A classic, capitalist, American story.
For producer Don Handfield, The Founder began with a song. Back in 2004, when he was casually listening to “Boom, Like That,” a single from the just-released solo album from Dire Strait’s singer-songwriter Mark Knopfler, the producer, who is partners with actor/producer Jeremy Renner in their Los Angeles-based production company, The Combine, was instantly intrigued.
The lyrics of the song – Knopfler’s reflections from reading Ray Kroc’s autobiography – detail how the milkshake mixer salesman from Illinois first visited the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino and pitched them the idea of franchising their restaurant. Curious about the man at the center of the song, Handfield remembers thinking, Who was this guy? What is this about? Like everyone, Handfield was familiar with the ubiquitous fast-food restaurant, but he wanted to know more about its story of how it all began.
The Founder is a drama that tells the true story of how Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Impressed by the brothers’ speedy system of making the food at their San Bernardino hamburger stand and the crowds of patrons it attracted, Kroc immediately saw franchise potential and maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire. And thus McDonald’s was born.
The Founder is directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side), based on an original screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler).
Handfield says he read every book and article he could find on Ray Kroc.
“Like today’s Silicon Valley startups, it was such a fascinating story about two brothers who created something and then the business guy comes in and takes it to the next level. And often the split between the founders and the business guy is a violent one. This story had all the echoes and machinations of that.”
Research Begins into the lives of Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers
As Handfield continued doing research into Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers, the characters and theme of the kind of movie Handfield wanted to make began to gestate. According to Handfield, there are two forms of capitalism represented by Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers.
“The McDonald brothers were very much like sustainable capitalism, like, we’re going to make great product. We’re going to leave a minimal footprint. We’re going to take care of our employees – I guess you would call it sustainable capitalism. And on the flip side you have Ray Kroc, who, if you could drop him in the jungle he’d cut down every tree and come out with a suitcase full of cash.” At the heart of Handfield’s interest was the story of two idealist entrepreneurs facing off against a ruthless entrepreneur would stop at nothing to succeed. Still, Handfield admits, he does admire Ray Kroc, a man who at the age of 52 still had the drive and stamina and confidence to do whatever it took to start an empire.
Handfield says he chased the story for five years before serendipity arrived in the form of a random Internet search. While doing a Google search late one night, he came across a small article with an interview with Dick McDonald that mentioned he owned a small motel in Massachusetts. He called the current owner of the hotel and said he was a producer and wanted to make a movie about the McDonald family, and the owner passed that message along to the McDonald’s family. That lead ultimately led him to Jason French, the grandson of Dick McDonald who said he’d been waiting 50 years for someone to call and tell this story. Dick and his brother Mac had passed away several years earlier so French was informally appointed by the family to handle discussions with the Hollywood producer. For such an iconic part of American history, Handfield was surprised to learn that in all that time, no reporter, journalist, or movie producer, had ever reached out to them.
Excited to have the true story of the founding of McDonald’s told from their point of view, French and the members of his family shared archival materials and McDonald’s memorabilia with Handfield, including letters between the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc, archival photographs, various designs and mock-ups, as well as Dictaphone recordings of their conversations. “This was all stuff that was valuable when we began to create the story,” Handfield relates. “The story was never going to be a movie about fast food. To me the story was always about capitalism.”
“This is unbelievable for our family to have this story being told and bringing to light how everything came about and how McDonald’s was formed,” says Jason French. French says his grandfather and great uncle were great innovators, creating processes that would be put into effect not only in his own restaurants, but that created the standards for fast food restaurants everywhere. “My grandfather was a man that had so many thoughts, dreams and came up with so many things before their time, it’s unbelievable. He was a guy who thought how can we make it better? How can we do it faster? And how can we make things move more effectively?”
Securing The Film Rights
A decade after Handfield first heard Mark Knopfler sing the lyrics to the fateful tune, I’m going to San Bernardino ring-a-ding-ding / Milkshake mixers that’s my thing now / These guys bought a heap ‘o my stuff / And I gotta see a good thing shooting up now, the producer had finally secured film rights from the McDonald’s family. With a movie concept in place, Handfield and his producing partner Jeremy Renner brought the project to veteran producer Aaron Ryder, the co-president of production at FilmNation Entertainment, who immediately loved the idea. “It’s exactly the type of film that we do,” Ryder says about the New York-based film production and distribution company. “It’s a movie about America and capitalism. It’s about the pursuit and the erosion of integrity, and determination of succeeding. It’s a story that shows the American dream: that you can succeed despite the odds by just sheer force of will.”
Choosing a screenwriter who could take a legendary story and transform it into a character piece
The project quickly began to fall into place. Before bringing in a director to visualize the film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, the producers felt they needed to have the right script. In choosing a screenwriter who could take a legendary story and transform it into a character piece, the producers met with several writers until they found one whose vision for the project resonated with them.
In 2013, Handfield contacted screenwriter Robert Siegel, who had just written “The Wrestler,” and whose sensibility he thought might be a perfect match to trace the rise of Ray Kroc from a hustling salesman into the chairman of a global fast food empire. “We talked with a bunch of writers about how they would go about this,” Handfield recalls. “And Rob’s take was in making it the McDonald brothers’ story but from the point of view of Ray Kroc, and I think that was a really original and powerful way to approach it.”
“I like to write kind of big American stories,” proclaims the screenwriter who is also known for writing and directing the Spirit Award nominated comedy-drama “Big Fan” with Patton Oswalt. “And the genesis of McDonald’s touched on all these big American themes: the car culture, the ‘50s, the rise of the suburbs, and fast food, and capitalism, and greed. There’s such an epicness to the story. It’s such a big untold story. It was kind of the birth of fast food which has had reverberation on how we eat, and where we eat, and who we eat with.”
Siegel instantly responded to the character and saw incredible potential. He says, “Ray Kroc is such a big, complicated, larger than life, polarizing figure who does whatever it takes to get his way.” Armed with hundreds of pages of research materials about Ray Kroc and McDonald’s, the writer also explored the general landscape of America in the 1950s. “Post World War Two the country was just exploding,” Siegel says. “It was just rock and roll, car culture, youth culture, and drive-ins. And here you have this man who is completely out of time. It’s an Elvis Presley world and Ray’s a Bing Crosby man.” However much a fish out of water he was in that era, Siegel notes that Ray Kroc would go on to be one of the major drivers of ‘50s culture, and on through the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond.
For Siegel, the origin story of Ray Kroc and McDonald’s reminded him of another corporate titan, Mark Zuckerberg, and the problematic founding of the social media site Facebook as depicted in David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network.” “I tend to gravitate toward dark,” Siegel expresses. “I like dark, complicated, messed up characters. And when Don [Handfield] and I started talking, we really saw things in a similar way, about building this portrait of this larger than life guy who changed America, and changed the world, and left a lot of human wreckage in his wake.” In crafting the screenplay Siegel also sought inspiration from films such as “There Will Be Blood,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” and books like Robert A. Caro’s book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, all of which detail maverick titans of industry.
Ray Kroc lived a long life filled with many chapters, so creating the structure of the film was a challenge. Siegel explains, “There was no need to focus on the early years that much, so the starting point for the movie is this failed salesman who hadn’t achieved any success until he was already pretty much at retirement age. At that time, he was in his mid-50s when he came upon the McDonald brothers.”
Combining a strong character study and themes of America in the 20th century, Siegel turned in his first draft of the script in eight weeks. For Siegel, the defining moment in the story that set him in motion is when Ray Kroc first lays eyes on McDonald’s. “That’s his burning bush moment,” he muses. “He’s this guy who’s just been literally wandering in the desert, wandering the back roads of America selling these Multimixers for decades with no pot of gold. There’s no reason to think this guy is headed for anything special. He’s at a point in his life when he should be retiring. So when he sees this booming restaurant in the middle of this dusty, desert town of San Bernardino, he feels like, this is my purpose, this is my calling.”
Ray Kroc had always wanted to be a success, and when he meets the McDonald brothers he realizes he has the opportunity to do something great and prove all of his naysayers wrong. “It’s redemption, I think, for the lonely, miserable life on the road as a traveling salesman,” Siegel contemplates. He adds that one of the admirable things about the visionary entrepreneur is that whenever he was beaten down, he would just get back up. “Even in the face of all this evidence that he was unremarkable, and absolutely not destined for anything special, he believed there must be a purposes to all of this. A reason why he was grinding it out. That’s the name of his biography, ‘Grinding it Out,’ and that’s what he was. He was a grinder and he had this drive. He always felt that there was some sort of destiny, and always had faith that this was all for something.”
The film’s title, “The Founder,” refers to the oft-cited description of Ray Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s, but for the filmmakers it was infused with irony.
“Ray wasn’t the founder of McDonald’s,” Don Handfield asserts. “He didn’t create the Speedee System. He didn’t create the restaurant. But without Ray Kroc, McDonald’s would not have been the worldwide global brand it is today. Screenwriter Robert Siegel echoes that sentiment. “Ray certainly admires the McDonald brothers,” the screenwriter allows. “They’ve done something he was never able to do, which is come up with an original idea. They also thought big and had ambition. But Ray thought huge! He wanted 2,000, 3,000 franchises, which at the time sounded insane. So he was not the founder. But he called himself the founder. As soon as he acquired the company, he went about slowly rewriting the history of the company, and kind of wrote them out of their own story.”
Director on board
With a script they felt was ready to be fully realized on screen, the producers partnered with award-winning writer, director, and producer John Lee Hancock, to direct the film. Aaron Ryder says that in addition to being a seasoned writer and director, Hancock is one of Hollywood’s most amiable guys. “He’s someone who knows exactly what he wants to do, and who surrounds himself with collaborators with whom he’s worked for the last ten or fifteen years,” Ryder says. The multi-hyphenate artist has directed a long string of critically acclaimed and successful films such as the sports dramas “The Rookie” and “The Blind Side,” and most recently the 1960s period drama, “Saving Mr. Banks,” starring Tom Hanks as filmmaker-businessman, Walt Disney. Don Handfield says “I thought he was perfect for it because in some ways, he’s like the Frank Capra or Norman Rockwell of our time. He’s this guy who tells these very American stories in a very timeless way. What better guy to tell this big origin story that takes place in America than John Lee Hancock?”
In his last film, “Saving Mr. Banks,” Hancock created 1906 Australia and 1961 Los Angeles, so he was familiar with the notion of creating a believable world in an earlier time period. With “The Founder,” that period is 1954-1961, a time in America when much of the country was quickly catching on to the idea of mass production. In this optimistic post war period of Elvis Presley, a new modern suburbia of interstate highways, roadside motels, and fast food was also first coming into existence. “It’s always a lot of fun to do films set in the past,” Hancock says. “Because of the cars, because of the clothing, and also looking for anachronisms. It’s definitely easier to do a contemporary movie, but there’s something satisfying about being able to time travel.”
Hoping to provide audiences with great characters and an entertaining experience, the filmmakers behind “The Founder” also believe that the story of Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers will serve to humanize the ubiquitous global fast food chain. “I think when people learn about the story behind McDonald’s, that it will give the company a human feel that I think they’ve lost in the past five decades,” producer Don Handfield observes. “The McDonald’s Corporation might be unsettled by the prospect of a warts-and-all movie about Ray Kroc, but I think they’ll pleased when they see the movie. Every time I pass by a McDonald’s now I don’t see this massive corporation that makes fast food. I see two brothers who loved each other and who wanted to make fast food for families that was affordable and good.” Even though “The Founder” presents the candid origin story of the fast food chain, producer Aaron Ryder believes that McDonald’s should be very excited about “The Founder.” “Every time I read the script, I wanted to go out and eat a McDonald’s hamburger! Every person in the United States has some sort of relationship or familiarity with McDonald’s. And if you’re able to tap into that nostalgic feeling and get people to go back to that because they want to eat a McDonald’s hamburger, that’s going to help them.”
The goal of the movie, Handfield says, is not to vilify Ray Kroc or glorify the McDonald brothers. “I think half the people will come out and go, ‘Ray Kroc’s an American hero,’ and half the people will come out and go, ‘Man, the McDonald brothers sure were American heroes,” he speculates. “And I think that’s good. I think Ray Kroc in some ways is just driven by desperation and fear. He didn’t want to be a failure. He wanted to be successful by any means necessary to get there. And I think we’ve kind of adopted that as our national credo – it’s all about being successful at any cost.”