Kieth Merrill: Great American Filmmaker

When Kieth Merrill accepted the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of the year for his film, The Great American Cowboy, he expressed thanks to “my mother, who taught me to believe in God; my father, who taught me to believe in myself; and my wife, who helped me do what they taught me.” Though they had never met him, Latter-day Saints throughout the world heard his speech and knew that Kieth Merrill was one of them.

Such a straightforward statement is consistent with Brother Merrill’s philosophy of really putting the gospel at the working center of his everyday life. He knows what he wants, he has decided what he will do in specific situations, and he works and prays very hard to accomplish his purposes. Kieth has confidence in himself, and yet it is a confidence built on a history of individual success.

One of his first industrial films was made for Kaiser Steel Corporation. He told the Kaiser executives that he planned to shoot part of the film in their mines, and they said, “It can’t be done.” Kieth, who claims “he wasn’t smart enough to know it couldn’t be done,” made the film anyway. Kaiser loved it, Kieth won some awards (as he has on most of his subsequent films), and he was on his way in the film business. That was five years ago.

Now he has also won an Oscar, and it is a remarkable achievement for several reasons. Kieth is young (33 when he won the award). The Great American Cowboy was his first feature-length film. And in addition, he directed and edited the entire film, and he also photographed much of the spectacular footage.

The Oscar vindicated to the motion picture industry Kieth’s peculiar way of life and his artistic integrity. When he was criticized about the cowboys in his film seeming extra clean-cut, Kieth responded, “I have every right to be as selective in my interpretation of what is life and reality as the next man does. Some filmmakers feel they have the right to portray the sordid side of life. I have the right to find the heroism in man, and to help reflect his divine origin, and to tell people we are children of God.

“I was told the film couldn’t be done. I was told that a movie with a prayer in it wouldn’t make it. ‘They’ said a movie with a patriotic flavor wouldn’t be popular. But we went into filmmaking with a determination never to compromise our principles. And it paid off, because we have proved that we were right,” Kieth said.

Kieth is very positive and idealistic by nature. He really believed that he was smart enough and resourceful enough to make a good film, and that is the way he sold the cowboy film. The backers said, “How do you know if it is going to be any good?”

“Good is not the question. It will be a good film. The question is whether or not it will make any money,” Kieth answered.

Kieth constantly holds his business life in front of a mirror to make sure that the reflection he sees fits well with his personal feelings about the gospel. Those feelings, of course, include his family. He has offices, studio space, and a small theater in the lower level of his home. When his four children want to talk to Dad or show him their latest finger paintings, he takes a few minutes to renew his friendship with them.

Even on location he is close to his family. In talking about the experience of living with his family during the filming of Cowboy, he said, “We looked like a band of gypsies with everything but the chickens hanging on the side of our truck. We needed mobility, so we modified a motor home to be both production center and living quarters. There is something almost purifying about putting everything of real importance—wife, kids, and cameras (in that order, Honey!)—in a big box with wheels and criss-crossing the heartland of America, pursuing a dream together.

“When I get involved in a project, I become totally consumed with filming, and all my filmmaking equipment and camera gear were right there in the truck. We were totally self-contained, and it was a great feeling of freedom, but only because my family was there. It gave us tremendous perspective of the real values. We have a lovely home in California, and many good friends, and a lot of nice things, but none of them really mattered in comparison.”

Kieth, who appropriately calls himself a slogan hanger, has always collected quotations that succinctly express his own concepts. “It’s amazing how a simple little quotation can change a day that didn’t start as well as it should. It works for the rest of the family too. Sometimes a single quotation can set a beautiful mood for the whole day,” he said. Several of the Merrills’ favorite quotes are permanently displayed in handmade tiles on the kitchen countertop where the children eat every day.

Like his parents before him, Kieth and his wife Dagny (“Downey”) are constantly teaching their children that they are important and that they have a Heavenly Father who loves them. Several of the countertop quotes stress this. “They can’t daily eat and play and spill their milk on the counter without bringing these ideas into their own lives,” Kieth said.

Because he knows he has a destiny here, Kieth has a strong testimony that he was helped in the production of Cowboy, and of course, he wanted it to be good for the Church.

“Being committed to the gospel means that we were praying constantly for guidance and inspiration that we could be creative and able to put this film together and still be able to represent the ideals that are important. There is no question that we were guided, influenced, and helped. I am just committed to that as a way of life,” he said.

“The way things have fallen into place is unbelievable. The exposure the Church has had as a result of the Oscar in circles where it has not otherwise been exposed is inspirational. The award gave me credibility before the world, and with that I have been able to talk very matter-of-factly about the gospel to people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested. People who wouldn’t normally give me an autograph now say, ‘But you’re so young, and you handle yourself so well, and you do all these things. How do you handle it all?’

“‘Well, it is very simple,’ I say, ‘because I was raised in a little Utah town as a Mormon. Every quality or characteristic that I have is a product of my upbringing in the Church.’ And these people really are amazed at the things we take for granted—the fact that we don’t drink, or smoke, or swear, and that we actually believe in God and aren’t afraid to talk about it, and that I would spend 30 months in a foreign country on a mission at my own expense. It is overwhelming to these people. Now remember, these people are not the ones missionaries traditionally reach; they are quite isolated either by their fame or their wealth or both. They are really intrigued and often say, ‘Tell us about yourself.’ I have had many marvelous chances to tell them about the Church.

“Of course, my wife is a great help in telling people about the Church. She has a tender, almost naive ability to be very candid with people. She even told John Wayne’s son Pat that I didn’t like his dad’s movies. She never just says, ‘We wouldn’t care for coffee, thank you.’ With Dagny it’s, ‘We don’t drink coffee; we’re Mormons.’”

Both Kieth and Dagny admit that they think big, and “make plans, and put slogans on the walls,” and that even close friends and family members sometimes humor them, while thinking that one day they will come down to what is called reality. But reality to the Merrills is their own idealistic world of excellence, with the family first and the gospel a basic part of everything they are doing.

Kieth Merrill’s life demonstrates that the gospel will work at the epicenter of your whole existence, if you will give it a chance.

“I am a Latter-day Saint, and I make sure people know this not only by the way I act but also because I am very verbal about it. I have never had anything but totally positive experiences in presenting my beliefs to others; in fact, I have found acceptance and recognition, and the gospel has become a total asset in my work,” he said.

“I confess that at times my spirit has wavered, and I would occasionally get discouraged and feel like I was on a precipice above disaster because I had pursued such a hard line with the gospel and my family, and yet there was no turning back. And when everything seemed like it was going to crumble, new horizons would open up and blossom, and it all makes me resolve more firmly to live by the basic principles I know to be true. The gospel with the family first is what really matters, and everything else you do here is just something to take up the time until we reach the celestial kingdom.”

[photos] Photos by Brian Kelly

[photo] Five-year-old Kahna enjoys Dad’s bedtime stories any time. Most days he takes occasional breaks to spend time with his family

[photo] Dagny helps Kieth on the business side of filmmaking in addition to taking care of their children and home

[photo] Dagny, Kamee, Kieri, Kieth, Kahna, and Kaela enjoy each other after Dad has been busy filming all day

[photo] Kieth is interviewed often about filmmaking, and he usually ends up telling people about the gospel. (Photo by Lonnie Lonczyna.)

[photo] Potato mashing doesn’t require as much skill as filmmaking, but Kieth tackles it with the same gusto

[photos] About 30 of the Merrills’ favorite ideas and sayings are permanently sealed in ceramic tiles on their kitchen countertop where the family can be exposed to them daily

[photo] Kieth’s experience in directing people in front of a camera helps him get open responses from his children

[photo] Kieth gets totally involved in all phases of filmmaking, from handling the camera to making film-editing decisions in the cutting room. “This is the only way I can maintain creative control,” he said

[photo] Kieth teaches the Gospel Doctrine class in the Los Altos Ward. He is also in demand as a youth speaker; he usually tells young Latter-day Saints about his own desire to live the gospel while working in the world