If Ron Howard had invented “Rebuilding Paradise” as fiction, Woody Culleton would be ideal.
He’s a sturdy, folksy-seeming guy who’s been around. He’ll tell you frankly that he went “from town drunk to mayor.”
And he’s a real person, a handy symbol for Howard’s documentary movi (shown here), which debuts at 9 and 11:47 p.m. ET (6 and 8:47 p.m. PT) Sunday (Nov. 8) on the National Geographic Channel.
That’s exactly two years after the Camp Fire roared through Northern California towns. It killed 86 people, destroyed 8,200 buildings and touched virtually everything in Paradise. A few months later, the town – listed at 26,000 people – had shrunk to just over 2,000.
This was far from the happy days Howard has known as an actor and in some of the films he directs. This time, he says, he had no idea where it was going.
“I’m looking around at my documentary veterans, … saying, ‘Do we know where we’re going?’” Howard recalled. “And they say, ‘No, of course we don’t.’”
But they suspected there would be a comeback. “People were showing up time and time again,” producer Sara Bernstein said. “At the town-council meeting, at the school. (They were) determined to do everything they could to ease the pain of their neighbors and to make the community viable.”
It’s that comeback mode that has marked Cuddleton’s life. After “25, 30 years of drug and alcohol abuse,” he said, he “got to Paradise on a Greyhound bus in 1981.”
Estranged from his family, he was visiting a high school friend. “Shortly after arriving here, I sobered up and … overcame those demons. I was able to marry, adopt a granddaughter and eventually be elected to public office three different times (and) acted as mayor of Paradise.”
Fires damage the city in 2008, then virtually destroyed it a decade later. Many people had to move, at least temporarily.
As the schools superintendent, Michelle John had marathon hours after the fire. Then came abrupt changes: Her husband diede suddenly; she retired and moved away.
“I stay in contact with the residents daily,” she said. “In fact, I bought a piece of property back there and (will) eventually rebuild a home back there.
“Life has changed. I don’t get up at 5 a.m. and get home at 11 (p.m.) anymore. I’ve learned that I have a lot of inner strength.”
Cuddleton said he always knew he was staying. “This is my home,” he said. “This is where I put my life back together. It’s where I’m safe …. It’s a great bubble to be in.”
Howard was familiar with Paradise, his mother-in-law’s home town tor the last four or five years of her life. Shortly after the fire, he started the project.
He arrived “maybe a week, 10 days later. I’ve never experienced anything like what I witnessed there on the ground. Being surrounded by that level of destruction takes your breath away.”
The fire was gone by then, but the crew gathered footage shot by townspeople. “Everybody really wanted to share it,” producer Xan Parker said, “because they kind of couldn’t believe they’d gone through it themselves.”
But mostly, this film is about the post-fire comeback. Bernstein says one sign of that came when Paradise schoolkids raised money for hurricane victims in Alabama. “They know what those kids in that other community are experiencing.”