Rebuilding Paradise is a moving documentary by Ron Howard, which chronicles the devastating firestorm that engulfed the picturesque city of Paradise, California in November 2018. By the time the fire was extinguished, it had killed 85 people, displaced 50,000 residents, and destroyed 95% of local structures. It was the deadliest US fire in 100 years — and the worst ever in California’s history.
Through the lens of the Academy Award-winning director, Rebuilding Paradise, tells a story of resilience in the face of tragedy, as a community ravaged by disaster comes together to recover what was lost and begin the important task of rebuilding. In this interview, director, Ron Howard talks about the making of the documentary, the devastation that unfolded and the indomitable human spirit that prevailed in order to rebuild a city.
made you want to tell the story of the camp fire and Paradise Rebuilding?
RH: In this instance, it was all a little more personal to me. I have a lot of relatives in Redding. And my mother-in-law, who passed away some years ago, lived for about five years in Paradise, so I have been to that town and I had seen it at its bustling best. My long-time assistant, Louisa Velis, who also knew everyone up there, she said, ‘That is so powerful. Have you been looking at these images of Paradise?’ Yeah, it is so heart-breaking because the devastation is so complete.
Redding got hurt but Paradise was flattened. And, it was actually her who said, ‘I wonder how they are going to rebuild. Rebuilding Paradise is a story.’ And, immediately I went to our documentary group at Imagine Entertainment, Justin Wilkes and Sarah Bernstein, and said I would like to make a verité documentary, I have been looking for a subject.
I am very curious about this story. I am heartbroken by it and I feel it on a personal level. I went and witnessed the devastation which is unlike anything that I had ever seen or come close to experiencing. And shortly after that, Nat Geo came on as our partner and financed the film and has been incredibly supportive.
was it like being there?
It is one of those things where pictures cannot do justice. Our film tries but our film cannot do it justice. When you are there, and you see it and you feel it and you register it in every set of eyes that you make contact with, it is palpable. And I will tell you in a strange and very different way – the first film I ever worked on was when I was a very young boy.
It was 1958 and it was Europe and there were places where you could see areas that were still destroyed from World War II, and were flattened. And, where we were shooting, there were sections that had not been rebuilt yet and this felt very similar, in that sort of ghost-like quality. In this case, it was so immediate, it had just transpired, and with this shocking intensity and speed.
of the footage, particularly the harrowing first ten minutes, is from the when
the fire was raging. How did you access this?
I kept saying, I wonder if people had the presence of mind to video this or not. We put something on Facebook and people began contributing. And, the footage was incredible. There have been some good documentaries from Katrina and they were able to use some cell phone footage. But we began to think if we just began with that nightmare and occasionally remind audiences that these people all actually lived through this and just occasionally reference it again, that was the right jumping-off place for our movie because it was not the climax of this film.
This is not just about the fire. This is about coping and navigating and what is just apparently, humans have always faced these kinds of catastrophes, but we are seeing more and more of it whether natural disasters or illness, you know, famine, whatever. If there is a cautionary side to the story it is about coming to terms with that and recognising that preparation – and you know – Paradise was prepared. Just not for this. This was, as they said, the perfect storm.
devastation was so complete but as the title says, this is about rebuilding.
How did you decide who and what to follow?
So many story lines did not go anywhere. I mean many people just evaporated. It was so heart-breaking and devastating it was kind of hard to imagine anyone staying, to be honest, as an outsider. It was just sort of collect whatever insurance you can get and you know, and move on. The ground is going to be toxic.
There was no water. Really! I began to wonder if it was even a real question. But we began to identify the people for whom it was more than a question. It was a goal and one they were determined to follow. But yet then the story teller in me wondered what is the price of that kind of commitment? What does it really, really look like once all the cameras disappear and it is not a headline story anymore? And that became what our movie was about.
documentary is still a relatively new genre for you. How does it fit into your
work as a filmmaker?
I have only in the last five years begun working on documentaries while I am still doing narratives, scripted movies, and TV. And yet I had not done a verité. They have been built around music and The Beatles and Pavarotti, and one we did around Jay-Z. And, they have been fascinating to work on and I really enjoyed it, but they have not been explorations and they have not been covering a story. I am a guy who is used to a script. It starts with an outline, rewrite it.
Go back shoot it twice, three times. Go again! It is a bit of a high-wire act and I think that is good for me as a filmmaker. I am finding that it is already influencing my work in scripted narrative in ways that I like. But what I do find that is very interesting, my experiences, particularly in post-production, which is where you ultimately make the movie no matter what you dreamed of or thought about or read in the script, and tried to shoot that day, it is really the post-production where you really find the story.
That discipline of looking at scenes not only of what they were supposed to be, but what they could represent serves me pretty well, and I am beginning to see the possibility of narratives pretty well. Sometimes it shapes the questions that you ask of the subjects that you are following.
it difficult knowing when to end the film?
We always knew we basically wanted to do the year. And, it is a much bigger story than that. Paradise, California, it is yet to be determined to what extent it can come back and will flourish and so forth, but we just wanted to look at that really intense period of time, so that was our understanding.
Rebuilding Paradise by Ron Howard premieres on National Geographic on 14 November 2020 at 10pm.
Interview and Images Courtesy of National Geographic.