Steven Goldman chats with director John Lee Hancock about The Founder…
Directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks; The Blind Side), The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc – a down-at-heel salesman from Illinois who transformed a successful restaurant run by brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) into the McDonalds empire known the world over today. Based on a true story, Hancock’s film follows the trail of how Kroc, impressed by the brothers’ innovative assembly-line approach, maneuvered himself into a position where he was ultimately able – by degrees unwittingly and ultimately callously – to take control of the company, transforming himself in the process from failure to ‘founder’ of an American economic empire.
We spoke with John Lee Hancock about the making of The Founder in Los Angeles.
What was it about the story of Ray Kroc that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
When I read Rob Siegel’s (The Wrestler) script, I was quite taken by the idea that I was actively rooting for Ray – until a point where I started to question his motives and actions, and then by the end thought: “I don’t think I like this guy.” I had never read a script like that before. I thought it would be a bit of a high wire act to pull off on screen, but I knew it was something that would keep me interested for the couple of years it would take to make it.
How much did you know about the McDonalds’ origin story coming into it?
Not much. I knew that there were the McDonalds brothers and that it started in California and my assumption was that Ray had a lot more to do with the beginning years than he actually did. So there was quite a lot in the script that was surprising to me.
How did you go about researching the story?
Mostly I just read all the available books on the subject. There was also eight years’ worth of research by the producers that predated my involvement, that Rob Siegel, who wrote it, was privy to, plus the McDonalds’ families had sent along tapes, photographs, and things like that.
Did you sit down with anyone from the family?
Yes, Jason French, the grandson of Dick McDonald. I’d have to do the math, but I’m sure that he was a child when Dick died. So the family lore and stories might have been more important than his personal memories of his grandad as it were. But he was on the set and he was the chief guy who provided all of the information.
Tell us about working with Michael Keaton. He was cast in The Founder following the release of Birdman? Is that right?
That must have been an amazing casting coup.
It was – absolutely. And I felt, very much like in Birdman, that he was going to carry a lot of the weight for us. His energy was going to be what we glommed onto, if you will. Because I think in Birdman they placed it on his back and said “Wherever you’re taking this we’ll go.” I felt very much the same with Michael in this movie. That his energy was going to be the driving force behind it, even how we operated as a crew.
In my mind, and I think for audiences alike, Keaton will likely come to personify Kroc as a result of the film… Does he actually look like the real guy?
Maybe somewhat… Not that it really matters, because most people don’t necessarily know what Ray Kroc looks like. But I do think they have the same kind of charisma, energy, salesmanship and all that.
What’s your take on Kroc, himself? You mentioned, in reading the script, you were initially sympathetic towards him and by the end…
Well, I wouldn’t call him a villain or evil. I would just say “I’m not sure I like him.” Which is very different. Because there were friends of Ray’s who would say, “He was my friend. I liked him. He was a prick.” So there’s that. This film was always intended to be a bit of a Rorschach Test, in that everybody is going to bring their stuff to it and take away from it through their own lens. I’ve heard lots of people say after seeing the movie: “Ray Kroc was a monster.” Other people are saying, “He had to do what he had to do or his vision wouldn’t have come to pass.” Others say something in between. Which I think is all great. I love that. The worst thing would be if you painted a picture of him that is totally positive and angelic or totally demonic and a corporate takedown. Those are boring to me.
What’s at the heart of this story for you? Is it more than a tale of the birth of the fast food industry?
While it is that, I look at it as a kind of biopic of America post World War II. That sounds a little phony and whatever, but still… You know, we were victorious in World War II. America is booming. Everybody has jobs. And the attitude is, ‘we want it and we want it now.’ And so expediency becomes our mantra. I’m at the automat, I see a lemon meringue pie, I put a nickel in the machine, and I’m eating it. We love that kind of thing. And so Dick McDonald, jumping on board with that, created fast food. But the film is also about two different types of capitalism. There’s one type of capitalism where it’s about having the best idea, working hard, and succeeding. The goal of that capital enterprise is to make money. At the end of the movie, there is another capitalist enterprise which is, it doesn’t matter if it’s your idea or not – you should really get to know some good investment bankers and financiers. That’s a different model of capitalism… So yes, in some ways, the McDonalds brothers’ desire was to make money and Kroc’s desire was to make money. But his idea was on steroids. He had a much bigger vision. If the brothers had maintained control of the company, what would it look like today? I don’t know. Maybe something like In-N-Out (a more modest US regional chain of fast food restaurants).
What’s been the response from McDonalds itself?
Were they supportive or did they try to interfere?
No, no… I mean, one, we didn’t expect any help from them. We just understood that going in and got that. What I was told was a journalist sent a script to McDonalds early on, before we started shooting, hoping for a dustup of some kind. And then they asked for a response, and the response wasn’t that they had read the script. They didn’t say that. Their response was really generic, and I’ll paraphrase: ‘Ray Kroc was a fascinating and talented man. It doesn’t surprise us in the least that someone would make a movie about his life.” Boom. That’s been the sum total of McDonalds in this movie.
How do you see this film in correlation to your last movie, Saving Mr. Banks? Both look at seminal figures in American culture at around the same period of time – Walt Disney and Ray Kroc? Or am I reading too much into it?
It’s not anything I was drawn to in terms of saying, “Here’s my career path, I really like these bigger than life, well known characters,” at all. It was just the fact that I read two really great scripts, one by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), and one by Rob Siegel (The Founder) and was drawn into those worlds… I do like stories about real people, though. But with that you also have a responsibility to them, whether they’re alive or dead, and you want to be fair. It doesn’t mean you have to portray them in a positive way or a negative way. It just means you try your best to be fair.
How faithful is the film to the events which actually took place?
To my understanding, very faithful. The first thing that comes to mind that we don’t have any verification that it happened was that… Well, we know that Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini, here playing the wife of an early franchisee who would later marry Ray Kroc) was playing piano at her husband’s steakhouse when Ray met her. But we don’t know that he sang with her (laughs)… I’m fine with that (laughs)… And I’m sure, like everything else, there are things that actually happened that are condensed. We also have some scenes with dialogue that’s made up because there was no stenographer in the room in real life when the conversations took place.
Tell us about the casting of John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman in the roles of Mac and Dick McDonald.
There’s not a ton of material on the McDonald brothers in terms of photos, video, or those kind of things, but there is some. Still, the idea that I had, before I even saw their pictures, was from Rob’s script, even though he didn’t have a lot of description in there or anything. I thought these are round shouldered American guys. I want them to have that kind of feel. And then when I saw their pictures, I said, “Oh good, it’s backed up… You know, photographic evidence,” (laughs)… I then started to think about actors. John Carroll Lynch is simply one of my favorites. I think he’s in the pantheon of great character actors with guys like M. Emmet Walsh who every time people see them they go, “Oh it’s him – I love him,” no matter what he’s doing. He can be evil in a movie; he can be a sweetheart. He can do it all… Nick Offerman, I’ve been a fan of from Parks and Rec and some other movies that he’s done, dramatic roles. And I thought that they were a good pairing. I thought that they had different temperatures, as did the real brothers themselves. Mac was more the front of the store guy, shaking hands, slapping backs. The guy behind it, in terms of the engineering brain, was Dick. He was more methodical and is the one that came up with The Speedee System.
What was the shoot itself like? I understand most of movie was filmed in and around Atlanta?
We shot in Atlanta and then a couple of days in Albuquerque – because we needed to show the westward migration of Ray on Route 66 and him pulling into San Bernardino – things like that. But the lion’s share of the movie was shot in Atlanta where our location manager and production designer spent way too many millions of hours in a van looking for spots that could double as suburban Chicago (laughs)…
What was the biggest challenge making the film?
I think the biggest challenge was the budget. On a limited budget we had to build two complete free standing restaurants that were both sets and kitchens. And they had to function as both and we had to be able to cook in them. Now, in Atlanta and these towns, you need building permits. ‘Well it’s a set. We’re tearing it down.’ ‘We don’t care. As far as we’re concerned, you’re building a restaurant. If you choose to tear it down a month after you open it up, that’s find by us too. But here are the requirements…’ And so, we had $150,000 extra worth of steel we had to put into the buildings… On a movie like this, when something costs more than you thought it’s a real challenge because you have to figure out from where you can pull back somewhere else to compensate.
What was the takeaway when you wrapped?
On the production side, keeping your team intact. It’s a great way to do business especially when you’ve got something on a tight budget with a specific number of days – 34, I believe for this, which is next to nothing for a movie. The more questions you can answer in prep the better off you are so that when you get to the set you can spend your time on the performances as opposed to, “Oh gee, we’ve got to move that wall and that’s going to take an hour…”
What kind of film are audiences in store for?
Well hopefully for audiences it’s just a great story. For me, I think it’s an origin story of McDonalds that is surprising, and I don’t think a lot of people know the true story. I think they are surprised by it. So I think it’s entertaining on the surface and then in other ways I think it’s a movie that after you see it, you will hopefully think about and continue to think about. Hopefully it’s a bit of a Trojan horse in terms of it being an entertaining movie that continues to stick with you and has some complexity to it.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and starring Academy-Award nominated Michael Keaton (Birdman, Spotlight), Nick Offerman (Fargo, Welcome to Happiness, 21 Jump Street), John Carroll Lynch (The Invitation, Ted 2), Linda Cardellini (Mad Men), B.J Novak (Inglourious Basterds) and Laura Dern (99 Homes, Jurassic Park), THE FOUNDER is released in UK cinemas 17 February.
The Founder is a drama that tells the true story of how Ray Kroc (Keaton), a salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc was impressed by the brothers’ speedy system of making the food and saw franchise potential. He maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire.
The Founder is out in UK cinemas 17th February.