Burgers and big business

Michael Keaton (centre) in The Founder. He plays the maverick American entrepreneur who transformed McDonald’s from a modest hamburger stand into a global empire

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BY BILLY SUTER

HEADED for South African screens on Friday (May 19), is The Founder, a new screen drama telling the true story of how Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois, came up with a get-rich-quick scheme after he 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 manoeuvred 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.

Oscar-winner Michael Keaton stars as the maverick American entrepreneur, who transformed McDonald’s from a modest hamburger stand into a global empire, now with more than 35 000 locations around the world.

Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch portray Dick and ‘Mac’ McDonald, the innovative brothers whose assembly-line system brought industrial efficiency to the preparation of their limited menu of burgers, fries, milkshakes and sodas during a dynamic period in post-war America, when people were time-strapped and clamouring for speed.

Also starring in the film are Laura Dern as Ray Kroc’s first wife, Ethel, and Linda Cardellini as Joan Smith, the wife of one of Ray’s early franchisees, who would later marry the entrepreneur.

Joining them are Patrick Wilson as Minnesota restaurant owner and McDonald’s franchisee Rollie Smith, and B J Novak as Harry Sonneborn, the financial whiz whose franchising innovations led to Kroc being able to wrest control of McDonald’s from the founding brothers.

The Founder is directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr Banks, The Blind Side), based on an original screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler). The film is produced by FilmNation’s Aaron Ryder and The Combine’s Don Handfield.

The film opens in 1954. Marilyn Monroe has just married Joe DiMaggio; Elvis Presley records That’s All Right and Blue Moon of Kentucky for Sun Studio in Memphis; film producer Walt Disney is in the final stages of construction on his namesake theme park in Anaheim, California; and young home-buyers are flocking to the planned community of Levittown.

While the country is undergoing a post-war boom, in Illinois, 52-year-old businessman Ray Kroc is trying to make a living as a travelling salesman for Prince Castle Sales, whose main product is the five-spindle Multimixer. It is used for making milkshakes at the popular drive-in restaurants that Americans are enjoying during this booming post-war period.

While Ray struggles to make sales on his daily travels across the Midwest, his dutiful, longtime wife, Ethel, holds down the fort back at their home near Chicago.

While she has tried to provide Ray with support over the years, the tempo of his restless business life and pie-in-the-sky ventures has her patience wearing thin.

When Ray hears that one particular drive-in restaurant way out west in San Bernardino, California, has ordered six of his Multimixers, it immediately captures his attention. What restaurant could possibly need to make 30 milkshakes at once?

So he sets out for California to meet with Dick and Mac McDonald, the purveyors of their eponymous popular hamburger stand, McDonald’s…

The Founder began with a song. In 2004, when Don Handfield 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 centre 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 the story of how it all began. So he then read every book and article he could find on Ray Kroc.

“Like today’s Silicon Valley start-ups, 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.”

As Handfield continued doing research into Kroc and the McDonald brothers, the characters and theme of the kind of movie Handfield wanted to make began to gestate, he says in the film’s production notes.

According to Handfield, there are two forms of capitalism represented by 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.”

Patrick Wilson in The Founder, also featuring Laura Dern.

At the heart of Handfield’s interest was the story of two idealist entrepreneurs facing off against a ruthless entrepreneur who would stop at nothing to succeed.

Still, Handfield admits, he does admire Kroc, a man who at the age of 52 still had the drive, 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,  said he was a producer and added that he wanted to make a movie about the McDonald family.  The owner then passed that message along to the McDonald 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. These included 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,” says Handfield.


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