The primary image in the advertising for The Founder has been that of Michael Keaton, as Ray Kroc, standing in front of a symbol that nearly every American can recognize: the Golden Arches, a crowning bit of ‘50s iconography that functions as a shorthand for McDonald’s. Of course, this is a bit of a bait and switch — it presents Ray Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s, just as McDonald’s has for decades, even though the truth, as the movie depicts, is a little bit more complicated. Vulture caught up with John Lee Hancock, the film’s director, to discuss how we’re supposed to feel about Kroc, how he and Keaton fine-tuned their character, and what his film says about the American Dream.
It’s an interesting time for this movie to come out, because it’s about a guy who sells the world on his vision of this business he created, and we have a man about to occupy the presidency who sold the world on a vision of himself as a businessman.
I think it’s kind of happenstance, and it’s an interesting time for the movie to come out. I mean, obviously, when I first read the script and when we started making the movie, none of this was possibly in the offing. He hadn’t even announced or anything. So it’s not built into the DNA of the film in any interesting way. But I will say that it was funny watching the movie last night, because I hadn’t seen it in a theater in several months, and watching it with a current lens I was kind of taken by the speech … I don’t know if you remember it, when Kroc is kind of taking it to the people and there’s an intercut thing at a Shriners lodge and the synagogue …
He’s adjusting his pitch to Jewish audiences.
He’s adjusting to everyone. He’s telling the story. He’s taking it to the masses, and I remember when Michael and I were talking about it, he said, “So I’m kind of giving them the same speech?” And I go, “It doesn’t matter. Yes, it’s the same damn speech, because what we’re doing is you’re just hitting high points. This isn’t about details of ownership or operation. This is about hitting words that make people go, yeah.” And I look at our current political climate, and it made me look at the scene in a completely different way.
Do you see the movie as a film about the American dream, or about the corruption of the American dream? Or is there not really a difference?
I think the American dream for most Americans is not all that different than it was in 1954. I think most people, and not just on the coasts but everybody, want food, clothing, and shelter. You want a healthy family. You’d love a car that you own to drive to work to a job that you have. You’d like to take a vacation for two weeks in the summer, and you want your kids to have better lives than you did. I think that’s most of the American dream. Not to say that someone wouldn’t want to win the lotto, you know. I think that’s still true but I think it’s kind of been — what’s the best possible word for this. It’s been kidnapped. That’s not a great word, but I’ll say it anyways. It’s been kidnapped a little bit by the notion that people desperately want to win the lotto or be adopted by the Kardashians. That that is what the American dream is, and it’s like, that was never in our DNA. It was about improvement and improving yourself and having a better idea and working harder and all those things, which, by the way, aren’t just the American dream, they’re kind of an international dream. Now, we’ve taken it and we’ve sloganized it, in a way.
In your movie, Ray Kroc is very flawed, to put it generously. When you’re making a movie like this, essentially the rags-to-riches story of a guy who’s maybe not such a good guy, how did you approach the tone of that? How did you try to make this guy the most interesting character he could be, but not a hero — or did you make him the hero anyway?
It’s the most important question we had to ask ourselves, so it’s a question I like answering. When I read the script, I was taken by the fact that I was kind of actively pulling for this Willy Loman–type character, and then I felt conflicted, and then I go, “Oh, I don’t like him,” and then I was completely thrown out the window by the end of it, at least in my personal reading. I think it’s a Rorschach: Everyone’s going to bring what they’re going to bring to it. But that was my feeling and I thought, “Wow, that’s a high-wire act, but I don’t think I’ve seen that movie before, so I think that can keep my attention for a couple of years and will be worth waking up at 4:30 in the morning for.” Because I’ll have to be on my toes.
How did you work with Michael on that?
With Michael, we talked about it and said, “All right, we both feel like there’s a responsibility not only to the history but to the character that’s being portrayed.” And being fair doesn’t necessarily mean shining a beautiful light on him, or a harsh light on him. It means we know historically these are the things that happened, and you just kind of take it a day a time and say this feels fair or unfair. But I wanted to make a movie that felt the conflicted ideas I felt when reading Rob Siegel’s script. So Michael and I talked a lot about [Kroc’s journey]. Michael spent a lot of time on this and I spent a lot of time watching Kroc, whether it’s a commencement address at Dartmouth University or industrial films or interviews or whatever, the kinds of things that help determine his behavior and body language, that helped us to tell the story. The idea would be that instead of being the guy who puts his hands on his hips like he does at the start of the movie, by the end he’s the guy who slides his hand in his pocket and puts his shades on. The way he walks is completely different from the start of the movie to the end. It’s all by design.
The other thing was, any time we were shooting a scene, we would constantly say, “Are we tipping too far one way or the other?” Which is why I added a scene where, after he’s gone to the banks and is taking out the second mortgage on his house and is sitting on a piece of crappy land that he’s going to lease for the first McDonald’s, he says, “Be right. Just once, be right.” I thought that humanized him, because everybody can relate to that. He’s put everything on the line. He’s a hardworking guy. He’s betting it all. He’s pushing all the chips in. So I thought that is something anybody can relate to, which is good because I wanted people to have different opinions when they walk out of the theater.
This is a Weinstein Company release, and the Weinsteins have a reputation for being very involved with their projects and not hesitating to give their input. Did you guys ever end up in different places with parts of the movie and have to find a way to meet in the middle?
No, not really. I felt like the Weinstein Company got the movie and understood the branding and the propaganda branding, if you will, in terms of the power of the image and the iconography.
Which is partly what the movie is about.
Yeah, exactly. They got it in spades, and so then we signed on with them and it was great all the way through production. I would say it’s never been a disagreement, but trying to figure out exactly when to open it and what’s the best date and you don’t want it to get lost — all those things that are really the dark arts to me, I don’t understand it.
Right, the challenges of releasing.
Absolutely. And they’ve done it a few times, so at some point, you go, “Whatever you guys think.”
I’m interested in the name of your movie. How did that name, The Founder, inform how you saw this guy and the role he occupied for himself, and this business, and the people around him?
I remember going to McDonald’s growing up and seeing that brass plaque that, I don’t know if it’s in every McDonald’s, but it used to be, with the picture of Ray Kroc that said “Founder, McDonald’s.” That became ingrained in me: Ray Kroc, Founder. So the title, obviously, is intentionally misleading, or at least, should have a question mark on the end of it, because it goes to your definition of what “founding” means. Is it the person who creates something, or the person who expands on that idea? There’s no doubt that, you know, we wouldn’t have the McDonald’s we have today without Ray Kroc, so in some ways he could make a legal distinction and say, I was the founder of the McDonald’s Corporation in terms of the real estate and the franchise. But the McDonald’s Corporation, for a long time, I’ve been told, tried to dismiss the McDonald brothers — like, if we could forget about that, that would be great. Even to the point of some people calling and trying to get the history of McDonald’s the corporation and finding out that they said, “Mr. Kroc just made the name up.” So you’re getting paid handsomely for it, in 1961 dollars they were wealthy, wealthy people, but they sold their name.
This interview has been edited and condensed.