Becoming the Vision the Prophet Saw, Part 2: A Success for All of Us
by Kieth Merrill

Editors’ Note: This is the second part of the key note address given by Kieth Merrill at the Mormon Arts Foundation meeting in April. Click here to read Part 1.

Great art has never been created in committee. An artist is an individual. Even the most introverted, insecure, and unassured creator is driven-or drawn-by a powerful ego. The artist is a solitary animal by nature. Territorial. Protective. Competitive.

As Mormon film makers we need to be supportive, encouraging, constructive, and helpful. I do not presume to speak for other artistic disciplines within the church, but it is essential for us to remember-and believe-that “one success among our peers is a success for all of us.”

It is a success because if we are truly Mormon first and artist second the goal is not one of self aggrandizement-but the building of the kingdom. Elder Holland said it perfectly, “The race is against sin-not against each other.”

It is particularly important that we suppress the destructive spirit of competition-negative criticism, and the backbiting that can creep in on devil’s toes and taint the blessings of our brotherhood.

There is an anecdote that claims the fishermen of Maine do not put lids on their baskets of crabs. There is no need. If they put two crabs in each basket they will never escape. If either of them attempts to climb out, the other will pull it back.

The sensitivities that make us artists, the intuitive attributes that enable us to see the world through different eyes, and the insecurities that curiously compels creative passion are at once our strength and weakness.

Amidst the voices of praise and criticism, it is curious we are inclined to discount applause and hear only the silent hands of the few who do not like our work. One critical voice in a chorus of appreciation is too often the only voice that we remember. The wisest among us ignore both aspersion and acclaim, but sometimes honest encouragement, well timed and properly placed, can make a significant difference.

We must find constructive ways to support every honest effort emanating from our diverse creative fellowship without necessarily feeling compelled to give faint praise, endorse-or even like-the results.

President Kimball envisioned that our work would be “purified by the best critics.” I believe we have confined ourselves too long inside the protective walls of our own culture. We must continually expose our art to the world and brace ourselves with collective confidence for the reaction. We must boldly face our critics and be purified. In reading the vision of president Kimball I have recently wondered if “the best critics”-some of them at least-may not be here, among ourselves.

Wouldn’t it be marvelous if our collective egos were in such control, our judgments so honestly objective, and our desire for the success of one another so genuine that we could turn inward in search of “the best critics.”

From some of the Mormon film makers who responded to my inquiry and from some who read me at Meridian Magazine come the following snippets:

.”.Culturally, we have created such a fear in our community of Saints about criticism of any kind, that we have become inferior in our ability to constructively critique one another with the aim of achieving outstanding work.”

“I would like to see a spirit of collaboration and cooperation among LDS filmmakers.”

“We avoid the desperate struggle for perfection in the arts that demands a kind of focus we are afraid will consume us.”

“With some fellow filmmakers, I feel a wonderful sense of camaraderie and mutual respect. With some, I feel a sense of an almost competitive tension
.”

“It would be a positive thing for the established LDS filmmakers to mentor young up-and-coming artists into the creative arena. “

“We have lost our ability to truly objectively analyze. We won’t even see 80% of the work the world does and are frequently completely unable to communicate intelligently with professionals in the field.”

I am encouraged and amused by the boundless optimism evident in the rising generation of young Mormon movie makers.

“I’m going to spend a couple thousand on a feature that I am shooting this summer. I’m going to shoot it on mini-DV and then transfer it to digibeta. Oh, and I have one script that would probably take at least $40,000,000. It is a fantasy adventure film much like The Lord of the Rings, but with martial arts.”

The most exuberant are on a different path all together and sometimes a little out of touch with reality. One young man, filled with grand dreams of making movies, wrote to me about his “top secret, original idea” to do a movie called, First Nephi. He writes:

“If someone else were to pull out a surprise production of something like this-or do it first-I’d be pretty burnmed. [He goes on to say] I’m actually a hair jealous of Dutcher because I had thought of that Joseph Smith movie a long time ago… “

One of the most successful and celebrated Mormon film makers, Jerry Molen, wanted to be here today. His film opens tonight and made that impossible. He asked me to share his seasoned insight and pointed perspective.

“I see a much needed role in creative, dedicated and inspired film makers who truly want to change the direction of films from unworthy, uninspired and irresponsible to illuminative, inspired, educational and entertaining works of ‘art’.

“Who better than the LDS filmmakers to fill the void created by less talented and valueless individuals who happen to flourish within the Hollywood community and hide behind the few great artists we all recognize and respect.

“There is a desperate need of talented writers. It seems that today’s successful’ crop of writers are lacking a moral compass.

“So to all of you producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, designers, actors and creative craftsmen and craftswomen who aspire to be a part of a change for a better tomorrow, I say congratulations and whatever you do, never give up.”

“I want to be a part of this change and am dedicated to forever be there to cheer, assist, admonish and encourage the God-given talent in each of the ‘film makers and dream makers of tomorrow
.[Jerry Molen, personal correspondence with the author, April, 2002]

Jerry reminded me of another great film maker whom I had the privilege to know. I met Frank Capra the same year I directed the star he created, Jimmy Stewart in a film called, Mr. Krueger’s Christmas for Michael McLean who conceived the idea, created the project and produced the film.

Frank Capra said;
“To others that belong or aspire to belong to that privileged group of one man, one film makers, I dare to say, don’t compromise. For only the valiant can create. Only the daring should make films. Only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow men for two hours in the dark. Only the artistically incorrupt will earn and keep the people’s trust . ” [Capra, Frank, Name Above the Title]

I am a solitary animal. I am a vigorously independent. I fancy myself an “auteur,” a “one-man one film maker,” but the facts do not support it.

Film is a collaborative art. What ever there may be of value in my work, it is the collective effort of many–many of you in this room. I acknowledge you; I thank you.

The wonderful thing about having lived a few years, and done nothing other than make films, is that the defensive stance of youthful ego and the confidence born of ignorance has been replaced by the reality that no one has a corner on creativity . No one is beyond improvement. No one is beyond benefiting from the value constructive criticism.

Let us work toward-no let us covenant with one another-to engender a genuine desire for the success of our fellow artists.

We are blessed with gifts . Some gifts are greater than others. I have told Merrill Jensen many times that if I could write a single page of his music I would give up making films . I have told Sam Cardon the same thing.

When I study the extraordinary world of James Christensen, I know why I had to abandon my adolescent dream to be an artist . I have pushed clay around in private, but stand in awe at the work of Dennis Smith. My dear friend Sheri Dew wants me to write a book and I’m tempted, but then I read what some of you have written and shrink in terror.

I wrote and directed the film, The Testaments Of One Fold And One Shepherd. I am grateful to God and thankful to prophets that I was entrusted with a blessing “where love and need are one,” as Robert Frost said so poetically. [Frost, Robert, “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”]

If you have seen it and if you liked it then you caught a glimpse of what it was like for me to write and direct the film. What it was like for us-those of you here, Gary Cook, Scott Swofford, TC Christensen, Merrill Jensen and many others on our vast team of “collaborating artists”-to enjoy a project wherein “our two eyes were made one in sight.” [Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time.]

One day in the editing room at LDS studios, Jerry Stayner-who did such a fine job editing the film-asked who had written the script. It was curious to me he didn’t know. I explained that I had requested permission to “re-write” what had been prepared by multiple committees . The rewrite became-as President Hinckley remarked-“an entirely different movie.” Merrill Jensen asked me where the story came from?

If you know Merrill, you will enjoy this story even more. Merrill Jensen is without guile. In spite of his great talent, significant acclaim and serious responsibility as a church leader he remains innocent as the new fallen snow.

“It’s such a great story,” Merrill went on, “how did you come up with it?”

“I promised not to tell.” I said as if trying to deflect intrusion into a deep dark secret. Merrill slipped forward to the edge of his chair. His wife Betsy looked up from her handiwork. Jerry Stayner turned around.

“You can tell me,” Merrill probed.

“I don’t know. I really shouldn’t,” I said then grimaced with enough uncertainty to give them hope. “Is there an intercom in here?” I asked Jerry.

“Can anyone hear what we are saying?”

They were hooked. “As you know, ” I began, “I have had the privilege of going into the First Presidency’s vault.” I paused for effect. “Promise me that you will never, ever reveal what I am about to tell you.” They promised with nodding heads and sat spellbound and breathless.

“What very few people in the church realize, ” I explained in clandestine tones, ” is that the 116 pages lost by Martin Harris were in fact…” I paused once more as if struggling over some final barrier of secrecy, “They were in fact recovered. ” I let it sink it and relished the wonder on Merrill’s face.

“The lost pages are in the vault. I was given access to them. The story is there. The entire thing. It’s in the book of Ammoron, characters, even the dialogue, the whole thing.”

There was stunned silence, then finally Merrill whispered, “That’s incredible.”

Even Betsy, Merrill’s wife, bought in. Unusual for her. I enjoyed their wonder of my tall tale for half an hour then finally confessed.

The story did NOT come from the 116 pages, it came from the inspired direction of the prophet. The Testaments was a First Presidency project. The close and constant association with them throughout the process was a remarkable experience.

I came to an even greater certainty that these men are prophets, seers and revelators. We reported regularly to President Faust. The lessons I learned from that marvelous man could fill volumes. I came to love him like a father.

I have believed in Jesus all of my life. In making The Testaments I came to know him in ways I had not understood. In recreating his world and events of his ministry, I came to know him in new and unfamiliar ways.

From time to time and in a moment suddenly-in a kind of curious time warp that happens on a movie set-I was transported. I walked where he walked. I was there when he healed the leper and gave sight to the blind. I watched him bless a child. I sat at the foot of the cross. I watched him die.

I was there when he appeared to Mary as the resurrected Lord and when came in glory to the temple in bountiful. The emotions of the extras in the film are real. The tears are honest tears of testimony.

I acknowledge the hand of the lord in all that is good in the testaments. What ever of it touches your heart it is of him. The flaws are mine alone.

It is no secret to those who know me that I emerged from that experience changed. It accentuated the sense of responsibility I feel as “Mormon movie maker” to use the blessings of a long career and the assets of access, credential, and credibility to make a difference if I can.

I emerged committed to make another film based on the life and times of Jesus Christ. It is my intent to make the film commercial, an epic, a “Hollywood feature film” for the world-wide market. In the language of a Hollywood pitch man, think “Gladiator meets Jesus” and you catch a glimpse of what is possible.

The film will capture the spirit of The Testaments in a biblical setting. It will carry the testimony of the Savior through the impact on the lives of the characters whose story we will tell. It will convey our unique understanding of his divinity to the world .

In making one film about the Savior I feel compelled to make another. In the midst of filming the scenes of Christ at the temple, I was impressed by the responsibility to press forward and somehow get it done. The prophets have said, “Pray and go” and so we shall.

If this grand dream seems too presumptuous you will forgive me. We are gathered to share our grandest expectations are we not? We are here to seek strength, find courage and gain allies.

As Mormon artists, we are blessed with the opportunity to combine who we are with what we do. We are blessed with the knowledge that being “Mormon” is more important than being “artist.”

We are blessed with the gifts to use our art to build the kingdom of God and change private hearts. We are blessed with the Spirit of Christ to inspire us to “do that which is for the benefit and blessing of our fellow men.” [McConkie, quoted earlier]

Each of us has a dream-or many dreams. Each of us carries the fire of creative passion within us.

Our art can be purified by discipline. Perfected by work. Improved by inspiration. Sanctified as we purge pride and eradicate envy. Made worthy as we abandon contention, forsake competition, give and receive criticism-gentle and constructive-in the spirit of the gospel. Let us yield ourselves and consecrate our gifts to Him from whom they are received.

We are the vision that the prophet saw-“inspired hearts and talented fingers.” May we dedicate ourselves. May we pull together separately.

Let us be vigorously independent and faithfully interdependent to fulfill the prophecy and create the masterpieces that will not only live forever, but be acceptable to the Master, even Jesus Christ.
I pray in his name, Amen.

 


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