New Movie 'The Founder' Explores Entrepreneurship's Dark Side Through McDonald's Origins

You've heard of Ray Kroc, who built the burger empire. But what do you know of his methods?
New Movie 'The Founder' Explores Entrepreneurship's Dark Side Through McDonald's Origins
Image credit: Dimension Films | Daniel McFadden
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"Nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent," is a theme so central to The Founder that director John Lee Hancock uses it twice in his new, thought-provoking movie about Ray Kroc that opens nationwide Jan. 20.

Kroc, of course, was hardly unsuccessful -- he was the architect of the McDonald's empire -- some 36,615 restaurants in 118 countries at last count. What Kroc most definitely was not, however, was McDonald's founder.

Related: A Guy Just Totally Ruined McDonald's Holiday Cups With a Simple Drawing

Rather, he was a self-made entrepreneur who saw an opportunity for wealth and power and zestfully seized it, ethics and integrity be damned. In a nutshell, the story ("based on a true story") is this: In 1954, Kroc, a failing milkshake machine salesman, was a 52-year-old guy wandering the desert, literally, driving across huge swaths of the American Midwest and West, looking for a lucky strike. It came in the form of two well-meaning but not particularly business-savvy brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald, and their walk-up hamburger stand in San Bernardino, Calif.

The stand had reached such success that the brothers had ordered an unheard-of eight milkshake machines from Kroc's company. 

Kroc made a beeline to California to sniff out the reasons behind that success, and discovered the brothers' pared-down menu -- hamburgers, condiments ("two pickles, shot of ketchup"), fries, sodas and shakes, plus the "Speedee System" -- a burger assembly method the brothers had devised to deliver meals in under 30 seconds. Gone were the features sucking up revenue at America's then-iconic drive-ins: parking lots, carhops, long waits and multiple-item menus.

Did somebody say McDonald's? Customers couldn't get enough of the new model's fare. Nor could Kroc (Michael Keaton), whose character evolves from aggressive entrepreneur to unscrupulous corporate thief as he turns from just franchising new outlets for the McDonalds to acquiring hundreds of parcels (then, thousands) for himself and collecting lease fees from franchisees.

Entrepreneur spoke to The Founder director Hancock (The Blind SideSaving Mr. Banks) for insight on how he approached Kroc's evolution, to a businessman who stole the company out from under the McDonald brothers, then declared himself the company "founder." Here's a partial transcript:

We're all about extoling entrepreneurs here. But the Ray Kroc you present in the film's second half is beyond distasteful. He talks about business being "war" and how, if a competitor were drowning, he'd "put a hose in his mouth." He opens a McDonald's directly across the street from the brothers' restaurant, driving them out of business. He steals a franchisee's wife -- and more.

So, in your mind, is this what real "success" looks like in America? Or, are you more an advocate of the McDonald brothers' style of success, insisting on quality control and slow expansion?

Hancock: I’m conflicted about Kroc, because as much as I don’t think I would have gone down the same path as him, it’s obvious I wouldn’t have grown the business the way he did and wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. The things I admire about him are, one, he came from nothing. Two, from all reports, everyone who ever met him said he was the hardest-working person they ever met.

So these are all things to admire, and there’s no doubt that it was a very capitalist venture. But so was the McDonald brothers'; the goal for both was to make money, but theirs were different philosophies about how to go about doing it and what their own personal responsibility was.

So you're more an advocate for the McDonalds' style?

Personally, I would side with the McDonald brothers, and I think there are growth models that can back that up. You don’t have to be a little burger stand in the desert. I think if the McDonalds had maintained control of their operation ... they weren’t against growth. They just wanted more control. I suspect if [the company] had remained in the family, they might be In-N-Out Burger today, or something. 

[Kroc] recognized that the McDonald brothers were on to something. They themselves had failed with their very first franchises by not having owner-operators, having only owners; and the operation slid. And another thing to admire about Kroc: He recognized rather quickly that he wanted people with more skin in the game than just their money.

What drew you to this project?

I knew of [screenwriter] Robert Siegel’s work. I was a big fan of a movie he wrote called The Big Fan. Also, he wrote The Wrestler. So [The Founder] script came and I knew it was about the origin story of McDonald’s and I thought, "Wow, I’m not sure I want to do this." I’d just done [Saving Mr. Banks] about P. L. Travers and Walt Disney and bigger-than-life people. I was reluctant. I didn’t want to put myself in a rut in any way.

But I started reading it, and was really taken with it. I was actively pulling for Ray Kroc in the first path and then started having questions about some of the things he was doing and by the end was sometimes aghast at some of the things. And as a script model, that was unlike anything I’d seen. It struck me very much like Death of a Salesman, with a different ending: Willy Loman doesn’t kill himself; he takes over the world.

"Nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent": you use that phrase twice. I Googled it and came up with Calvin Coolidge. Was that Coolidge's voice on the motivational record Kroc early in the film listens to in a decrepit motel room?

What I had heard was that it was Norman Vincent Peale. ... The most important thing for me was that this was something that in his lean years he thought, “I’m going to keep working, I’m going keep thinking, I’m going to do it.”

It’s not the same as today. In the 1950s, if you were in your 50s and hadn’t hit it yet, you were looking to retire, you were looking for a soft landing spot. And Ray was in a place where he felt that he had not yet rung the bell, and he deserved to. So, when he came across [the McDonalds'] idea, saw his opportunity, which he probably thought he deserved all along, [he responded] because he said, "I’m a smart guy, I’m a hard-working guy. Why not me?"

If you want to read into it [that the talented but unsuccessful people in the quote were the McDonalds], that’s fine. 

Related: McDonald's to Donate Meals to the Homeless in Vatican City

Disney Company was involved in your previous film, Saving Mr. Banks. Was McDonald's involved in The Founder? Any feedback from them? Fear of litigation? This was not a rosy portrait of their founder.

The only response was ... there was a journalist back when we were in prep for the movie -- because everyone was asking the same question, "Are they going to sue?" [So, this]  journalist sent them a copy of the script, hoping for a dust-up to report on. And I don’t know if they ever read the script, but they had a spokesperson, I believe a lawyer, who crafted something along the lines of: “Ray Kroc was a fascinating and talented man; it doesn’t surprise us in the least that someone would make a movie about his life." Boom.

Do you see parallels to recent movies exploring the lightness and darkness of major business figures, such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs?

It’s funny. When I read this, I didn’t think of those, but it’s been brought up several times; I’m not going to say I don’t see the parallels: "To be a great man, can you be a good man?" kind of question, like with LBJ and others. 

I like those stories. I think everybody’s complicated. There’s no such thing as a completely good or a completely bad person. It comes down to what they want, really. 

So, are we seeing the rise of a film genre about business moguls? And are there any more moguls you'd like to make a movie about?

I think I’m business moguled out!

The movie starts with the message, "Based on a true story." How close to the real thing was this?

Very close. The one thing you should know is that every single movie that comes out today that is a true story, historical, is going to say "based on a true story," for legal reasons. Because, for instance, I’ve got Michael Keaton playing Ray Kroc; I don’t have Ray Kroc playing Ray Kroc. And there are certain scenes where there was no stenographer in the room, so you’re making up dialogue. So, from the legal standpoint, they always say "based on a true story."

[The Founder, though, was very close to what happened]. The most harrowing lines that come out of Kroc’s mouth are his actual lines: 'If a competitor was drowning, stick a hose down his throat.' 'Business is war.' 'Dog eat dog, rat eat rat.' Those are actual quotes. 

The film opens on Jan. 20 nationwide?

Yes, Inauguration Day! How about that?

Related: Check Out Michael Keaton's Take on McDonald's Pioneer Ray Kroc in 'The Founder'

Is there any connection to what you envision as Donald Trump’s America -- with a big businessman as president?

Obviously, when we started this, Trump was just a businessman based in New York, it’s certainly not in the DNA of it. That said, I can see where people would draw parallels between a businessman who has a very strong feeling for the branding of name. The one thing I would say about Ray Kroc is that Ray Kroc didn’t have a business starter kit. He had to do it all on his own.

Edition: April 2017

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