The world watched California burn – and Ron Howard could not keep quiet about it.
In ‘Rebuilding Paradise’, which airs on the National Geographic Channel in the United Arab Emirates on November 14 at 11pm, the Hollywood director shines a light on the simmering pain and a little hope in a small town. The documentary looks at the aftermath of the fatal fire on November 8, 2018, Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, displaced 50,000 people and destroyed 95 percent of local structures in California.
The deadliest American fire in a century – and the worst in the state’s history – nearly wiped out the cute city of Paradise, home to just under 27,000 people.
Howard is best known for being behind films such as ‘A Beautiful Mind’, ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Star Wars: A Solo Story’, but ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ has taken a more poignant note.
“In this case, it was a little more personal for me,” says Howard.
‘I have many relatives in Rescue. And my mother-in-law, who passed away a few years ago, lived [there] for about five years in paradise, so I was in that city and I saw it at its busy best … It’s so heartbreaking because the devastation is so complete. Salvation was hurt, but Paradise was crushed. And it was actually [my longtime assistant, Louisa Veli] who said, ‘I wonder how they are going to rebuild. Rebuilding Paradise is a story. ‘”
The fire was caused by a faulty electrical transmission line, but Howard did not want to focus on reasons or even solutions. ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ would be a quieter documentary about what happens if the unexpected hit.
“It’s always been about observation. And there was no agenda, because there was no way to have a movie, ‘says Howard, who compares what he saw in Paradise to the aftermath of World War II.
‘This is one of those things where photos can not get right. Our film tries, but our film can not do it right. If you are there, and you see it and you feel it and register it in every set of eyes you make contact with, it is tangible.
‘And I’ll tell you in a weird and very different way – the first movie 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 destroyed.
‘And where we shot, there were portions that had not yet been rebuilt, and it felt very similar in a kind of ghostly quality. In this case, it was so immediate that it had just happened, and with this shocking intensity and speed. ”
“People just evaporated”
Howard was not present on Nov. 8 to witness the grim image of the fires themselves, but the power of the cell phone came in handy in the editorial suite.
“I kept saying, ‘I wonder if people have the spirit to video it or not. “We posted something on Facebook and people started contributing. And the footage was incredible. There were some good documentaries from Katrina and they could use cell phone material. ‘
But for Howard, he wanted to place the footage at the beginning of the film – with good reason.
‘We started thinking if we were just starting with that nightmare and occasionally reminding the audience that these people all lived through it and just referring to it over and over again, it was the right starting point for our film, because it was not the climax of this film, ”says Howard.
Instead of offering solutions or pointing the blame, the director wanted to focus on the idea of a disaster that befalls a modest nation.
“It’s not just about the fire. It’s about dealing with and navigating … people have always faced this kind of disaster, but we’re seeing more and more of it, whether it’s natural disasters or diseases, you know, famine, whatever. If there’s a warning side to the story, it’s about processing it and recognizing the preparation – and you know – Paradise is prepared. Just not for this. It was, as they said, the perfect storm. ”
As with any project, Howard had to go through several iterations of ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ before he could decide on the story he wanted to tell. However, the nature of the topic meant that many people packed their bags and headed in a different direction, which made finding the right topics even more difficult.
‘So many storylines have gone nowhere. I mean, a lot of people just evaporated. It was so heartbreaking and devastating. It was hard to imagine anyone staying, to be honest, as an outsider, ‘says Howard.
‘It was just kind of, gather the assurance you can get and know, and move on. The soil is going to be toxic. There was no water. Really! I started to wonder if that was not really a 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 pursue. But still the storyteller in me wondered what the price of that kind of bet is? What does it really look like, when all the cameras disappear and it is no longer a main story? And that’s what our movie is about. ”
A change of genre
Howard is best known for his big-budget hits and films such as ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Cinderella Man’ or ‘Frost / Nixon’. (Out of his acting roles, he is perhaps best known for the sitcom from the 70s, ‘Happy Days’.)
‘Rebuilding Paradise’ paves a new path. While not his first documentary, it is the first of its kind, far from the world of entertainment he usually explores.
‘I’m only started working on documentaries in the last five years while still doing storytelling, film and TV screenplays. And yet I did not do a verité. They were built around music and The Beatles and Pavarotti, and one we did around Jay-Z. “And they were fascinating to work on, and I really enjoyed it, but it was not an exploration and they did not cover a story yet,” says Howard.
‘Rebuilding Paradise’, from Imagination Documentaries, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where critics described it as ‘timeless’, followed by a virtual and theatrical release during the summer.
In a way, it was a process of letting go of control, and of letting the story tell itself.
‘I’m a man used to a text. It starts with an outline, rewrite it. Go back and shoot it twice, three times. Go again! It’s a bit of a high thread and I think it’s good for me as a filmmaker. I find that it already affects my work in the text story in ways I like.
‘But what I do find is very interesting … this is where you end up making the film, no matter what you dreamed about or thought in the script and tried to turn the day around, it’s really the post-production where you really find the story. ”
Does he somehow find patterns in his fiction and non-fiction? It varies.
” Apollo 13 ” was the first movie I made, based on real events. I have now made a number of them. I find them incredibly satisfying, but it’s still a different exercise and a different set of challenges, ‘says Howard.
‘There you’re supposed to hide and entertain it, and that’s part of the concept. It’s part of the relationship with the audience. With a documentary, there’s this other tacit notion that it’s at least one-part journalism, and while it’s going to reflect the filmmaker’s point of view, it’s not straight news. But if you try to work with a degree of integrity, it is meant to reflect your perceived truth. ‘
Do not miss it!
‘Rebuilding Paradise’ airs on November 14 at 11pm in the United Arab Emirates on National Geographic Channel.
Source: Gulf News