“I came up with the concept of winning,” states Ray Kroc. “While you guys were content by being a couple of also-rans. I’m going to take the future. I wanna win. And you don’t get there by being some aw-shucks nice guy sap. There’s no place in business for people like that. Business is war.” Kroc is the central figure in the engaging “The Founder” – about the creation of the McDonald’s fast-food empire. It’s a nuanced cautionary tale about the American dream, capitalism and individual interest. It focuses on the complex persona of Kroc played by Michael Keaton on a career roll since his Oscar nominated performance in “Birdman.” There’s always been a dark current in Keaton hiding beneath that famous grin of his, and it’s put to great use in this role.
The movie starts in 1954 in Missouri – the incredibly named Ray Kroc is selling a five-spindle milkshake machine. “You increase the supply, and the demand will follow,” he insists directly to the camera. As desperate as he sounds, we find out that Ray lives a comfortable life in Arlington, Illinois with his devoted wife, Ethel (a compelling albeit underused Laura Dern). He logs the big milk-shake apparatus as rejection – but doesn’t give up. He listens to motivational LPs in his hotel – including one with the words of our 30th president Calvin Coolidge, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.” In his sales visits, he’s taking notice of how restaurants are being run wastefully. He gets an unusually large order of his mixers in San Bernardino, CA – and he drives west in a hurry to see it for himself. He meets the owners – Mac and Dick McDonald – who are running a very popular walk-up restaurant with fast productivity – a system they developed called “speedee.” They tell Ray how they came up with it, and about their emphasis on good quality, disposable packaging – and on family and friendliness. “And we’re an overnight sensation -30 years in the making,” states Mac. Ray sees a major opportunity in this building (there is a sly reveal at the end of the story). He suggests franchising, and the brothers tell him they’ve tried it before but found franchisees did not uphold the quality of the system. “Do it for America,” Ray insists. “McDonald’s can be the new American church. Crosses, flags, arches.”
“The Founder” is a clever title. Shrewdly, Ray grows the franchising business into an empire – and figures out that by acquiring the land he will have power and control over the brothers who started the business. He will also meet a female counterpart – Joan Smith – who will advocate for using powder milk to increase revenue.What’s riveting about the narrative is how much of the business we learn and remain enthralled by. Everything is a maneuver – everything is a transaction. Even the courtship with Joan – who will eventually become his wife – takes the form of a late-night conversation over the phone about profits and deals. The success of the film is that it doesn’t fully reveal the ruthlessness of Kroc’s intentions until we’re well invested in his journey -after we’ve seen him overcome setbacks and disappointments – and persevere – while painting the two brothers as a couple of hard working idealists whose original concept was corrupted to become a great American symbol of success.
Director John Lee Hancock – “The Blind Side” and “Savings Mr. Banks” – unfolds the story in a direct way – once in a while – subtly tilting his hand to reveal complexities. There’s a strong visual of Kroc standing in front of his newly built McDonald’s at night as he washes the parking lot. The big shimmering golden arches are in the upper part of the frame and their reflection on the ground. It’s a strong counterpoint to the shots of the original humble restaurant. There’s a pivotal moment – halfway through the film in which we start to understand we might be going into murkier territory. Kroc storms into a bank – and there are flourishes of askew angle shots of him walking through it – leading to him pounding the desk dramatically two times – the sound echoing in the building. The scene involving the stirring of a packet of powder milk into a glass of water is mischievously suggestive.
Keaton is ferocious in this – daring you to look away. The movie is bookended by two scenes where the actor locks eyes and speaks directly to you. Here’s an actor who doesn’t care whether you like him or not. He does want your undivided attention.
Ray Kroc: “I’m looking for scrappers, hustlers, guys who are willing to roll up their sleeves, they got a little drive, they got a little fire in their belly, a little chutzpa. I stand right here before you today and I’m going to offer you something as precious as, do you know what that is? Anybody? Anybody? Opportunity. It’s opportunity. Opportunity. Opportunity to move things, to move forward, to move up, to advance, to succeed, to win, to step up, the sky is the limit. To grab the brass spring. To give yourself a shot at the American dream. To put your arms around the American dream. Opportunity. Because I tell you something, at McDonald’s, just like this great nation of ours, some of that elbow grease, guarantee if you got the guts, gumption, if you have the desire, I guarantee that you can succeed. There’s gold to be had at the end of those golden arches. Golden arches. Golden arches. Now who’s with me, who wants to jump on that ladder to success, to become part of the McDonald’s mishpucha? Now who’s with me?”
Available to stream on Netflix and The Roku Channel and to rent on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Microsoft and Apple TV.
Written by Robert Siegel
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak and Laura Dern
Director John Lee Hancock on Bringing “The Founder” to the Screen
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…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…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…
…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).” (flickeringmyth.com)
Hancock on the Making of “The Founder”
“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)…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.” (flickeringmyth.com)
About Ray Croc and McDonalds
How do you create a restaurant business and become an overnight success at the age of 52? As Ray Kroc said, “I was an overnight success alright, but 30 years is a long, long night.” In 1917, 15-year-old Ray Kroc lied about his age to join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver, but the war ended before he completed his training. He then worked as a piano player, a paper cup salesman and a Multimixer salesman. In 1954, he visited a restaurant in San Bernardino, California that had purchased several Multimixers. There he found a small but successful restaurant run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, and was stunned by the effectiveness of their operation. The McDonald’s brothers produced a limited menu, concentrating on just a few items – burgers, fries and beverages – which allowed them to focus on quality and quick service. They were looking for a new franchising agent and Kroc saw an opportunity. In 1955, he founded McDonald’s System, Inc., a predecessor of the McDonald’s Corporation, and six years later bought the exclusive rights to the McDonald’s name and operating system. By 1958, McDonald’s had sold its 100 millionth hamburger.
Ray Kroc wanted to build a restaurant system that would be famous for providing food of consistently high quality and uniform methods of preparation. He wanted to serve burgers, fries and beverages that tasted just the same in Alaska as they did in Alabama. To achieve this, he chose a unique path: persuading both franchisees and suppliers to buy into his vision, working not for McDonald’s but for themselves, together with McDonald’s. He promoted the slogan, “In business for yourself, but not by yourself.” His philosophy was based on the simple principle of a 3-legged stool: one leg was McDonald’s franchisees; the second, McDonald’s suppliers; and the third, McDonald’s employees. The stool was only as strong as the three legs that formed its foundation. First and foremost, Kroc advocated adherence to the system approach. So while many of McDonald’s most famous menu items – like the Filet-O-Fish, Big Mac, and Egg McMuffin – were created by franchisees, the McDonald’s operating system required franchisees to follow the core McDonald’s principles of quality, service, cleanliness and value. McDonald’s passion for quality meant that ingredients were tested, tasted and perfected to fit the operating system. Kroc shared his vision of McDonald’s future, selling his early suppliers on future volumes. They believed in him and the restaurant boomed. Again, Ray Kroc was looking for a partnership, and he managed to create the most integrated, efficient and innovative supply system in the food service industry. These supplier relationships have flourished over the decades. In fact, many McDonald’s suppliers operating today first started business with a handshake from Ray Kroc.
In 1961, Kroc launched a training program, later called Hamburger University, at a new McDonald’s restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. There, franchisees were trained on the proper methods for running a successful McDonald’s restaurant. Hamburger U utilized a research and development laboratory in nearby Addison, Illinois to develop new cooking, freezing, storing and serving methods. Today, more than 275,000 franchisees, managers, and employees have graduated from the program. Right up until he died on January 14, 1984, Ray Kroc never stopped working for McDonald’s. His legacy continues to this day, providing McDonald’s customers with great tasting, affordable food; crew and franchisees with opportunities for growth; and suppliers with a shared commitment to provide the highest quality ingredients and products. From his passion for innovation and efficiency, to his relentless pursuit of quality, to his many charitable contributions, Ray Kroc’s legacy continues to be an inspirational and integral part of McDonald’s – today and into the future. (mcdonalds.com)
About Director John Lee Hancock
“Hancock was born in Longview, but grew up in Texas City. He is the son of John Lee Hancock Sr., who played football for Baylor and was football coach at Texas City High School. The eldest of four children, John Jr. played football and competed in swimming while in high school. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from Baylor in 1979 and earned a law degree from Baylor Law School in 1982. After working in a Houston law firm for four years, he decided to pursue screenwriting and moved to Los Angeles. Choosing not to take the California bar exam and practice law in California, Hancock instead held numerous non-legal jobs those next few years, took acting classes, worked in local theater. A screenplay he wrote in 1991 was noticed by Clint Eastwood and went on to become ‘A Perfect World,’ directed by Eastwood and starring Eastwood and Kevin Costner. He went on to produce the critically acclaimed ‘My Dog Skip ‘before finding widespread recognition as director of ‘The Rookie,’ which won an ESPY in 2002 for “Best Sports Movie.” He also wrote the screenplay for ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ and directed ‘The Alamo.’ With ‘The Blind Side,’ Hancock returned to his football roots. The film stars Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a well-off Memphis woman who makes room in her life for Michael Oher, a homeless, 350-pound African-American teenager who ended up becoming the Baltimore Ravens’ first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft. The movie received the Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Bullock won Oscar, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards for her portrayal of Tuohy.” (baylor.edu) His most recent films include “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Founder,” and The Highwaymen.”