Ron Howard: ‘Rebuilding Paradise’

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Ron Howard, Director/Producer, National Geographic's REBUILDING PARADISE. Photo by Michael Parmelee.

This week, Academy Award winning director Ron Howard visits The Treatment to talk about his new film:  National Geographic’s "Rebuilding Paradise." The documentary follows the city of Paradise, California in the aftermath of the devastating fires there in November, 2018. It documents the effects of the fire and trauma on its residents and how the city is beginning to rebuild. Howard says the film was his first verité, which, at times, made him feel like a rookie in spite of his decades of filmmaking.

Note: This interview was recorded before the most recent wildfires in California in August.

"Rebuilding Paradise." Photo by National Geographic/ Lincoln Else

The following interview excerpts  have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. One of the pleasures of doing this show is to get to meet a few old friends, and so it's good when they come back, and our latest old friend to return is a person who in the last 40 years or so has made over 30 films and we can say the first part of his career sort of played with fantasy, people dreaming what their lives might be like if they ran a whorehouse from basically a mortuary or raced cars, and the second part of his career, I would say really moved into real world concerns. Starting with 'The Paper,' I think, and I think maybe even something that's rooted in for me, in 'Gung Ho' which I feel is adapted from 'The Man That Corrupted Hadleyberg,' which is kind of about what it's like when an idyllic state of life is ruined by the real world, and we can say that's taken place in a number of his films, including his newest film, the documentary for Nat Geo 'Rebuilding Paradise. 'My guest of course, is the Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard. Ron, thanks so much for coming back.

Ron Howard: Thanks, Elvis. It's good to get to talk to you.

KCRW: I mean, it's interesting the films, maybe a lot of the films of the last 20 years or so really been about the real world concerns, I think and also about maybe kind of an idyllic life or an idealized life being sort of overturned by tragedy.

Howard: Yes to both, which has also pushed me from moving not totally, but from this scripted narrative on into documentaries. And 'Rebuilding Paradise is my first verité documentary. But I think, first, I've always been fascinated by the way the world works, people work. And look, some of that might be the fact that I grew up in such a kind of an oddball unusual bubble, being a kid actor. You know, I love my family, but I mean, there's nothing about any of it that was particularly normal. And so in some ways, I think I've always had a real curiosity about the way things work in society away from show business. I understand that system. But how does that relate or not relate to the world? And I think that's probably in various ways a question I'm always interested in. 

I'm also always interested in people who I can relate to as, or I feel an audience can kind of connect with being tested in some extreme way. Now, that doesn't mean necessarily that they're always an everyman. They could be, you know, a schizophrenic genius, John Nash. And yet what I try to identify for the audience, is that what you can relate to, create that connection, that empathy channel, that sense of understanding, and then observe the character going through an extreme circumstance. And so in those tests, of course, you're always going up against the characters' ideal, the thing they would hope for. If it's 'Apollo 13,' the first movie that I did based on real events, it's very much about a guy who doesn't get his dream. It's Jim Lovell played by Tom Hanks; his life is entirely focused on getting there. And those hopes are dashed and survival's threatened, the space program is threatened. And yet what his great moment is actually participating in leading this, this return home, nothing that he would have ever hoped for. And yet it was a remarkable achievement. 

So I'm sort of always looking for what happens when... So the what if that used to be fantasies like 'Splash' and 'Cocoon' or 'Night Shift,' running a prostitution ring out of a New York City morgue began to shift a little bit even with 'Parenthood,' which was a comedy, into something that was really based on well, what if things don't go the way you planned? Then what? And so certainly 'Rebuilding Paradise' is an acute example of that, although I didn't have a screenplay, I didn't know where it was going and if 'Rebuilding Paradise' would even be an appropriate title.

KCRW: Wow, I guess we should say the film's about the extraordinary wildfire that consumed much of that area including Paradise, California. And as we're talking about this, Ron, I guess one of the things I find myself thinking about, too, and we can say this is part of certainly in 'The Heart of the Sea' or 'Rush' or 'Cinderella Man,' I guess, people who have a sense of mission, and just because their life is upended doesn't mean that sense a mission has been taken away from them. And we see that taking place in 'Rebuilding Paradise' too between the cop and the school superintendent, they don't stop when these things that they were doing before this tragedy took place. They're still as attuned to those missions as they were beforehand, aren't they?

Howard: Well, they redirect their energies at times, but they still feel, you know, they find the mission. I think that's what's always kind of interesting about certain people is that you know, the mission may look different, but it's still a mission. And that's the kind of individual that they are. Sometimes they're characters who don't want anything that have anything to do with any damn mission, and yet it's thrust upon them, you know, and so I'm always kind of interested in that call to action, whether it's interpersonal or something as overt and dramatic as a disaster. 

In this case, again, I didn't know what the story would be, but I wanted to make a verité documentary, and Justin Wilkes, Sara Bernstein who run Imagine Documentaries have been doing such a great job. I myself, along with Brian Grazer, who's always been interested in documentaries and started making them before I got directly involved. I've been making them but they've been about artists: Pavarotti or the Beatles or Jay Z, and I've really enjoyed it and found I discovered that it satisfies me in a lot of ways. It satisfies my curiosity. There is a sense of adventure in that you don't exactly know how you're going to be able to tell the story. But those were fairly simple because I basically knew what the headlines were, what the sort of the overarching structure needed to be, because they were about looking at individuals and particular events. Here was a story, a verité documentary where you're just covering a story, you're just exploring it and you don't know what the answers are going to be.

The late great Jonathan Demme is the guy that prodded me ultimately into trying to make documentaries. He was an Academy Award winning director of 'Silence of the Lambs' and so many great movies. But he also was a tremendous documentarian, and I'm on the Jacob Burns Film Center board. I was with Jonathan. He was one of the founders. And one day I said, "should I dare to do this?" And he said, "Don't miss the opportunity. Give it a try." This is when I was first considering jumping on to the 'Jay-Z: Made in America' documentary. And he said, "Go in with a plan and a point of view and look to be surprised. You're going to discover that you're not entirely right about it, and you weren't necessarily looking in the right direction. And that's what you build on." And he also said, "You know, it's a different rhythm. It's a different filmmaking rhythm. So it's something that you can do while you're continuing to work on your scripted work and projects." And, you know, he was right on both counts, and I miss Jonathan on so many levels, but more than once, he gave me some great advice, but that was a really remarkable example. I'm grateful for it.

KCRW: It's The Treatment. We're talking to our old friend Ron Howard. His new film as director is 'Rebuilding Paradise' for Nat Geo. And I guess one of the things I was going to ask you about talking about this is I wonder if it's still a thrill for you when you're making a documentary because you make them in two ways really, when you shoot them and then in the editing, as so many documentarians have told me when you realize you're cutting a much different film than you were shooting. It's becoming a much different beast.

Howard: That's where I was pleasantly surprised by my skill set developed for making scripted narrative, movies and television shows really applies. Because even in that circumstance, you still have to kind of discover ultimately, what the movie is going to be. I mean, they call it sort of the final rewrite but often there's an element of real discovery in there. And so my sensibilities, my focus and a kind of discipline and rigor around trying to understand what the images we have to work with what the scenes we have to work with really communicate to an audience, I find really beneficial in the documentary space and exciting. 

However, with a verité documentary it's quite a different thing. We got about halfway through working on 'Rebuilding Paradise.' That was a working title, still not sure that that title would really hold because what a struggle. I had no idea until I went there, really what total devastation looks like and feels like and what it means to people whose lives are, completely, completely flipped around that kind of devastation. Whether it's immediately tragic on a personal level in terms of loss of life, or it's just that everything is upended and you know, all the priorities change; your sense of productivity changes, it's no longer about whatever it was before that you thought was important. It's suddenly about this other thing, like, Where will I really live? Where should I live? Where do I sleep? All of those things, very disturbing and emotional, to witness it. In this case, a little daunting for me as a rookie documentarian to then go in and start asking people questions and asking if we can talk to them. But, learned so much, began to piece together the individuals we thought we were going to follow. 

We cast a very wide net at the beginning, and just had to sit back basically, and watch. When I could be there, I'd be there. But when I couldn't, our producers were there. Sometimes we'd bring in a crew; sometimes we would deputize a local documentarian to cover something, a town event. But what I discovered was that the ones who seemed to be flourishing were the ones who kept showing up. They would show up to the gold nugget days, the traditional festival that they would have in the spring. They would show up to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, despite the fact that they might be coming from a shelter, or a borrowed trailer that they were living in now, or a temporary motel 40 miles away. 

We started focusing on these storylines and it was truly remarkable, incredibly emotional. But about halfway through, there's still no telling where all this was going to go and what it was going to add up to. So I remember looking at edits, and sitting down with the team back in the cutting room, and I remember, we're about six months into it and we knew we were going to cover them for a year. That was our arrangement with National Geographic; they'd sponsor us for a year to follow this town basically and the individuals in it and understand what recovering from some kind of a disaster is like once the media leaves, you know, once it's not a headlines story anymore. So we've got some great footage, but we don't know where it's going from a story standpoint, and I'm a story guy. So I turned around and looked at these veteran documentarians, producers Xan Parker, Justin Wilkes, Sara Bernstein, Lizz Morhaim, and our editor, and I just said, "This is really moving and it's really great, and I like the characters that you know the characters they're people, sorry, who we've developed these relationships with, but do you think we have a story? How are we doing? This is my first verité doc!" And they just looked at me, Elvis, with just such a smirk like "You rookie!" 

They said,"A: we're doing great and b: it's way too early to know what this movie is. Get used to it. It's a high wire you ain't ever been on, baby.” And so that became part of the thrill of it. 

But ultimately these individuals, the choices they made, the courage they showed, the determination. They definitely  earned us the right to use that title 'Rebuilding Paradise' even though it's a shadow of itself in reality, and it'll be years before it comes close to regaining the population numbers and so forth, but it's happening. It's happening faster than they even thought it would.

KCRW: My guest is Ron Howard, whose new film for National Geographic is the verité documentary, 'Rebuilding Paradise.' And I've got to say here, Ron, before we go any further there are gonna be moments that when you heard them, you knew were going to go in like when I don't wanna give too much a movie week so people really should watch, but one of the participants is talking about his nightmares starting to blend in together. His PTSD from having been in the service. And then the PTSD he's suffering from having lived through this, this conflagration. And he can't really sort of distinguish the nightmares from each other anymore. And I just thought, what an astonishing thing that was to hear. I mean, I just wonder what you thought when that moment came up.

Howard: So much was revealed through those kinds of comments, and it's so emotional, and that character later passed away, and many people in the town said you know, he's another victim of the fire. The illnesses, psychiatric problems, everything intensified in the wake of this sort of long tail of suffering after that moment of, you know, do or die, getting out, saving yourself, saving your loved ones. And so our movie became really a study of that, the nature of that struggle. 

That man, Phil, military veteran, when he talked about PTSD, it sort of made sense. It was heartbreaking. He also felt another measure of real disappointment and kind of responsibility, which we never really got on film, which is another thing about a documentary. You can't use everything that you know in here unless somebody says it or you photograph the right moment, and you can shape it into your story. But I was always disappointed that we couldn't get this one idea across. Because Phil was part of the Fire Safety and Protection Council in Paradise, and they had done so much to try to anticipate and get ordinances passed and so forth. And there were so many ideas that they weren't able to convince the community to embrace. And he was feeling a tremendous amount of responsibility and guilt because the Fire Safety Council had not somehow achieved enough in his mind, he was personalizing it back to their efforts, which wasn't fair, of course. But in our own minds when things happen, we're not always fair with ourselves. And, Phil wasn't and he wasn't alone. 

It does sort of beg the question of, well, what do you expect from society? How much can you prepare for? And how much are you willing to invest in that kind of preparation? I think it does begin with an acknowledgement. And it's much easier to stick your head in the sand, it's much easier to say I'd rather not pay for that; that's not where our taxes should go. And we've been through it before, and we'll get through it again. But I think it's another thing for societies to have a really honest analysis of where those threats are and understand that when these things happen, they are devastating. And you do need to turn to your neighbor, your town, your state, your nation for support. That's what being a part of a society is. And look, this couldn't be a group of people who were any more self sufficient and pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, and it was very humbling for many of them to suddenly be in a situation where they're looking for help. And there is help out there, but it's chaotic. 

That was one of the other surprises, Elvis, is that agencies, whether they're governmental or public or private, they mean well, but it's very often a reaction, and therefore, it's not terribly well planned, and it's chaotic.

KCRW: But that was the fascinating thing about this, and there's so much that's fascinating about the movie, by the way, but one of the things I want to ask you about is I was struck by the fact that you start the film at the moment of the fire, so you don't let us get to know the people beforehand, because what's it's really about is this fire coming in basically under cover of darkness. And by the time really, the sun comes up sort of metaphorically speaking, it's not the same. And what the movie is about is living in the aftermath of a disaster because as you say, it takes place over the course of a year, and for the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, there's still soot in the air during daylight, so you don't really get a sense of the sun until 20 minutes into the movie, then we really see how much devastation there is. And what you're saying is all these kinds of attempts, these well meaning attempts to do something and to try to do the right things, but a lot of these attempts to help are even disruptive to what attempts at normalcy that the citizens have in Paradise.

Howard: Yeah, that was one of the big surprises to me on the negative side was how difficult agencies out of the need to avoid fraud and other things can make it on people who are so emotionally fragile and so much in need. And there's this tension, it's pretty natural, you can understand it, but I think that it often is, it's helping and it's hurting. It was just such an eye opener to you what it can mean, to have everything upended and just flipped in a matter of moments. 

I knew just from making 'Backdraft' under the safest possible controlled circumstances we could muster, that in fact, fire moves and when it creates volume, it's damn near unstoppable, and of course, that's what they experienced. And it was a kind of a perfect storm as we described in the film. The whole area was like a tinderbox because it hadn't rained; they'd been in a five year drought. It was never supposed to be that dry in November. And on November 8, the winds kicked up and there was a fire and the embers hit, and it just exploded. It really exploded. And it was so shocking. 

When I got there, people wanted to talk, and they've been talking to the media, pretty openly, they were getting a little tired of the news outlets, who would just come and quickly grab a sound bite and go, but they found it cathartic to talk, and we wanted to talk and so we I think provided some service there in some ways, but they also wanted to show us. If they had media, if they recorded it on their phone, police with the body cams. If they had it, they wanted to share it and talk about it. And I immediately realized that, of course in this era, and some of it was already popping up on YouTube and other places. And I'd seen in a couple of the Katrina documentaries, Spike's and one other that cell phone coverage could be so riveting. We started collecting it. And then we asked for it on our Facebook page, if anybody was willing to, let us look at any of their footage and consider using it in the film. And we were so flooded that we just decided let's build it into a sequence. Let's put it in order. And let's then decide how we're going to parse it out throughout the film. You know, maybe we won't do the fire start to finish, but I just felt like it offered so much context for an audience if they could understand in the sort of first person way what it was like to have been through this. 

Well, Gladys Murphy was the editor who was really assigned all of this footage and she built it out, about a 12 minute sequence or something like that, and we looked at it and we said, "well, there's a little repetition but we can't chop this up. This is breathtaking and heartbreaking." And this is the context with which you need to understand these people who we're going to follow with our cameras, that they lived through this, and then occasionally I found spots to go back and remind the audience again using first person footage, you know, of what everyone had experienced and the intensity of it. And the Skywalker Sound people did a pretty good job, very realistic job, by the way, I want to say, no hokum, of helping us again, understand what sonically what it must have been like to be in the middle of it. I think it's probably the most harrowing sequence that I've ever been involved with as a director, and, of course, I shot not a frame.

KCRW: It's funny because I was thinking about 'Backdraft,' and we've talked about this before, the use of sound and then how oppressive the sound can be in a fire, which is not something I ever knew before that movie and I'm just, again thinking it's so fascinating that you chose not to show us any of the town before the fire. So our introduction to it is under the most horrific and really claustrophobic circumstances because that sound, really kind of boxes us in as much as not really being able to make out what's going on around us. And I did want to really talk to you a little bit about that decision to not show us a before and after the fire but just to show us the fire and its aftermath because that's a really interesting strategy to take here.

Howard: Well, I thought it was cinematic. And I liken the whole thing to the town being a patient, you know, like a horrible, horrible accident happens.

KCRW: But even in narrative movies, though, often pains are taken to show what a patient is like before the accident or the showing the moment of the accident. And then the recuperation from that.

Howard: Well, I didn't really think of this at the time. But as I began watching the movie more and more, I did recall Saving Private Ryan. And, I felt like there was something about saying we all just intuitively felt like once we saw it, that that's what we needed to use to just really grab the audience. 

Also, of course, again, it's a documentary, Elvis, we didn't have footage of people. I mean, we could have used home movies or something. But we only knew our people based on them having lived through this thing and those circles under their eyes because of the stress that they felt and the sleepless nights that they were experiencing so it wasn't like a scripted movie where we could do the idyllic scene. We had a couple of nice shots of what Paradise looked like before and then we went into it. Structurally, the one thing that we began to see early on was somebody dragged into the editing room, a chart of the cycles of grief. And this was a little bit later in the process, but we began to see that our town is literally following this pattern of…

KCRW: The Kubler Ross cycles. Sure, yeah. 

Howard: Yeah, the crisis, the determination to cope, the struggle and despair as you recognize that it's going to be much more complicated than that, and you can't will away the ghosts and the baggage. And, you know, to me, one of the last things that we shot were these kids from the high school who were gathering money for, I think a tornado had hit in Alabama or some place as I recall. And they were collecting money and they were simply saying, we now know what it means to be involved in something like that. And we know what they need, and we just want to give whatever we can. And, to me, that ultimately was a great sign of healing and enlightenment. And it also was very much the journey I hoped that an audience would go on.

KCRW: Wow, there's still so much to talk about. And we're already out of time. You got to come back and I'm sure you got other stuff coming up. And, in fact, you just told me before we got started here. You have an adaption of 'Hillbilly Elegy' that's coming up I guess later this year?

Howard: Yes, it'll be coming up at the end of the year on Netflix. It stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close, Hailey Bennett and Gabriel Basso. And I was working on these two projects simultaneously, so it was definitely a year of Americana, people who I really could relate to whether they were scripted characters or people a lot like my relatives in my family who were going through a very immediate and very real crisis.

KCRW: Well it's always a pleasure to talk to you, Ron. You're welcome back anytime. Thank you so much for doing this.

Howard: Thanks, Elvis, nice talking to you.

KCRW: Our guest today of course is Ron Howard. His new film for National Geographic is 'Rebuilding Paradise.' Our recording engineer is Desmond Taylor. The show was mixed by Kat Yore. It's edited by Rebecca Mooney. To better days, everybody. I really mean that this time. It's The Treatment.




Rebecca Mooney