By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 19, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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In essence, both of Bryce Dallas Howard's major directing projects have been about dads

On Friday, her feature film debut, Dads, drops on AppleTV+, a documentary that delves into modern fatherhood and its evolution. Last fall, she was part of the team that directed episodes of Disney+'s highly anticipated Star Wars series The Mandalorian, in which a bounty hunter known as Mando ends up becoming the guardian and caretaker of one of his hits, the irresistible The Child, known more fondly by fans as Baby Yoda.

Dads is in many ways a completely different animal, a documentary that uses the reflections of famous fathers like Jimmy Kimmel, Kenan Thompson, and Howard's own father, director Ron Howard, as bookends between vignettes about a wide range of dads across the globe. Yet, Howard found a lot of common ground between them.

"I was shooting the two projects simultaneously," Howard tells EW. "I was doing the interviews with the comedians on the weekends, and then filming or prepping or doing post during the week. The relationship between a father and their child, even though it's as old as the relationship between a mother and their child, it's still kind of unnavigated terrain. We haven't fully delved into what that looks like."

"What it takes for a character like the Mandalorian to learn to take care of this little baby creature, who is his hit essentially, that's really interesting,' she adds. "That's also like Kramer vs. Kramer, in a way — take away the bounty hunter and hit aspect of it. It's the father learning competency and learning that he wants to take care of this child and putting himself in harm's way in order to do that. And that's Dads, that's what dads do."

As Howard's directorial feature debut hits screens just in time for Father's Day weekend, it offers audiences a glimpse of modern fatherhood, complete with insight into Howard's own family. We called her up to discuss everything from why this project called to her, how much she chose to involve her famous director father, and how she found the dads whose stories she just had to tell.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve directed shorts and TV episodes, but this is your first feature. Was that something you’ve always aspired to or what made you want to try it?

BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: I've definitely always wanted to do it. I started directing stuff I would write like one-act plays in high school and then, in college, it got more serious. But it was mostly directing theater. I directed my first short film when I was 24. I was pregnant with my first kid. And then I did my second short film when I was pregnant with my second kid. From that point on, it didn't stop.

Why was Dads the project that felt right to you to make it your feature debut?

I would never have expected a documentary to be my first feature. And I would have never expected a film focused on men, frankly. It's something that just came about. For years, I was so aware of the fact that I had been exposed to exclusively awesome fathers my entire life. Yet what I was seeing in the world in terms of the depiction of fathers was that they were absent or incompetent. That always really rubbed me the wrong way. I found that to be incredibly disrespectful. Especially because it didn't represent any dads that I knew. Then Unilever, the company that owns Dove Men+ Care, has created a lot of initiatives around supporting modern fathers with a particular focus on paternity leave. They wanted to finance a feature documentary about modern dads. I went in to meet with them, and I was not at all convinced that it was going to be something that would be right at all. But then when I was in the meeting, I was instantaneously completely passionate about it. I was like, "It's gotta be with stand-up comedians because they are our modern-day philosophers, and they're gonna be our Greek chorus. And then we profile dads around the globe, and maybe even I have my family be a part of it in some way, shape or form." It just became really, really clear.

How did you find your subjects around the world and select which ones to feature?

It was amazing because there were so many extraordinary fathers, and it was really hard to narrow down. Right from the get-go, I said I just really want to learn more about fathers who are bloggers and vloggers because these are men who are already sharing the story of their family's life, and that's a very new thing in general just because of the internet and social media. But it's specifically fresh because it's from the perspective of fathers. Glen Henry was the first person we identified as like, "Oh gosh, this has gotta be in it!" He's a hero dad. We hoped that he would allow us to profile him, and then he did a TED talk that I found to be really insightful and exactly what I was hoping to capture with the film. Once he was involved, we continued to work within this community of fathers who were already creating platforms for themselves to share with other dads.

Did he help point you to any of the other subjects?

Not specifically, but in conversation there were always names that would come up. Folks would say, "Oh, you should check out this guy or you know who's great?" One thing would always lead to the other, but just by simply Googling daddy bloggers a lot of these folks would come up like Rob and Reece [Scheer] had written a book. Shuici [Sakuma, in Japan], there was a comic that had been written about him.

As for your Greek chorus of famous faces, how did you select them and get them to sign on?

Well, I made the list... Just as I was starting this, I was working with Conan O'Brien's manager; he was producing a film that I did a voice character for. So one day I told him that I was doing this and I said, "Would it be alright if I emailed you a note for you to pass along to Conan?" And he was like, "Yeah, sure, no problem." So I did and Conan said yes. Then I reached out to Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel with the same request, saying, "Conan is involved and you're the people I'm hoping to interview." Because I had been on their shows, I felt more comfortable asking. Then, at that point, [after they said yes], I just sent out a bunch of requests and almost got in trouble because I didn't think that many people would say yes, honestly.

You use home movie footage from your family’s personal collection and showcase this Howard family tradition of keeping a video record of pregnancy all the way through birth. How infamous are those videos in your family and did you have to talk to your parents about using them?

It was a running joke in our family that my parents had done this. I was so stoked that they had that. My brother was not too eager to watch. Myself and my sisters were always super, super into those videos because it's not just the birth, it's everything leading up to it. You get to see the way in which the family has grown over the years. In terms of actually using that footage, I did not ask my dad, but I asked my mom, because obviously it's her birth footage. She was so game. She has zero vanity. She was like, "Oh, that's great, I love that." I just said, "Don't mention it to dad because he's more nervous about it, and I want him to see it once it's done and then he will understand."

In terms of conversations with your dad, he is a celebrated documentarian himself, so did you study any of his films or ask him for advice? Or were you really determined to stay separate from that?

I had a pretty strong idea for it, so until the project was up and on its feet, [no, I didn't].... My dad would be like, "Do you want to have talking heads, like doctors and scientists talking about the evolution of fathering?" And I'm like, "That would be interesting, but that's not what this is." It's a ride. It's not intellectual. It's just all about feelings, so it can be really immersive. Honestly, I didn't really include him very much in it and it was just because he was, in a way, one of my subjects. Like my mom took a video of him and my dad was like, "Don't do that, she'll put it in the movie." Like afraid of me putting it in the movie! So I just didn't really talk about it that much with him until after the fact.

We hear so often about how we need more female and BIPOC directors so they can bring their own experiences and perspectives to bear, but having done Dads and The Mandalorian, do you also find value in women telling what we might think of as traditionally male stories? Because even though that's not their lived experience, it is still a different perspective on a familiar story.

What was interesting for me was because I knew I wasn't a dad, I couldn't make certain assumptions and I didn't. These weren't my stories to tell. I needed to find a personal angle into the movie so that it was clear what my stance was or what my relationship was to the material as a storyteller. Then also, I just [needed] to have the ability to be curious. It wasn't, "This is a dad; this is a definitive thing." It was an exploration. It depends on what the project is, but absolutely there's a lot of value in it. Just working on Mandalorian, with the character of Mando, as a woman my perspective on that is a little bit different and maybe it informs it in a way that is slightly different.

I assume you want to keep directing. Do you have a next project on the horizon? You’ve done a documentary, but do you want to do a narrative feature next?

Oh, absolutely, I would love that. I directed on the second season of The Mandalorian, which was great, and I absolutely loved it. I'm developing a few things right now that I'm really excited about. Who knows? Dads was never anything that I was planning actively to do until it was an opportunity that came my way. I really believe in making space for the exact right things to come your way, even if you are not planning on it. There's a saying that I must have stolen from someone, but it's: Unless it's a hell yes, it's a no! Obviously, financial considerations aside, on the purely creative side, if it's not a hell yes, then it's a no because it's probably a hell yes for someone else. Sometimes your story is that you got out of the way for someone else. Or because there was an openness in your life an opportunity comes your way that you would never be able to pursue otherwise. That has happened so many times for me in my career, and I'm thrilled my first feature is the result of one of those kinds of out-of-the-blue things.

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