“Rebuilding Paradise” initially felt too optimistic of a title for a documentary about the devastating 2018 Camp Fire, Ron Howard said about his new film. The National Geographic title features devastating first-hand footage of the violent wildfire ripping through the Butte County town and emphasizes the immense feelings of loss and grief Paradise residents faced.
“They’re struggling, they’re still struggling. PTSD is a major factor in all of this,” Howard said of his National Geographic documentary, which premiered on Friday.
Featuring hope and optimism in the feature’s title would not have been possible without Paradise residents’ sense of community and their desire to rebuild the beloved town up from the ashes, Howard shared. The director recalled him and his team seeing the residents help out their neighbors and celebrate the holidays even despite the wildfire’s fatal destruction. “They made the title viable,” the director said at Monday’s virtual TCA panel.
Joined by producers Sara Bernstein and Xan Parker as well as two of the film’s subjects Michelle John and Steve Culleton, Howard reflected upon the film’s balancing act between the unfortunate ruin and the optimism brought on by the scathing wildfire. The director said that going into the filming process for Rebuilding Paradise, he had no idea where the story would take him. Unlike a scripted feature, the documentary didn’t have a pre-written third act, he said. The instances of both loss and renewal as well as the balance of the two, however, came organically from the members of the Paradise community.
“You balance it because that’s what you witness,” Howard said.
During the panel, he and his producers also explained that they wanted to put viewers in the residents’ shoes and urge them to think about how they would react in similar situations.
“Our hope was that this film would be more about strength and community and showcase the heroes who have lived through the fire and have been committed to rebuilding, especially in this moment of time when communities all around the world are struggling with the aftermath of a catastrophe of this pandemic,” Bernstein said. “[Rebuilding Paradise] offers hope to people who feel they can’t move on or can’t rebuild.”
Adding onto Bernstein’s answer, the Backdraft and Apollo 13 director said that while the documentary covers a single moment of emergency, it asks the larger questions people will eventually encounter when they face a similar struggle or crisis.
“What do we expect from society, what do we expect from ourselves, our neighbors? Our federal government? Our local government?,” Howard asked.
Rebuilding Paradise is produced by Brian Grazer, Howard, Parker, Bernstein and Justin Wilkes. The film is executive produced by Michael Rosenberg, Louisa Velis, Carolyn Bernstein and Ryan Harrington; co-produced by Lizz Morhaim. It also features cinematography by Lincoln Else, editing by M. Watanabe Milmore and music by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe.