When you think of actor-director-producer Ron Howard, you likely turn to his prolific opus of feature films (Parenthood, Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind). This month, though, the 68-year-old Oscar-winning director turns documentarian: Howard’s Imagine Entertainment and National Geographic Documentary Films bring us We Feed People (streaming on Disney+), an inspiring look at celebrity chef José Andrés’ disaster relief organization, World Central Kitchen, whose volunteers swoop in after disasters, both natural and human-made, to cook for tens of thousands of people. WCK, which has served more than 70 million meals, is currently working in Ukraine’s war zone.
Howard talks with AARP about what he learned from Andrés and World Central Kitchen, why he’s always been a history nerd, and what it’s like to have your kids follow you into show business.
Many of your scripted works are also rooted in reality: Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind …
And Frost/Nixon, Cinderella Man, Rush. I love them. I love history. In high school, I was coeditor of the paper. I knew I was never going to be a 100 percent dedicated documentarian, and yet I was fascinated by it. Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese — a few really heavyweight filmmakers confided in me that there’s a way to do both and still put a lot of yourself into it. It’s been really meaningful to me and exciting. I also love the company of the full-time documentarians. They’re very much like journalists: inquisitive, adventuresome. I find it energizing creatively. It’s great to be at this point in my life and feel fired up about both versions of my life’s work.
What’s different about making documentaries?
You can be more direct about the way you get at the narrative. You can use people’s voice-overs in a way that is more difficult with scripted material. You have to find a way to use the editing, the shots, the music to try to convey a feeling, given that you weren’t able to go out and stage scenes.
This actually isn’t your first documentary. In 2012, you had the chance to go behind the scenes at a music festival founded by Jay-Z.
I was intimidated. I told Jonathan Demme [The Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense], “You’re so great in both mediums [features and documentaries]. What do you think?” He gave me the greatest advice: “Go for it. You’re going to love it, because you’re curious and interested and care about people. You’re going to be able to use more of what you’ve done in your career than you expect, so you’re not going to be as green as you feel like you’re going to be. You go in with an attitude and a point of view about your subject, and then you are ready to discover what the real story is, the deeper story.”
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What is the deeper story with Andrés and World Central Kitchen?
I didn’t realize how small an organization they actually are and that they largely depend on activating — I always call it deputizing — local people, starting with restaurateurs, chefs and cooks, and people who are often in the midst of the disaster themselves. That was a hidden value that I didn’t appreciate. It’s not as much about building a giant organization that comes in and solves everyone’s problems. It’s really about leadership that is inspired and has just enough resources, experience and his force of will. They get people to really help themselves and achieve a lot. That was exciting. That was one of the reasons I wanted to end the movie with the kid Angel riding his bicycle, because here’s an example of a kid who just showed up. Jose’s just trying to give him something to eat, and before you know it, he’s a part of it, he’s leading it. It’s inspiring, and José says that kind of thing happens all the time.
It made me hopeful and kind of wistful that that kind of transformation can happen in a lot of other areas we’re struggling with here in America.
I hope so, and I think José does. It’s not just about food, even though he’s very interested in the importance of food and food security and what it can mean around the world. It also is kind of a model for the way organizations can grow and make a huge difference. It’s one of the reasons why I decided to make it an origin story and use so much of the early footage they had shot when the organization was a little rough around the edges, when they were finding their way, when they made some missteps and then had to recover.
How did you find Andrés as a subject?
I found him to be fascinating. Interested in history, literature, movies, in addition to food, politics — not so much on a partisan level but on a practical level, making systems work. He showed up in Rebuilding Paradise [Imagine’s 2020 documentary about the Paradise, California firestorm aftermath] because he was there volunteering. One of the producers said, “You know, he’d be a great story. I think he’s going to win the Nobel one of these days.” And then the same people that had done Rebuilding Paradise at Nat Geo had been wanting to do something on José. So it was a great immediate fit.
What did Andrés think about this idea?
He was a little reluctant. He’s done those shows where it’s mostly about food and maybe a little bit about his point of view. I assured him that I cared about the volunteers, the spirit of volunteerism, how they worked. I said, “Have you seen Apollo 13? All I care about is process.” He laughed, but that is the way we approached the film.
During Covid time at home, so many people discovered a lot of terrific documentaries on streaming services, things we might not have had time for before. Is the medium expanding?
Audiences have really discovered the entertainment value of documentaries. At Imagine Entertainment, we have our own documentary division now. It’s a different kind of entertainment, because it’s all about satisfying curiosity, surprising you with ideas and insights. It’s not a popcorn experience — it’s not that kind of escapism. We have about 20 films on the slate this year.
What are the undiscovered stories waiting to be told?
I’m very interested in a more nuanced look at education, the way it works and doesn’t work, how society chooses to invest in it. I’m interested in aspects of homelessness. I’m getting ready to do a very comprehensive feature-length film about Jim Henson. It’s amazing to just understand his journey and where many of the ideas came from that shaped generations of kids. He’s full of surprises.
What else are you making?
Thirteen Lives, based on the rescue of the kids’ soccer team in the flooded cave in Thailand. I was working with some actors who had never been in front of the camera and a lot of seasoned pros — some spoke English, some didn’t — alongside Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton. We want to present this in a really well-researched, nuanced way, and yet really recognize the drama and the suspense of it. It was a year of dealing with heroes in a very kind of granular human way.
You tried to avoid living in Hollywood when you were raising your kids, but your daughters Bryce Dallas Howard and Paige Howard are in showbiz. Have you made peace with that?
Yes, because they’re in it for the right reason. Another of my daughters, Jocelyn, is married to a writer. It’s stimulating, it’s creative, it encourages them to continue to advance their own understanding of the world and how they fit in, what they have to offer. I think it gets scary when people go into it with an illusion that it’s going to solve problems.
What’s the secret to your longevity in the business?
I’ve always loved it, from the time I was a little kid [on the 1960s Andy Griffith Show]. I didn’t have much to say about getting into the business. It kind of happened, but I always knew I wanted to stay with it. I found the energy around the set and the creative problem-solving to be really thrilling.
Gayle Jo Carter, the former entertainment editor at USA WEEKEND magazine, has interviewed newsmakers for AARP, USA WEEKEND, USA Today, Parade, Aspire and Washington Jewish Week.