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Production Designer Michael Corenblith Serves Up Historical Accuracy in The Founder

January 18, 2017 | By
John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman in The Founder (2016)

John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman in The Founder (2016)

Michael Corenblith has a production design track record that started with historical recreations, in the undersung 80’s political film Prince Jack, about the times of JFK. Along the way he’s also done The Alamo, Frost/Nixon, and — speaking of founders — the Walt n’ Mary Poppins’ Saving Mr. Banks, for Disney, and many others.

But while in a recent interview with Below the Line, he also said that in the life of a production designer, “a lot of horror and slasher films tend to come your way,” he’s back to recreating the 50’s and 60’s, and American iconography, in the new film The Founder.

Released late last year in NY and LA for award consideration, The Founder is currently going wider. It tells the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), who literally “found” McDonald’s — the original one — out in postwar San Bernardino, convinced the McDonald brothers to let him franchise their fast food innovations, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But of course, as with all history, not quite as candy-colored — or perhaps as “golden” — as it is made out to be.

Corenblith noted that The Alamo was his first film with Founder’s director, John Lee Hancock, for which “there was phenomenal archival data available — but sometimes deviating from known facts is the best decision for motion picture.”

He had a little less room to “deviate” in this fries-to-riches saga, since the McDonald’s corporation itself “offered no guidance, and no opinion about their attitude toward the picture. This “silence” on their legal stance meant “that it put our fair use question front and center at all times.”

Corenblith could use imagery, even trademarks, that were part of a public record, but he had to be much more exact about it.  “Trademarked and licensed images, as long as they’re used completely accurately, as to what that historical reality was, puts us on pretty solid ground,” he said of the legal angles.

Michael Keaton in The Founder (2016)

Michael Keaton in The Founder (2016)

“As a production designer, my tendency is to deviate or enhance, or do some little things — but this was a case where I really had to keep track of all of my archival sourcing if it was ultimately called into question.”

But it wasn’t just the look of the Golden Arches or the original “Speedee” mascot he had to keep track of. “A McDonald’s hamburger in 1954 is a very different item than in 2016,” he said. “We had to go back in terms of keeping everything as accurate as possible: The French fries were cut from one of the original extruders,” and as far as the burger themselves “we were were able to reverse engineer from one of the wrappers.” Even the buns were “artisanally created for the film. There was really no end to the attention to detail.”

And because trademarks are “constantly evolving,” as Corenblith said, “we had to park this on calendar dates the story was depicting,” in other words, make sure he was absolutely accurate about what and when of the “public domain” history he was depicting.

Michael Keaton and John Lee Hancock in The Founder (2016)

Michael Keaton and John Lee Hancock in The Founder (2016)

Usually, he said, “if I have multiple trademarked images, I can sort of pastiche them — but this was a case where there had to be absolute fidelity. I had to be on my own toes at all times.”

And in the end, the filmmakers “had it their way” (to graft some other burger history into our narrative), even dressing up small towns outside of Atlanta as both San Bernardino, and Des Plaines, Illinois (where Kroc built his first McDonald’s franchise), a practical necessity, since 99% of the film was shot in Georgia.

Even with the stand-in for San Berdoo, there was “archival fidelity,” as Corenblith described it, in the town of Newman, GA, which had “a little grocery store that was across street,” from the recreation of the original McDonald’s, just as the one run by the Brothers McD did. “We were able to dress and paint that facade to match.”

All in all, Corenblith sounds like he was “lovin’ it,” all the way through — and certainly being careful with every visual morsel that wound up on screen.

Now to see how it’s served up during award season to hungry filmgoing audiences — and voters.

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