On 8 November 2018, a firestorm howled through the California town of Paradise, killing 85 people, burning down 95% of the local buildings and leaving 50,000 residents homeless. Rebuilding Paradise is filmmaker Ron Howard and his production team’s documentary about how the town faced the flames together, and the struggles that followed.

“The day of the fire, Ron and his colleague Louisa Velis were watching what was going on. Ron’s mother-in-law had lived in Paradise for a little while, and a lot of his relatives live in a small city/large town that’s a couple of hours north of Paradise in California. They felt connected to it and they felt the devastation. Ron decided to go out immediately,” says the documentary’s co-producer, Xan Parker. “I came onboard in January 2019. Along with my co-producer, Lizz Morhaim, we were the primary filmmakers who were in the field for the whole year, so we were very close to the project.” While we often think of documentaries as being a slice of life, Xan reveals some of the complexities involved in finding the needlepoint of the story amid everyday chaos and drama.

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Shaping the tale

Knowing they’d be spending a year in the field in Paradise, the production team needed a plan for what to focus on, and what to film, in the flurry of activity happening around them. “The hard part at first was figuring out what the story was going to be,” explains Xan. “We referenced the films that had been made about Hurricane Katrina in the United States, which was very hard on the community of New Orleans. We watched a lot of those and thought, ‘What’s the story arc going to be? Who are the characters who’re really going to shine?’ We were going to be in a much smaller community that’s much more rural and a very different kind of geographic location, and had different political leanings than New Orleans,” says Xan.

Xan struck gold when she met Michelle John, one of the central figures in the Rebuilding Paradise tale. “I have been making documentary and cinema verité films for a long time, and I learnt very early on that you really want to find someone who wants to share, and someone who you also want to spend some time with, because that translates very easily to your audience wanting to spend time with that person. There was something about her that instantly came across. She’s very dynamic, very charismatic, very funny. She puts herself at the centre of everything. She’s a leader and she’s also like a dog with a bone, she wasn’t going to let go until she found solutions. Her husband quickly became a very good friend and introduced us to everyone in the community. When Lizz and I first went out in January of 2019 to take over from the other crew, one of the first people that we spent time with was Michelle John’s husband, Phil John, who introduced us to every firefighter, every fire chief, really key members of the community. They were really central to their society.”

Even before the team started filming, they had something in place that allowed them, in a way, to predict what was going to happen in Paradise. “We began to do research on what happens after a natural disaster. There is actually a widely shared graph called The Emotional Life Cycle Of A Disaster. It’s very sad because it runs through time where people’s emotional health goes very far down when tragedy hits, and then it goes very far up because there's a feeling that we survived and we’re okay, we’re going to live and there are moments of heroism that are celebrated. People cling to that for a little while, and then there’s just this long, slow, long, long, long fall. It dips incredibly far before it goes up again,” explains Xan. “We watched for things and we found that the whole community pretty much tracked together, and they followed this graph. Once we found that and used it as our road map, it helped us a lot to anticipate where the story was going and what kinds of scenes we needed to capture and what kinds of people would help us to tell the story. That was hard. In many ways, it’s really sad that it held true. I do think that in the year that we were there, we got a nice round view of how a community does come together, especially in that first year, to take care of each other and support themselves.”

Doccies vs blockbusters

Working with Ron Howard – director of blockbuster films like Apollo 13, Backdraft, and Solo: A Star Wars Story – was a novel and exciting experience for Xan. “It was very interesting because he’s a feature filmmaker, and it couldn’t have felt more different than what we do,” she admits. “But he is a really great person to work for because even at his level of age and experience, he’s still wanting to learn, sponging up everything. It was really fun to be leading him on a journey that he felt like he was learning from. And then vice versa when we got into the edit room. He was the one who really brought so many revelatory, surprising solutions and ideas to the process,” Xan says enthusiastically. “For him, there is so much malleability to the story, so it’s just a matter of what you shot. We had shot so much that he could take things in different directions and find different solutions in our story structure, and that was really fun. He would sometimes come into the room and watch a cut and see a solution for something and afterwards we’d wonder, ‘Why didn’t we see that?’ He’s used to the structure of acts in a story. He was able to say, ‘Okay, I’ve run up against this problem before. Let me bring in what we did in this movie…’ And that was a thrill. And he’s so collaborative. He wants everybody’s input. That was a lovely surprise.”

Courage and care

While Rebuilding Paradise can be a difficult story at times, the overall message is positive. “So much made me feel good about what people were doing. It almost makes me tear up on a day like today when we’ve just gone through this horrible campaign season in politics in the United States (we spoke to Xan on 4 November, the day after the US Presidential Election). The people of Paradise, they have a wide range of political leanings, and they have a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and a wide range of educational levels. They don’t all love each other every day. But they all know each other. I don’t think anybody counted themselves alone the day of that fire,” insists Xan.

“There was one man looking for dogs that might have been tied up or locked inside houses, and breaking windows and going in and getting the animals out. There was another man who really loves koi fish and he was running to houses that he knew had koi and scooped them all up to take them to a safe place. There were people who were taking care of each other’s farm animals. There wasn’t a single car that didn’t stop and take in strangers or someone they barely even knew who was running down the road and whose car had caught on fire. People were driving through flames to go get mothers-in-law or aunts or cousins. There were so many examples of heroism. It didn’t matter, from the day of the fire or the year after or for much of the recovery now, their differences. They helped each other. They couldn’t help it! It’s human instinct to help each other.”

Moving on

Xan still keeps in close contact with Paradise. “I was just texting with a few of them this morning,” she says, laughing. “Whenever I make a documentary film, I stay in touch with film subjects. It’s a gift to me from every film. Just last night, we had the American election and there was a new town council, so Woody Culleton, who is one of our stars, just won a seat on the town council again. We were texting him congratulations just this morning.”

So in 2020 as California endured the largest wildfire season in modern history, Xan knew intimately what so many people were going through. “It was terrible, really terrible, because we’d gotten to know the community so we understood the pain that these fires would cause, the terror of the actual fires and the pain they would cause long term,” says Xan.

A year after making the documentary, if Xan could add anything to the Rebuilding Paradise story, it would be this: “It keeps going. Ron chose for us to follow a year and then stop. But there are many things about the suffering that go on for years and years. Since we’ve stopped filming, I’ve heard of 2 people who’re in the film getting divorces – long marriages with kids – and you wouldn’t have thought. I’ve heard of other people pulling things together and buying a house in another town or starting to rebuild, and that’s exciting. But the kids have really gone through a hard time again with the school shutdowns that we’ve had [because of COVID-19]. It was kind of a strange echo of what they went through when their schools burnt down.”

Working on Rebuilding Paradise has changed Xan’s outlook. “Seeing people lose everything impacted me immensely. There was really nothing like coming back from my first trip to Paradise and back into my home – I live across the country in New York City – to my safe children and husband. There they are healthy, and they haven’t lost anything. It felt like Heaven. Maybe that was my realisation – that is really Paradise on Earth: having a home, having your family be safe, having your life not changed by something drastic that you can’t control.”

Watch Rebuilding Paradise on Sunday, 22 November on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00

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