Megan Smith-Harris talks about her film TRIAL BY FIRE: Lives Re-forged

Posted on 6/08/2013

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.