In a way, I suspect my friends and neighbors from Butte County are having a slightly easier time coming to terms with the new realities of Covid-19. Over the last few years, between fires, floods and dam problems (of various kinds) we’ve had to absorb more than our shares of drama and disaster.
Maybe the only fringe benefit of all that is it takes more than the problems of the average bear to rattle us. Right now that means hunkering down until this all blows over. It also means you may already be crawling the walls with boredom looking for something to watch.
You probably don’t need me to tell you, but Ev grew up in Paradise, graduated from Paradise High School before going to LA for filmmaking (and deserved Emmy-winning). He spent 2019 making a film every CMF on the ridge needs to see. It’s available for rent and purchase here on Vimeo.
I’ve bought my copy. It’s something all survivors and friends and family of those who did should see.
For me films on the Camp Fire are too close to personal for my usual critical eye, so I won’t even try. For me, All Its Name Implies plays like the kind of home movie I need to remember a place none of us want to forget. Like all personal things–pictures, films, videos, saved momentos–it will become more dear as time moves on.
So if you’re looking for something to watch, put this on the top of your list.
Today’s update comes as I find myself a knot of emotions.
First, the personal update
I’m sure it’s a place familiar to fellow Camp Fire survivors. You find yourself coming across some happy surprise or some hard earned reward and realize with a pang it would not be possible if November 8, 2018 had been just another day.
For a moment you want to give up everything if that day could be turned into just another forgettable yesterday.
But it cannot, so we all work, to rebuild to tell our story, to pull something worthwhile out of all of this. Which brings me to our update:
Tomorrow I am going to the Sundance Film Festival to find people who might want to help the production of Three Days in Paradise, and also see Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise. I was lucky enough to serve as a field producer on his project, as that work so neatly paralleled the work we’re doing with Three Days.
For someone in my industry, this is the fulfillment of a dream. Having a meaningful credit on a Ron Howard film is exactly the kind of work I originally hoped to get into when I started my film career.
But I know there is no way any of this would be possible if an awful price had not been paid. The word “bittersweet” was invented for just this kind of occasion.
So that’s the personal update.
Now, the project update
Working on Three Days In Paradise has consumed most of the past year for me. It’s been the most exhilarating and excruciating creative experience of my life. And as I see more and more documentaries and specials come out about the Camp Fire and the experience of us on the Paradise Ridge, the more convinced I am the only way the whole story is getting told is for us to tell it.
We’ve all seen some very good documentaries, but even the best only tell a part of the story that impacted us all. And now that our story is being reflected across the globe —in the Amazon where glorious forests have burned—in Australia, were working class people and wild animals have fled waves of fire and animals of all kinds have perished—fires in Greece and Indonesia and… and… and… it’s apparent to me more than ever that something happened in Butte County that people the world over can recognize and relate to.
Like all meaningful stories, it’s small and personal and specific, but speaks to human experiences people of every land and language can understand.
So now I go to rattle the cup and plead for funds to finish. To give you an idea why and how (and to short circuit the inevitable carps on the internet about ‘getting rich’ from tragedy) here’s what a documentary of this scope requires, and this is what we have already done:
Our ambition is to tell story of the people of Paradise Ridge, the causes and effects of the Camp Fire and catastrophes like it in a thorough, emotional and definitive way. As I’ve told our crew, our aim is not to be the first, but to be the best. That kind of storytelling takes an immense amount of work.
What it takes to produce a documentary series
Ken Burns, an influence on the project and creator of multiple well-loved documentaries, released his latest documentary series, Country Music, this last fall. To produce it, Burns and his team…
Did 101 interviews spanning 175 hours.
They reviewed 100,000 photographs.
Of those, they put 30,000 into their editing database.
Of those, they chose 3,300 to go into the final film.
They also gathered/shot 1,000 hours of additional footage.
All of that produced 14 hours that is the definitive documentary on one genre of music.
What we’ve done so far:
To give you an idea of where we are:
We have conducted 45 interviews of survivors, first responders, public officials, and fire experts. We hope to interview at least that many more, to say nothing of the more interviews we want to do in association with the oral history needs of the Gold Nugget Museum.
We have gathered somewhere between 7,000 to 10,000 photos. We estimate the need to review 40,000 to 50,000 more spanning from the 1840s until literally today.
We’ve gathered (thank you friends and neighbors) and hundreds of pieces of privately shot video and film.
We have shot more videos that we can currently estimate, and will need to look through hundreds of hours of archival news station and other local footage stretching back to the beginning of television.
What that will produce is a 5-to-8 hour portrait of the towns in communities we loved–Paradise, Magalia, Concow–a meaningful understanding of why this disaster happened and even more: what tragedies like this do to break and build people.
We’re not doing this so much to find out why, but to find the meaning in all this and pass on what we’ve experienced to others. We know it will help when they face catastrophes of their own.
And I’m telling you, after having reviewed what we’ve done so far, we have found that meaning. I can’t wait to show you all.
So I begin my journey at Sundance to (hopefully) find the checkbook that will make sure our story is told right.
Finally, in a case of great minds thinking alike, we’ll be doing what Ev Duran is doing with his project: Every penny above and beyond the costs of production will be going to fund the rebuilding of the lives of fellow Camp Fire survivors.
Usually, a documentary team finds an idea that interests them, gets funding, shoots interviews/scenes/gathers historical images and sounds and puts it all together. Sometime later, usually years after they begin, they release their documentary.
While sometimes there are behind the scenes extras on the BluRay or DVD disc, it’s normal for a vast majority of their footages/interviews/images and more to never see the light of day.
But for me, and all of us who lived through the Camp Fire, this experience has been far from normal.
That’s why we’re releasing a mini-documentary today, “A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire.” It’s an hourlong program talking to Paradise citizens, first responders and some Butte County officials about the disaster preparedness they executed before the Camp Fire and what hard lessons they took from the experience of living through the disaster.
In the days of DVDs, it would be a big ‘extra,’ utilizing footage that’s useful and interesting but won’t make it into the bigger story. But we’re releasing it now because, frankly, there are people in California, across the United States and even areas around the world who could use these lessons now.
So if you have heard the story of the Camp Fire, and wonder what you can learn from it, here’s your chance. If you’re a first responder, or disaster preparer in the private sector or for a governmental body, there are things here for you. If you’re simply a citizen looking to know what you and your family need to do to prepare, this is for you.
I’m here today with the news a documentary we’ve produced, A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire, is running this Saturday on KIXE. Specifically, it’s running December 28 on KIXE-HD, channel 9.1 at 8 p.m.
While this is not the docu-series we’re better known for–that being Three Days In Paradise to which you’ve all so generously donated interviews, footage and information and more–we’re releasing this now for a special reason.
A High and Awful Price is meant to pass along the lessons we’ve learned to help people think about, prepare for and plan for disasters that may befall them. As the name suggests, we’ve all been through something wrenching and heartbreaking, so the knowledge we’ve gained… and that can help others… is dear. So getting it out now is something we wanted to do even while Three Days in Paradise‘s release is still down the road a bit.
Price was made in connection with Butte County and is meant as a clear, simple explanation of the causes, effects and responses to a disaster as complex, overwhelming and devastating as the Camp Fire–while also communicating the most important lesson: You are not helpless and there is something you can do in the face of danger.
It was made with the help of Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County, CALFIRE Chiefs David Hawks and John Messina, Director of Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services Shelby Boston, the Butte County Chief Administrative Officer of Butte County Shari McCracken, Emergency Services Officer Cindi Dunsmoor, Retired Disaster Coordinator for the Paradise Unified School District (and PHS Principal after the fire) Jeff Marcus and Executive Director of California Vocations Bob Irvine.
For that, we are very appreciative. You can see a preview here:
This is your chance to help George Bailey. Let me explain.
I have always been a sucker for It’s a Wonderful Life.
As with all great movies, the best part comes at the end. George Bailey has spent his life putting his dreams on hold, helping his family and friends around him, all the while watching as his hopes to leave Bedford Falls and make something more of himself recede.
But it looks like it’s all come to ruin. All he can manage is a leaky old house for his loving wife and kids. The business his father left him, the Bailey Building and Loan and THE hope of the town, is going bankrupt because his uncle/partner screwed up. Now they both face jail.
George comes home, preparing to break the news to his family. All his years of strife and sacrifice and struggle have come to worse than nothing.
But when he walks in, he finds his wife and friends already knew. They knew he needed help. They knew what he had always meant to the town, but had never thanked him. The movie ends with a shower of help and money (to save the Bailey Building and Loan) and a crowd saying thanks for all he’d ever done and that they’d never put into words.
Well, now is your chance to help George Bailey. But this one is from Paradise and his name is Andy Hopper.
Those in the Paradise High School Football community know some of this story. In some ways Hopper has been at the heart of this wonderful Bobcat comeback, all while suffering a heart attack and two open heart surgeries.
He needs our help. So watch this video, and then follow this link to help:
Over the last year, we’ve all learned what it means for friends, neighbors and strangers to reach out in a time of need. Some of us are back on our feet enough to start giving to others, so let’s do it.
This morning, I suspect the players and coaches of the Paradise High School Bobcats are unhappy, but they should be proud.
What they gave the communities of the Paradise Ridge is something better than a Championship. I hope they know it. Through their disappointment, I hope they hear this.
In researching for Three Days in Paradise, I’ve come across dozens of old west mining towns in Butte County’s early days. Most of them are unknown.
I’ve found one thing separates settlements which become communities and those that fade into ghost towns. It’s schools.
All budding towns open bars, general stores, hotels and even a town hall. It’s the ones with schools that remain. Schools aren’t for the towns of today. They and their students are the town of tomorrow… the citizens, leaders, business people who will enrich and improve the town long after all the founders are gone.
Schools and the families they make possible, are the thing that separates a collection of buildings from a civilized town. Schools are how a town shows hope.
In the days, weeks and months after the fire, I interviewed dozens and met hundreds of survivors, recovery workers and public and private leaders. On camera and off they talked about, worried about, wondered about whether a community like Paradise could rise from the blow we had taken.
Yes, people vowed to rebuild, some businesses opened, but in whispers and wonders from across the spectrum I heard real worries from smart, informed people about the possibility Paradise would fade.
Then the schools re-opened in August, and it was a good sign.
But for many, it was the first game of the Bobcat’s Football Season on August 23 which made what remained of Paradise feel like what we remembered of Paradise. As survivors watched, coached and played in ame after game, our battered optimism reasserted itself.
Listening to the cheers of the crowds, watching the exploits of Harrison and Blood, Bettencourt and Hartly, Velasquez and everyone else made Paradise feel like a hopeful, happy place again. Through every regular season game, they won, finishing with a 10-0 record.
Their run helped us remember we could do this. We could clear the debris, claw through the heartache and remember those we had lost, and could have a town that felt like a place again. The Bobcats brought our eyes to the horizon again and let reminded us there is something more than ash in the future.
So they the players and coaches may not have gone to where they wanted to go this year.
But they gave us all something more dear. To do that you have to be something better than a champion.
Our June update comes at a time where, and it could just be us, the summer is starting with some harsh blows.
Maybe this month is not much different from those since the fire, and the hardships could just be a coincidence. But some rough run of luck seems on a tear for many of the Camp Fire survivors (us included, see below). Regardless, we’ll all push on together.
As we’ve all heard, Phil John, chair of the Paradise Fire Safe Council (and husband to Paradise Unified School District’s Superintendent Michelle John) passed away June 11.
As with many of our emotions these days, to pinpoint just why this event hit us harder than others is difficult to say. Maybe it’s that it’s the kind of normal heartbreak we all feel, but absorbing it under the shadow still cast by November 8 places just a few more straws on the camel’s back.
Or for us working on Three Days in Paradise, it’s echoed by more ‘normal’ heartbreaks on the home front. Producer Laura Smith (my peerless wife) has seen her father pass away May 26–two weeks before her mother moved into assisted living with Parkinson’s.
Then there was the development I’ve announced to the crew and now I’m letting you all know. I’ve been diagnosed with Bells Palsy, a temporary condition brought on by a variety of factors. While it’s stroke-like effect on the muscles of a person’s face can be unnerving, my doctors have expressed their hope for a full recovery (though it could take up to six months).
So what does this mean?
In the long run, nothing. We continue to work. We continue to write and edit. We continue to plan for more interviews (on top of the dozens we’ve already done).
We are still convinced Three Days in Paradise will be a documentary on Butte County and the Camp Fire unlike any other.
But in the short run, it’s taken some rescheduling while we consult with doctors about the best way forward in terms of recovery and work. The sizzle reel we’d hoped to release in June will now be out sometime in July. The push for funding (including showcasing some editing passages of various episodes of the series) will now be a few weeks later than originally hoped.
So we work while we mourn. We work while we heal. We push on because as we know, that’s what we all have to do now.
When things are just right, the world feels like a small town.
Filled with neighbors, friends and at farthest friends of friends, at these moments we hold each other in our thoughts and exchange kindnesses large and small. Those moments are what make our small town lives, our journey through this chaotic world, bearable and even uplifting.
The world was a very small place last night at Paradise High School’s 2019 prom. A special collection of people put together a message for the students of PHS, with some of the biggest personas in sports, music and entertainment (yes, Steve Carrell apparently is that nice in real life) lending a hand.
No amount of description will suffice for letting you see it for yourself:
Paradise Prom 2019 – Celebrity Messages from schlicken on Vimeo.