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'The Founder' Follows Salesman's Genius Idea To Franchise McDonald's


The new film "The Founder" tells the story of Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton. Kroc was a hard-luck salesman when he saw a hamburger stand in California and eventually pitched Dick and Mac McDonald on letting him franchise it. He tells them at one point that their golden arches can become as common as crosses on church steeples in every town in America.


MICHAEL KEATON: (As Ray Kroc) It could be said that that beautiful building flanked by those arches signifies more or less the same thing. It doesn't just say, delicious hamburgers inside. They signify family. It signifies community. It's a place where Americans come together to break bread. I am telling you, McDonald's can be the new American church, feeding bodies and feeding souls. And it ain't just open on Sundays, boys. It's open seven days a week.

SIEGEL #1: And we all know the rest. Here to talk about the film is the screenwriter who wrote "The Founder" and with the interesting name of Robert Siegel. Robert Siegel, welcome to the program once again.

ROBERT SIEGEL #2: Hello, Robert Siegel.

SIEGEL #1: Now, Ray Kroc sees how the McDonald Brothers figured out the idea of a very small menu, very fast service, no plates, no flatware to wash. He takes those ideas big-time. How do you see him? Somebody who stole a good idea or somebody whose business sense was a form of creativity in itself?

SIEGEL #2: What's the saying about mediocre artists borrow and great artists steal? Do you know that phrase? You could look at him as a thief. But you could also look at him as a visionary of sorts. Not a creative visionary, but certainly saw something in this company that the company itself didn't see, which was just to go absolutely enormous with it. The brothers thought big, but he thought huge.

SIEGEL #1: That speech that we heard a bit of, is that attributable to Ray Kroc or did you write that?

SIEGEL #2: It's actually attributable to my wife, Jen Cohn.

SIEGEL #1: This was just at home? Or was she actually working on the movie with you?

SIEGEL #2: Yeah. Yeah. No, no, no. We - I'd just show her pages and I'd talk it through. And she kind of had this idea for this crosses-arches-courthouse thing. You know, I'm writing a movie about a guy who steals someone else's idea and takes credit for it. And every time that clip is aired I'm enormously tempted to do the same. But that would be rather ironic and extremely hypocritical if I didn't give her credit.

SIEGEL #1: A problem that you face in writing about a guy trying to take this business idea and vying with the two guys who originated the first example of it is that we know how it's going to end. When it's McDonald's, we understand that there are going to be a zillion McDonalds all over the world and Ray Kroc is going to become fabulously rich as a result of it. How do you deal with that problem and trying to invest this with some suspense?

SIEGEL #2: Well, it's like "Titanic," right? You knew eventually there was going to be an iceberg. It is a challenge. Rather than focus on plot, you just kind of pay attention more to character. If you make sure your character is interesting and engages the audience all the way through then, you know, even if you know kind of where it's going you're invested and you're interested in the movie, hopefully.

SIEGEL #1: Your previous films - this is, I should say, Robert Siegel's second career after editing The Onion for a long time - you wrote "The Wrestler" and "Big Fan," both sports movies.

SIEGEL #2: Yes.

SIEGEL #1: Sports, hamburgers - a very different subject for you to look at.

SIEGEL #2: Well, they're all - I mean, it's all pop culture. They're all character - they're all depressing character studies, guys on the outside looking in to some aspect of American pop culture, sports and hamburgers. I don't think it's that different. They're all about America and winning and losing and fame and capitalism and...

SIEGEL #1: And men.

SIEGEL #2: Yeah. Yeah. I write about men.

SIEGEL #1: Guys.

SIEGEL #2: Yeah.

SIEGEL #1: How would you describe the research you put into your study of Ray Kroc and McDonald's?

SIEGEL #2: I was handed a giant stack of transcripts and archival material, and then I just kind of didn't look at it. You can get really lost in research. It's a great way to procrastinate. In this case I just read - I read Ray Kroc's autobiography. And then there was an unauthorized autobiography.

SIEGEL #1: I think you mean biography.

SIEGEL #2: Unauthorized - did I say unauthorized autobiography?

SIEGEL #1: Yeah.

SIEGEL #2: That would be weird.

SIEGEL #1: Yeah.

SIEGEL #2: No, an unauthorized biography of him. So it's kind of the, you know, warts and all behind-the-scenes thing.

SIEGEL #1: Did you come away from researching Ray Kroc and then writing the screenplay liking the man?

SIEGEL #2: I still don't know. I've seen the movie seven times now, probably, in different stages, and I still don't really know how I feel about him. Sometimes I watch it and all the way through I kind of strangely admire him and I find myself frustrated with the brothers. And then there are times when I watch it and I just think he's a complete bastard. So I think the truth is probably both.

SIEGEL #1: Well, Robert Siegel - Robert D. Siegel. I'm sorry about that.

SIEGEL #2: Yeah. It's sad when I Google myself and all that comes up is you.

SIEGEL #1: (Laughter).

SIEGEL #2: Damn it.

SIEGEL #1: Robert Siegel, screenwriter, writer of "The Founder," the story of Ray Kroc. Thanks for talking with us.

SIEGEL #2: Thank you, pleasure.

SIEGEL #1: And one note - in her will, Ray Kroc's widow, philanthropist Joan Kroc, left over $200 million to NPR.


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