Behind the Project with Directors Derek Knowles and Emily Thomas
On November 8, 2018, the largest wildfire in California history destroyed the town of Paradise. The fire left 85 people dead and displaced nearly 30,000 survivors from their homes in a day. In the New Yorker documentary, “Last Days at Paradise High,” directed by Emily Thomas and Derek Knowles and post-produced by Blue Chalk Media, students at Paradise High School reveal what it’s been like to live through the destruction of their town. In this interview, we chat with the film’s directors about how the project came about and what a longer-form approach to these stories brings to these stories that breaking news can’t.
1) What made you want to tell this story, and how did the film come about?
ET: When the fires struck Paradise, we watched the horror and devastation unfold across the news and social media, and we breathed in the ash down in the Bay Area for weeks. It was emotional and scary, and I could only imagine what it felt like to be living there and escaping that day. I was deeply interested in what happens in the aftermath of something like this, the space between the big events, how people piece their lives back together, and how normalcy returns in unexpected ways. When I read about the town’s high school starting school up again at Chico Mall a couple of weeks after the fire and their plans to relocate to the Chico Airport, I was deeply interested in following how these young people would navigate this new, almost apocalyptic, setting. These teenagers on the brink of adulthood were coping with so many things already that most can wax nostalgic about but then also dealing with these insurmountable losses of their town, their homes, their displaced family friends, and then this strange upending of their senior year of high school. As wildfires and disasters become unfortunately more frequent every year as a result of climate change, young people today are inheriting an uncertain future, but the human power of connection, hope, empathy, and healing are remarkable things to witness and tether us.
DK: I experienced wildfires firsthand in the fall of 2017. My mom was living in Sonoma, about an hour north of San Francisco, and had to evacuate as several fires erupted across the region. I stayed and ended up making a film that followed three Sonoma residents, all impacted in different but trenchant ways by the disaster, over the following six months. Besides the visceral, almost primordial ambiance of the period during and after the fires, which very few visual media are in a position to authentically transmit to those who weren’t there, I was struck by the untidy, discursive manner in which the trauma of the fires unspooled over time for those who lived through it. All of which is to say that, when Emily first approached me about telling a story of another major fire catastrophe from the perspective of young adults, whom by virtue of their age were surely already having to confront deeper questions about change, impermanence, and transformation, I was ready to continue exploring the themes that I had been ruminating on since my latest film.
2) How did you choose the subjects of the film?
ET: We met Virginia Partain, the teacher in our film, at the Chico Mall temporary school in December 2018 shortly after the fire and were enthralled by her passion for teaching and her deep heart. We shared a cry right away. She had told us she ran back into her house during the fire to save her cats and her students’ college essays. I knew then she would be an amazing person to follow along as she rebuilt her life and internally battled this choice of whether to retire prematurely. Through her, we met two amazing and very different students, Harmony and Kody, who represented different spectrums of how the youth there navigated trauma, loss, depression, and newfound independence. Harmony is this really strong young woman and a bubbly cheerleader who has had to overcome a lot of hardship outside of the wildfires and was ready to leave town, while Kody is a really sweet and genuine young man whose ambitions were to stay in the small town of Paradise and rebuild there one day for his own family. I loved that depending on who I talked to about the film or showed early scenes to a different character would resonate with a different person in strong ways.
DK: Pertain was an early believer in the type of story we were trying to tell and a crucial ally in fostering a similar trust amongst her students. Early on in shooting, we appropriated a small room in the new ad hoc school, which we turned into a sort of “confessional” booth. Over the course of two days, seniors stopped by and spoke to us on camera (these are the black and white interstitials that serve as chapter markers in the film), reflecting on their year and the tremendous uncertainty that lay ahead. That was really the moment when this film, whatever it would ultimately become, felt right, and special, to me. The students were clear and authentic in their vulnerability, grief, and hope, few more so than Kody or Harmony, who both came to embody the incredible tension of so many young people living with inherited trauma in this country. In addition to their openness (to their emotions and the prospect of our being a part of their lives for several months) and a sense of self which they both spoke about simply and poetically, we were drawn to their divergent paths (Harmony wanting to leave home, Kody wanting to stay) around our central theme of home and felt these arcs, as they marched towards the end of the school year, would complement one another.
3) What did you personally learn from spending time with them?
ET: We learned so much from spending a lot of intimate time together, particularly about the strength in bonds of a small-town community. We often stayed with our subjects while filming, which built a lot of trust and rapport early on. That high school felt like one big family, whereas my high school certainly did not, and it was really beautiful to bear witness to their friendships and sense of community and pride in Paradise. Partain taught me to be more colorful and that a youthful spirit never dies, Harmony and her mom demonstrated such a great mother-daughter bond that reminded me of those tough and beautiful times right before college that push and pull at you internally where you simultaneously want to be a kid and an adult at the same time and the sadness within that change, and Kody really brought out the heart of Paradise, showing us the beautiful backcountry roads, the grit of hard work, and he was always offering a helping hand.
DK: Virginia taught me that teachers are underpaid, Harmony, that grace can inhabit even the very young, and to think of Kody is to gently nudge me in the direction of a daily kindness and warmth that I think most adults could learn from.
“I hope viewers listen to the pain and hope and beauty of what these teens and their teacher experienced so as to remember their story and be moved to help survivors of natural disasters, trauma, and upheaval in the future.”
4) What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
ET: I hope viewers see a part of themselves in this film and remember what it was like to be young but also learn that the impacts of these disasters live on in unseen ways through their survivors. This was a historical tragedy, and yet as wildfires rage across California again it’s becoming the new normal. I hope viewers listen to the pain and hope and beauty of what these teens and their teacher experienced so as to remember their story and be moved to help survivors of natural disasters, trauma, and upheaval in the future.
DK: I hope viewers leave this film different from how they came in, perhaps with a renewed appreciation of the young psyches we are conscripting into a future for which we are unprepared, or a deep humility for the almost irrational spiritedness of those who live through hardship. But mainly I would like people to step outside of themselves for twenty minutes and reconnect with their eighteen-year-old selves. I hope it inspires them to imagine a world where the simple, gracious acts of compassion and love we see practiced throughout the film become a standard by which more of us choose to live.
5) Disasters such as wildfires are often covered extensively by the media. What does a longer-form approach bring to these stories that media coverage can’t?
ET: I used to cover breaking news as a journalist, and because of the sheer speed with which stories are expected to be filed and the small amount of time you can spend talking to subjects in those situations, you don’t typically get to know a town or community and its residents in deeper ways. Those are important and necessary stories, and it is a hard job. The long-form approach I enjoy much more because it brings with it a greater intimacy, a greater connection, and a possibility for change and discovery in the storytelling process that can be felt on both sides of the filmmaking experience.
DK: The 24-hour news cycle, driven by the quick turnaround and a fealty to clicks, is not positioned to tell stories that are untidy, nuanced, or which evolve over time. Such a crucial aspect of character-driven, non-fiction visual storytelling is spending enough time with the people in your film that they are comfortable with your presence. I would never pretend that my being in the room with a camera doesn’t have some sort of impact on what it records, but long-form storytelling helps ensure that what is being recorded is built on a relationship borne out of mutuality and exchange, and not, as is often the (necessary) case in conventional media coverage, extraction, or “getting the story.” I’m sure that more than half of the scenes in the film wouldn’t have existed without this approach. We wouldn’t have been given access to or known how to be in some of the film’s most resonant, affecting moments — — the passenger-seat of Virginia’s car as she drove away from a high school for the final time, Harmony’s mom sleeping on her pull-out couch, or Kody picking through the remains of his childhood home — had we parachuted in for the week. This approach is the reason I work in documentary, but it requires a time and financial sacrifice that can create some difficult arithmetic, even when you’re lucky enough to do so. You need to do it for the people you meet and the artifact you all create.
“Last Days at Paradise High” is available to watch, in full, on the New Yorker.