When the list of nominees for the 2017 Oscars were unveiled, one actor, and one film for that matter, was strangely absent from proceedings.
The story of Ray Kroc, the man who helped make McDonald’s a global brand, had been largely overlooked until Michael Keaton was enlisted to bring the story to life with The Founder.
It’s a tale worth telling too, with the film charting Ray’s dark journey into the heart of the American dream as he goes from travelling salesman to McDonald’s head honcho but pays a heavy price in the process..
With the film now out in cinemas, loaded spoke exclusively to director John Lee Hancock about bringing this story of bad ethics and delicious looking burgers to life.
loaded: How did you get involved in The Founder?
Hancock: The script was sent to me, but at first I was reluctant because I knew it was a true story based around a well-known figure and the last movie I had directed was Saving Mr Banks which was about Walt Disney and P.L. Travers and I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut.
But when I read the script I discovered there was a lot more behind the story of McDonald’s. I also found myself rooting hard for Ray Kroc in the first half but then actively rooting against him in the second, which was something I hadn’t seen in a script before.
loaded: Do you think it’s quite timely to be revisiting the story or Ray Kroc?
Hancock: The Founder is a timeless story in the way it examines morals and ethics in business. These ideas are still prevalent today and this story touches on some very contemporary themes.
loaded: Did learning more about the story of Ray Kroc’s rise to power in the McDonald’s corporation put you off the brand in any way?
Hancock: I feel the same about McDonald’s as I did before. There’s a whole other discussion to have about who McDonald’s is now though, in terms of the food and what it is doing to our world but that’s outside of this movie.
But I eat McDonald’s on occasion, for sure. I’m not one of these people that is going to say I don’t. Working on The Founder did give me an opportunity to expose people to the real story behind the brand. Because there is a beautiful story there about these brothers not many people know about.
loaded: Watching the film you start out almost hankering for a McDonald’s yet as the story progresses you almost lose your appetite for it – was that something intentional?
Hancock: I wanted the food to be alluring. When you talk to people about what McDonald’s was back then, it’s very different to what it is today, so I did want it to be alluring in that sense. When Ray Kroc says it’s the best hamburger he’d ever had, I wanted that to be backed up by the sounds and visuals.
But there was never any necessary intention to turn people on to the burgers and then have them turn away from them. I wanted it to be more of a Rorschach test for the audience because I was conflicted about Ray and I wanted people to have a response, good or bad, to what he did.
“Michael shares a lot with Ray in terms of character traits…that same energy and almost desperation of a salesman”
loaded: Do you think that the story of Ray Kroc and McDonald’s is reflective of the American dream?
Hancock: The American Dream is largely the same now as it was back then. There has always been this notion that if you have a great idea and work harder than anyone, you’ll be rewarded and by rewarded we mean that you might own your own house or your own car.
But I think in some ways the American Dream has been hijacked these days. Now it’s more a case that people want everything now and almost feel they deserve it as opposed to that older idea.
Ray very much believed in the American Dream and believed in one idea after the other but it wasn’t until he came across someone else’s idea that he was able to make hay with it.
loaded: How did Michael Keaton become involved?
Hancock: We went to Michael first as I felt he was perfect for the role. He liked the script but had questions about the character and the story so the two of us sat down and hashed it out. I told him my vision for the movie and he signed on. We worked very closely on a day to day basis from there.
loaded: What does Michael bring to the character of Ray Kroc?
Hancock: Michael shares a lot with Ray in terms of character traits. For example, Michael is a very hard worker and he has a similar focus and energy about him that is similar to Ray. He has a vision and knows what he needs to do to accomplish it and how to get there as quickly as possible.
Obviously, there are other things, ethically and morally, that Michael doesn’t share with Ray Kroc but there was just something about that same energy and almost desperation of a salesman that Michael was able to bring to the fore.
loaded: Did he do anything special to prepare for the role?
He read a lot of books around the subject and also studied whatever footage we could get our hands on of Ray Kroc to get into the mindset of that character whether it was an industrial film or an interview. He wanted to pick up on Ray’s patter as well as his mannerisms.
loaded: Nick Offerman was an interesting casting choice for The Founder, given that he’s best known for Parks and Recreation. What did he bring to the role?
I wanted the McDonald’s brothers to be round shouldered American guys and I had seen Nick do some small roles in a couple of dramas before and thought it would be a great surprise to the majority of viewer to see him in a role that wasn’t Ron Swanson.
Also, I felt Nick and John Carroll Lynch (the other McDonald) felt like brothers.
loaded: In much the same way we start out rooting for Ray before ending the film despising him, would it be fair to say the story of the McDonald’s brothers follows almost an opposite path?
Definitely, because as viewers we’ve seen what has happened to them and it’s a downward spiral, even though they were ultimately paid handsomely for the company. Some people may think otherwise but that is certainly the way I saw it and the way it comes across on film.
loaded: What do you hope people take away from this film?
Audiences may come away from The Founder with a positive or negative view of Kroc but then they may come away with a positive or negative view on the McDonald’s brothers themselves. I never went into it with the idea of it being a message movie.
I think some of the themes like the notion of winning at call costs and the model of capitalism are all good talking points but everyone has their own interpretation.
loaded: Has anyone from McDonald’s commented on The Founder?
We knew we weren’t going to get any help from McDonald’s on this movie though, I know their official line was something like ‘Ray Kroc was a talented and fascinating man so it doesn’t surprise us that someone would make a film of his life.’
The Founder is out in cinemas now.
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