Interview: Drea Cooper on Capturing a Crisis in “Fire in Paradise”

In the fall of 2018, Drea Cooper was picking up his kids from school when they told him they smelled smoke.

“It was not unlike many days that we’ve seen over the last five years come September, October, November, and I said, “Oh yeah, there must be another fire somewhere,” said the Oakland native. “Then we got home and I got a call from my mom, [who] said, ‘Hey, you better turn on the news…Paradise is gone.’” Sure enough, the town was completely devastated in a matter of eight hours or so.”

It didn’t take much longer for Cooper and his filmmaking partner Zachary Canepari to mobilize to make “Fire in Paradise,” knowing instantly what was lost having spent summers in the small town in the foothills of Sierra Nevada visiting his grandparents who retired there, and after he himself had to evacuate when the resulting smoke had made its way to the Bay Area, Cooper stayed with friends, one of whom was married to a firefighter who knew those who were battling the blaze in Paradise, and was moved to learn more about the rapidly unfolding situation. By Thanksgiving, the two were in Butte County, bearing witness to the inconceivable devastation of what had been dubbed the Camp Fire.

In many ways, “Fire in Paradise” feels unmediated in stirring the same emotions that Cooper and Canepari must’ve felt when they first set foot on the scene, recreating the tragic day in Paradise with interviews with those who survived it and first-hand footage taken from phones and dash-cams that have such intimacy you feel like you’re caught in the center of the inferno. For the pair of filmmakers who previously chronicled in meticulous detail the much slower yet equally horrifying destruction of a community in their Netflix miniseries “Flint Town,” the awe at nature’s fury as well as the resilience and resolve of those standing against it, ranging from 911 dispatchers, fire crews and a school bus full of students and teachers who find themselves engulfed by flames, is accompanied by the acknowledgement of how fragile the infrastructure of even the strongest of societies can be in the face of a natural catastrophe. The 40-minute short renders the experience so vividly that it takes audiences to a place they’ve never been before and cautions against going back when a fire of this magnitude is unlikely to be an isolated incident as the havoc wreaked by climate change only continues to get worse.

With “Fire in Paradise” recently making the shortlist for Best Documentary Short at this year’s Academy Awards, Cooper took the time to talk about the film, which premiered on Netflix just a week shy of the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, approaching the subject with sensitivity when it was filmed in the immediate aftermath and how it’s unexpectedly helped bring together the community.

For better or worse, the emotions must’ve been so raw when you got to Paradise – is there debate about if this is the best time to approach people?

It’s a really complicated question that I think filmmakers and journalists should be asking themselves at every step of the process, especially today. We’re living in this current landscape where significant catastrophic events are happening all the time, whether it’s climate-related or in the case of active shooter situations, and we [often] have the access and the ability to cover these stories, so it’s a big question and our approach was tread lightly and try and be as respectful as possible. We literally walked into what was the largest search and recovery effort in California history, so there were thousands of first responders and experts assembled to deal with this situation in Paradise, so there was a formality to the whole process. We had to go through press officers, and through that we were able to gain access to get into the space and to understand the geography of it all, and through that, we began to meet people.

Fortunately, we met Sean Norman, the CalFire captain who’s in the film and he’d tell you this himself – the first week or so they were bombarded by media. Every outlet was covering this story, and they wanted that hot 30-second [sound] bite, the doom and the gloom, and “how many bodies have you found?” So he basically had fatigue when we met him, and he was reluctant, but it turned out through some mutual relationships, he agreed [to have] my partner Zack hop in the truck with him for the day and by the end of the day, Sean said, “It looks like you’re in this for the right reasons and if you want to come back tomorrow, let me know and we’ll go from there.”

Just giving your experience making documentaries, did you have an idea of what this could be structurally as far as using interviews to underline a feeling that you’re putting audiences inside this situation or did that evolve over time?

When we first showed up, it wasn’t clear what story we were telling. Were we telling a search-and-recovery story? Were we telling a rebuilding story? Were we going to meet folks and spend the next year with them to understand how do they get back on their feet? We had missed the event, so we were picking up where we entered the story at and for the first couple weeks, we weren’t totally sure what this film was. We were meeting people, following different stories, going to city council meetings, community gatherings and what started to happen was essentially everybody that we met, we’d understand what their current situation was – “Hey, I’m still looking for a house” or “hey, I’m staying with my sister,” so we’d get a sense of what was going on, but then they’d say, “Hey, can I just show you something?” “Look at my phone. This is what happened to me that day. I was in traffic for six hours on that day with my kids. Let me show you this little video clip that I took.”

Every person [we met] was just like, “Look, you need to understand what happened to us on that day. That day was like no other day ever.” And it wasn’t just the residents. It was also the firefighters. Anecdotally, we were learning how intense this experience was. It wasn’t simply, “Hey, time to evacuate. Okay, fire’s coming, it was a little wild, we saw some images that were disturbing.” It was literally 40,000 people trying to escape what became the deadliest fire in American history over a hundred years. So that’s when we were like, “Wait a second, we’ve got to tell the story of that day and we’ve got to make it as intense and emotional as it is listening to these people talk to us.” That became the big question for us in terms of figuring out the framework of the storytelling – how do we put the viewer in the experience that these people felt firsthand? And it was by staying open-minded and just listening, what was coming back to us was guys, what happened to us on that day was a situation that everybody needs to know about in the deepest and most cathartic and emotional way possible. People need to know about this. So it was through that where we decided okay, that’s our starting point where we have to be inside this day and see just what happened to these people.

The section about the school bus trapped in the fire seems like an emotional centerpiece. How did you learn of that?

It was through the same strategy early on where we were just meeting people and we had field producers who had collected a few stories and come across a couple of the teachers who were part of the bus experience. They invited us down and they were willing to talk through their experience, and this goes back to your earlier question about when to approach people who have been through such a traumatic experience – I think you just have to find a way to give people space and obviously give them the opportunity to walk away and say “No thank you“ or give them the chance to participate if they so choose. In this case, both teachers decided, “We fundamentally believe that the general public should understand what we went through,” and through that, they were compelled to share their story, so we sat down and for the better part of an hour-and-a-half, Mary Ludwig, one of the teachers on that bus, shared with us in its entirety her experience of that day. In a way, many folks hadn’t retold their story until they sat down with us. They told bits and pieces here and there, but for many of them, it was the first time where they sat down and from start to finish they described that day, and it was not easy, obviously.

You find such a graceful way to express what was lost with this very simple juxtaposition up front of archival footage of Paradise as a community in good times set against the devastation of the fire in the present. I’m guessing that simplicity doesn’t come easily.

Yeah, I’m glad you shine a light on that, and it’s a layered answer to the question because of having gone to Paradise as a kid and seen this community. I understood and felt the nostalgia for this beautiful small town in the foothills of California, and everybody we met is a second, third, fourth generation from Paradise. The town may have 40,000 people in it, but everybody knows everybody, and there’s a lot of memories and a lot of common bonds in this place. So every interview started with “Tell me about life in Paradise. What makes Paradise so special?What was it like growing up there as a kid?” What are some of your fondest memories of this beautiful place?” And it was starting in that space in these interviews that allowed people to recall the positive experiences in their lives and then we get to November 8th and how did that morning start and walk through the depths of that day.

In hearing everybody’s relationship to this town, that’s where that idea came for figuring out how in a very short, economical way to create this feeling of community and warmth that was Paradise and that is still going to be Paradise. Some of these people will tell you they’re so bonded now because they have this shared experience. 40,000 people shared this nightmare and through that, they’ve become even stronger in some respects. We had interviewed 25 people and in the first big week of editing, Carter Gunn, our other editor, and I were dividing stuff up early on and I said, “Carter, why don’t you take these stories to start whittling them down and I’m going to start thinking about the opening and the ending and the connections in this place because we just thought it was imperative that we created a feeling for what this place was and what it represented to people, so just through these natural images and some archival imagery of people living their life in Paradise, that became the way to do it.

What’s it been like bringing this out into the world?

Obviously, it’s not an easy watch, but it’s been fantastic. Here’s a contradiction – this was the hardest and easiest film we ever made. It was the hardest film emotionally to make. It took a lot out of us. You meet these people, hear these stories and have the weight of the responsibility to try to do justice and be delicate with their story and not sensationalize the reality that these people went through, so that was very hard for us. But when we were interviewing them, none of these people knew each other, but in the process of making the film they connected. Like Sean Norman was the guy who told Rob Nichols, the cop, to take your people to the concrete slab, and Dacia [Williams] and her son ended up going to that concrete slab and Ray Johnson has his water changer, he’s taking water to these places, so you have Sean Norman and Rob Nichols getting to go to a screening and and they’d never officially met and we watched this movie and they’re like, “That was you?!? That was you?!? Oh yeah, I remember when you told me, I better get my butt on this concrete slab and I better get all my people here.”

And then Beth Bowersox, the 911 dispatch comes to the screening with Mary Ludwig, one of the teachers an it’s just this common bond, [with Bowersox] dealing with the emotional fallout of not being able to fix the problems of the callers or the teachers on the bus [thinking they might not be able] to save these people, so there’s this common bond and they got to connect through this and just understand each other a bit more and share their stories with the rest of the public, which has been been powerful. Every person that watches this movie is just gobsmacked by how intense that day was for these people and there’s a spectrum of emotionality, which I think is important. When you’re talking around issues of climate change and the effect that climate is having on some of these fires, you can only talk about that in the abstract so much. You need to contextualize it in powerful real stories like this one, so it’s been fantastic in that respect to take it to the public and build a greater understanding of the impact of these fires on people in California and around the world where they’re facing other issues like this.

This is not going to be the last time we see something like this and so often in our neck-breaking news cycle [where it’s] another fire or another flood, it’s like man, if you just sit down for 40 minutes and listen to what these people went through, maybe you’ll prepare differently with your own family and or get to know your neighbor, or you’ll push back on your representatives when it comes to climate policy. It hits a few buttons, so hopefully people are pushed.

“Fire in Paradise” is now streaming on Netflix.

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