. Excellent production--Gaby Hoffman, Kieran Culkin, a great cast. It’s really wonderful. Anyway, you make a film, it’s always a part of your life. Lincoln Center was trying to show it, and they couldn’t get a print. So, it made me sad that there’s not one print of that movie. What happens to them? There were a couple of hundred at one point, I think. But, anyway, I’d like that one to at least be fuckin’ available.
C: I’ve actually held off on buying BEFORE SUNSET and BEFORE SUNRISE because I figured someday they’re going to put them together in a deluxe box set.
RL: Yeah, well, hopefully soon. It would be fun.
C: What kind of extras are going to be on the DVD for A SCANNER DARKLY?
RL: I think there’s a thing about all the animation. There’s a kind of behind-the-scenes Making Of… feature.
C: Do you see any of the raw unanimated footage?
RL: You know, I don’t think we do. I wanted to get it on there. You know, there’s probably…I don’t know what its future is. You know how things are. That’s why I love working with Criterion, because they ask, What would you like on it? What do you have available?
When you work with the studio, it’s, like, I’ve got all these ideas for the DVD. Hey, we needed it yesterday, we’ve got a deadline, we’re out of time. Everything, the cool things that people want to see. We say, hey, you know, we’ve got all this stuff. And they say, you know what? We’re kind of out of time. It’s awful, but that’s how every studio DVD experience has been: great ideas, and then you don’t hear from them and you’re kind of getting your stuff together, and you know, our deadline is here. They’re just throwing product out on the market. Criterion doesn’t really have a deadline.
C: A lot of Criterion release dates gets delayed because they want to add more stuff.
RL: They’re trying to make it as thorough as possible. So, I love working with them, because they really want to make a great disk. They want everything they can possible squeeze on and make it as thorough as they can.
C: I interviewed Joey Lauren Adams last week about her new film and she was talking about…
RL: Oh, I haven’t seen it. I hear it's terrific. Yeah, I'm so proud of her.
C: She talked about how she called you every once in a while just to look for a little advice. Do you find yourself now as one of the elders of indie film who can actually hand out that kind of advice to new filmmakers? Are people coming to you and asking?
RL: Yeah. If someone calls me, someone I’ve worked with…if anyone can benefit from your experience, you have to help. I certainly benefited, not by calling people up, by listening to somebody speak or something they did. Success is one thing, but where they got in trouble or things that fell apart. It’s good to hear the cautionary tales. Did I tell her something different than everybody else?
C: She did whatever it was you said, I remember that.
RL: Really? Oh cool. I haven’t talked to Joey lately. I missed the screening she invited me to, but I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. Good for her. I got to talk to her. But, yeah, it was, like, Joey, if things are going so bad in preproduction, then tell them, "Don’t start."
C: It was something about that, the preproduction aspect of it.
RL: Joey, she is so smart. I mean, Joey’s bright. Nothing she does will surprise me. There are so many talented people in this world.