The Two-for-One Meal

Richard Linklater chews on 'Fast Food Nation' and 'A Scanner Darkly'

CP: In different ways, Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly are both about the culture of exploitation and addiction: Fast Food is more about the suppliers, and Scanner is more about the consumer.

Linklater: We're all addicted, aren't we? I'm addicted to various things—to cinema, for example. I don't think those things are going to kill me—or at least not as quickly. Addiction is part of what it means to be human—whether it's addiction to love or sex or travel or whatever. But consumer addiction is something else. Drug or alcohol addiction is the most moving, in a way, because you're trying to transcend something—body chemistry is a huge element of it—but you're trapped in your own body, your own psyche.

CP: Both films have their funny moments for sure, but they're profoundly sad. That kind of duality is the essence of your work: the disconnect, the dialectic, the honest contradiction, the irony. Two truths facing each other without resolution: Maybe it's this, maybe it's that.

Let's hear it for the vague blur:  The animated Linklater
Warner Independent Pictures
Let's hear it for the vague blur: The animated Linklater

Linklater: I go through life with that disconnect. Like, Wow, life is wonderful, beautiful. And then you look again and it's so fucking tragic. Those two can coexist in the same thought; it's not like there are two different genres in the human brain. At the end of Scanner, Bob Arctor is a burnt-out husk [laughs]. It's completely tragic; he's more or less dead. Or maybe he could come back and be a normal person again. I guess it's never over until it's completely over. It might take more than one viewing to figure it out. Hopefully the first time has its rewards, but on a second viewing I know it gets deeper—you see a lot more connections. Right? That's what the human brain does: It makes connections. I'm still finding things [in Scanner], believe it or not, and no one could be closer to it than I am. That's what we do here: We try to make sense of everything that fundamentally doesn't make sense.

CP: American films generally require the filmmaker to be very decisive and clear—no ambiguity allowed.

Linklater: You're supposed to pick a tone and maintain it for audience-satisfying purposes. It's great—it's tonally consistent! It's like we're looking for the kind of consistency in our art that is totally nonexistent in the real world. But if art can ever really reflect the world in all its layers, then that should be the goal. Different works require different things. In terms of Scanner, I just know I shared Dick's "bilateral dysfunction" [laughs]. That was always in his work: the humor along with the darker, tragic elements.

CP: The printed epilogue—which you take pretty much directly from the book—is so poignant, so heartbreaking. You can see that Dick was seeking happiness and couldn't achieve it.

Linklater: In his community, the drug subculture, there can be an exuberant camaraderie. Like he says [in the book], it was fun for a while—but it can turn dark, paranoid, and tragic really fast. He wrote about the toll: The price that he and his friends paid was so much greater than the crime. I thought it was important to include that list of drug casualties in the epilogue because it makes you go, Okay—wow. These are real people. This really happened. When I met with [Dick's] daughters about doing a movie of A Scanner Darkly, one of the things they said is that they didn't want us to be cavalier about the drug use. They said their dad would still be alive today—that he'd still be writing—if it wasn't for drugs.

CP: Do you think happiness is elusive?

Linklater: I just read this thing about happiness. It said that three of the biggest keys to happiness for most people are: first, an occupation that satisfies you in some way; second, a sense of community, not being alienated and sitting in your room; and third, a satisfying sex life—everyone is on [his or her] own there [laughs].

CP: On a larger scale, do you find yourself thinking that things actually need to get worse before they can get better?

Linklater: It has gotten worse [laughs]. It has been this way for a while now: Just when you think it can't get any worse in the United States, it kinda does. Or does it? What are the effects? I mean, do you know anyone who has disappeared without legal rights? That would be the next step, I think—when white, middle-class people with dissenting opinions start disappearing, then we really will be in Soviet Russia or the Nixonian era times x, the combination of those two. I think people are just looking at their watches and saying, Okay, we've got two more years.

CP: There are many ways of disappearing people with dissenting opinions, don't you think?

Linklater: You could say that we're kind of living in a Soviet model now—of media and government being together on one level. But I don't know. Everyone bitches about the media, but we're not quite [in a totalitarian state] yet. The government definitely has its mouthpiece, though. In terms of Fast Food Nation, I came out of the whole experience really admiring the bravery and the sacrifice of a whole lot of people who dedicate their lives to fact-finding and investigative journalism. I really felt a sense of how important that is for the health of our collective human body. Because that's the only check and balance on unopposed power, on a government that owns it all and an industry that owns it all. If they can do away with all criticism or feedback, then they can pursue their agenda further and more efficiently. Their goal is to have no feedback, no accountability. Or if there is accountability, they can label it as "anti-American" or "socialist." The founding fathers were very leery of unchecked power; they went out of their way to check it.

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