In November 2018, more than 50,000 residents in Paradise, California were displaced after the Camp wildfire destroyed the entire town. Now, Ron Howard’s latest documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” tells the story of how the town’s leaders, including superintendent Michelle John, fought to pick up the pieces.
John, along with producers Xan Parker and Justin Wilkes, discussed the making of the National Geographic film with TheWrap Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman as part of TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series. She says that in the nearly two years since rebuilding began, about 4,000 residents have returned to Paradise with 500 homes rebuilt.
“Every day is a struggle. The school district is struggling to stay afloat and everyday brings some new challenges but also some new building,” John said. “There’s hope. It’s just very slow going right now.”
Wilkes, who serves as the head of the documentary division of Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, said that he and Howard rapidly put together a documentary team led by Parker days after the fire swept through Paradise. Parker said that the fire survivors quickly warmed to Howard, who had spent many years traveling through Paradise as his mother-in-law once lived there while many other relatives lived in the nearby town of Redding.
“We wanted to have the range of people who were struggling but couldn’t leave and were just trying to make it and people like Michelle who just stepped into leadership roles,” Parker said. “It was an exciting thing actually to document a group of people who are struggling but trying to help each other in small and big ways.”
John was at the Sundance Film Festival last year when “Rebuilding Paradise” premiered, and she admits that rewatching the firestorm that consumed her home was a very difficult experience. But reliving that pain was worth it to her because she believes that the film and their story can be a guide for those who lose their homes in natural disasters, especially as those disasters are intensified by climate change.
“What I hope we portrayed was a sense of inspiration, because this is as tragic as you can get,” John said. “You think about this happening to others and then it happens to you and you really are able to keep going, I hope that’s an inspiration to others, that the will of the human spirit is actually to keep moving.”
For the producers, it was just as hard emotionally to make the film, as they and Howard had bonded with the Paradise residents during the months they spent shooting the documentary.
Wilkes said he believes Howard has always had a soft spot for small town America instilled in him since childhood, when he played Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“It was heartbreaking because in so many ways we were living with this community in real time as these events were taking place, whether we were on the ground or in the edit room. For Ron, there was always in his mind this conceit of ‘Let’s spend a year on the ground,'” Wilkes said. “Maybe for all the time he spent in Mayberry in his earlier life, a small town and the traditions of a small town really resonated with him and I think it resonated with the residents of Paradise.”
“Rebuilding Paradise” is now available to stream on Hulu. Check out more remarks from Wilkes, John and Parker in the clip above.