Celebrated this season for his role as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly in Denis Villeneuve’s brainy sci-fi film Arrival, alongside friend and frequent collaborator Amy Adams, two-time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner this year hopes to bring attention to another, lesser-known role, as a producer on John Lee Hancock’s Ray Kroc biopic The Founder. In the case of Arrival, Renner saw a terrific leading role for Adams, and hoped only to offer support; with The Weinstein Company’s winter release, though—which premiered last night—the actor found himself venturing into new territory.
Working alongside longtime friend Don Handfield, Renner several years ago founded The Combine, a production company geared toward developing material for Renner to star in, and material that would stand on its own. In contrast to Kill the Messenger, the pair’s first producing credit, The Founder is the latter—starring Michael Keaton as Kroc, the man who claims to be The Founder, the picture approaches the biopic genre from a different angle, telling a classic American success story, with a hard edge. Speaking with Deadline, with Handfield chiming in, Renner addresses The Combine’s beginnings, a fascinating, untold American story, and his ambitions as a producer, with the time allotted between tentpole commitments.
What was the genesis of your production company The Combine, and your relationship with colleague Don Handfield?
Jeremy Renner: Don was actually one of the first guys I met in town back in ’94. He was an actor and a writer and all this stuff. Our friendship has remained all that time, and I’m godfather to his kids, but then when The Hurt Locker came around, I just knew there was a lot of opportunity that was coming in, and just couldn’t really manifest any opportunities because things were busy. We decided to develop scripts and ideas that would be mostly for me, but then also try to develop things that I wasn’t going to do.
We kept moving forward, kept pretty particular about certain things. He’s really great with story, so we kept working on it from that angle and developed a lot of IP over the years, which we became very proud of.
As an actor, does moving into the producing space lend a sense of completion to the filmmaking process, with the ability to control the final product to a larger degree?
Renner: To me, it’s not so much about control. There is definitely a sense of pride to it—it’s more precious when you cook something up from the beginning and you see it all the way to the end, and you get a little bit more of a say. To me, why I’m so stimulated by it is it becomes more proactive. Instead of waiting around for a script to come in, or some movie trying to go. You’re waiting around always for that opportunity, which is great, but I like to be a little bit more proactive. I’m a very action-oriented guy—I’m a doer. The company really became this spearhead for that sort of attitude, and so that, to me, was the most exciting part of it.
You’re right, there is a greater a sense of pride—like when we did Kill the Messenger—and that was probably one of my more fun experiences on a movie set. Having everyone there on the same team, it just feels really great. You have more stakes in the game, emotionally, financially. So, it’s just very satisfying. Much more than just, like, I’m an actor for hire, and I go do a job.
What is your mission statement as a producer, in terms of the material you pursue? Does what interests you as a produce differ from what interests you as an actor?
Renner: Not at all—it’s exactly the same. Any script, even like The Founder, if it’s something that I imagine myself playing this character or that character—any of the characters, basically—how do we flesh these characters out to be good enough to have amazing actors that come in that make it really difficult for them to say no? Even though I’m not right for any of those parts, that’s just kind of how we go about it.
Look, we want to have movies be seen. So, first and foremost, what’s the world? So we can get it onto a big screen. There are 12 stories I feel like we keep retelling from Greek mythology, so okay, how do we tell this amazing David and Goliath type story, and what’s the reason for it to be on the big screen?
We use that sort of attitude ‘cause again, it takes a lot of time and effort and money to make a movie that’s doing so good that people will see it. I’ve done movies that nobody’s seen, and that’s no fun. We want to make people feel something after they buy that ticket. Not looking really to do some big giant action movie that’s just trying to make a lot of money. If you dissect my career as an actor, and you can pull out more than enough of those type of movies, from The Hurt Locker and The Town and so on and so forth, and that’s kind of where our wheelhouse is. We love it.
How did your attachment to The Founder come to be?
Renner: Don did research—he came to me with this idea, and for me, it played into other things than the initial idea. He’s working on trying to find a way, ‘cause he likes the books about the McDonald family and Ray Kroc. We’re at a dead end, and then Don went to try to find the McDonald family, and really had a hard time finding them. Like, why is that so hard?
And he ended up finding out they own some little bed and breakfast or hotel on the East Coast, so he just called the hotel. He finally found them—I think it’s the grandson of Dick McDonald—and he says, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you guys got a hold of me. We’ve been waiting to tell this story for 50 years.” So then he essentially just dug through the garage, finding all these recordings from the McDonald family, and an amazing story started unfolding for us. It got really exciting because we kind of discovered something that was so obvious.
Don Handfield: We had tried to get a couple books that were written about Ray Kroc, and one of the books, we called the publisher. The publisher actually said, “Call McDonald.”
McDonald’s bought the rights and then buried the author in cement, or what they did, but I was googling one night and saw this thing for a little motel. I called the motel, and a little side note: One of the reasons the McDonald family sold, and this isn’t covered in the movie, but the brothers had an idea to do Motel 6 before Motel 6 existed. They were going to apply what they did to food to motel chains, and they were way ahead of their time, but then I think Mac got sick and passed away.
I think this motel was one of the prototypes, and when Mac passed away, they had stopped that venture, but they still had a piece of it in the family. I talked to the night manager there—obviously, being partners with Jeremy’s the only thing that got me in the door. They called me about three days later, the grandson—his name’s Jason French—and he had this treasure trove of archival materials and articles and everything. It kind of grew from there.
Then we found the writer, Rob Siegel. We got a lot of pitches for this, a lot of different takes, and they were usually very Kroc-centered. I mean, they’re very McDonalds family-centered, which was what we intended, but Rob actually was unique in the sense that he pitched telling Kroc’s story but from the McDonalds’ perspective. That’s what we went with, and there’s this great character, obviously, that’s at the center.
Jeremy, did you never see a part for yourself in this particular film?
Renner: No, not really. There might have been an early conversation about maybe doing one of the McDonalds brothers or something, but that’s when I was on a five-film run. I don’t think I slept in my own bed but like two months in five years. Mind you, this is many years ago, because it took many, many years to get this movie off the ground, and get it to a place to even shoot. When this movie was filming, I was filming Captain America: Civil War, also in Atlanta. My schedule just got really, really busy. More importantly, I just think there’s better actors out there that are more suited for the part, and I was just happy to produce it. It meant a lot for us, as well, that this isn’t just some vanity company. This is movies that we really love, we produce, and they’re not always for me.
How would you describe the extent of your involvement as producers on the film?
Renner: A lot of it was cooking up the idea and the story, and the reason why to do it and how to do it, and getting all the players involved. You got to build that team. I don’t want to micromanage—I’m not going to hire a director and then tell him how to direct the movie. You hire the people who are best for the job and for that story, from the set decorator to the makeup artist. Then Aaron Ryder, over at FilmNation, they get involved—we all see the same vision together. It’s just assembling all the players that are needed, because it takes a small city to get any film made at any budget.
The day-to-day production, I could only stop by on set, but that was like ensuring that people are doing what they need to do, ensuring the director’s got all he needed to get. There’s a lot of spinning plates, and Don was there every day with Aaron Ryder. I would have been there a lot more if I could have, but I was filming. Aaron Ryder, as well, was going back between The Founder and Arrival, because we were shooting that at the same time, as well. Now, my part comes in a little bit more, because I’m a little more free in time, and now I can help promote this movie and get people to see it, because we’re all proud of it.
Getting Harvey [Weinstein] involved, too, was another really great plus. Harvey got involved after we had the script and the movie was going. You know, Harvey Weinstein’s Harvey Weinstein—he’s amazing with what he does. He came out and did a really fantastic presentation with the posters, and they went to McDonald’s all around the world and did this little documentary, asking people, employees, customers, “Who’s the founder of McDonald’s?” Most people didn’t know, or they said “Ray Kroc.” So I’m like, “OK, this is great. We got a movie here.”
What was the biggest challenge with this production? While the film took time to bring together, it seems you dodged certain major obstacles with ease.
Renner: There’s challenges every day. I think the biggest ones involved the McDonalds’ rights and the fair use of using the Golden Arches, all that stuff. You’re putting yourself in the line of fire with a giant company that can totally take you down. [Laughs] So what you had to do is have a lawyer say, “Okay, in the First Amendment you have fair use.” You have to do a whole list of things to have fair use so we can use it. Then we go to the insurance company. They get a bond, so the insurance is there. Now that we’re insured, we can move forward, so if we do get sued, we’ll have maybe some great free press, or at least we’re insured by fair use. That was the really tricky kind of lawyer stuff, but I know Harvey went through it with Silver Linings Playbook, with the Eagles. NFL stuff is really tricky, you got to be careful.
Again, we’re not bashing on McDonald’s. We weren’t really scared to do it; it’s not like we’re getting on a soapbox, saying “McDonald’s sucks.”
Has the McDonald’s corporation responded to the final product, to your knowledge?
Handfield: We actually had some contact with the corporation in pre-production. Someone sent them a script, and we saw an article saying they weren’t going to sue us. [Laughs]
I actually had a conversation yesterday with Ray Kroc’s grandson. I’ve spoken to the family, we’re going to have a special screening for them. Look, our intent was to tell a story that we feel really embodies two sides of American capitalism. We certainly weren’t looking to vilify anybody. When you look at Ray Kroc as a character, this is a guy who, at 52 years old, with health problems, refused to give up on the American Dream, and really won it in a way that is incredibly admirable. We always saw the movie as a Rorschach test. How you feel about the movie is going to be up to the audience, and not up to the filmmaker telling people how to feel.
It’s fascinating, the degree to which the film challenges one’s notions of this historic franchise.
Handfield: Yeah, people have always looked at it as this fast food conglomerate, out for serving this Fast Food Nation look. If you really look at it, it’s two brothers who loved each other, who just wanted to make food better, faster, for families, cheap. There’s a beautiful heart to it. If the company can re-find that soul that was put into it by the McDonald brothers and combine that with Kroc’s amazing salesmanship and innovation, then we could see a brand new McDonald’s moving forward. I always thought there should be a McDonald’s with the original menu, like a flagship [location]. They just serve burgers, fries, and shakes, that’s it. Crush.
What are your future ambitions, on both sides of the camera?
Renner: Because I’ve been so busy, behind the scenes and in front of the camera, we ended up getting quite a bit of great scripts and IP that we really love and now at the tail end of all these things, my schedule freed up a little bit. Right now we’re talking about maybe doing…It’s like the Breaking Bad of the West, an origin story of Doc Holliday. We really love this idea, and for me, personally, as an actor, it’s a great character, it’s a great world, and it keeps me a little bit closer to home, so I can be a daddy, and same for Don. That’s something we’re exploring right now.
Handfield: Jeremy gets in these big franchises and he disappears for six to nine months. We started this company to be able to make movies together, so as he gets out of Avengers, we’re excited to really do what we always intended to do with the company. We have a couple other things coming out, a TV series for the History Channel that’s coming out called Knightfall; we have an animated film we’re going to announce in the next few days, in a partnership with two other companies.
Jeremy, looking forward, is directing something you’re inclined to explore?
Renner: Yeah, that’s something that’s always interested me. Again, that is a time suck, and I don’t think I have the bandwidth or the time at this point, being a single daddy, and I’m okay with that. There’ll be a time, place, and space, and it’ll present itself when it needs to present itself, and then I’ll absolutely do it, but I’m pretty happy and content at this moment and will always strive for other things.
You worked with director Denis Villeneuve on Arrival, and you’re soon headed to Sundance for the directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan, the scribe behind Sicario. What can you share about that film at this point?
Renner: Very excited about that. It’s the film I did right after Arrival. I’m crazy about him. He’s a wonderful writer, it’s so in his wheelhouse, and it dealt with the things I was really close to. I got to work with Elizabeth Olsen again. I haven’t seen the film fully completed yet. I saw an early version, back when they were in the editing room. We shot the movie in Park City, so to have a North American premiere at the place where we shot it is really, really exciting.
Funny enough, Denis was the one saying, “Dude, you got to meet up with Taylor, you got to meet up with him.” I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to work, I don’t want to do anything, I don’t want to work!” Taylor actually finally called me, and said, “Dude, just read 10 pages. You don’t like it by 10 pages, I’ll buy you a bottle of booze that you love, and then I’ll come drink it with you, and then we’ll call it a day.” He came over and I fell in love with the guy, so smart and thoughtful, so now I got another really good friend as well.