Ron Howard says personal connection inspired documentary on California fires

Rebuilding Paradise had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
Rebuilding Paradise had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Rebuilding Paradise had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Acclaimed filmmaker Ron Howard said a personal connection moved him to make a documentary about the most devastating wildfire in California history.

Howard’s latest film, Rebuilding Paradise, documents a community’s effort to piece itself back together after being all but destroyed.

At least 85 people died when flames tore through Paradise in northern California, while 95% of buildings in the town suffered serious damage.

The November 2018 blaze was the most destructive in the state’s history and the worst in the US for 100 years.

Howard, whose other documentaries include films on the Beatles and tenor Luciano Pavarotti, revealed his mother-in-law used to live in Paradise and he felt compelled to tell the story.

Speaking at the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, he told the PA news agency: “My mother-in-law had lived in Paradise, I’d been in Paradise. I understood who those people are.

“They’re a lot like people in my family. And so it personalised everything, which made me want to tell the story of their attempt to endure this.”

Howard, who also had family in other parts of California affected by wildfires, described the situation in Paradise as “shocking, devastating, I’ve never seen anything like it”.

While the film uses harrowing footage of the fires, Howard, 65, wanted to focus on the recovery effort, praising the “real people” who “have a compelling story and have the courage to allow us to witness their journey”.

Ron Howard
Ron Howard In his latest project, filmmaker Ron Howard explores the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in the California town of Paradise (Matt Crossick/PA)

He said that while watching the film may be a painful experience for those affected by the fires, “they also hope that others can understand, that there will be empathy in the wake of this, that they’ll ask questions about how this could be prevented”.

“How can we do better when a disaster does occur? What can we do for one another? It really is ultimately about that. It’s about coming together and problem solving.”

In the wake of the 2018 wildfires across California, many were quick to point out the potential influence of climate change.

However Howard, whose feature films include Cocoon, Apollo 13 and The Da Vinci Code, said Rebuilding Paradise had no “agenda”.

“It certainly deals with the climate as characters talk about it,” he said.

“But the film itself has no thesis, it has no premise or agenda. It’s really just the question of what is it like to go through it, and what do they think and feel?

“Within the framework of that, certainly climate change factors into the discussion.”