By Olga Agafonova
Recently, I’ve been asked to contribute to an adaptation of a TV show script to a feature. I’ve never done anything like that before, so I began to think long and hard about what makes a good film.
What I’d like to write about is how life slips away and we don’t do the things we hoped to accomplish, about the big, good, beautiful dreams that end up being illusions.
In the 2016 film The Founder, about the origins of the McDonald’s chain, the transformation of Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton, is engrossing, exactly the kind of writing and directing that transcends mere entertainment.
This is more than another story of a man corrupted by ambition. For Kroc, success is just out of reach, just another sale or two or twenty away. He craves something more than his nice home and nice – but not good enough – wife. Keaton’s facial expressions, his shifts in mood are central to the film. When Kroc tells his wife about the McDonald’s brothers’ fast-food assembly-line innovations and she dismisses this, you can tell just by the look on Keaton’s face that he will remember this slight and won’t let it go easily. Indeed, toward the end of the film, Kroc coolly tells his wife over dinner that he wants a divorce.
Seeing these subtle shifts on the screen is not the same as writing them but I hope that being able to pay attention to these things will soon start translating into more compelling characters. I struggle with my characters. I know what I want them to be, I sometimes see a fuzzy image of them in my mind but I do not yet hear them and I certainly don’t hear them telling me how they’d like me to describe them.
The McDonald’s brothers dream of a restaurant that serves surprisingly high-quality burgers and fries turned into something grotesque. The franchise is now associated with poor nutrition, low pay, obesity and poverty. Happy healthy people don’t eat at McDonalds anymore– they’re being sold feel-good stories by Whole Foods, where business somehow shouldn’t feel like business.
Kroc did accomplish a lot, at the cost of defrauding the brothers of their invention and their royalties. Keaton, by the end of the film, looks confident and ruthless. Gone is the sugary-ness of a salesman who wants just one minute of someone’s time. Keaton is a less handsome Dorian Gray who rather enjoys what he’s become.
This complexity of character, the elevation of a story about the food industry into first-class drama – that’s a film worth writing and watching.