Ron Howard Takes The Vérité Documentary Plunge
Filmmaker Ron Howard on location for the documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” in Paradise, Calif. (photo by Lincoln Else/courtesy of National Geographic)
Oscar-winning director and producer reflects on "Rebuilding Paradise" for National Geographic

Ron Howard’s directorial range extends from acclaimed dramas such as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon to hit comedies including Parenthood, Splash and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. He earned Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in 2002 for A Beautiful Mind, which told the poignant story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash.

On the TV front, Howard again delved into the man behind the genius--this time Albert Einstein in a 10-part limited series, Genius: Einstein, for National Geographic Channel. Howard directed the first episode of Genius: Einstein and served as an executive producer via Imagine Entertainment, the company in which he is partnered with producer Brian Grazer. Genius has continued with other luminaries in subsequent years, most recently Genius: Aretha, a series starring Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin.

Also in recent years, Howard has expanded his reach into the documentary realm with The Beatles: Eight Days a Week--The Touring Years, and Pavarotti. And now he has a documentary in the Emmy conversation, Rebuilding Paradise, which marks his first vérité  sojourn. Shot over the course of a year, the documentary centers on the community of Paradise, Calif., as it tries to recover, clean up and rebuild after being ravaged by a wildfire in November 2018 that killed 85 people, displaced 50,000 residents and destroyed some 19,000 buildings. Known as the Camp Fire, it was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, and the most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2018 in terms of insured losses.

Howard follows several wildfire survivors as they try to piece their lives back together. We see the emotional toll the fire has taken on folks and their incredible resilience in the face of adversity. While the documentary touches upon the culpability of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and its faulty equipment which sparked the fire, and climate change that fueled the spread of the flames, Rebuilding Paradise, another Imagine endeavor for Nat Geo, primarily spotlights the people impacted, how they coped with disaster, what they regained as well as permanently lost.

Howard has said that the documentary captures “what survival looks like,” including the ability to heal.

Rebuilding Paradise introduces us to the likes of Steve “Woody” Culleton, the mountain town’s former mayor and councilman, who put the finishing touches on his new home nearly two years after his original residence was wiped out. His dogged determination got the job done. 

We also meet Paradise schools superintendent Michelle John who scrambled to maintain learning for students. She somehow managed to keep Paradise students together and by the end of the school year pulled off a high school graduation ceremony that seemed impossible just months earlier. But there was tragedy after the triumph. Just a few days after the graduation, John’s husband died of a heart attack. She believes the trauma of the fire contributed to his passing.

Rebuilding Paradise also follows a heroic police officer who went out of his way to help residents in the wake of the fire. Sadly, the crisis also put a strain on his marriage, which ended.

Rebuilding Paradise debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was well received, building momentum towards this awards season. Howard is no stranger to the Emmy circuit. He has 10 career Emmy nominations, winning twice as a producer--in 1998 for Outstanding Miniseries for From the Earth to the Moon, and in 2004 for Outstanding Comedy Series for Arrested Development. Among his other nominations were for his episode one directing of Genius: Einstein, Outstanding Limited Series for both Genius: Einstein and Genius: Picasso, and Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special for The Beatles: Eight Days a Week--The Touring Years. Arrested Development over the years earned three Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy nominations.

SHOOT: You have spread your filmmaking wings into documentaries in recent years with The Beatles: Eight Days a Week--The Touring Years, Pavarotti and now “Rebuilding Paradise.” What drew you to the documentary filmmaking discipline and has it whetted your appetite for more?

Howard: Brian (Grazer) and I launched Imagine Documentaries in 2018 under the helm of Justin Wilkes and Sara Bernstein. In the few short years, the division has produced a number of premium documentaries and docu-series, and has a robust slate of projects in the works.  In recent years, documentaries have really captured a broad and engaged audience, and it has been fulfilling  for us to explore storytelling in a different style of narrative. True stories are captivating. Soon after the news broke of the Camp Fire roaring through Paradise, my longtime assistant had made a comment on how the recovery process would unfold and what would rebuilding look like. We immediately sent a crew to Paradise to document the aftermath. We didn’t know what we would capture and what stories would emerge, but we knew it was important to the community to rebuild. And that is the most exciting and somewhat scary part of vérité  filmmaking--you don’t fully know where you are going or what the journey will look like. 

SHOOT: Along those lines, Rebuilding Paradise is different from any documentary you had done before, much more vérité  in terms of asking questions and discovering without necessarily knowing what you would find out, what your story would be or how it would take shape.  What’s your lasting impression of this brand of vérité  filmmaking?

Howard: Yes, this is my first cinema vérité  documentary. I wanted to show the town being rebuilt from the ground up and the best way to do this was through the people of Paradise as they confronted their new lives and whether to move on or rebuild. 

Once we were on the ground, along with our producers Xan Parker and Lizz Morheim, we  really became ingrained in the community.  We didn’t know if the title Rebuilding Paradise was plausible until months later but through the pioneering spirit, incredible courage, resilience and community support, it all came together. Rebuilding Paradise is about a community coming together in the face of a crisis, which is something I think we can all relate to as our lives continue to be impacted by the pandemic. 

SHOOT: What attracted you to the Paradise story? I understand there was a  personal connection for you.

Howard: I have a personal connection to this particular project as my mother-in-law had lived in Redding, Calif, which is near Paradise and they along with other family members were affected by the Carr Fire. Thankfully everyone was okay but I saw the impact it had on all of them and the town. 

There were several townspeople whose stories we began following but ultimately fell away because they decided not to stay. 

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest challenge(s) that Rebuilding Paradise posed to you as a filmmaker?

Howard: The biggest challenge was not knowing what the outcome was going to be. Was the town going to rebuild? Were people going to be open to speaking with us and sharing their stories? These were all unknown when we started the process. 

SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Rebuilding Paradise? What do you walk away with first and foremost from your experience on this documentary?

Howard: I’d say I learned that the not knowing is okay--take that leap and see what happens, trust your instincts. Embrace the unpredictable. 

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