Reality is stranger than fiction, but in the case of recent California wildfires, reality is closer to horror. According to the LA Times, the region has seen record breaking fires with eight of the 10 largest fires in history burning just in the last decade. 

When filmmaker Quinn Else decided to capture the fires as research for a horror film, he discovered something unexpected — next to news teams and firefighters, everyday people pulled out their phones, stood eerily close to the destruction, and hit record. 

Filmed between 2017 and 2020, this week’s haunting Staff Pick Premiere “Fire Season,” observes how technology alters our perception of the natural world. As if framing the events through their screens offers a sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation, the bystander’s calm nonchalance stands in striking contrast to their surroundings. The film is cleverly narrated by a robotic smartphone voiceover which adds yet another layer into the already bizarre situation while proving basic facts about the fires. 

As California braces for another potentially disastrous wildfire season, “Fire Season” is a striking reminder of how easily fear and awe are filtered into clickbait content and passive acceptance becomes normalized. 

Ahead of today’s release, we reached out filmmaker Quinn Else to hear more about what inspired the film and his experience making it.

On the film’s origins: 

“Originally, I wanted to make a short horror film about an arsonist. When I tried to capture uninhabited landscapes of wildfires, people would wander into frame to take their own photos, selfies and videos. What I saw in real life was more horrifying than my horror movie idea. 

I’m not sure why I and so many others were drawn to the wildfires. It would be easy for me to say I was motivated entirely by an altruistic desire to tell an important story, but there are always murkier impulses at play. Initially, I was excited by the danger of the situation, but that faded quickly. There were individuals who were recording simply for attention or money. But many people seemed to be pulled by a morbid curiosity. Seeing the entire horizon engulfed in flames fills you with primal fear and awe. You feel very small. I felt like I had no control over an increasingly dire situation, so this little film gave me the illusion of control. 

Wildfires and drought pose a serious threat to life as we know it in California, but it is not too late to salvage the future. Human ingenuity is remarkable and there are many people fighting to create a sustainable world. We just live in an era where it’s easy to passively stare at catastrophe on a screen and feel discouraged, or even worse, entertained.” 

On turning to documentary:

“The third wildfire I photographed for the film was the La Tuna Fire, which was the largest fire ever in the city of Los Angeles. Wildfires usually occur in mountainous regions outside the city, but this one occurred in a densely populated area. It was the first time I saw other people interact with a wildfire. I was shocked at how amused everyone seemed to be by the destruction. When I saw a man smoking a cigarette while face-timing his friend a few feet away from a burning tree I knew I had to make this documentary. There are things you can’t unsee.” 

On the choice of narrator: 

When you are moved by a newsworthy event, you often search it online and begin an internal dialogue of questions and answers. The computer provides the answers, so the robotic voiceover in “Fire Season” consists entirely of information gathered from the internet. Additionally, when you watch something destructive on a screen, you vicariously experience danger, safely. It is an informative but psychotic process, and the tone of the voice generator reflects this psychosis. A voice generator attempts to replicate a human voice, but it is stripped of many of the emotional signifiers inherent in verbal communication. I thought an uncanny voice worked well over images of insanity.”

On the toll of filming: 

“I was surprised that I became more fearful as I filmed more fires. After three years I thought I would become more daring. By 2020 I was definitely less aggressive and eager to insert myself into the middle of wildfires, even with all the experience. I wrongly believed that filming and consuming all this destruction wouldn’t take a toll.”

On the challenges of making the film: 

“Fire Season captures major wildfires that occurred in Southern California from 2017 to 2020. With the exception of 2019, each wildfire season was increasingly devastating, record years in terms of destruction. Unfortunately, there were lots of opportunities to film.

Editing the film was a challenge. I shot a lot of footage so it took me a long time to rearrange all the madness into a coherent narrative. Only after I started reaching out to fellow filmmakers and friends did I feel confident enough to finish the movie. I made Fire Season with three people, Thierry Diab, Celine Layous and Ben Long. Along with excelling at their jobs they gave great editing notes. My friends Abraham El-Raheb and Robert Rice also contributed essential feedback.” 

Best piece of advice for filmmakers: 

“Take risks. You don’t have to put yourself in physical danger, but make bold and passionate creative choices. Subtlety and nuance are refined over time. When you’re starting out you should embrace chaos — let it take you where you need to go.”

On what’s next: 

I’m developing two feature horror films with environmental themes and a pilot for a crime show focused on high school football coaches.” 

Check out more Staff Pick Premieres