“We weren’t just interested in the drama and the trauma, but on a human interest level,” Howard told Variety’s Matt Donnelly in conversation at Sundance Film Festival’s Cinema Cafe series. “If there’s a theme here, it’s that showing up really matters.”
The film chronicles the residents of Paradise over the course of a year as they recover from the disastrous blaze that claimed 85 lives and destroyed 95% of the town.
“We went in to try to understand it,” Howard said. “Thanks to the people who let us follow them, they’re the teachers here giving us some answers and insight and framing the question for us: What would we want from our neighbors, what would we hope for from our society and ourselves if we had to face something like this? They demonstrate what works, what doesn’t works. It’s a great gift.”
Howard said the type of ecological disaster that left many homeless and dozens dead in Paradise will become more frequent as climate change threatens the planet.
“Obviously, science tells us global warming is changing things, and it’s materially occurring,” Howard said. “It’s inexorably becoming more a factor of life on the planet.”
Though the harrowing footage captures the raging fires, “Rebuilding Paradise” mainly focuses on how the community banded together to rebuild.
“Like a lot of people, you get numb to seeing these images,” Howard said. “But I began to wonder how you cope. We went in not knowing it would be a story of resilience.”
He continued, “The film is about when the cameras leave, after the catastrophe, it’s really about coming to understand what happens next. After going through this cruel test, then what? It turns out to be this long, complex traumatic tale that just goes on. There’s no thesis on this film.”
It became an especially personal project for Howard, who has relatives from Paradise.
“It’s not a tourist destination, but it’s a great little town,” he said. “It really is Americana. I relate to the people there and appreciate them.”
Even with his storied career, Howard still revels in the experience of attending a film festival like Sundance.
“What Robert Redford did, it’s expanded what films could mean, what American films could be,” Howard said. “It’s probably the most powerful force in my lifetime as it relates to movies and what they can mean.”