Imagine Documentaries, the documentary division of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment, had recently launched when producer Sara Bernstein got a call from Howard in November 2018. The California wildfires had decimated the northern part of the state, including a town called Paradise, where the Oscar winner’s mother-in-law once lived.
“Justin Wilkes, who’s also my producing partner and one of the producers on the film, and I were in our office and we got a call from Ron Howard, basically saying, ‘I’ve been watching the news. I’m so concerned about what’s happening there,’” Bernsten recalled during Gold Derby’s Meet the BTL Experts: Film Documentary panel (watch above). “He was like to us, ‘What do you think? Do you think there’s something here? Is there something we can do for this town and on this town?’ And that’s when we mobilized.”
The result is Nat Geo’s “Rebuilding Paradise.” Directed by Howard, the documentary follows the resilient community of Paradise as they rebuild — literally and figuratively — their beloved hometown from which 50,000 people had been displaced due to the fire. The team filmed there over the course of a year, and the residents were immediately open to sharing their story.
As Bernstein points out, typically when disaster of any kind strikes, “the news crews sort of descend, but then after a week or so, they leave” and move on to the next news story. “But what doesn’t leave, obviously, is the aftermath of the disaster itself and the pain that people suffer and go through,” the five-time Emmy winner continued. “And so I think there’s something inherently open and probably ultimately appreciative when someone comes in and basically commits to staying and charting that journey.”
Though they could’ve continued to film in Paradise, Bernstein, says they felt like one year was a natural endpoint for the project. Figuring out the end of the film, however, was another story. Ultimately, they landed on using the micro story of Paradise to touch on climate change, showing Paradise students raising money for tornado victims in Alabama and a montage of recent global natural disasters.
“We really, really struggled [with the ending]. This was something, again, that Ron really went back and forth on because it was really important for him that this film could demonstrate what was happening globally and that this just wasn’t happening to one community,” Bernstein shared. “But clearly the deeper and deeper we got into the vérité filmmaking and the idea that, OK, we really are just charting this one community over the course of a year, it didn’t feel appropriate until we could close the chapter so to speak on the community itself.”
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