Exploring the grey moral territory of ‘THE FOUNDER’ with director John Lee Hancock

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Is this going to keep me intellectually curious in the two years – or more – it’s going to take to make this. Is this going to be worth waking up at 4:30 in the morning for?

We are used to seeing feel-good films that get your heart soaring from filmmaker John Lee Hancock (THE ROOKIE, THE BLIND SIDE, SAVING MR. BANKS). However, his latest, THE FOUNDER, might leave viewers more conflicted than anything. The biopic on Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a salesman who steamrolled the original founders of McDonalds in order to build a bugger, better burger empire for himself, examines the ethically murky side of the American Dream.

I sat down with the affable director to talk about everything from shooting on digital for the first time, to Kroc’s present day political parallel, to the outstanding production design that fooled real folks.

I saw this maybe about a week after the election. It felt so prescient and hard to ignore the political underpinnings. Was this even something that crossed your minds when making this?

No. Not at all.

Do you see this now?

I can see. It was funny because last night, watching the movie again for the first time in awhile, when Kroc is taking his message to the people, where there are cutaways from the Shriners, to the auditoriums, when he’s slamming it home, I thought, ‘Gosh. This is what politics has become.’ Your message doesn’t have to be precise or accurate. It’s jingoistic and ‘opportunity’ and those kinds of things. It’s very CITIZEN KANE-ish, in that type of way. Get the people all fired up.

I can understand the parallels, but when I first started working on this, the President Elect had not announced he was running yet or any of that stuff. But I definitely get the parallels.

How did this creatively stimulate and satiate you as a filmmaker?

I thought it was a great story. Any time you read a script, when you think about directing, the first thought is, ‘Is this going to keep me intellectually curious in the two years – or more – it’s going to take to make this. Is this going to be worth waking up at 4:30 in the morning for?’ I thought it was such a high wire act that Rob Siegel had put together with this character, Ray Kroc. This is going to be continually intriguing and I’m going to have to be on my toes every day with this.

When you have a cast who are as incredible as everyone is here, and they really are, do you have to give them much direction? What’s your strategy?

Hmm. What I like to do is it’s not about necessarily about tons of rehearsal. It’s about lots of good discussion to build a foundation. And the most discussion was with Michael. Whether it was we were sharing meals, or sitting down to chat about scenes, or talking on the phone about scenes we’re shooting the next day, just holding each other to a level of accountability with regard to an accurate and fair and interesting portrayal of Kroc.

We would start to rehearse a scene and Michael would say, ‘Do you think this or…,’ or I would come in and say, ‘We’re going too far this way. Let’s bring it back to the middle.’ We constantly wanted to not necessarily lionize him or vilify him. I wanted to keep the audience off-balance as much as I could, so that every time we started to go to that dark place, I’d say, ‘Can we add a little humanity here?’ Michael is such a quick study and has so many ideas himself that you’re constantly doing that. And that goes for the other actors too. More than anything, if everybody knows you’re going south/ southwest, then my job is to herd them a little bit. They already know where they’re going. Sometimes it’s, ‘Can you make that a question instead of a statement?’ And they will try whatever you want.

As a testament to how great the production design is, did any layman off the street think it was a real McDonalds?

All the time! We were in Douglasville – the one where the Golden Arches was – as soon as it was almost done, we were about to start shooting in a couple of days and an older couple walked by. Michael Corenblith, our production designer, was out there with construction people, and the woman said, ‘Why in the world did they ever go away from this design? It’s so iconic and beautiful. It’s just a jewel box. When is this going to open? We’re excited!’ Michael goes, ‘Thank you for the compliment of the jewel box, but unfortunately, it won’t be opening. This is for a movie.’ There were people asking this of the construction people all the time when they were out there. ‘When y’all opening?!’ [laughs]

It is odd how they didn’t stick with that design. I don’t know if it’s a ringing endorsement for the film, but I wanted McDonald’s after.

It’s funny how it has that effect. When I first started showing it at friends and family screenings, I would get texts from people after saying, ‘I haven’t eaten McDonald’s in ten years, but I’m sitting in the drive thru right now.’ And they’d send a picture. There’s something about that from a sound design standpoint – that sizzle and fries.

Speaking of that, how participatory was the company?

I don’t know if they cared or didn’t care. They were not participatory. We didn’t ask for anything. Our assumptions were that they probably wouldn’t want to be involved. We came under the doctorate of fair use in historical accuracy of the period and things like Golden Arches. The story I heard was a journalist heard we were going into production in a few weeks and sent the script to the McDonald’s corporation, hoping to get a response to it and have a dust-up. But there was no recognition the script had ever been read and McDonald’s just made a blanket statement from a lawyer – I’m going to paraphrase it and say – ‘Ray Kroc was a fascinating and talented man. It doesn’t surprise us in the least someone would make a movie about him.’ I think it’s really smart, because if you’re going to do this with somebody, it’s going to bring more attention to this.

It helps them in the long run too. I’m always curious when you do a biopic, if you ever feel like you’re boxed in by either authenticity to the history, or being accurate?

Sometimes you are. Sometimes you aren’t. Every writer-director has a different way to gauge what fair is. Some people will look at it and go ‘All’s fair in love and war. I’ve got a responsibility to conflict and drama first before I have a responsibility to the real people.’ I don’t agree with that. I think you have a responsibility to the people whether they are still with us or not. I think that you want to be fair, but don’t want to shine too positive a light or too negative a light on them. From a historical standpoint, in a case like this, the accuracy extends to things like, ‘Here’s what we know happened roughly in this order.’ You’re going to be filling in gaps between these events. Of course, you’re putting dialogue in people’s mouths and there’s no stenographer recording anything so that’s made up. Of course there’s things that happened over the course of three years, but in the movie, it’s going to be like it was two weeks. That I’m okay with, but I do feel a responsibility. There’s a lot more information to cull through and add little bits of layers and tissue and tension.

I’m always in awe of anyone who does a period piece. It seems like a herculean effort to make sure there are no Prius’ in the background. Do you know what I mean?

Oh, yeah! Boy do I know what you mean!

And you’ve done this at least twice! Is this something that’s easy now or still challenging?

It’s still challenging, but I think you know what you’ve got to do. The most challenging thing is you’re limited… I do adult dramas and you don’t get a big budget to do that. So because of that, you have to capture everything – or as close as you can to everything – in camera. Which means, when you go to location, you can go, ‘This is all perfect, but we can’t look over there, because over there is all 1984.’ So our choice is to wipe it out, which is going to be difficult to roto around actors, or find another location, or commit that here’s the part we can shoot. Sometimes we’ll bring a bunch of greens in to cover that modern house over there or something like that. Part of the challenge is figuring out what you can put in the frame and what’s anachronistic.

My favorite films are ones that you can still what’s going on with the sound off. I loved how you framed John Carroll Lynch in the hospital bed and you feel his character’s deflation and heartbreak. Can you tell me about doing more of an aesthetically-driven film?

It’s funny because sometimes you have necessity that breeds invention. I forget which Kurasawa movie it was where they’re talking about this beautiful pageantry of the army there and perfect framing and someone asked Kurasawa about it. He said, ‘There was a factory over there and a factory over there and this is between the factories.’ When we were shooting in the hospital, it’s an old closed down hospital used for WALKING DEAD season two or something. We had to go in there and couldn’t remove walls and it’s a small room and that limits you. The last thing we shot was, put the camera in the very corner and where it was, wasn’t an aesthetically pleasing frame. When John and Ian Fox, our camera operator, looked at it, we like that he was way over in the left hand corner of the frame, a cross over there and a big pale wall. There was something about it that was so bleak and sad. We shot it and somebody said, ‘That will never be in the movie!’ And I just fell in love with it in post because it said a lot.

You shot this digitally.

Yes. First time.

Was it creatively freeing or did you miss film?

I miss film. There were certain ways we took advantage of it – any of the wide shots of McDonald’s, the Golden Arches lit up would have probably taken us another hour to light for what we got. Obviously it captures a lot of light very efficiently and quickly. It does give you the ability to riff longer. I don’t know if, in this movie, we necessarily needed it, but we could go again and again. We took lenses – the same ones we used on THE ROOKIE – and had them de-tuned so that they fell off a little bit and looked less precise. As the movie went along, we used more primes and wanted to be more specific. He’s all over the map at the start, and it feels very old, and then when he moves into his shark phase it becomes more [whistles]. Also the way we blocked the three of them, as many times as possible putting Kroc between them, splitting the goalposts.

THE FOUNDER opens on January 20. You can read my review here.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.