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— by Larry Carroll

BEVERLY HILLS, California — They tell us that the meat is good. They tell us that McNuggets, Big Macs and Whoppers are all part of a balanced diet, and that the age of the 49-cent hamburger and the minimum-wage drive-thru employee is nothing to be concerned about. They tell us to enjoy the meal, don't look behind the curtain — and then ask if we want fries with that.

"They weren't very happy about the book," author Eric Schlosser said of "Fast Food Nation," his humorously horrifying 2001 exploration into the dark side of the all-American meal. "[The fast-food giants] were very critical of me personally, but they were never able to point out mistakes in the book or challenge central arguments of the book — so they really tried to personalize the issue."

Among other revelations, "Nation" depicted the New Jersey Turnpike lab where the phony flavors we associate with strawberry shakes and Taco Bell hot sauce are manufactured in test tubes; processing plants where Frankenstein burger patties are assembled from dozens or even hundreds of cattle; and the homeless and illegals recruited to work in slaughterhouses for meager wages.

"When I was on a book tour last year, The Wall Street Journal had an article that said McDonald's had said in a memo that they were going to discredit me as a person and by discrediting me, discredit my arguments and my work — and on this book tour, there were clearly people planted in the audience," the author recalled. "There were protesters passing out pamphlets; there were attempts to prevent me from speaking at schools, saying I was un-American and an improper person to be speaking to schoolchildren. It was clearly organized through this Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that McDonald's uses.

Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Hawke, Greg Kinnear, More At "Fast Food Nation" Cannes Premiere
"Fast Food Nation" Photos
Check out everything we've got on "Fast Food Nation."

"It's been a very personal kind of criticism, but I never criticize McDonald's executives," he continued. "I don't say they are deliberately trying to harm anyone with their food. I think these are important issues, and we should be able to debate them and discuss them."

But there's only so far that a book — or its author — can go. Recognizing this, versatile filmmaker Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock," "Before Sunrise") contacted Schlosser and said he wanted to pick up the "Nation" baton and run with it. But in order to get the issues out to as many people as possible, both men agreed that two things must be done: Financing and crew must be obtained without any chance of corporate sabotage, and the nonfiction book would have to be dramatized to get across the human elements.

"We're very realistic, and we're very truthful. There is nothing in the movie that isn't real to this world," Linklater insisted. "But it takes a little heat off of Eric's investigative journalist giving facts. We are telling a human story. ... The movie is just asking you to care about the people who are behind this system."

Linklater and his crew set out to film the movie in secret, staying ahead of the same multibillion-dollar industry that had sought to discredit Schlosser. Shooting under various aliases, their attempts to film in real fast-food restaurants and slaughterhouses were mysteriously undermined, and at other times, they had to make their shots and get out before anyone caught on. Somehow, even though his actors had to risk future advertising opportunities, keep tight-lipped about their involvement and often run around in the night like secret agents, Linklater recruited an impressive cast.

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"It felt very underground, very guerilla espionage, James Bond-ish," grinned Greg Kinnear, who stars as a "Mickey's" executive alongside Wilmer Valderrama, Bruce Willis, Avril Lavigne, Ethan Hawke and others. "We had to shoot with code names and stuff like that."

Residents of the local area were told that a movie called "Coyote" (among other names) was shooting in their town, and most production lists omitted the names of the major stars involved.

"The restaurant industry put out the word to not let Rich shoot in the locations if they found out it was 'Fast Food Nation,' " Schlosser said of the need for secrecy. "This film had to be done low to the ground, or it could've never been made."

"Every location had a different name for the movie. ... We were being investigated, we were being chased," remembered Valderrama, who, while trying to film his scenes as a Mexican slaughterhouse employee, often saw corporate "spies" lurking about. "There were many, many attempts to see how they could shut down this movie."

Critics — and audiences — can't get enough of "Fast Food Nation" director Richard Linklater, who's worked in many different genres with many different actors. Here's a taste of his eclectic résumé:
"Our movie was financed through Europe," the actor added, referring to an unorthodox budget that was largely assembled by rebellious English entrepreneur and Sex Pistols founder Malcolm McLaren. "It was a very independent movie."

"It felt like being an investigative journalist," Linklater grinned, remembering an experience he'll never forget. "You go underground to do what you have to do. It felt like I was making my first film again — stealing locations — but with A-list actors."

Just because the "Nation" book and movie have something to say, however, doesn't mean they want to be preachy. The message here isn't necessarily to become a vegetarian but to become better-educated about the penny-pinching business model that gets that 99-cent burrito into your mouth — and all the ill-advised shortcuts that must be made to maintain it.

"I eat red meat, and I still do," Kinnear said of the health choices he makes. "[Schlosser] still does as well. There are different issues about meat; it's not just one size fits all. There is a difference between steak and going and getting a piece of wax paper that is holding a little beef patty that cost you 69 cents and smells really good. ... The issue of the book, and part of the issue of the movie, is just to consider the source."

Sure, they're telling you that the meat is good — but with films like "Nation" and "Super Size Me" opening people's eyes, that statement is becoming harder to digest.

Check out everything we've got on "Fast Food Nation."

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