LOS ANGELES, Nov. 8 (UPI) -- Ron Howard has made documentaries on Luciano Pavarotti, The Beatles and Jay-Z. His new National Geographic documentary, Rebuilding Paradise, was different for the director because he was making it as the action unfolded.
Rebuilding Paradise follows the effects of the devastating 2018 Camp Fire. It originated in Redding, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018, and spread to the nearby city of Paradise. The fire, deemed the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California's history, claimed 85 lives and destroyed 18,000 structures.
On a recent Television Critics Association panel, Howard said the crew wouldn't know what the story was since they arrived while the fire was still happening.
"I'm used to having the third act there in the script," the 66-year-old said.
The director said that even in his past documentaries, he knew how historical events unfolded while he assembled the footage. Rebuilding Paradise began with footage of the fire Paradise residents shared with the production.
Howard, who directed the firefighter drama Backdraft, said he did not want to sensationalize the fire. However, he wanted viewers to feel the chaos the survivors felt. Some of the footage shows four horses running free through fire and skies blackened by smoke at 11:38 a.m.
"Suddenly, the hospital is under siege, firetrucks going everywhere, animals running wild, traffic jams on the exit routes," Howard said.
Howard said he has relatives in Redding, and his mother-in-law lived in Paradise at the end of her life. He decided to go to Paradise about a week to 10 days after first seeing the story on the news.
"Being surrounded by that level of destruction really does take your breath away," Howard said. "Words don't suffice."
Turning his focus to the people of Paradise, Howard was sensitive about approaching survivors of the blaze for the film.
"Conversations with the people who've just recently been through it are sobering and uncomfortable in the extreme," Howard said. "But, one of the things that I found is that many people did want the catharsis of talking about it. They did want to share their videos with us."
In the early days of filming, Howard said, he wasn't sure what would become of the Paradise community. He hoped he would be documenting efforts to rebuild, but it was possible the devastation was too far gone.
"We wanted to make a film about the people and what it was going to require to cope with this, whether it was leaving, staying, rebuilding, whatever it was," Howard said. "They're still struggling."
Howard filmed in Paradise and with evacuees for one year. He captured the community holding a Christmas tree lighting in the ice rink that survived the fire. Paradise School District Superintendent Michelle John struggled to hold graduation for the class of 2019.
Steve "Woody" Culleton, who served as Paradise mayor in 2006, fought red tape from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Town Council for permission to rebuild his home.
In addition to John and Culleton, Paradise residents like officer Matt Gates, school counselor Carly Ingersoll and locals Krystle Young and Kayla Cox became main characters of Rebuilding Paradise.
"They were citizens determined to do everything they could to ease the pain of their neighbors and try to make the community viable for the future," Howard said. "We kept seeing them over and over again, and that came into focus. That really did become the story."
Local officials struggled to rebuild housing in Paradise, too. Assemblyman James Gallagher faced questions in the Assembly about whether the state should allocate resources to build in an environmentally fraught region. Gallagher countered that much of California is an earthquake risk, and if you eliminate every risk, you'll run out of places to build.
"I had no idea really what the obstacles would be," Howard said. "There were, frankly, more obstacles than I expected there would be."
Howard believes the same questions will face communities that rebuild after natural disasters or social upheavals like the protests against police violence that occurred this past summer. The director hopes Rebuilding Paradise will prompt viewers to ask questions about crisis management.
"What do we expect from ourselves, our neighbors, our federal government, our local government, the various agencies?" Howard asked rhetorically. "It's just a demonstration of the kinds of challenges people will face."
Rebuilding Paradise premieres Sunday on National Geographic.