Filmmaker Ron Howard. Image Credit: AP

The world watched California burn — and Ron Howard couldn’t stay quiet about it.

In ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ — premiering at 10pm in the UAE on November 14 on the National Geographic Channel — the Hollywood director shines a light on the simmering pain, and a sliver of hope in a small town. The documentary looks into the aftermath of the fatal November 8, 2018 fire, Camp Fire, which left 85 people dead, 50,000 people displaced and 95 per cent of local structures destroyed in California.

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A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, California on November 8, 2018.

The deadliest American fire in a century — and the worst in the state’s history — nearly wiped out the quaint town of ‘Paradise’, which was home to just under 27,000 people.

Though Howard is best known for being behind such films as ‘A Beautiful Mind’, ’Apollo 13’ and ‘Star Wars: A Solo Story’, ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ struck a more poignant note.

“In this instance, it was all a little more personal to me,” says Howard.

“I have a lot of relatives in Redding. And my mother-in-law, who passed away some years ago, lived [there] for about five years in Paradise, so I have been to that town and I had seen it at its bustling best ... It is so heartbreaking because the devastation is so complete. Redding got hurt but Paradise was flattened. 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 electric transmission line, but Howard didn’t want to focus on reasons, or even solutions. ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ was to be a quieter documentary, about what happens when the unexpected hits.

“It was always about observation. And there was no agenda because there was sort of no way to have one, going into the film,” says Howard, who compares what he saw in Paradise to the aftermath of the Second World War.

“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 the Second World War, 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.”

“People just evaporated”

Ron Howard tips his hat to Steve "Woody" Culleton on Woody's property in Paradise.

Howard wasn’t present on November 8 to witness the harrowing image of the fires raging himself, but the power of the mobile phone came in handy in the editing suite.

“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, for Howard, he wanted to place the footage at the beginning of the film — for good reason.

“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,” says Howard.

Rather than offer solutions or point out blame, the director wanted to focus on the idea of catastrophe striking an unassuming people.

“This is not just about the fire. This is about coping and navigating … humans have always faced these kind 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.”

Like with any project, Howard had to cycle through several iterations of ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ before he could settle on the story he wanted to tell. The nature of the topic, however, meant that many people were packing their bags and heading in a different direction, which made finding the right subjects even more difficult.

“So many story lines did not go anywhere. I mean, many people just evaporated. It was so heartbreaking and devastating. It was kind of hard to imagine anyone staying, to be honest, as an outsider,” says Howard.

“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.”

A change of genre

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Ron Howard.

Howard is best known for his blockbuster hits and big-budget films, such as ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Cinderella Man’ or ‘Frost/Nixon’. (Out of his acting roles, he’s perhaps best known for the ‘70s sitcom, ‘Happy Days’.)

‘Rebuilding Paradise’ paves a new path. Though it does not mark his first documentary, it does mark the first of its kind, distant from the world of entertainment that he typically explores.

“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,” says Howard.

‘Rebuilding Paradise’, from Imagination Documentaries, premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where critics hailed it as “timeless”, followed by a virtual and theatrical release over the summer.

In a way, it was a process of letting go of control, and letting the story tell itself.

“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 … 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.”

Does he somehow find patterns across his fiction and non-fiction works? It varies.

“‘Apollo 13’ was the first film that I made based on real events. I have made a number of them now. I find them incredibly satisfying, but that is still a different exercise and a different set of challenges,” says Howard.

“There you are supposed to encapsulate and engross and entertain and that is part of the understanding. It is part of the relationship with the audience. With a documentary, there is this other tacit understanding that it is at least one-part journalism, and while it is going to reflect the filmmaker’s point of view, it is not straight news. But if you are trying to operate with some integrity, it is meant to reflect your observed truth.”

Don’t miss it!

‘Rebuilding Paradise’ premieres on November 14 at 10pm in the UAE on National Geographic Channel.