Meet the TACKLE GIRLS, an exceptional football team, as they hit the field to knock down any misconceptions that women can’t play professional football. No lingerie models here, just true grit and determination. These women play with the same power and intensity as the men. And they’re making history – just like the pioneers of women’s professional tennis and the WNBA did before them. When it comes to blocking, passing, running and catching, the TACKLE GIRLS can do it all.
June 08, 2013
By Bijan Tehrani
Cinema Without Borders
Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged celebrates the courage and strength of burn survivors as they reclaim their lives after the devastation of fire. The film follows the journeys of ordinary people who rise above their injuries to discover unexpected insights and a transformed worldview. Through extraordinary courage, grit, and determination, all re-forge their destinies by first embracing – and then achieving – new dreams. These powerful stories are framed and given insight by U.S. veteran, actor, and speaker, J.R. Martinez.
When metal is forged with fire it becomes stronger. It turns out the same is true of the human spirit.
Bijan Tehrani: Trial By Fire, deals with a very delicate subject as most people avoid talking or thinking about burn victims beyond the incident itself, how did you decide to make this film?
Megan Smith-Harris: I decided to make this film precisely because it was a challenging subject and one that we, as a society, tend to avoid dealing with because it makes us feel uncomfortable. We’ve all been burned at one time or another and know how painful the experience can be, so there is an immediate visceral response of “Oww!” We feel sorry for people who have been burned but at the same time, we don’t want to think about it happening to us so we block it out of our minds. Often when we encounter burn survivors we don’t know how to react so we look past them or look away which leaves burn survivors feeling very isolated and alone. I hoped the film could change prevailing attitudes.
Our culture idolizes physical beauty, so when someone doesn’t conform to the currently accepted standards of what is beautiful, they are often rejected and made to feel less than. That is cowardly and hurtful behavior. I believe if people confronted their own fears and understood what burn survivors have actually been through, they would be much more compassionate.
So I decided to document the personal journeys of burn survivors to help the rest of us understand the experience of waking up in the hospital and knowing that you are still the same person inside but you don’t recognize your reflection in the mirror. How do you come to terms with that and how do you reclaim your life?
BT: Was there a research stage in this project? And how you did you find the 7 people whose lives you portray in Trial By Fire?
MS: There was a steep learning curve because I knew absolutely nothing about the experience of being burned, treating burns, or recovering from burns. It’s been almost three years and I’m still learning. I met many burn survivors and quite honestly, every single one of their stories touched me. How could they not?
Finding the seven stories was very much an organic process. Once I had passed muster with the burn community and people understood that their deeply personal experiences wouldn’t be sensationalized or manipulated, the doors to the burn community opened. People genuinely wanted to share their stories. They sincerely want the world to understand that they’re just people with hopes and dreams like the rest of us. We all have scars but unlike burn survivors, most of us wear them on the inside.
BT: How did you earn the trust of the seven survivors in your film for them to talk about their lives?
MS: As a documentary filmmaker, establishing trust and respect right from the start is a top priority for me. I make it very clear to any potential interview subject that they don’t have to answer any question that they don’t want to. Thanks to reality programming, there is an unfortunate trend of trapping people into revealing things they don’t necessarily want to share with the world and I think it’s unconscionable. I won’t have any part of that.
Initially I spend a long time talking with possible subjects on the phone, getting to know them and using it as an opportunity for them to get to know me too. Whenever possible, I’ll make a trip to their home without a camera crew in tow so they can meet me face-to-face. This also provides a great opportunity to gain a better understanding of their environment and family dynamic. When I finally do show up with the crew, the individual I’m profiling is already comfortable with me and a rapport has been established. If someone is going to entrust their life story to you, they are in a very vulnerable position and you have a moral obligation to get it right.
BT: How challenging was it to make this film?
MS: How long do you have to talk? Kidding aside, finding the right subjects and capturing the interview and verite footage was a lot of work, but it was an enormously rewarding experience and one of the things I love most about the documentary process.
I work with the same crew all the time and that is an enormous help. DP, Laela Kilbourn and sound record artist, Peter Ginsburg are a tremendous asset. We know each others rhythms and how to work efficiently and effectively together. When you have a limited amount of time before you need to move to the next location, it incredibly helpful to have that kind of professional shorthand with your crew. People often suggest that I hire local crews when I travel to locations, thinking that it would save the production money, but it actually wouldn’t. There would be a lack of consistency in the look and feel of the piece.
On another shoot years ago I made the mistake of hiring a local DP and sound guy and it was a disaster. One of the most moving interviews I’ve ever been privileged to witness was lost because the camera wasn’t on! The DP blamed the sound guy, who was playing games on his Phone and the sound guy just rolled his eyes. Never again!
Filmmaking is all about collaboration. Yes, I have a vision of what I hope to achieve, but my crew helps to enhance that vision. They love working on quality projects and add a lot to what’s up on the screen. So this is a shout out of appreciation to documentary crews everywhere but especially mine, because they always have my back.
The real challenge in making this film was (and is) raising the money. This was my first experience raising funding for an independent documentary and I’ve learned that what everyone told me from the start: it’s very, very hard. It becomes especially difficult when you tackle a challenging subject like burn survivors. But that makes the success of the film so much sweeter, right?
We’re set up as a non-profit production so all donations are tax deductible but we’re still struggling to raise funds to pay bills. Don’t get me wrong, we’re enormously grateful to all the individuals, sponsors, and organizations who have helped get us this far. We just need MORE help financially to properly launch the film and get it in front of audiences. We either need a really successful grassroots campaign with a lot of small donations or we need someone like Richard Branson to step up and be our champion. Do you know him?
BT: Trial By Fire has an interesting style in telling its story, how did you come up with visual style of your film?
MS: We had well over 100 hours of footage and had to find a way to manage all the material. After all the interviews were transcribed, I created a paper edit for each storyline, which my editor – the fabulous Jeff Reilly – strung out. This helped me re-familiarize myself with all the footage and forced me to be very organized. Once we had a rough through line for each character we had a better starting point and began the process of slowly and painstakingly refining what we had. We didn’t want it to be linear – Story A, Story B, etc. – because that seemed too predictable. We also wanted to build some suspense so the audience would be on the edge of their seat wondering what happened next, and to have audience members invested in the characters, to care about them in an emotional way. So we broke up all the stories and wove them together like separate but complimentary chapters in a book featuring multiple story lines.
Jeff has excellent story-telling skills so that part of the process was kind of like riffing with another musician. We have a great working relationship and challenge each other a lot, which just serves to make the film better.
The production also had a secret weapon, Executive Producer Bill Harris (who also happens to be my husband) has over 30 years experience in the documentary realm. He is my toughest critic so throughout the editing process Jeff and I would have him watch scenes and rough cuts to get his feedback. We definitely clashed over some of the notes, but he was almost always right. Sometimes you can get too close to the material and you need a third party that is more seasoned and objective to guide you back onto the right path. Bill does that. Every time. His leadership in every area of the production has been invaluable.
The entire edit took four months, which is pretty fast. I know documentary filmmakers who take a year or 18 months to complete their edit. While a part of me would love the luxury of time (and money…) to have such a long edit, I think there is something to be said for working under a tight deadline. You just have to get it done.
After four months, we held a few preview screenings and then went back to the edit suite and tweaked, cut, and rearranged some more. The first cut was over two hours, the next cut was 97 minutes and the final version is 87 minutes. I still love every frame and never tire of watching the film even though I’ve seen it hundreds of times. The stories are just so compelling.
BT: What has been the reaction of audiences to this film?
MS: Reactions to the film have been overwhelmingly positive. Audiences are genuinely moved and inspired. You can feel it when you sit at the back of the theater, see the intense interest on people’s faces when they’re watching the film and know it in your heart when you hear the strength of the applause.
Many audience members have also gone out of their way to speak to me after a screening or e-mail me to let me know what a profound impact the film has had on them personally which as you can imagine, is enormously gratifying. When Leonard Maltin tells you that the film was moving and an eye-opener into a world he knew nothing about, you know you’ve done something right.
We’re incredibly proud and excited that Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged now qualifies for Academy Award consideration. Our goal right now is to make it onto the Oscar short list and we’ve been working hard with our awards consultants, Kean & Kolar, to promote the film so it’s on the radar of general public as well as the Academy membership.
Right now the biggest challenge is getting people to come and see Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged because they are a little intimidated by the subject matter. I’m here to tell you that it’s not what you think! You will definitely relate to the people featured in this documentary. Anyone who is familiar with J.R. Martinez the actor/speaker/author who was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, knows how charismatic he is – all the stories feature individuals just as compelling as J.R.
At one point or another we’ve all faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in our lives, right? This film focuses on how the strength of the human spirit, which is something we can all relate to. I promise when you leave the theater, you will feel great about the world.
BT: Have the seven fire survivors in Trial By Fire seen the completed film and what were their reactions?
MS: They have all seen Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged and so have their families. Thumbs way up all around. Everyone is very happy with how their personal stories were told and they want everyone they know to see the film which I guess, is the ultimate compliment any filmmaker can ever get.
BT: Most filmmakers working on emotional projects like Trial By Fire find themselves in a long term relationship with the characters in their films, how has it been in your case?
MS: Absolutely. I’m in regular contact with everyone and I follow their lives – college acceptances, girlfriends, boyfriends, graduation, engagements, grandchildren – via social media and the phone. They know all about my life and family too. During Hurricane Sandy I got lots of worried texts and e-mails from cast members checking in to make sure we were okay.
Now that we’re showing the film around the country, it’s been really fun to catch up with cast members at various screenings. The best part is, I’m not working, so I actually get a chance to go out for a meal with them and relax instead of worrying about getting an exterior shot before the light fades.
BT: What is the next project you are working on?
MS: That depends on what day you ask me. I read a lot, so ideas are never a problem for me. Currently I have three feature documentary projects that I’m developing but I’m one of those people who feels like I’ll jinx myself if I talk too much about them so forgive me for not elaborating. But I will tell you that I sure would love a break from fund-raising! It hope to be commissioned to make my next project so I could focus exclusively on the creative aspect of making a great film and not the distractions of figuring out how to pay for it.
During the production I also wrote a feature screenplay “Behind the Hedgerows” – a psychological suspense set in East Hampton. TRIAL BY FIRE was a fantastic experience but it was also emotionally and physically demanding so I think writing was my way of letting my brain go some place else for a while. Now I’m toying with the idea of challenging myself to direct a narrative piece. Oh oh. Sounds like more fundraising…
My work with Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged is by no means done. We are actively developing an outreach component geared to schools, colleges and communities with a view to increase burn awareness and make the world a more welcoming place. I promised the cast that as many as people as possible would see this film and I always keep my promises.
March 14, 2013
By Vanessa Inzitari
Wilton Daily Voice
WILTON, Conn. – The Connecticut premiere of the critically acclaimed documentary film Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged, directed by Wilton resident Megan Smith-Harris, will take place Saturday at the Wilton Library.
The film, which chronicles the journeys of burn survivors, features “Dancing With the Stars” champion J.R. Martinez and other survivors who have not only reclaimed their lives, but also embraced and achieved new dreams.
The Los Angeles Times called the film “gripping,” “emotionally potent” and a “startling documentary” during its world premiere theatrical runs in New York City and Los Angeles as part the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks Showcase.
“Trial by Fire” was also recently acquired for global distribution by PBS International, which called it “poignant and inspirational.”
After the screening, Smith-Harris, Executive Director Bill Harris and film editor Jeff Reilly will host a question-and-answer session. Also, as part of their fire prevention outreach initiative, the filmmakers will present a donation of smoke detectors to the Wilton Fire Department to be distributed, for free.
This premiere event, part of the Wilton Library’s New Perspectives Film Series, will run from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. A donation of $5 per person is suggested. Registration is recommended.
For information, directions and to register, visit the Wilton Library website or call 203-762-3950, Ext. 213.
The Wilton Library is located at 137 Old Ridgefield Road.
March 04, 2013
The Augusta Chronicle
A patient treated at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital will be part of the Georgia premiere of a documentary on burn patients Wednesday in Augusta.
The film Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged will be shown at 1 p.m. at Georgia Regents University Maxwell Theatre. It is part of the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Southeastern Firefighters Burn Foundation.
Connor McKemey, who was treated at the Augusta burn center, along with his mother, Karin, are two of the people featured in the documentary, along with J.R. Martinez of “Dancing with the Stars” fame. The McKemeys and the filmmakers will take questions after the movie concludes.
March 07, 2013
By Trista Steers MacVittie
Sedona Red Rock News
Fire can strike at anytime, anywhere, and it doesn’t discriminate based on race, class or location.
This is the message Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged Executive Producer Bill Harris brought to the Sedona Fire District following a screening of the film he brought to the Sedona International Film Festival with his wife, Megan Smith-Harris, producer and director of the film.
“Fire is unforgiving,” Harris said during a dinner hosted by the Sedona Fire District Thursday, Feb. 28, for the film’s producers and stars who also traveled to Sedona. Producers also donated 50 smoke detectors to SFD to be given to the public.
January 13, 2013
By Joan Lownds
Charlie Burlingham’s home in Cambridge might be described as a movable feast of Weir Farm Art Center. Here, the grandson of Julian Alden Weir and president of Weir Farm Art Center is surrounded by “a veritable treasure trove of Weir family art … a visual banquet,” said Megan Smith-Harris, a Wilton documentary filmmaker who is in the process of creating a Weir Farm oral history project.
Janice Hess, executive director of Weir Farm Art Center, said the film is aimed at highlighting the life of Julian Alden Weir, with a special focus on his grandson.
“As Weir Farm National Historic Site moves forward with the renovation of the house, studios and property, we at Weir Farm Art Center are aware that a big part of Julian Alden Weir history has remained largely out of the public eye,” she said. “We wanted to document the works of art that reside in the home of our president, Charles Burlingham, and to also document his very interesting life.”
Toward this end, Ms. Smith-Harris and Ms. Hess shot footage at Weir Farm, and then headed to Cambridge to capture Mr. Burlingham’s memories and art collection on film.
“This project was an absolute joy to work on,” said Ms. Smith-Harris. “Not only was Charlie Burlingham able to provide a wealth of information about his grandfather, Julian Alden Weir, but he was also able to share a rich history about life at Weir Farm since he spent a great deal of time there as a child. Charlie is a gifted raconteur, and his stories and anecdotes are truly captivating, so the editing process will be a lot of fun.”
Many of the paintings featured in the film are making rare public appearances. “They have not been displayed in public much, if at all,” according to Ms. Hess.
She said Ms. Smith-Harris and her company, Pyewackkit Productions, which includes award-winning cinematographer Laela Kilbourn, was tapped by Weir Farm because “our goal was to shoot excellent footage professionally, which we did this summer. … We feel we have the makings of a fascinating documentary film.”
Ms. Smith-Harris agreed. “There is definitely potential for a longer form documentary because there is such a rich vein of family history just waiting to be tapped into. Julian Alden Weir not only created memorable art, he inspired other artists to create memorable art. The property continues to inspire today’s artists through the fantastic residency program sponsored by the Weir Farm Art Center,” she said.
Weir Farm is the only national park service site dedicated to art.
The “preliminary film shoot” was funded by $5,000 from the Elizabeth Raymond Ambler Trust, but Ms. Smith-Harris said more funding is needed to complete the project. “We need to raise an additional $20,000 to properly transcribe the interviews, log the footage, and professionally edit what we have with Emmy award-winning editor Jeff Reilly.”
When the film is finished, Ms. Hess said, “We do know for sure that it will be shown at Weir Farm National Historic Site, for the visitors. “We would also love to see it distributed on TV, and also to hold a premiere here in Wilton.”
Added Ms. Smith-Harris, “This is the perfect opportunity for any individual who loves film, art, history, and nature to make a big difference. This is a very special project and needs a champion, or champions … to move forward.”
No title has yet been selected for the film, she said.
What is the importance of preserving the memories of Weir Farm and the legacy of J. Alden Weir, especially as seen through the eyes of his grandson, Charles Burlingham?
“Weir Farm, with its three generations of artists living and working on its grounds, is a unique place, as evidenced by its designation as a national historic site by Congress,” Ms. Hess said. “The legacy of Julian Alden Weir as an artist, a friend, a mentor, and family man is lent nuance by Charlie Burlingham’s family paintings and family stories.”
Added Ms. Smith-Harris, “Speak to any of the artists who are lucky enough to be chosen for the residency program and you will instantly realize why it’s so important to preserve these memories. Weir Farm has a history of inspiring artists because is a magical place — there is so much to see in the flora, fauna which changes dramatically with the seasons. You just have to look.”
Although Julian Alden Weir died before Mr. Burlingham was born, he spent time at Weir Farm as a child with “his mother and aunts, surrounded by the family art and stories,” Ms. Hess said.
“Charlie knows so much about the family history, he really makes it all come alive,” Ms. Smith-Harris said. “He tells the stories that he learned at the knee of his mother, father, aunts, and uncles, and I can assure you, these memories are rich and varied.”
He has a strong desire to preserve and promote his grandfather’s legacy, according to Ms. Smith-Harris. “I think he feels it’s both a privilege and his duty to make sure current and future generations understand what was going on in the art world at that very exciting time, and how Julian Alden Weir came to play such an important part in it. He was not only a painter but also an encourager, a great friend, and more.”
Mr. Weir’s reputation continues to grow. The new American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York features four Julian Alden Weir paintings. Wilton resident Joan Kaskell, an art historian and lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described the important role the painter played in American art.
“Julian Alden Weir regularly lent his practical and artistic expertise to his many, many colleagues and friends,” she said. “A leader of his contemporaries, he was a founding member both of the Society of American Artists — the progressive painters and sculptors who disagreed with the conservatism of New York’s National Academy of Design — and 20 years later, of The Ten American Painters, consisting mainly of American Impressionists such as John H. Twachtman, Childe Hassam and Weir himself.”
Although Julian Alden Weir was recognized critically and commercially until his death in 1919, “he never associated with early 20th-Century trends, whether with the exploration of themes like the modern life of working people, or with radical movements like Cubism,” Ms. Kaskell said. “Neither an initiator nor an imitator, he responded to and created from various artistic ideas.”
However, Ms. Kaskell posed this question: “To be ‘important,’ must one be a pioneer? Looking back at the 50 years of Weir’s oeuvre, we can now appraise his substantial body of realized work in landscape, still life and portraiture, including his interpretations — for half his career — of French Impressionism, as well as of other contemporary influences, including, for example, those of Japanese prints.”
“A visit to his paintings in the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum begins to reveal the breadth of his oeuvre. When the rotating spotlight comes back to Weir, his excellence in the areas he chose will be recognized anew to highlight his place in American art.”
Does his grandson follow in the family artistic tradition?
“He will say he dabbles,” Ms. Hess said.
“That’s exactly what he says, but he’s being modest,” said Ms. Smith-Harris. “He actually paid homage to his grandfather by doing a very fine copy of one of his paintings.”
As president of Weir Farm Art Center, Mr. Burlingham visits “for all our meetings, held several times a year,” Ms. Hess said.
“Having volunteered at Weir Farm in the past and helped to raise money for the current artist’s studio, it has been a real pleasure to be involved in this project,” said Ms. Smith-Harris. “Now all we need is some funding to move forward.”
For information or to make a donation: www.weirfarmartcenter.org, or Weir Farm Art Center, 735 Nod Hill Road in Wilton.
November 16, 2012
Canadian-born filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris is making a run for the Academy Awards with her first independent feature Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged. Born in Toronto, Smith-Harris got her start while touring with The Second City, and then went on to produce numerous documentary profiles of Canadians for the CBC and Brave, as well as the documentary Surrogate Stories, which aired on the Women’s Television Network this year. She also honed her skills in Producers Residency Program at the Canadian Film Centre and participated in the inaugural year of Women in The Director’s Chair in Banff. Now based in Connecticut as owner of Pyewackitt Productions, the Oscar race helps to make a dream come true for Smith Harris because it means that the reach of her inspirational film could be bigger than ever. The film screened at the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks programme in August to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars, and Smith-Harris is screening the film so that it can compete amongst over 100 other docs, some of which already have high profiles and studio support.
The extra exposure for Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged is important because the film sheds light on a subject from which conventional media typically shies away. The film offer a portrait of burn survivors and it follows seven individuals who share the stories of how they gained their scars and how their experiences as burn survivors have shaped their lives in surprising ways. Central to the film is the story of one survivor who helped gain considerable notice and challenge the way the media portrays burn survivors. The stories are intercut with scenes with actor and motivational speaker J.R. Martinez, the veteran of the Iraq war who gained famed as a contestant—and eventual winner—in Season 13 of Dancing with the Stars. Martinez’s life was forever changed when his Humvee drove over a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2003. Now, though, J.R.’s personality and courage has helped others look beyond the physical scars left by burns and see the individual behind them.
The discomfort of body image is one of the reasons Trial By Fire suggests that people are often uneasy with confronting experiences like the one J.R. had. However, Smith-Harris drew inspiration for Trial by Fire from the unlikeliest of sources: a magazine. The director describes how she was flipping through a magazine one day and was touched by a photo of three survivors. Wanting to know more about these individuals, Smith-Harris was stirred to learn the context of these burns – how did the people receive them and what was it like in the aftermath. “When you forge metal with fire it becomes stronger and in making this film,” says Smith-Harris, “I learned that the same is true of the human spirit. One of the most surprising revelations we had during production was that the majority of burn survivors interviewed for this documentary told us they would not change what happened to them even if they could. While none of them would ever want to revisit the pain and suffering they endured, the experience of being burned has transformed their lives in ways they could not possibly have fathomed.”
The transformative journey of these survivors has inspired people as Trial By Fire has made its own journey across the screens of North America. The film has screened at several venues close to the heart of the film’s campaign, such as the Firefighters Burn Institute in Sacramento, California and the Canadian Burn Survivors in Calgary, Alberta. Likewise, the film has screened on the film circuit, including a stop with noted film critic Leonard Maltin and his cinema studies class at USC, which met the film with a standing ovation. The film has also enjoyed critical acclaim while making the rounds.
Trial by Fire is returning to USC and more venues in hope of spreading the word for both the film and its cause. Smith-Harris will be joined by star/subject J.R. Martinez for a Q&A at the film’s USC screening on Sunday, November 18, and the film will also be shown in New York on Monday, November 19 with Executive-Producer Bill Harris in attendance. With high hopes, these screenings will bring more success to Trial by Fire and its journey.
Trial By Fire: Lives Re-Forged screens:
Sunday, November 18 (J.R. Martinez and filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris to do Q&A)
USC School of Cinematic Arts
Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108
900 W. 34th Street
Los Angeles, CA
Monday, November 19 (Executive Producer Bill Harris to do Q&A)
MAGNO Screening Room
729 7th Avenue (between 48th-49th)
New York, NY
August 9, 2012
By Gary Goldstein
Los Angeles Times
In the inspiring documentary ‘Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged,’ burn victims and their families rise above their injuries.
Don’t be deterred by its seemingly grim topic — Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged is a gripping, emotionally potent, often startling documentary about a remarkable group of burn survivors and their physical and psychological triumphs over adversity.
Director Megan Smith-Harris masterfully interweaves the harrowing stories of a cross-section of Americans who, thenranging from ages 13 to 31, were ravaged by burn injuries as a result of largely accidents: an outdoor fireplace calamity, a high school chemistry lab explosion, an overnight house fire, a race car crash and more.
Candid interviews with the victims and their devoted family members, personal photos, home video clips and archival news footage bring us so deeply into the forever-changed lives of the film’s stalwart subjects you’ll likely never look at — or look away from — a burn survivor the same way again.
As wounded Iraq war veteran, motivational speaker and “Dancing With the Stars” winner J.R. Martinez so eloquently says here, “If you treat us the same, we’ll feel the same.”
Shout-outs are also due “Trial’s” other burn community members: sports nut Connor McKemey and his mom, Karin, NASCAR hopeful Harli White, wood carver John Capanna, ex-firefighter and social worker Duane Wright, recent college grad Calais Weber and author and burn trauma charity founder Justina Page. You are all amazing.
Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged. No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.
August 6, 2012
By IDA Editorial Staff
Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Megan Smith-Harris, director/producer/writer of Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged.
Synopsis: Scars are like tattoos-but with better stories. Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged follows the journeys of extraordinary people who survive critical burns and rise above their injuries to discover a transformed worldview. A firefighter endures a 1500-degree inferno; a teenage athlete, engulfed in flames, triumphs against all odds; an oil worker survives an incredible refinery blast; a race-car driver makes a miraculous comeback from a fiery wreck; an honors student is caught in a chemistry class explosion; and a mother, burned at home, dedicates her recovery to her children. All are given context and perspective by burn survivor and Dancing with the Stars champion J.R. Martinez. When you forge metal with fire, it becomes stronger. The same is true of the human spirit.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Megan Smith-Harris: I was an actress and writer in Canada, working mostly in comedy. Though I was relatively successful, I realized the shelf-life of an actress—particularly one who was six feet tall—was limited and the parts I was getting were underwhelming.
A friend recommended me for a job producing five-minute documentary films on famous Canadians in the arts. Other than having been on a lot of sets and having a passion for watching documentaries, I had zero experience in the world of filmmaking. But my friend reassured me, “You’re a writer and actress—that’s storytelling. Documentaries are just another form of what you’re already doing.”
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would get the job, but I did. It involved working with eight different directors and eight different famous interview subjects. We shot on 16mm film and edited during the graveyard shift at CBC. Kodak gave us film, the processing and equipment were donated—most of the time—and the budget was bare bones. It was a crash course in documentary filmmaking. On my first day of shooting I didn’t even know what Nat sound was or that I was supposed to get film permits. But I’m a quick study, so it worked out well enough that they hired me again. In all, I produced 24 short documentary films.
That experience inspired me to go back to school as a Producer Resident at the Canadian Film Centre. Any luminary who came through town dropped by the CFC to speak with us-Wim Wenders, David Cronenberg, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola, Thelma Schoonmaker, Stirling Silliphant, Kathy Bates, Istvan Szabo, Jake Eberts and of course Norman Jewison, who founded the Centre. It was a phenomenal learning experience.
Narrative features were appealing but I couldn’t shake the documentary bug, so I started developing my own projects. I landed a deal for my first independent documentary with CTV in Canada and the BBC abroad but at the time I was newly married and got pregnant. It was a high-risk pregnancy so I had to bow out of the doc project, which was devastating. My lawyer said, “Megan, you can make a film any time but you can’t always have a healthy baby.” He was right. I took off several years to be with our son but made short pro bono films for various charities on the side. In 2007 I jumped back in and made a couple of one-hour documentaries for television, followed by a two-hour doc special. Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged is my first independent feature.
IDA: What inspired you to make Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged?
MSH: While winding up a documentary on surrogate mothers, I was pondering what to tackle next. I had a few pet projects waiting to be developed, but sometimes as a filmmaker you don’t choose your subject, it chooses you, and that was very much the case with Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged.
I was sitting in the departure lounge at Chicago O’Hare flipping through a magazine and the moment I saw a photograph of a group of burn survivors, I knew this was going to be my next film. Even though I had never met a burn survivor before, I felt a connection, a kind of instant empathy. I discovered that not many films had been made on the subject, which was surprising because the stories are all so inherently dramatic. I started doing pre-interviews and became obsessed with making this film.
The subject matter is more relatable than you might think. Accidents can happen to anyone at any time regardless of age, race, religion or social standing. Fire can destroy your life in the blink of an eye, but I wanted to know what happened after the fire, when lives were rebuilt. I wanted to focus on that process-how people reimagine their dreams and re-forge their lives after a devastating event. I also wanted to honor the courage and strength of burn survivors to show the world how truly inspirational they are.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
MSH: The greatest creative challenge was the heartbreak of having to cut out really powerful scenes and interviews to keep the film at a manageable length. I could easily have made a documentary on each of the extraordinary people we featured.
Even though we traveled a lot, the shoots went really well—no tornadoes, blizzards, lost equipment or dog bites, and all the interviews were fantastic. We were very fortunate to get quality time with J.R. Martinez before he became a household name and went on to grace the cover of People Magazine. Having J.R. has definitely helped us get attention for the film. But as gripping as his story is, the journeys of the other characters are equally compelling.
One of the greatest benefits, but also a creative challenge, was working with my husband, Bill Harris, my executive producer. Bill, a former senior programming and production executive (A&E, History Channel), has a lot of experience and very strong opinions. Guess what? So do I. Two Type-A personalities living and working together for the last two and a half years has been all-consuming, but we believe the result has been worth it.
The greatest production challenge we faced was—and is—funding. The film was structured as a nonprofit with the Center for Independent Documentary, and it never occurred to us that corporations and foundations wouldn’t be falling over themselves to fund TRIAL BY FIRE. Naïveté on our part? Absolutely. But then everyone needs a healthy does of naïve optimism at the outset of production, or documentaries would never get made, right? We also feel very lucky to have gained the endorsement and support of the sponsors we do have.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
MSH: Originally I planned to punctuate the personal stories of the burn survivors with expert interviews, including doctors, nurses, therapists and firefighters. I thought the audience would need a little time to regroup because some of the material can be emotionally demanding. But when we started to assemble the rough cut—and I shot about a hundred hours of footage—my editor, Jeff Reilly, and I realized we wanted to stay focused on the burn survivors because their stories were so absorbing. The other material seemed like a distraction, so we cut it out. I realize now that I was using those expert interviews as kind of a security blanket, but I didn’t need to baby the audience.
The next challenge was figuring out how to weave the stories together and in what order. We did a lot of tinkering. I’m very hands-on, so I was in the edit suite every single day, all day. I love collaborating with my editor because he has exceptional storytelling skills and he’s not afraid to challenge me if he believes I’m moving in the wrong direction. There were definitely heated discussions, but that was okay—you need to be passionate and fight for what you believe is the appropriate creative path. Bill always told me what I didn’t want to hear but needed to hear. Being open to collaboration meant the film always got better.
IDA: As you’ve screened Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged—whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms—how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
MSH: Audiences have been very moved and inspired by this film.
Because it’s such a challenging subject I wanted to make sure that we achieved the right tone, so during post-production we had a number of private previews. Initially, these took place in the edit suite where I invited a cross-section of people I trusted. I asked each of them to fill out a detailed survey immediately following the screening in an effort to capture their unvarnished first impressions.
I asked which storyline resonated with them and why, if there was any imagery that was too graphic, when their attention lagged. Their responses were very reassuring—everyone liked certain storylines for different reasons, which confirmed that all the characters were relatable. We then showed the film to the cast and other members of the burn community at the World Burn Congress. For that screening I was a nervous wreck. When people started crying during the film I kept wondering, “Are these good tears or bad tears?” After the final credits, the room was eerily silent and I held my breath. Then everyone erupted in applause and gave us a standing ovation. I was so overcome by the warmth of the response I burst into tears myself—good tears, of course. It was without question the most rewarding professional experience of my life.
The film continued to evolve and improve after each private preview. We just kept heading back to edit suite to rearrange stories, trim, change music tracks. We then showed the film to members of the firefighting community to get their perspective, and they loved it too—one of the fire chiefs said it should be mandatory for every new recruit to watch before they graduate. Thanks to the strength of the stories, this film is emotionally powerful and inspirational and I believe it will continue to resonate with audiences.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
The first documentary to make a big impression on me was Michael Moore’s Roger and Me because it was so brash and funny and unexpected. Nobody made documentaries like that back then, and Moore wasn’t afraid to insert himself or his perspective into the film, which was groundbreaking at the time. Other early influences were Burden of Dreams, the UP Series, Hoop Dreams, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse and Grey Gardens.
More recently, Exit Through The Gift Shop was pretty fabulous. Was it a documentary? I still don’t know, but it was just so entertaining and inspired. I found both Wasteland and The Order of Myths mesmerizing. I absolutely loved Man On Wire because it was paced like a Hitchcock movie—you knew Phillippe Petit would make it across without plunging to his death, but it was still so incredibly suspenseful. As a rule, I’m not a fan of re-creations, but the way James Marsh incorporated the black-and-white archival footage with his own original material was masterful.
Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged will be screening August 3 through 9 at the IFC Center in New York City and August 10 through 16 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.
For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2012 program, click here.
To purchase tickets for Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged in New York, click here.
To purchase tickets for Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged in Los Angeles, click here.
August 2, 2012
By Korey Wilson
Megan Smith-Harris, creator of the documentary film Trial By Fire, about the lives and recoveries of burn victims.
Hour photo / Erik Trautmann
WILTON – A touching documentary produced and directed by a local couple has just moved a few steps closer toward Oscar consideration.
Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged is a documentary that shares seven stories of fire survivors from all walks of life. The film is directed by Wilton resident, Megan Smith-Harris, and its executive producer is her husband, Bill Harris.
After much support and fanfare, the film was recently entered into DocuWeeks, a showcase for independent documentaries that puts the films directly in line to be nominated at the Oscar Awards.
As a part of the showcase, “Trial by Fire” will make it’s theatrical world premiere on today at the IFC Center in New York City. It will air through Aug. 9, followed by a week-long premiere in Los Angeles from Aug. 10 through Aug. 16.
“This is our first real public world premiere,” said Bill Harris. “They choose a handful of films from around the world. This year, they picked 17 films.”
Harris said the event has led to 32 Oscar nominations in the past, and seven Oscar wins.
The inspiration to make “Trial by Fire” just hit Megan Smith-Harris one day.
“It was such an immediate decision,” said Smith-Harris. “I happened to open a magazine and saw a picture of burn survivors. The first thing I thought is no one has ever done a movie about this. Something that happened so fast changed their lives. I realized I wanted to tell that story. I wanted to know how do you put your life back together after a harrowing event?”
Smith-Harris decided to contact the burn camp in the People magazine advertisement.
She made a series of phone calls that eventually led her to a Miami dermatologist who works with people who survived fires.
“She wanted to make sure my heart was in the right place,” said Smith-Harris.
The doctor then shared numerous stories of victims without naming those involved.
As a result of the meeting, the dermatologist introduced Megan to several fire survivors.
“It was a very long process,” said Smith-Harris. “I take it as a huge responsibility to gain their trust. It started with a phone call, then I met them without a camera.
The preliminary meetings made it easier on both the subjects and the production crew when filming began.
The documentary tells the stories of seven individuals who survived fires. Some stories in the film have more than one victim, however.
One of the most notable stories in the film is J.R. Martinez.
Martinez, most known for his roles on ABC’s “All My Children” and “Dancing with the Stars,” sustained severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq.
“He’s very powerful in the film and he inspirationally sets the tone for a lot of these stories,” said Harris. “His face really personalized this whole issue.”
Both Smith-Harris and Harris have noteworthy experience in television and film.
Smith-Harris started out as television performer and writer in Canada. She produced a series of short documentaries on famous artists in Canada and developed an interest in creating documentaries.
Harris is an Emmy award-winning television producer with more than 30 years of experience.
He served as a senior vice president of the A&E network for 16 years. During his tenure, he launched the “Biography” series and helped create The History Channel.
The two met at a documentary conference in Toronto called Hot Docs.
“We met and that really changed the course of our lives,” said Smith-Harris.
Today, the couple operates their own production company, Pyewackitt Productions, which has produced several TV and film projects.
While the film makes its theatrical debut this week, it has garnered strong grassroots support over the last year. The film’s Facebook page has more than 2,300 supporters, while the film’s website has received hits from 189 different countries.
“This film is more than a documentary,” said Smith-Harris. “It’s a mission to make the world a safer place. We are developing an educational outreach campaign geared towards high school students and college students.
“People learn stop, drop and roll in kindergarten, then there’s no more fire safety. We all know we should have fire safety, but not everybody does.”
“If you do nothing else after seeing the film, check your smoke detectors and practice an escape plan with your kids, which cost you nothing,” adds Harris.
The film has also received support from the firefighting community and fire associations around the country.
The company First Alert has also come onboard as a sponsor and has assisted in a smoke detector giveaway that has added more than 2,000 smoke detectors in homes, to date.
For more information on “Trial by Fire,” visit www.trialbyfiredoc.org and www.pyewackitt.com.