For Ron Howard and Bryce Dallas Howard, Documentaries Are a Family Affair

TheWrap magazine: The father and daughter are in the Oscars doc race this year with “Rebuilding Paradise” and “Dads” — and if they go head-to-head, Ron won’t be rooting for himself

Bryce Dallas Howard Ron Howard
Photo: TheWrap

A version of this story about Ron Howard and Bryce Dallas Howard first appeared in the Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine. 

Ron Howard had already spent about 35 years making scripted narrative films by the time he moved into documentaries in 2013 with “Made in America,” the first of three music-related docs that he would direct before turning to the aftermath of a deadly California wildfire in this year’s “Rebuilding Paradise.” His daughter Bryce Dallas Howard, meanwhile, worked as an actress for almost 15 years before recently turning to directing with episodes of “The Mandalorian” and with her “feature debut,” the documentary “Dads.”

With “Rebuilding Paradise” and “Dads” both in the running for this year’s awards, we got the two of them “together” — him in Connecticut, her in New York City — for some doc talk.

What is the appeal of the documentary form for both of you?
BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD For me, as an actor and a storyteller, I’m so intimidated when I watch a documentary. I’m like, how are the stories that we’re meant to tell supposed to compare to real life or be better than real life?

When you watch a documentary you’re just right there with the stakes, and you don’t question it because you know that what you’re seeing is real. I’ve been a huge fan of documentaries ever since I was really young. Dad, remember how I used to always watch the A&E biographies, like, every single night in high school?

RON HOWARD (Laughs) It’s always been a medium that, as an audience, I’ve really craved that experience. Real human beings are extraordinary, their stories are unbelievable, and you would question it if it was a narrative film.

In fact, I’m going to tell a little anecdote that predates me getting involved in documentaries. It was the first movie that I made based on real events, “Apollo 13.” We had a test screening of the movie very, very early on. There’d been no advertising, nothing was explained to the audience. It tested great–the audience just loved it. There were, like, 350 (comment) cards. It was just all “excellents,” “very goods” “outstanding” and one “poor.”

So naturally, I had to go through all the cards and find the “poor.” It was a Caucasian male, 23 years old. Very few comments, just “terrible!” And on the back of the card it says, “Please comment on the ending.” And it’s the only place he actually wrote any words. He said, “More Hollywood bulls—! They would never survive!!!”

Of course, he didn’t know it was based on a true story. And I immediately realized, this is why you choose stories based on real events. And so building on what Bryce is saying, as I finally developed the courage myself to begin to delve into that medium, I found I could apply more of what I had learned making scripted narrative films. And that excited me a great deal.

Rebuilding Paradise
“Rebuilding Paradise” (Photo: National Geographic)

There’s not a lot of common ground between your two films, but in both instances, part of what you’re doing is casting the film by finding the people who can tell your story. Bryce, for you, it wasn’t just the famous dads who do interviews, but also the families that you were going to spend time with.
BRYCE Yeah, that’s exactly it. Dad always said to me that casting is 80% of a director’s job, and I believe that. So when you’re casting a documentary, it’s not, “Oh, great, they can perform it.” You really need to understand who this human being is and what they’re about. You want to elevate this story. We cast a really wide net and went into the daddy blogger world. And we got lucky a few times, as one always does with casting. But it was a process of months, honestly, narrowing down who are the dads that we’re going to be focusing on, because that was essential.

RON I was there at the initial meetings, because I’m also an exec producer on Bryce’s film. It comes from (Howard’s company) Imagine Documentaries. And she immediately understood that she was going to work with these parallel sets of fathers. She wanted this balance of people who were used to getting up in front of an audience and talking about their roles as fathers and making it funny and entertaining, and then balance that with these other stories that she would find.

Now, with “Rebuilding Paradise,” the whole thing was just entirely observational. And a lot of it had to do with who was willing to talk to us. It turns out many people were, and they also wanted to share very harrowing personal footage of their experiences getting away from the fire. From the beginning, they knew that my point of view was I wanted to be there after it’s no longer front-page news. And I wanted to understand that long tail of coping, which turned out to be a long tail of suffering.

And the people, we didn’t really cast them. They were the ones who just kept showing up. We were looking for people with that kind of tenacity — they were the ones showing up at every town council meeting or Christmas tree lighting ceremony, and they didn’t know our cameras were going to be there.

Bryce, was it odd to go to your dad’s company and say, “I want to make a movie about dads?”
BRYCE Well, it’s, that isn’t even what happened. It was kind of the other way around. Justin Wilkes is a producer on this, and I worked with Justin independently of Imagine for many years when he was at Radical Media.

When Justin had made the transition to Imagine, he came to me and said, “You know, there’s this project about fathers …  Would you want to go in and meet on it?” And it was a wonderful meeting and so insightful — and also as a woman, as a mother, just getting to see this other perspective, to view parenting through the lens of fathers exclusively was something that I was really curious about. I was like, “Ooh, I get to observe them in the wild!”

Ron, was it odd for you to be an executive producer on a film about fathers made by your daughter, which also happens to be a film that you’re in?
RON It was very natural. I mean, there was a part of me that thought, “Oh, great, we’re lucky to get her, it’s a perfect fit.”

But I made it known in that very first meeting that I didn’t want to be in it. I didn’t think it should be a Howard story at all. And everyone nodded and agreed to that. And then I showed up on the set one day just because she was interviewing Jimmy Fallon. I said hi to Jimmy. I was there, very proud because she’s on the set, running the show. And she says, “Dad, can I get a shot of you, just to have?”

And so I walked out there, and she started asking me questions. I was stunned, because now there’s an entire crew around. I knew basically that I’m trapped. And my only argument was going to be later in the editing room, which I lost as well. And the Howards did become a part of it because Bryce had interviewed my father for another project and had a lot of footage that would work. He’d passed away by the time we were making the film, but it was remarkable to have him in it. And then her brother, my son, discovered that his wife was pregnant.

BRYCE I wanted an expecting father. I kept saying, “We are following the hero’s journey and we need to start at the beginning–we need an expecting father. And then about halfway through shooting, my brother was like, yeah, he and (his wife) Ashley were pregnant. That was actually the last thing we filmed. We were waiting for the baby to be born — like, “C’mon, I’ve gotta wrap this up, I’ve got a deadline!”

“Dads” (Photo: AppleTV+)

So did you deliberately lay that trap for your dad when he showed up to the set?
BRYCE Yes. I mean, I was very honest from the beginning–we want our comedians, we want our hero dads, and there’s the potential for a Howard storyline. But I had no idea that my brother was going to be a parent anytime soon. So it made a lot of sense.

Bryce, when I first saw the film in Toronto in 2019, I told you that the one thing I missed was a section about playing catch with your dad. So I have to ask: Ron, is that your fault? Did you not play catch with your kids?
RON I played catch with everybody! Bryce wasn’t much of a softball player. She was basketball. We played a lot of basketball together, her sisters were softball players and Reed was a pretty good baseball player. And we all played a lot of sports together.

BRYCE I remember that moment in Toronto so vividly! There’s another documentary that I’m getting ready to start, and I promise you there’s a catch sequence. I can’t tell you how it relates, exactly, but I guarantee there is a catch sequence.

I’ll hold you to that. Ron, I want to ask you about the completely harrowing opening sequence of your film, which consists largely of cellphone footage of the fire. If you’re going to make a movie called “Rebuilding Paradise,” you need to show what they’re rebuilding from. But when you went you had mentioned that that opening sequence where basically what we’re watching is we’re there with your camera crew, the fire had already taken place. Were you confident that there was enough footage for that opening stretch of the film?
RON Yeah, we felt like there was probably enough news coverage just to set the stage. And of course we were there shortly the devastation.

BRYCE We were super worried about you because of the air. I remember you were going in there just days after.

RON I’ve never experienced anything like that. And that’s a town that I know — my other-in-law Vivian lived the last three or four years of her life in Paradise, and I’d been there many, many times to visit relatives in Redding, very nearby. So when this came along, it became much more personal to me. And as Gladys (Mae Murphy) and Mickey (Watanabe Milmore), our editors, started collecting this footage, people sending in their footage to our Facebook page. We had hours and hours and hours.

We all sat down and looked at it and said, “We need to show this. This is like ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ where you just drop people into the crisis.” We had no idea it would play such a significant role, but there are so many surprises when making a documentary, especially a verite documentary.

Editing is one of my favorite parts of filmmaking, but it was very interesting to be literally editing “Rebuilding Paradise” in one building and then going three blocks over in New York and editing “Hillbilly Elegy.” They’re both about communities that are sort of built and sustained by these kind of rugged individualists. I think “Hillbilly Elegy” was influenced a little bit more by some of the editorial choices I was making on “Rebuilding Paradise” than the other way around, but it definitely had an impact in a few sequences.

It’s well known that you wanted to become a director early in your career, and you made a deal with Roger Corman to direct your first film. Bryce, did you want to direct early in your career as well?
BRYCE Definitely. I’m in love with the movie set. Like, that’s my happy place. As a kid, I think my desire to be a storyteller, to be an actor, really just manifested in me badly wanting a walkie-talkie. The first 10 years of my life, maybe even a little bit more, I really thought that I wanted to be a first A.D. Now, I don’t want to step away from acting in the same way that my dad has. I want to continue to be an actor and to continue to be a director and to explore other forms of storytelling.

RON I’m going to jump in here as a dad. Underneath it all, she’s a really excellent writer. Always was. She could write her way out of a problem. She didn’t have to study all year–she could just write the paper at the end. I was chagrined, but at the same time, she’s a natural storyteller.

And now you could be competing against each other in the Oscar documentary race. Trash talking seems like a very un-Howard-like thing to do, but is there any going on?
RON As corny as this is, if that were to occur, I’d be rooting against myself for the first time in my entire life.


Read more from the Documentaries issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.


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