How José Andrés’ Mission to Feed the World Complicated Ron Howard’s Attempt to Make a Movie About It

TheWrap magazine: His crew would be so moved by Andrés’ passion that they’d put down their cameras to help out, the director says with a laugh

We Feed People
NatGeo Documentary Films

This story about Ron Howard, José Andrés and “We Feed People” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

After making documentaries on the Beatles and Luciano Pavarotti, director Ron Howard has turned to crisis response for his last two films, 2020’s “Rebuilding Paradise” and the new “We Feed People.” The former film dealt with the aftermath of a deadly California wildfire in 2018, while the latter chronicles Spanish-born chef José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen, which responds to natural disasters and wars around the world by bringing food to those in need.

“We Feed People” includes glimpses of Andrés’ family life, but it’s really about a heroic effort to cut through bureaucracy in moments of crisis (including, recently, in Ukraine, where one of WCK’s kitchens was destroyed by a Russian bomb).

Ron, what was the challenge of summing up José in a movie?
RON HOWARD Well, ultimately, we had to decide that we weren’t going to sum up everything, that we were going to tell the origin story of World Central Kitchen by using this amazing footage collected by people over the years. And I began to see in this footage that there was this birth and growing pains and struggle, and that it was important to put a microscope on that.

José, when you were doing your work and people around you were taking footage of it, were you ever thinking that you wanted a movie about this?
JOSÉ ANDRÉS We were documenting the DNA, and obviously you have people that want to do that. But for me, going to these places was a moment of liberation. My only mission is, “How can we feed as many people as we can as fast as we can?” And that becomes my only point of concentration: Feed the hungry and bring water to the thirsty. I always tell people, “When you come to these missions, make sure that you don’t have anything else on the plate, because people that are in need deserve all our attention.”

HOWARD I tell you, the spirit of World Central Kitchen is so infectious. We had camera teams in the field with José and with others at Navajo Nation and in New York and other places. And I would get on the phone with one of the producers and say, “What did you shoot?” And they’d say, “Well, we started to shoot, but then they needed some help because the food came in. So we started helping and didn’t get much shot.” And I’d say, “Well, I’m really glad you’re helping, but you are there to make a movie.” (Laughs)

Chef José Andrés (Getty Images)
Chef José Andrés (Getty Images)

José, were you comfortable with having cameras around?
ANDRÉS Well, it is not like I had the power to say, “Let’s do it” or, “Let’s not do it,” because they could be doing the movie without me. 

HOWARD I wouldn’t have.

ANDRÉS But you see the way World Central Kitchen operates. We make decisions on the fly, and sometimes it’s not a very good decision. What are we gonna do? These people need to be fed, so you better find the solution to the problem you created.

These things happen all the time. The other day in Ukraine, we sent loads of cereal. When the Ukrainians say “cereal,” they mean grain. When the Americans hear “cereal,” it means Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes. So did we send the biggest shipment ever of (American-style) cereal to Ukraine? Yeah. (Laughs) Was it a major f—up? Not really. Why? Because we did send food, and that allowed us to establish the distribution systems into Odessa. And two days later, we were able to send the rice and the wheat and the corn that they needed to feed people. So you see, even major f—ups open the doors to be successful the day after.

Ron, your first few documentaries were more about music and entertainers, but the last couple have been more about people out there working in emergencies. Have you changed your ideas of what you want to do with documentary film?
HOWARD I certainly wanted to move beyond the biographical first couple of films and deal with verité filmmaking. This one is a little bit of a hybrid, in a way. The next film I’m making is about Jim Henson, though, because I’m fascinated by his restless creativity and experimentation, and his creative frustrations along with his achievements. So I’m really using the documentary space as a place to just follow my curiosity.

José, have your own ideas about the role of a restaurant in society changed over the last few years?
ANDRÉS It’s been building and adapting. Restaurants build a sense of community in very powerful ways. And in emergencies, they’re one of the biggest assets that have been highly underused.  In emergencies, in mayhem, it seems that every restaurant shuts down. But what if we are able to put some of those assets at the service of the people that are in need in the communities? It always blows my mind that when a hurricane hits, you have to go to the mayor’s office or the arena or the square of the town to get medicine. I’m like, “What the f—? Reopen the f—ing pharmacy!”

With food, why don’t you reopen the restaurants, man? Feeding them a burger from Burger King will always be better than a f—ing (military) MRE that costs a hundred times more. Let’s react to the need. If we do things in a simpler, more pragmatic way, we don’t create more problems than what the emergency is creating on its own. Use pharmacies to bring medicines, use hospitals to take care of the wounded and use restaurants to feed the people that are hungry. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.