Awards Daily talks to Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard about how he came to work with José Andrés on his Disney+ documentary We Feed People.
Before José Andrés became the subject of the Disney+ documentary We Feed People, director Ron Howard spotted the chef/humanitarian in footage from his own 2020 National Geographic documentary Rebuilding Paradise, about the devastating California wildfires.
“One of the [Rebuilding Paradise] executive producers, Louisa Vellis, pointed to the screen and said, ‘There’s José Andrés!'” says Howard.
Howard’s team had footage of Andrés serving meals during the wildfires that devastated Paradise, California in 2018.
“[Vellis said] ‘He’d be a great subject. I bet he winds up winning the Nobel one day.'”
But Vellis and Howard weren’t the only ones who thought that Andrés would be a great figure to follow.
“NatGeo had been pursuing José and wanted to do something with Jose and he’d been a little bit reluctant to get involved,” says Howard. “So I began reaching out in more earnest and finally convinced him that I didn’t want to do a cooking show following him around including his work with World Central Kitchen; I wanted to understand the culture of World Central Kitchen and how he made it work and how he built it. Ultimately, he committed to that and gave us tremendous access and latitude.”
An Intense Opening Scene
Soon Howard and the Imagine Docs team gained access to all the footage that World Central Kitchen had been internally generating, including that opening scene where Andrés’s boat flips in the water during a flood.
“It was one of the first things that [editor] Andrew [Morreale] and I saw and said, ‘That’s remarkable—that’s gotta be in the film.’ And eventually it became our opening sequence.”
By the time Howard and his camera crew became involved in capturing footage, World Central Kitchen had become a much more mature organization. However, Howard was interested in the time before it became a well-oiled machine as well as how Andrés was able to helm such a huge NGO startup.
“I’m very proud of the film, but it’s the subject that makes it so compelling. It’s the force of his vision and personality but also what you recognize is that that energy creates a magnetic pull. So many people choose to participate and I think they really grow and benefit from it, because World Central Kitchen is showing them how they can make a difference, whether those are chefs or many times people who have just had their home destroyed or who family members are ill.”
But Andrés requested that the film not be singularly about him, even if Howard recognized that he was the catalyst or the “alpha volunteer in this whole scenario.” We Feed People becomes a thoughtful character study of a man obsessed with helping, sometimes sacrificing time with his family in order to help others.
“To get a broader sense of what it means to those who volunteer and participate, we need to go a little deeper and understand the roots of that and what it means to your family as well. He slowly but surely along with his wife and daughters agreed to participate. It means so much to the film and their stories are so relatable; they could be anybody’s story, any volunteer who makes a commitment to an organization.”
Andrés’s Effect on People
At one point in the film, Andrés snaps at one of his colleagues and one of the women he’s trying to help sees this and gets upset by his outburst. In a very human moment, he ends up begging the woman to still eat the food he’s providing.
“There aren’t very many times where you see José get that upset. I think we used most of them that we could find. He understood my point of view that we had to let audiences recognize that this is an imperfect process. You can be a helluva person and yet under duress, there can be exchanges with people that you might regret. He’s a big emotional guy; he’s incredibly intelligent and decisive, but he can appear to be a bull in a china shop, but in reality, not very much breaks. He manages to get through that china shop very smoothly and the world’s better for it. He accepted that we needed to use those scenes.”
Howard admits that Andrés was embarrassed by the scene and remarked, “Well, we all have to learn to be better.”
Really, the scene is just a reminder about the stress real-life heroes undergo. As a counter to this scene, later on, Andrés finds a young kid Angel on a bike who guides him in finding people who need food.
“I love that José gets this young volunteer—and he says this happens all the time—who throws himself into this and really earns the respect of the other volunteers. Imagine what that means to a 10-year-old. Not only did he help on that day, but he’s learned this lesson that we can all benefit from understanding. You can take a moment, look around, and you can make a difference.”
Andrés would get so focused on his role that Howard would occasionally have to remind him to put on a microphone or stop and give some context, which can be tricky in disaster situations. Andrés’s influence is so pervasive that even some of Howard’s camera crew also got caught up in helping.
“I said to one of our producers, Walter, I said, ‘Walt, what you get [footage]?’ He said, ‘We didn’t get much. A shipload of stuff came in and we had to help unload.'” Howard laughs. ‘I get it, but we do have a budget and a certain amount of time in which we’re allotted.”
Just as the crew is in awe of the real-life action, Howard, too, is learning something from experiences like We Feed People, with his documentary work influencing his scripted TV and film and the way he approaches projects.
“As a veteran of scripted movies and TV, it’s taken me a few [documentary] films to be able to rest easy halfway through your allotted shoot time, when you look around and say, ‘Do we have a story?’ The first couple times I asked that question and the documentary career pros looked at me like I was such a rookie. They’re used to that high wire act, and I’ve come to be more at peace with it.”
We Feed People is available on Disney+.