The beginning of “Rebuilding Paradise” is a heart pounding re-telling of the 2018 Camp fire, one of the most destructive and deadliest blazes in the history of California. Cut together with news reels and phone footage from survivors from the city of Paradise, one particularly gripping moment showed a family driving through what was seemingly a nighttime hellscape of burning homes and cars, only to reveal daylight as their car pushed through the smoke. Silent until they could see the blue sky, the terrified family let out a chorus of sobs and relief as they drove by their city sign on fire.
The townspeople of Paradise suffered horrific consequences during the Camp fire, losing family members, loved ones and all of their possessions. But it wasn’t the fire that Academy Award winning director Ron Howard wanted to focus on — it was what came next.
The director knew that while it was important to establish the scale of the tragedy, he also wanted to show the resilience and strength that drove the families through the pain, looking for that next patch of sky.
Howard spent 11 months documenting the residents who worked to return their town from the ashes left over after fires subsided. In Variety‘s “Doc Dreams,” presented by National Geographic and hosted by Meredith Woerner, Howard discusses the project and what it’s like doing documentaries after a successful career in scripted film and television.
Despite his years on film sets and previous work on several documentaries, Howard learned a few new things while sorting through his first cinéma vérité style doc. “Trust the medium, trust the process,” Howard said. “Human beings live lives in sort of narrative cycles; it was very apparent to learn from this brand of storytelling and this discipline.”
The director estimates that original footage followed between 20 and 25 subjects, but that amount was soon whittled down to those actively working and taking charge in the restoration efforts.
“There were a lot of people who we began following who fell away, not so much because they stopped talking to us, but because they decided not to stay,” he said. “A lot of the people we began focusing on were the ones who were innately a little more resilient. And they were kind of natural leaders — they were the ones who kept showing up.”
“Rebuilding Paradise” also chronicled those spared by the fires who moved back into their smoke-ruined homes and were then being poisoned by their own water systems (the fire caused the plastic pipes to leech benzene into the town’s waterways). Paradise citizen Carly Ingersoll, a school psychologist, spent her days helping children cope with post-traumatic stress disorder but was told she should hold off trying to have children of her own while the town’s water was still polluted. Spoiler alert: Howard has since updated us that Ingersoll is currently pregnant and starting a family of her own.
As for working on a film set versus shooting in the field for a doc, Howard knows what he brings to the table as a seasoned professional and when he needs to step back. His guidance is best utilized in crafting a narrative, but when it comes to sit-down interviews, Howard says he’s still a little green.
“I have to say that I don’t really shine in those interview situations,” Howard admitted, saying he deferred to the producers now and again. “It is the difference between being a real journalist, a full on documentarian explorer, and I’m still a little green in in in that area. I don’t mind saying to Glenn Close, ‘Hey, let’s try it again, maybe a little more, maybe a little less,’ or ‘Amy Adams, let’s have a conversation about how emotional this scene is.’ But pushing to understand what’s going on with somebody like [police officer Matt Gates] or what it really feels like from Michelle [John] is something that I’m learning — to find the right way into those conversations.”
Watch the full conversation in the video above. “Rebuilding Paradise” is currently available on Hulu.