UPDATED with video: The California town of Paradise was home to about 26,000 people in November 2018 when a catastrophic wildfire reduced most of the town to ash. Ron Howard’s National Geographic documentary Rebuilding Paradise begins with footage of the community in flames.
“That opening sequence is far more harrowing than anything I’ve ever staged as a director of scripted movies,” Howard says during Deadline’s Contenders Documentary awards-season event. “Suddenly this beautiful town is destroyed…in a matter of three hours.”
As the title suggests, Rebuilding Paradise focuses not so much on the fire but the aftermath—the succession of challenges the community faced.
“There was one surprise after another for everyone in Paradise—all of the burnt trees that then had to be cut down because it wasn’t safe…There was benzine that had leaked into the water when the pipes heated up,” producer Xan Parker notes. “A lot of people…weren’t insured.”
Michelle John, who appears in the film, was among many locals who refused to quit Paradise.
“We raised our children there,” she says. “I worked for the school district and watched everyone grow up. The chief of police was in my kindergarten class…This is where we belonged and you don’t leave your family in times of trouble.”
Howard says there are lessons to be learned from Paradise—about people looking out for one another in moments of crisis.
“It wasn’t about rugged individualism,” Howard says. “It was about, ‘Let’s put our other differences aside and let’s deal with this thing that’s right here in front of us that we all share.’ ”
Check out the panel video above.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.