Nearly everyone in America has eaten at a McDonald’s restaurant at least once.
The world’s largest restaurant chain has well over 14,000 locations in the United States alone, and nearly 35,000 worldwide.
A man named Ray Kroc usually gets recognized as the founder of McDonald’s. Kroc was the head of the corporation for decades until his death in 1984. He oversaw its massive worldwide expansion.
But few people remember the fast-food giant was originally conceived as a single location in San Bernardino by two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald.
“The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as Kroc, shows how the savvy businessman took the humble family-owned business to worldwide domination. In the process, he left the McDonald brothers largely forgotten by history.
The result is a film that offers a family-friendly look at an intriguing slice of American history. Its director, John Lee Hancock, has a long history of creating true-life tales that anyone can enjoy without offense. Think “The Rookie,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and “The Blind Side.” The latter earned star Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar.
Hancock is also a long-time Pasadena resident who works out of an office that’s filled with memorabilia from his films. He recently took time to speak about “The Founder” and some of his career highlights.
‘The Founder’s’ Complicated Allure
“It was a script that crossed my desk, and I really enjoyed it because I’d never read a script like it before,” says Hancock. “Because at the beginning I was rooting for Ray Kroc, then as it goes on I was kind of hesitant about what he was doing, and by the end, I felt almost oily and complicit in his rise. I thought this was a tricky one to pull off, but I’d like to give it a shot because I’d like it to be a Rorschach test for viewers.”
The movie is set from 1954 to 1961, as Kroc — then a struggling milk shake-machine salesman — decides to drive from the Midwest to California and meet the McDonald brothers after they place the largest order he’s ever sold.
It’s a case of wanting to see it to believe it. He soon realizes the brothers have created a streamlined process for service that could revolutionize the food industry.
Kroc hatches a plan to franchise the restaurant, but the brothers worry he’s sacrificing the quality of the food and customer service in the name of greed and overarching ambition. The resulting clash is a fascinating story that gives viewers plenty to consider about what is moral and ethical in conducting business.
“The title is intentionally misleading. What’s your personal definition of ‘founder,’ the person who has the idea, or grows the idea?” asks Hancock, a Texas native who has an actual milk shake machine from the original McDonald’s in his Pasadena office.
“It plays with that notion a lot of who gets credit and who takes credit? It’s about the American Dream and capitalism and how that’s changed. I think the McDonald brothers’ idea of capitalism was to have the best idea and work the hardest. Ray’s version was someone else can have the idea, you just need investment bankers, and that works as well.”
“It’s not just a hamburger or food,” adds Keaton, at a later press conference at the London Hotel in West Hollywood. “McDonald’s was the biggest shift in popular culture and fast food that there will ever be. It wasn’t just about a hamburger. It’s where America was at the time and how it changed everything.”
The fact that “The Founder” comes out on the day of President-Elect Donald Trump’s inauguration is an amazing coincidence. The film portrays Kroc as a larger-than-life showman who could talk people into all sorts of deals that they think would be good for them, only to learn differently later.
While the movie isn’t political in any way, it says a lot about the American Dream and capitalism and the different routes one can take to achieve success. Watching Keaton’s mesmerizing performance — one of the veteran star’s best — definitely invites comparisons to the brash president-elect.
“The timing was interesting, but when I read the script, Donald Trump wasn’t going to be running for president,” says Hancock. “When we made the movie he wasn’t running. It wasn’t in the DNA originally, but there’s no doubt this is a story about a man who was very into name branding, and Trump is into the branding of Trump. I can see people making parallels. But the one difference is that Ray came from nothing.”
Surprisingly, considering the movie offers an often unflattering look at Kroc’s hard-driving business tactics, the McDonald’s Corp. didn’t try to prevent the movie from being made. Hancock was concerned about that possibility when he was approached about directing.
He says that under the “fair use” legal principle, the film was able to depict the McDonald’s “golden arches” logo and Kroc’s checkered history as long as its makers strived to be historically accurate.
“McDonald’s released a statement basically saying that Ray Kroc was a fascinating and talented man, and it doesn’t surprise us that someone would want to make a movie about him,” says Hancock. “I think that’s really smart because when people see it they see it’s not like [the 2004 anti-McDonald’s documentary] ‘Super Size Me’ about McDonald’s today, but about how things have changed in the world in how we do things and the way we eat. But I also think it has kind of an endearing origin story about the McDonald brothers and how we were changing after World War II.”
Hancock, 60, was born in Longview, Texas, and grew up in Texas City — on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, 35 miles outside of Houston. He earned an English degree from Baylor University before initially becoming a lawyer.
But the passion for movies that he developed in college inspired him to write short stories and plays. At age 27 he quit his law firm and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a TV and film writing career.
A ‘Perfect’ Career Start
His first produced screenplay was “A Perfect World,” a 1993 movie that starred Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood (who also directed). Hancock’s career has been fueled by the personal moral values he’s held throughout his life.
“The way you grow up and your personal mores come into play in your life, your personal life, things like that,” says Hancock. “With ‘Blind Side,’ I never set out to make a movie geared toward the faith-based community. It was surprising when the faith-based community embraced it because Leigh Anne Tuohy drank alcohol and swore. But I think they liked that finally someone portrayed Christians as real people.”
That ability to tell a classic story in classy fashion is a hallmark of Hancock’s films. “The Founder” carries on that tradition. In telling a story of a complex man who achieved great successes but did so amid moral conflicts, it’s a reflection of all our fallen and struggling natures.
“There were two boring movies you could make from this,” says Hancock. “One would be Ray Kroc as hero, with the better idea, who wins in the end and we’re cheering. And the other would be it’s a Ray Kroc takedown. But neither one is true. He’s a complicated guy and he’s a hard-working guy. There are a lot of things about Ray Kroc I admire greatly, but others not so much.”
Carl Kozlowski is founder and Chief Creative Officer at Radio Titans (www.radiotitans.com), and host/cohost of its shows “Grown-Ass Men,” “Pajama Party,” “The Koz Effect” and “Kozversations,” plus Chief Guest Booker Winner of the world-famous Laugh Factory’s “America’s Funniest Reporter” contest.