Released in UK cinemas this week, The Founder tells the story of the world’s best-known brand, McDonald’s - and how entrepreneur Ray Kroc wrestled the company away from its founders.
We sat down with the movie’s director, John Lee Hancock, to talk burgers, unscrupulous business tactics and what he learned about leadership from Kroc.
Your previous films include Snow White and the Huntsman and Saving Mr Banks - this one’s a bit different. Why did you make The Founder?
I’d never read a script where I was actively rooting for a protagonist, and then conflicted by his behaviour - so I thought that was kind of a high-wire act, it might be really fun to take on.
Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc. Are the two alike?
When I read it he was the first face that popped into my head. There are certain things he shares with Ray: one is they’re both really hard working guys, and they both have an energy and a forward lean. They’re also both good salesmen - when Michael tries to sell you on an idea he can be quite passionate.
At the start of the movie Kroc is a failing salesman and by the end he is a millionaire thanks to some pretty questionable business moves on his part. Was your intention to paint him as a good guy or a bad guy?
I always thought there were two versions of this movie that would be incredibly boring: one would be a Horatio Alger [the US author who made his name with “rags to riches” tales] kind of story with Kroc taking over the world and us cheering him, and one is with Kroc as an evil villain, and there is a takedown of McDonald’s and capitalism and corporate America. In this one, you see yourself in Kroc sometimes, and then you start to ask yourself a question: “Would I have done that?”
My job as a filmmaker is not to answer questions, but to ask good ones. I think it becomes a bit of a Rorschach test for viewers. I’ve had responses all over the map: some people said, “well Kroc did what he had to do and the [McDonald] brothers were holding him back” - others say Ray Kroc’s a monster.
With his hardline tactics and a fondness for catchphrases, it’s hard not to notice some parallels between Kroc and the new occupant of the White House...
We finished making the movie before Donald Trump ever announced his bid for presidency. That said, I can see people drawing parallels - you’ve got very aggressive businessmen who completely understand the branding and iconography and the importance of a name.
Kroc’s understanding was that it wasn’t his name but the McDonald’s name [which made the company successful]. Trump is all about his own name and branding everything with it. The difference is, Ray Kroc came from nothing.
Is there a little bit of him in you?
I’m probably not as visionary as Kroc was in terms of seeing how big something can be - I’m usually a little more focused on creating the one thing rather than multiple things.
I don’t get involved in lots of sequels - if I were smart I would probably take on more comic book movies and superhero movies because you make a lot more money doing that. I tend to do my little adult dramas that don’t always make a ton of money.
Did you learn anything about leadership from him?
Every time you direct a movie you learn a little bit more about management style. It’s always with a slightly different crew and a new group people who you have to get on board. You need to help them understand your vision for the movie so everyone is heading in one direction. With each group you set out to do that and they’re always slightly different.
There are a couple things about Kroc I really admire. He would let people advance and move up in the corporation from positions of little importance, such as Fred Turner who he discovered cooking burgers in one of his franchises, who later became the head of the company. June Martino, his bookkeeper, became second in charge at McDonald’s.
He said just because you are a kid flipping burgers, [doesn’t mean I don’t] see promise in you and I’m going to bring you along for the ride. There’s a little bit of reminder in there that talent is where you find it - you can see talented people in the oddest places.
When was the last time you had a McDonald’s?
I had a McDonald’s about a month ago: I had a Fillet-o-Fish. So many people have said [the movie made them go out and buy a McDonald’s]. Some said they hadn’t eaten there in 10 years, and then they would text me a photo of them standing in line after seeing the movie.
Did your view of the company change after you made the movie?
I grew up with McDonald’s, where you’d have the brass plaque with the image of Ray Kroc in it as the founder, so I had that notion in mind that he had created in it - but that was not the case.
There’s a beautiful origin story with the McDonald brothers and how they essentially created fast food on the West Coast. I didn’t know any of that story and I found it fascinating. I came away, probably feeling the same generally about McDonald’s but also having a great deal of admiration for the brothers.
The film’s backers are suing its distributors because it was released just a week before Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey, which tells a similar tale of unscrupulous business tactics. Were you upset by the timing?
I’m not a part of the lawsuit [but] I have to say I was a bit surprised when I saw Gold was opening a week later.
The Founder is out in UK cinemas on 17 February