How 'The Founder' Re-Created the First McDonald's

Before Michael Keaton could flip burgers as Ray Kroc, the crew had to build a replica of the first "Golden Arches" franchise in Atlanta, where director John Lee Hancock shot the film.
Michael Coreblith; Daniel McFadden/The Weinstein Company
The production design for the original McDonald’s with its Speedee sign (left) and the actual set near Atlanta.

In the beginning, before its iconic Golden Arches spread throughout the land, McDonald's was a single, unassuming stand launched in 1948 in an octagonal building in San Bernardino, Calif. That restaurant, and one of the first franchises opened by businessman Ray Kroc in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1955, are the key sets in The Founder, in which Michael Keaton plays Kroc as he spreads the McDonald's gospel.

Because that first McDonald's was demolished long ago, production designer Michael Corenblith gathered research by collecting archival photos; contacting the great-nephews of Dick and Mac McDonald, the chain's creators; and visiting the small museum in San Bernardino on the original restaurant's site, where he found blueprints and other props from the period. The original McDonald's, says Corenblith, had a "prewar carhop architectural vocabulary — stainless steel counters, the introduction of neon and, probably the most important thing, the big, almost billboardlike Speedee [McDonald's' first mascot] sign that sits on top of the roof," which made it easy to spot from the road.

The crew built a facsimile of the restaurant, plus a second one resembling Kroc's first franchise near Atlanta, where director John Lee Hancock shot the $7 million film. For the spinoff restaurant, Corenblith says, "The Golden Arches evoked a space-age vocabulary. The windows were cast upward and outward, evoking an airport control tower."

Both sets were built as complete structures, with functioning kitchens that replicated McDonald's assembly-line design. "The food was actually cooked on set," says Corenblith. "We had food trucks handling the turnover so the actors playing staff didn't have to create the food that was handed to the extras. We went through a dozen variations before we landed on the right hamburger bun."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.