Feeding frenzy 

Bestselling author Eric Schlosser on the film Fast Food Nation, and closing a chapter in his life

click to enlarge MARK MANN
  • Mark Mann

It was by luck, and happenchance, that I got to experience the film adaptation of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation while seated next to Kenny and Clara Dobbins.

Kenny Dobbins is the former meatpacking plant worker who was featured in Schlosser's 2001 bestseller. Dobbins experienced repeated and horrific injuries during 16 years working at Montfort meatpacking plants, first in Nebraska and then in Greeley, Colo., doing the unfathomable.

His back was pierced by metal teeth; his lungs and skin burnt by chlorine; leg broken; ankle broken; heart attack; eventually fired; no pension. As he was quoted in the book, "They used me to the point where I had no body parts left to give. Then they just tossed me in the trash can."

Dobbins is still unable to work. He and his wife Clara are trying to make the best of things.

Watching what is a very moving, but not a happy, movie with the Dobbinses was like viewing it in 3D. Occasionally Clara Dobbins would lean over and weigh in on the veracity of a scene, as she did at our first glimpse inside the meatpacking plant. "In real life, it's not that clean," she noted. During the gruesome finale in the area where the cattle are slaughtered, Dobbins tilted over to share how their daughter had gone to work on the kill floor when she was 18. Her job had been to cut off the hooves.

Fast Food Nation, the movie, was made so clandestinely that it had a code title of Coyote. The actors have big names: Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson, Greg Kinnear, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Catalina Sandino Moreno. But Corporate America and the food lobby are powerful and sometimes furious and have ways of making things, shall we say, unpleasant.

Since his book Fast Food Nation, Schlosser has co-written a children's version, called Chew on This. The result has been sometimes-vicious personal attacks orchestrated by the national food lobby, which has even launched an anti-Schlosser Web site of sorts. They call their propaganda "Best Food Nation."

Like Schlosser's book, much of the film, a dramatization directed by Richard Linklater, is set in Colorado Springs (aka "Cody"),the archetypical all-American city. The author recently sat down for a chat about the film, what it's like to be targeted by corporate spinmeisters and what he's piling on his plate next.

Indy: The film is nothing like your book. Are you OK with that?

ES: The people whose opinions I was anxious to hear from were some of the ranchers who have seen the film, and the meatpacking workers. I wanted it to feel true to life, but I also wanted not to upset them or anger them. To have them feel supportive of it is a big, big deal to me, especially because this film could be interpreted as anti-meat, and it's not.

Indy: What do you hope Fast Food Nation, the film, accomplishes?

ES: I hope it opens people's eyes, and I hope it shows them this world that's been kept from view, and I hope it moves them and makes them think and provides them with a moving experience. It's not like a work of entertainment; it's not a comedy.

Indy: Much of it was clearly set in Colorado Springs, so why did you change the name to Cody?

ES: Because there was no big meatpacking plant in Colorado Springs it needed to be a feedlot-meatpacking-Colorado town, and is supposed to be a mix between Colorado Springs and the city of Fountain and Greeley.

click to enlarge 68c0_cover-23092.gif

Indy: The film has already been released in Australia. How was it received there?

ES: It was amazing. At the end you could have heard a pin drop. The audiences were totally blown away, totally receptive. I actually got to watch the audience reactions in Australia before the United States.

Indy: How do you think the film is going to go over in the States? It is, as you have pointed out, a very dark, very disturbing film.

ES: I have no idea. But I'll tell you I feel the same way, oddly enough, as I felt when Fast Food Nation, the book, was finished. I was really concerned so much more concerned about the people I wrote about in the book than I was about what critics would say. These were people who had devoted an enormous amount of time, people whose story I was trying to tell.

The one person I never heard back from, who I heard didn't like the book, was the Little Caesar's franchisee in Pueblo. Other than that, the meatpacking workers and the ranchers that I wrote about really supported what I did. I feel the same way about the film.

I feel very proud of it. There's no control over what critics are going to say and there's certainly no control over whether the audience will go. This may sound totally megalomaniacal, but I really believe that in 20 years if you watch this film, you would have a truthful view of what is happening in this country and in Colorado in the year 2006. Whether people see it now, or whether it will be a huge box-office success, who knows?

Indy: You've gotten some good reviews, but some critics have written things like, "The characters just pop in and go away, and there's really no connecting theme." What do you make of that?

ES: Every one of the characters has some moment of genuine humanity to them. To me, the performances are so good it makes the characters believable across the board. We did have a terrible review in the Hollywood Reporter, which is an industry publication; it really slammed the film. Variety, another industry publication, gave it kind of a mixed review. One of the New York Times critics I know really loved it. So you can't worry about it.

When I was in Australia, I was interviewed by the leading Australian film critic who has his own TV show, sort of like "Siskel & Ebert." Really a bright, articulate guy, and he just loved the film. So I feel confident that some intelligent people are really going to like it. But the way the system works, who knows?

I guess if I were McDonald's, I could start a Web site to attack the New York Times critic or investigate their personal life, but I can't worry too much about the parts of it I can't control. As long as it feels true to the people who really know the subject, that's what matters to me.

Indy: You have a producing credit for the film; what did all that entail?

ES: For a really good film to be made, the sort of director that Rick [Linklater] is needs to be given control. So I signed over my book to him and I would have been fine with him doing what he wanted and then showing up to see it, because even if it had sucked, it would have been somebody really talented sincerely trying to do something. And if it sucks, that's the way it goes, as opposed to the Hollywood system.

The reason most films in Hollywood suck is because there is a committee of people passing judgment at every level, from the first submission to the script through the editing process. And you wind up with something that is the film equivalent of fast food: something that is test-marketed and et cetera, et cetera. I was much more involved in it than I thought I would be, but my producing credit had nothing to do with controlling what it was going to be, or being able to dictate what it's going to be. It's really Rick's film.

Indy: Let's talk a little more about the increase in how corporations, including food industry lobbyists, are now targeting and attacking journalists.

ES: There's a great Web site, sourcewatch.org, that is devoted to revealing front groups and spinmeisters like the DCI Group, which is a Washington-based PR lobbying firm. They are a far-right-wing group, very close to the Bush administration, that specializes in attack politics.

click to enlarge Ana Claudia Talancn, in a Fast Food Nation - meatpacking plant. The film opens nationwide this - Friday, Nov. 17. - 2006 RPC COYOTE, INC
  • 2006 RPC Coyote, Inc
  • Ana Claudia Talancn, in a Fast Food Nation meatpacking plant. The film opens nationwide this Friday, Nov. 17.

So you write them a check, and suddenly there are all these groups attacking whoever you want to attack. For example, there was a critical video of Al Gore that showed up on YouTube attacking him and his views on global warming. It looked like it was made by a teenager and someone traced the URL, and where did it all come from? The DCI Group.

Then there was the scandal within the Abramoff scandal, where he was giving money to all these right-wing nonprofits to plant editorials and basically write a check, and boom, an editorial would appear in the Washington Times on whatever subject you want. It's really extraordinary.

Indy: Do you know if they've investigated you?

ES: Have they investigated my personal life? Call up McDonald's and ask them, "Have you or any contractor working for you ever tried to obtain Eric Schlosser's phone records? Have you or any contractor working for you ever tried to obtain a credit report? Have you or any contractor working for you ever conducted surveillance of him?" I'd love to know.

Indy: And you really believe they would tell me if they have? Clearly you suspect.

ES: There was this memo leaked to the Wall Street Journal not exactly a Marxist-Leninist outfit about how they had a plan to discredit me, and on this [latest] book tour, there were these protesters and people clearly planted in the audience and all these groups attacking me. So, I'm not nave.

And consider the Hewlett-Packard thing, which really opened my eyes because Hewlett-Packard is so mainstream it used to have such a wonderful corporate culture. [Earlier this year, the company was caught spying on at least nine Wall Street Journal and New York Times journalists, including obtaining their phone records, and infiltrating newsrooms to smoke out the source of corporate leaks.] The idea that they had this whole network to plug into to spy on journalists I mean, that really opened my eyes.

The indications are that there are these whole networks of subcontractors who do this for many different companies. One of the things I'm thinking about writing about is how companies are acting like sovereign states they have their own intelligence agencies, they essentially have their own propaganda, but they're not sovereign, democratic states. It's almost like they are Soviet bloc states, with their own private police forces and surveillance.

Indy: Is there any fast food that you will eat?

ES: I'm not pure; I'm not a perfect thing; I'm not living on a diet of brown rice and tofu. I eat burgers and fries. But I've evolved. Some restaurants are doing things the right way: In-N-Out Burgers in California, Nevada and Arizona, Burgerville in Washington and Oregon. They serve customers grass-fed beef and treat their workers well. I just don't go to the big fast-food chains; I don't want to give them my money.

Indy: You've been on the road, it seems, nonstop, first with your book tour for Chew on This, and now with the film. What's next?

ES: I'm going to England because it's going to be in the London Film Festival, and then I'm going to Seattle and Washington and New York and Los Angeles. And then on Nov. 17 [the release date of Fast Food Nation], I will have done everything that I could on these subjects. I'll try to be useful as an activist, but basically the release of the film on Nov. 17 is the closing of a chapter of my life.

I have done an investigative book on this industry, and a children's book, and helped with this film, and I'm really working hard this month to try to get people to see the film. And then I have to finish my [upcoming] prison book and will try to devote the same sort of energy to try to get people to think about prisons.

Indy: You don't have any lingering wishes to continue to be the foremost authority, the expert, the outspoken activist on fast food?

ES: No. I think there's room for other people to step in. Michael Pollan, who teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a really good book, called The Omnivore's Dilemma. So writers like him are now taking this same subject and taking it to the next level, and I really encourage other writers and other filmmakers.

There's no shortage of material to keep hammering on this topic. It's like the Vietnam War there were so many books and films made on it because it was so important, in the same way the food system is so important. But I feel like I've done what I could.


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