The fires that are always ravaging California make news every year. But the fire that took out the entire town of Paradise was historic, and now director Ron Howard takes on this incredible story with an amazing documentary now showing on National Geographic Channel.
Recently Howard met virtually with the media to talk about the event and the documentary. His previous experience with fire was the fictional drama “Backdraft,” a 1991 film about firefighters, starring Kurt Russell and William Baldwin.
Howard noted that he made that film “under highly controlled circumstances, I certainly learned to respect how quickly fire can get away from you. And we had a couple of very-near misses with that, as controlled as we were trying to be.”
But when he was watching the real fires unfold on TV, he was amazed.
“Being surrounded by that level of destruction really does take your breath away, and words, they don’t suffice," he said. "And then conversations with the people who've just recently been through it are sobering and uncomfortable in the extreme.”
While making this documentary, video was gathered from all areas and those who lived through the disaster were interviewed to impart their experiences and feelings to the viewers.
“But one of the things that I found is that many people did want the catharsis of talking about it. They did want to share their videos with us. And when they began to recognize that we didn’t want to make a film just about the crisis, we wanted to make a film about the people and what it was going to require to cope with this, whether it was leaving, staying, rebuilding, whatever it was,” Howard stated.
“And when the fire struck -- first in Redding, where I have a lot of relatives, and then Paradise, where my mother-in-law had lived the last four or five years of her life -- I felt a personal connection immediately and began to believe that maybe this would be that opportunity.”
Howard explained he had made documentaries in the past, but this was one he knew he had to make and he felt deeply about telling this story and the story of the survivors.
Howard really felt a deep connection to this story.
“I was very proud of what we were able to, I think, learn and share with the movie," he said. "And you know, so much of what I do in scripted material is in post-production. And I think that's where my experience really lends itself most to the documentaries is shaping, understanding, digging out, identifying and trying to build a narrative that will connect the ideas with an audience.”
The director was adamant about making this film about the survivors. He was amazed at the resiliency of the town.
“You know, this is devastating, and people are struggling," he said. "They're still struggling. You know, PTSD is a major factor in all of this. But we began to find that these people who were showing up time and time again, at the Christmas-tree lighting, at the town council meeting, at the school -- you know, graduation, wherever it was, whether they were elected officials -- or in this case, they were citizens determined to do everything they could to ease the pain of their neighbors and try to make the community viable for the future -- we kept seeing them over and over again, and that came into focus. That really did become the story.”
Watching him discuss this project and the people connected with it as well as what he learned about humanity, it was evident that this film affected him greatly.
“It's one thing to survive a crisis like that, and it's another thing to flourish as a community or as an individual. And I had no idea really what the obstacles would be. I've never been through a circumstance like that. I’ve been fortunate my whole life to have resources at my disposal, when I did have to face a crisis, that made it much easier. But that’s what I was curious about. And it does, I think, frame up a lot of questions. It doesn’t aim to answer any of them, but what do we -- as a population, as a community -- what do we expect from society? What do we expect from ourselves, our neighbors, our federal government, our local government, the various agencies? And it’s just a demonstration of the kinds of challenges people might face -- will face -- they will face. Whether it’s a fire, or a storm, or an ugly riot or whatever it might be, and to me, I wanted to shine a light on that.”
Howard is a consummate director and this latest film proves how much he is dedicated to telling stories, whether fictional or not, that touch the human spirit. This definitely fits the bill. “Rebuilding Paradise” is an inspiring look at Americans in a time of crisis. It is a message of hope and humanity.