John Lee Hancock interview

The Founder doesn’t resemble the often feel-good stories of some of John Lee Hancock‘s previous films, such as Saving Mr. BanksThe Rookie, or The Blind Side. At the end of the day, this is a story of the good guys losing. Depending on who you ask, there’s little that’s inspiring about Ray Kroc’s (Michael Keaton) success story.

The Founder is a biopic that doesn’t champion, idolize, or demonize its subject; it’s a warts-and-all portrait of an unimaginative but ambitious (or greedy) man with a hunger for success. He achieved the American dream by destroying Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald’s (John Carroll Lynch) dream. They’re the heroes of the story — always pure in their intentions — but they don’t come out on top.

In one thrilling sequence, Mac explains how McDonald’s got started over dinner. It’s a lengthy, dialogue-heavy scene that communicates history and backstory, helps strengthen Dick and Mac’s loving relationship, and moves along at such a fast pace. This scene, which was written by Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler), is where we began our recent conversation with Hancock.

Below, check out our John Lee Hancock interview.

Hancock: I spent a lot of time trying to plan that [scene] out because it’s like you said, it’s a long stretch of an exposition. You want it to become interactive. You want to become excited along with the McDonald’s brothers like they must have been excited when they discovered this.

Did you thoroughly storyboard that sequence? How did you and everyone prepare for it? 

No. I really don’t storyboard unless it’s an action sequence of some kind, but I plan carefully. The first part is, I know what’s I’m shooting in the San Bernardino steakhouse we called it. You’re there. You’re getting lots of different sizes, and wides, and tights, and we’re flipping sides, and crossing the line, and all that stuff. Just doing it over, and over, and over again to give myself options. And John Carroll Lynch, who carries most of the weight in that in terms of telling the story, gives you tons of options. He’s such a fantastic actor.

Then from there knowing that I would also pull from actual historic stills and that I would create some old movie footage kind of thing to give that feel because I wanted to very much have the feeling of a little bit of it’s the history channel vibe. You’re inter-cutting between live people talking to you, and vintage stock photos, or whether it’s a Ken Burns documentary, or anything like that. I wanted to have some of that vibe which makes it feel more real like, “Oh, this actually happened.”

Then there was the tennis court, which on the page, I believe, was just a very short little thing that said exterior tennis court, they go through the motions or whatever. It was a little bit more than that, but not much. You see it coming together. First, it’s a mess, and then it’s not and whatever. I said, “I want to shoot this like a Busby Berkley musical,” and everybody went like, “What?” I said, “No. I want it to be like with high shots pulling up. I want it to be choreographed.” That opened up a whole other can of worms which is choreograph. Yes, I want a choreographer, and I want it to be a dance. The employees have to do the dance of the kitchen.

These guys that we hired to be in the kitchen, young actors and things like that, worked for about three weeks with a choreographer named Kiki. They had a click track, and it was like and a one, and a two, and a dun, dun, dun. Everybody dun to dun. Everybody moving until they had it down pat. You were looking at it, and it was miraculous and great.

Somebody asked me, “How long do you think this will be?” It was the script supervisor who said, “I scripted this sequence for like twenty seconds based on what’s on the pages.” I said, “It’s going to be longer than that.” He said, “How long?” I go, “I don’t know. A minute and a half.” It’s much longer than that even, but I enjoy work product. By work product, I mean I love to see the mistakes. I love to see when somebody shows you an old script, and they’ve made their notes in or those kinds of things. In some ways, this was McDonald’s brother’s work product that we were presenting. We’re showing all the mistakes until they arrive at it. It was a moment in time, which some people might say for better, some people might say for worse, that was the invention of fast food because it did not exist before then.

Nick Offerman

I can imagine some actors finding all that dialogue daunting, but John Carroll Lynch is a great working actor who seems to have done it all. 

That [scene] was his first day. When they got into town, he and Nick, I went to their hotel. We sat down, and read through it once and made a few notes, and a few little changes here and there, just terms of phrase and things like that and added a little bit. Then we come in the next day, and John Schwartzman, our DP, comes up and he says, “Look, we’re prepared to shoot however you want to shoot this. In other words, if you want to shoot the close-ups, we’ve got two cameras. We’re going to roll it once. We can shoot the close-ups first.”

A lot of times you’ll do that because if you start… I said I’m going to need lots of this apple because of how I’m intercutting cutting all this. He said, “Well, do you want to shoot the close-ups first?” I said, “Well, let me ask John.” Sometimes actors will say they’re fresh [for the close-ups], and then right when they’re tired you put them in the wide, and it won’t matter.” I went to John, and he goes, “Hey, whatever is fine with you.” I said, “So, you’re fine?” He goes, “No, let’s do it. I’ll do it all day long. I’ve done a Fincher movie. I can do a million takes.” [Laughs]

I went, “Wow. Eight pages of dialogue. Okay.” I said, “Now, do you want to do a rehearsal or roam a wide?” We can do the wide first. You can just ramble through it.” He goes, “No. Let’s rehearse it once.” Without rolling camera, I go, “Okay, fine.” Schwartzman looks and me, and he goes, “Are we going to be okay?” I go, “We’re going to be okay.”

He rehearses it with no cameras, and the crew just all standing around, and he goes through the entire thing. It is absolutely fabulous. Keaton who comes in and sits down, and is expecting to say, “Okay. No. We’re just messing around here, and we’ll figure it out as we go,” and all that. He doesn’t just say pages, and Keaton just goes [clap, clap, clap], just like you are the man. [Laughs] You are the man. He just destroyed it.

Also, it was so good because he said, “I’m going to give you lots of different flavors, and excitement levels, and down and up because it will allow you to cut away in different places to different energies that you’re cutting away too.” He’s incredibly helpful. He’s a stone cold pro.

How did you both prep for the scene? 

When the three of us sat down and looked at it the day before there were a few things we said, “Do we need this?” We added a thing. I knew that I was going to be inter-cutting. I said, “Well, I can excise that in the editing room. That’s not that big a deal. Let’s go ahead and go with it, and I’ll see what I mean.” I thought there’s a chance when I look at this in total when I look at this, it’s going to be way too long. I said, “I just know that,” but I can cut into it wherever I want because they go through every chapter of their life. I go, “I can just cut a couple chapters out. It’s fine.”

Then we did it. This is a credit to our editor, Rob Frazen, too. Just the pacing of it because you can’t be just quick cuts like that. It’s got to have a rhythm, and a flow, and a shape to it to go along from chapter to chapter to chapter. Something ends, and you go, “That’s fantastic, and that’s the end.” He goes, “It was completely revolutionizing, and it was a complete disaster,” and you go, “Oh shit! We’re starting over again now.” Rob did a beautiful job editing that. We probably spent more time playing with that steak house and tennis court sequence than any other part of the movie just because there were so many moving parts.

Were there any other sequences that required as much time? 

You’re always working on stuff a lot. We worked a lot on the final bathroom scene, but it was a tenth of the time we worked on the steak house and tennis court scene. It’s a world of opportunities. You can do whatever you want here. Do we need one more shot of something else? Do we need a still photo of this? Is this lagging right here? Do we need to quicken the pace? Sometimes by the end, you’re like, “Okay, look at this. Now did something change?” He’ll go, “Yeah. I cut three frames off that.” I go, “I like it. Okay, good.” You’re just pairing it down. It’s really, really fun when you’ve got a great editor like Rob.

Did you lose any scenes in the editing room?

No. You know what? Here’s the thing, when you’re on a very tight, low budget, and you’re on a tight schedule, the last thing you want to do is shoot scenes that are unnecessary because that means you spent a whole day sometimes on something that’s not in the movie. I would rather spend our money on something that’s going to be in the movie to make it better. Now, you can’t always know that, but the more you work with the same people, and I worked with John Schwartzman, and [costume designer] Daniel Orlandi, and [production designer] Michael Corenblith several times now, we answer so many questions in prep.

I continuously question the script, and I love to have the writer there too, and so Rob Siegel was there a lot of the time. Just continually question and continually question. This scene and this scene both kind of do the same thing. Yet if this scene has this one line, is there a way to put that line in here, and get rid of that scene altogether? This scene takes place at a one off place. Is there a way that it can take place at their house? Is it better at their house? Or this scene takes place at their house, why shouldn’t we go back to the bank because we’re going to have an extra half day there anyway when we shoot there anyway? You’re constantly doing all of that. It’s a taffy pull. There’s only one scene in the entire movie that we shot, that’s not in the movie. It was a little scene between Ray and his secretary in his office. It was a 20-second scene.

the founder trailer

You shot the film for 34 days, which is a tight schedule. I imagine having a good crew, and people you’ve worked with before, helped. 

It’s really helpful. It’s also helpful to have actors that are pros, and that are really on it, and that you’ve had many conversations with. It’s the same with actors as it is with the DP or the Production Designer. The more conversations you have before, and I’m not talking necessarily rehearsal, it’s just conversations about where we’re going with this. The last thing you want is to have to stop in the middle of the day and go, “Okay, we got to figure something out. Everybody walk away for an hour.” That’s an hour you don’t get back.

We’re very prepared, and when you come in you hit the ground running. If you’ve got actors that are game for that, too, that’ll go, “We’re going to be moving fast, and hopefully we’re efficient, and hopefully it’s great.” If we have problems, we will stop and we will fix them. If we need to talk about it, we’ll do it. That said, we’re going to keep moving here because I want to spend … I’ve scheduled it so that there are certain scenes where I’m spending more time. I’m laying out more time just because I know it’s going to take longer.

Were there any other scenes you made sure there was more time to shoot? 

I made sure that I gave myself at least a half a day on the bathroom scene between Nick and Michael. It was Nick’s very first scene in the movie, and that’s really dropping someone under the grease. You’ve got a four-page scene in a bathroom, which means you have to do a carefully choreographed dance. John Schwartzman, Michael Corum, and I devised a plan to put mirrors … those are our mirrors up in that bathroom, so that every time you looked you didn’t just see two people, you saw three, sometimes four people. I wanted it to be the James Jesus Angleton thing, a wilderness of mirrors, that Dick McDonald has entered a wilderness of mirrors that is Ray Krock’s lair. It just makes for some really interesting coverage. Sometimes you go, “Am I looking at him or his reflection now?”

I was a little worried that it was going to get confusing to the eye, but when Rob cut it together it wasn’t at all. It was really great. Nick came in, and he was spot on. Great. We got through it quicker than I thought we would. I wanted to make sure that we had time for that.

How did you want to illustrate Ray’s journey visually? 

More than anything it’s about the conversations with Michael, and saying this guy is going on a journey. We have the words you say that changed someone. What we need to do is change the behavior as well. We would constantly talk about the Ray in the early part of the movie being more agitated, anxious, moving, come on, come on, come on, franchise, franchise, franchise. He’s that guy with all that wasted motion in a way. He’s selling and selling hard. We want to end on the place where he is silent, still, and nope.

I said let’s gradient this in a way, and try to figure out how your behavior changes, how the way you walk changes, where you put your hands, all these things so that it’s very gradual. Once you’ve done that, and you start to see that on set, then you go, “And here’s why we need to be in here.” It’s not as though we’re trying to fit Michael into the frame. You’re giving Michael an opportunity.

Now, you have a philosophy about how you’re going to shoot the movie. Are you going to barrage them with long lenses, or are you going to be more in your more straightforward lenses? How much movement? What kind of movement? All those kinds of things. There’s a philosophical understanding you had before you make the movie. Then I’d get in there with the actors and rehearse it and go, “Okay. I think that’s it.” While I’m rehearsing John is looking, looking, looking. Then we said, “Okay, what do you think?” I said, “Well, I think muh, nuh, nuh.” We just go back and forth a little bit, and go, “Yeah, okay. That’s it. Let’s put some marks in and shoot it.”

There’s probably going to be varied reactions to Ray. I can easily imagine someone saying, “He got things done, despite the cost.” Someone’s interpretation of his journey could tell you a lot about them. 

Thanks for pulling that up because when I went into it, I said I kind of want this to be a Rorschach. I want everybody to bring what they bring into the theater when they watch the movie, and they’re going to have different opinions when they leave sometimes. Some people may say, “Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do,” other people might say he’s a monster. I love it when there are those kinds of disagreements. The worst thing in the world would be to have a movie that is either Ray the angel or demonizing him and having a takedown at McDonald’s or something. Those bore me to tears. I love the fact that he’s a complicated guy, and complex, and yet, but he’s human in terms of his desires. He’s a hard working guy. We’re conflicted somewhat.

He’s frighteningly relatable at times. 

That’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of Michael Keaton too.

***

The Founder is now in theaters.

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