Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged, Megan Smith-Harris, Bill Harris, Pyewackitt Productions

Posted on 08/02/2012

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.