LDS Academy Award Winner Talks Faith, Hollywood, and What Makes a Good Story

by | Jun. 07, 2016

Kieth Merrill has worked in the film industry since 1967. A writer, director, and producer, he won an Academy Award for his 1973 documentary The Great American Cowboy  and created the LDS films Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, Legacy, and The Testaments. His debut novel, The Evolution of Thomas Hall, was released in 2011, and his newest novel, Saga of Kings, Book 1: The Immortal Crown, has just hit bookstores. We recently sat down with him to find out more about the man behind these incredible achievements.

Q—What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

My dad was an artist. My mother was an actress. That was their passion. Meanwhile, my dad worked very hard in education and my mother raised four kids. I inherited their love of the arts and found filmmaking a comprehensive expression of the things I learned to enjoy: art, drama, photography, telling stories, and putting on a show.

Q—You’ve worked in the film industry since 1967. What is the most important thing you’ve learned over the years about staying true to your standards?

It sounds like a Primary cliché, but it’s true: Never forget who you are. To that I would add, let every new person you meet know who you are—what that means in terms of standards, behaviors, and expectations. With only a couple of exceptions, I have never been asked to compromise my standards by people who knew I was Mormon and took the traditions and practices of my religion seriously.

Q—Describe how you felt the moment your film, The Great American Cowboy, won the Academy Award for best feature documentary.

I can’t remember because I was distracted by the fact Raquel Welch, one of the truly sensational and sexy movie stars of the era, was the one presenting the Oscar. When she handed me the Oscar, I knew it was Hollywood tradition to give her a kiss. On the face of it, that seems like a good thing, but look at it from my perspective. If I kissed that incredibly gorgeous sex symbol to delight the 70 million people watching on TV and not offend Ms. Welch, I had to remember that I would have to explain my actions to my wife, who was sitting in the fifth row, and my dear mother, who was watching in Farmington, Utah. On the other hand, if I didn’t kiss her, I would have to explain it to the Elder’s Quorum of the Los Altos First Ward.

Q—The First Presidency commissioned you to make the films Legacy and The Testaments. What was your favorite experience while filming each of them?

From time to time on a movie set we experience a sort of time warp. We work so hard to make everything perfectly authentic, the costumes accurate, the dialogue true to the character and the spirit on the set reflective of the spirit of the original historical scene that amazing things can happen.

The day we filmed the Crucifixion, it was as if we were really there. Afterward, I saw [the man portraying the Savior], Tomas, weeping. He sat alone on the crude pallet constructed near the place of execution. I was concerned we had injured him. I sat beside him. I put my arm around his bruised shoulders and  looked into that face painstakingly made up with a crown of thorns, rivulets of blood and sweat and tears, and asked him if he was alright. We wept together as he shared with me the insights he had gained in his attempt to portray the suffering of Christ. I shall never forget the words he spoke nor the spirit I felt. It was all very real. Time had warped. It was extraordinary.

Q—What is your all-time favorite movie, and why?

The next movie I make—because I will finally get it right. No, actually, I loved making The Testaments and have another larger-than-life epic I hope to make before I’m through. I am holding the “favorite movie” spot for that one.

Q—In your opinion, what makes a good story?

A good story has one or more great characters. Movies are best if they have one strong central character. Novels can get away with as many as three. But the essential elements of a good story are powerful, three-dimensional answers to the core questions I always ask myself before I write or use to measure a finished work. Who is it about? What do they want? Who wants to stop them? Why does it matter? What is the Central Dramatic Question in a single sentence?  What are the stakes? What are the obstacles preventing the character from reaching their goal? What happens if the characters do not get what they want? What are the consequences in their lives? Why is it urgent? Does every scene have conflict?

There are many more questions on the list that help design or measure a good story, but any story for which the answers to these core questions are interesting, original, provocative, conflicted, and fresh is likely to be not only a good but a great story.

Q—What are some of the themes in your latest book, Saga of Kings, Book 1: The Immortal Crown?

In our exploration of ideas, we talked about the stories found in the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon as a context for real people in an archaic time of history (circa 2200 B.C.). That history contains many elements of epic fiction: the fight between good and evil; God and the minion of darkness; the struggle for power; treachery, betrayals, battles, seduction, and murder; the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms; and, in the midst of it, a unique and fascinating story about mysterious stones that shined in the dark.

The stories of such stones, the Pyrophilus, are legendary and found throughout the ancient history of the world. They were reportedly possessed by such legendary characters as Gilgamesh, Noah, Solomon, and Alexander the Great.

The shining stones of Ether add a fascinating dimension to the legends of Pyrophilus. The stones in that story were made luminous by the finger of God. What became of them? Would they ever be found? What power did they possess beyond giving light? What great deeds of evil or of good could be wrought by the one who gathered the mystical stones? What if the stones were endowed with the power of renewal, immortality, and endless life? This simple idea was the core inspiration from which the series, Saga of Kings, and Book 1: The Immortal Crown evolved.

Q—How was writing The Immortal Crown different from writing The Evolution of Tomas Hall?

My approach toThe Immortal Crown was completely different from my first book. The Evolution of Thomas Hall was based on a movie script I had written years before but never produced. It was a contemporary story with a singular point of view, set in a real location and dealing with the collision between two powerful ideologies widely discussed, often-debated, and about which myriad books have been written, all in "the real world." Besides which, there is much of me in my main character.
The only reality in epic fantasy is the one that blossoms in the reader’s head.

Q—What is the biggest difference between writing a novel and a screenplay?

Writing a novel and writing a screenplay are so different they can hardly be compared. Both tell stories but do so in very different ways.

Films tell stories with moving pictures. Novels tell stories with words. In films, we see the images. In novels, the writer must “paint” a vivid image in your mind with nothing more than words. Films must rely on action and reaction to understand what a character is thinking. Novels can live in people’s minds and read their thoughts.

A screenplay is a set of instructions intended for translation: by the director, the actors and myriad creative people who find, dissect, and translate each their little part. A novel is the translation of the writer’s vision.

For all the differences—and the answer to this question is worthy of a college course and nice, fat book—the nicest compliment I got from a reader of The Evolution of Thomas Hall brought my two expressions together: “The descriptions are word pictures and the story unreels like a movie in your mind.”

Q - Why did you choose not to write your novels specifically for the LDS audience?

With the exception of films produced for the LDS Church (Legacy, The Testaments, and Mr. Krueger’s Christmas),  my creations have never targeted the LDS audience.  Writing The Evolution of Thomas Hall for anyone other than the widest possible audience was never a consideration. Why? My professional life has been driven by the prophecy and plea of Spencer W. Kimball in the address given to BYU faculty and staff 1967-68.

“Our moving picture specialists, with the inspiration of heaven, should tomorrow be able to produce a masterpiece—written by the great artists, purified by the best critics—that should run for months in every movie center, cover every part of the globe in the tongue of the people. A masterpiece that will live forever.  It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy.”

“Cover every part of the globe in the tongue of the people” is the operative phrase. When I was ordained to the office of Seventy by Boyd K. Packard, the special blessing required me to use the talents I had been given and opportunities that came to speak to the world.

Read Kieth Merrill's latest masterpiece, The Saga of Kings, Book 1: The Immortal Crown, available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com