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Rebuilding Paradise: Ron Howard Talks about His Scary, Beautiful New Documentary
November 8, 2020  | By David Bianculli  | 189 comments

Rebuilding Paradise, 
directed by Ron Howard and premiering tonight at 9 ET on National Geographic Channel, is a wonderful documentary and an inspirational true-life story – but doesn’t begin like one. It begins like a wildly intense horror film. 

Paradise, CA, is the name of a small community that, on that day in 2018 at the start of Rebuilding Paradise, looks like one. A beautiful morning, sunny blue skies, and the sound of a radio reporter warning of high winds that could swiftly spread any wildfires that might break out.

Howard employs no narration on Rebuilding Paradise, even though, as he proved on Arrested Development, he’s a very gifted narrator. Instead, his documentary unspools naturally – and, like a wildfire, builds in intensity quickly and without warning.

By collecting and utilizing videos shot by Paradise residents as they attempted to flee the fire that suddenly encircled them, Howard starts Rebuilding Paradise as a sort of Blair Witch Project horror movie of “found footage.” Only this footage is real. When a woman trying to drive to safety is told that her community is “100 percent surrounded by fire,” her reaction is a simple but plaintive question: “Are we gonna die?”

Another piece of cellphone video puts us in the car of a family trying to escape the sudden inferno. The husband is driving, and the wife is photographing, while the car drives over and through flames. Finally, they see clearer skies, and realize they’ve made it to safer ground. Like Lot’s wife, she turns to look behind her – and her cameraphone captures the Paradise city sign as they’re escaping the city limits.

The sign is on fire.

After all that – as scary a sequence as in any horror or disaster film, and with no CGI effects whatsoever – we get the aftermath. And another sort of horror sign, as President Donald Trump, who has just surveyed the damage, tells TV news crews, “We just left Pleasure” – whereupon Gov. Jerry Brown, without looking up, corrects him instantly with a muttered “Paradise.” That scene plays differently today than it did even last week. Instead of just anger at the ineptitude, there’s relief at knowing that different leaders are soon to come.

In the community of Paradise, the leaders and leadership made all the difference. Citizens had to decide if they wanted to rebuild, after what was assessed as the worst fire in California history. And if so, then how?  Howard’s crew follows this process all the way, which gives Rebuilding Paradise, after such a frightening beginning, a truly inspirational ending.

When I interviewed Ron Howard briefly last week for TVWW, he stressed that it was the rebirth from the ashes aspect of the story that always drew him to Paradise – not the devastation, but the story of what it took for a community to learn how to revive itself, and where to go to get the help it needed, and which types of help truly were helpful. And as he and his crew kept filming, the narrative got more and more positive.

“The title was always Rebuilding Paradise in my mind as a working title,” Howard told me. “But it had a question mark on it at the beginning.” Once he saw how Paradise came back together, the punctuation was dropped.

As for the scene I described, of the woman filming her family’s escape from the fiery hell that night in Paradise, Howard was equally impressed and enthusiastic.

“It’s an amazing shot,” he agreed. “What a gift, when we found that, discovered that.

“Gladys Murphy, one of our editors, was in charge of putting together all of our found footage, our fire footage,” he continued. “So a lot of it, I didn’t see for months, because so much of it flooded in. I knew we were getting good stuff, and it was powerful, and it was personal, and it was really going to help us tell our story.

“But it wasn’t until she put it in this order that you recognized that this could be sort of a sequence like Saving Private Ryan, where you drop the audience right into the D-Day landing.”

Howard admitted, “This wasn’t the way we were going to initially begin the film. “But once we saw that footage together, we realized this was the way to alert audiences to what the film was about, and what people had lived through.”

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