Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Megan Smith-Harris – ‘TRIAL BY FIRE: Lives Re-Forged’

Posted on 08/06/2012

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.