Ron Howard’s new documentary, Rebuilding Paradise, tells the story of Paradise, California after 95 percent of the town burned down in wildfires in 2018. I sat down with Ron to talk about the film and the connection between these wildfires and climate change. I’m Lucy Biggers, and this is a One Small Step Spotlight. What drew you to tell that story? You know, it’s like a lot of things related to this sort of crisis. You know, these catastrophes. I was growing a little numb to all of that imagery, but then there was a huge fire. This is late 2018. That hit Redding, California and I have a lot of relatives in Redding. So, of course, I was paying attention. Within weeks, Paradise, which is near Redding, a place that I also knew because my mother-in-law had lived there for four or five years before she passed. And it didn’t just get burned, ninety-five percent destroyed. And those images were not images I could just absorb, feel bad about and move on. I just kept obviously thinking about it. I went to our documentary team. The title was tossed out, “Rebuilding Paradise” and it became my first vérité documentary. Went there without knowing what the story would be. And we just began to embed, follow storylines and try to tell a story of a once the cameras leave, once the spotlight has dimmed on a crisis, what’s it really about surviving this thing? Navigating it, what does it do to the people? Do you think personal stories like that are really going to help push the narrative on climate to get people to really start taking this seriously? The ones who talk about it are firefighters. They’re talking about the increased incidence of these devastating fires. The ones who talk about are people, townspeople who said, of course, we’ve prepared for a big fire. It’s always on our minds. This is where we live. We know that. But it overwhelmed us. Why? Because of the intensity of the issue. And so this is not a, you know, a movie about climate change. If it was it would be full of graphs and data and all kinds of things. It’s about the people in the wake of these fires. And scientists are telling us that it’s climate change, I believe them. We just saw these fires in Australia. What was your reaction to seeing those fires having been so close to this topic for over a year? Well, it’s becoming an all too regular of thing. Russell Crowe, a colleague, I’ve directed him twice in movies. I know how precious that farm is to him. Completely burned. Now, you know, he has resources. He can absorb it. But it’s a blow. Two years before in the Santa Rosa fire, I had very dear friend of mine of 40 years, Walter, lost his entire place. So suddenly this issue is hitting home every year in some way, shape or form. And but it’s not just fires, obviously, you know, we have a series of images at the end of the movie when some of the kids who have survived the fire, you know, from Paradise have gathered around. And they’re raising money for tornado victims for a reason because they said, “Now we know what that feels like.” Just reminding us that just in very recent history, the range of catastrophes that the globe has faced. And it’s impacting more and more people every year. More and more every year, it’s undeniable. You can argue about why, but you can’t argue that it’s happening. And then what? And so it gets back to this question of preparedness. And, you know, if I were to say one thing about it, I’d say that what our film I think suggests is there are a lot of people and organizations, government agencies that, you know, are there to help, but they’re not coordinated. There’s not a clear cut plan. And I feel like we’re very reactive, that we sort of wait for the thing to happen because, look, in my lifetime up until, you know, maybe five, six, seven years ago or, you know, it’s it has been a thing to react to. It might be a hundred years before something like that would hit your town again or your area. Well, that’s not the case anymore. We have to recognize that and problem solve it. Would that be the advice that you would kind of give to the greater public to be prepared? Preparedness, yes. But you know this, that we’re all unsettled by so many things right now in culture. And there are a lot of reasons. Right. But one of the things that I witnessed is a kind of an object lesson in watching the townspeople who we followed, the ones that move the needle and also seem to be sustaining themselves. They’re the ones who show up. They’re the ones who engage. They are active in the problem-solving. They’re not just complaining. They’re going to meetings, they’re informed. And this is the most American of things when communities come together and get rid of the divisions and work the problem. To borrow a line from one of my own movies, ‘Apollo 13’, which was a real line from the real Gene Kranz, who was the flight director ‘work the problem, people’, amazing things happen. And they achieved much more than many expected that they possibly could. And by the way, the scar tissue from that event is going to be with those thousands of people for the rest of their lives and Paradise, we don’t know what’s going to happen to Paradise. This is the year. There’s a lot to be optimistic about. And there’s also plenty of uncertainty. So the fallout from these events need to be something that we in a very direct way make a problem to be solved. And that’s interesting that you said just take action and it goes back to the series that I hosted, One Small Step where we’re trying to inspire people to take an action. It can be the smallest thing like recycling a little bit more composting. Is there one One Small Step that you would suggest people take or that you take in your life to deal with this topic? What I would say and I have a couple of times done this and not as often as I should. But again, looking back to what I think I’ve learned from recording and witnessing with the people of Paradise, have done that I admire. I mean, it’s actually understanding how the city council works. It’s understanding how your community works and engaging with those people. And then you can make a remarkable difference if you get good at it and your group gets good at it. You suddenly in a culture like ours, you can have a lot of reach. You can go to the governor. You can get to the president in some way, shape or form. If you learn how to do it, it’s not that mysterious. But you do have to you have to engage,. Start locally. Start local. I really think so. You care about it more as a person. You might care about the big stuff and who to vote for and all. And that’s important to engage on all levels, of course. But roll up your sleeves and get involved in your community. The value of that community is something that’s easily taken for granted. And I witnessed the importance of it in the lives of the people in the wake of a catastrophe like that. Well, thank you so much for sitting with us. It sounds like an amazing film and such an important topic. It’s great you’re asking these
questions. Thank you. Take care.