Director Ron Howard has made four documentaries in the last seven years, but he’s a relative newcomer to the nonfiction format. By the time he made his first doc, he had directed 21 narrative features and had been acting, increasingly intermittently, for more than 50 years.
His first three docs were all focused on music: 2013’s “Made in America,” about Jay-Z’s music festival of the same name; 2016’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” about the Beatles’ days as a touring band; and 2019’s “Pavarotti,” about the operatic tenor. But his latest one, “Rebuilding Paradise,” isn’t showbizzy at all. Instead, it chronicles the Northern California town of Paradise as it tries to rebuild after the devastating 2018 California wildfires that destroyed most of the town.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and had its TV debut on the National Geographic Channel in November, follows a number of different Paradise residents as they flee the inferno and then return to ashes. In an interview with TheWrap that Howard did together with his daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, who directed the 2020 documentary “Dads,” he said that the lure of nonfiction filmmaking was strong — and that an advantage of docs is that you get an audience that is less inclined to question the story.
And he should know. “I’m going to tell a little anecdote that predates me getting involved in documentaries,” he said. “The first movie I ever made based on real events was ‘Apollo 13,’ and I remember our very first test screening, which was very, very early on.”
The 1995 drama, which starred Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton and Ed Harris, told the harrowing story of the mission to the moon that ended in near catastrophe after an explosion on board. The mission had taken place in April 1970, so it was 25 years in the past when Howard finished the movie.
And the recruited audience at that first screening was given no background. “There’d been no advertising,” he said. “Nothing was explained to the audience. We just kind of brought them in and screened it.”
The film was in rough form, with storyboards and what Howard said were “very rough animatics” in place of finished visual-effects sequences. Even in that early stage, he said, “the audience just loved it.” Of the roughly 350 cards filled out by viewers at the screening, he said, almost all of them scored the film outstanding or very good.
Almost. “There was one (marked) poor,” he said. “So naturally, I had to go through all the cards quickly and find the poor. ‘Where’s the damn poor?'”
When he found it, he said, he saw that it had been filled out by a 23-year-old white male. “There were very few comments on it. He just checked (boxes that said) ‘terrible,’ ‘wouldn’t recommend it’ in these big, bold pencil strokes.
“Finally, I flipped over to the back of the card, where it says, ‘Please comment on the ending.’ And that’s the only place he actually wrote any words. He said, ‘Terrible,’ with an exclamation mark. And then he said, ‘More Hollywood bulls—,’ with two exclamation marks. Then he said, ‘They would never survive,’ with three exclamation marks.”
Howard laughed. “Of course, he didn’t know it was based on a true story, and he thought it was corny. And I immediately realized, this is why you choose stories based on real events!”
When Howard “finally developed the courage” to direct documentary features nearly two decades later, he added, “I found I could apply more of what I had learned making scripted narrative films. But more than that, you get to take an even deeper dive, and your audience’s expectations are so, so different. They are curious. This may be enthralling, but it’s not escapism, exactly. They’re leaning in, and the nuances that they pick up on are really exciting.”
Plus, you don’t get complaints about how characters would never do that — because they did it. “Real people, real human beings are extraordinary,” he said. “Their stories are unbelievable, and you would question them if it was a narrative film.”
Howard’s latest narrative film, of course, is “Hillbilly Elegy,” which is itself based on a true story — and which has, yes, run into a healthy amount of questioning from critics.
A full interview with Ron Howard and Bryce Dallas Howard will appear in the special documentary issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.