The work of writer, director, and producer Kieth Merrill is well-known to Latter-day Saints. Legacy and The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd are beloved classics of LDS cinema, and Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, with Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo), is an annual holiday classic for many. Brother Merrill has also written his fair share of articles for Meridian. He’s also widely regarded in Hollywood, having won an Academy Award for his 1972 documentary The Great American Cowboy and directed a dozen IMAX films. His latest film, Twelve Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue, is now available on DVD.
Kieth was kind enough to answer my questions and shares some great insights about, among other things: movie-making for prophets, the faith of Jimmy Stewart, recreating the life of Christ, traveling the world for IMAX, and what happened when a nice Mormon director met a beautiful Hollywood bombshell on worldwide television.
JONATHAN DECKER: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. It’s a real pleasure for me, as I’m a fan of your films.
KIETH MERRILL: Happy to do it Jonathan…and FYI, I love reading your stuff at Meridian so, quid pro quo, I am also a fan.
JD: Thank you Kieth! I’m humbled and flattered. Let’s get started, shall we? Your new film, 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue, is a sequel to a film you did in 2005. What has attracted you to the 12 Dogs stories?
KM: The children’s picture book, The 12 Dogs of Christmas, was written on the back of a napkin in a restaurant by Emma Kragen when she was seven years old. Her father, Ken Kragen, is a Hollywood icon and quintessential talent manager. Ken hired me to direct Kenny Rogers and the American Cowboy many years ago and we’ve been good friends ever since.
Ken had a book published around his daughter’s clever lyrics and it sold half a million copies. He called me and said, “Let’s make it into a movie.” The book was a dozen pages and mostly pictures. It was a terrific challenge, but Ken and I formed Kragen/Merrill Family Films and made it into a movie. Walmart picked it up and it sold over a million DVDs. Sony pictures was so impressed they agreed to finance a sequel. And now it’s finished.
JD: Why should our readers track them down?
KM: Lots of people complain about too few movies they can enjoy with their family. OK. Problem solved. Both movies are terrific for families and perfect for a family movie night during the Christmas Holidays.
JD: Is the new film a standalone feature, or do people need to track down the first film?
KM: They each work independent of the other but it is a true sequel and families will enjoy watching them back to back in order.
JD: Do they have appeal to both adults and kids?
KM: The reviews on both films have been very good and yes, there is a little something for everyone. Adults, teens and little kids as well.
JD: One thing that I like about the 12 Dogs films is the period setting. What kind of effort goes into realistically recreating a bygone era?
KM: I love period films. For one thing it is much easier to embrace traditional values. Relationships between adolescents, teens and even adults were very different in 1937 than they are in 2012. The values, dialogue and innocence depicted in these films if presented in the context of a contemporary story would be… what is the word my grandkids use, “cheesy”?
JD: I’m assuming you’re a dog person.
KM: I was a dog kid. I’m not a dog adult. I always had a dog growing up. Walker’s dialogue about his dog being run over came from my own life experience when I was 9 years old. My collie ran into the road and was hit by a green Hudson right before my eyes. I remember it as if it happened yesterday.We had dogs when the children were growing up. They likewise experienced the trauma of dogs being injured and dying. It is a bittersweet experience of value in childhood I believe.
JD: I can’t imagine trying to coordinate the behavior of numerous dogs to perform on-camera. What can you tell us about that process?
KM: There is an adage in the movie business that goes something like this, “never make movies with kids, dogs or snow.” Of course I wrote a movie with all three.Coordinating the behavior of numerous dogs began with the script. I was careful not to write too many specific behaviors for the dogs that were not likely, given the setting of a given scene. There were of course some requirements of the hero dog’. The marvelous dog trainers we hired for the show had never done a movie before. They own an obedience training company but stepped up and gave us the marvelous results you see in the film.
JD: Did it all require a lot of patience on your part?
KM: There were a few times we waited for the dog,’ but all of the preparation for required behaviors was done at the trainer’s facility so the animals came to the set ready to perform. There were a couple of times the dog did it perfectly in the rehearsal and never again. There are at least two instances where we saved’ the dog’s lousy performance in the editing room (I’m not going to tell you which ones!)
JD: You’ve also got some brilliant song and dance numbers in the show. What’s your background in that sort of thing and how did you make it all come together here?
KM: My wife founded a non-profit education foundation to teach self-esteem, leadership and teamwork through the performing arts, That was 30 years ago, Performing Groups for Youth (IPGY) have been an enormous and persistent part of our lives. My oldest daughter began performing when she was 12 years old. She was part of a performing group that toured a dozen countries around the world. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Musical Dance Theater. She came back and served as creative director and choreographer of PGY for 18 years.
In the script the entire show for the big finale was one page. I handed it to Kieri and walked away, She and my niece Mindy Smoot, [of] On Broadway Academy in American Fork, worked together to create the show.
My background was perfect: I knew the best creative director in the world.
JD: Another Kieth Merrill holiday classic is Mr. Krueger’s Christmas (click here for my list of Christ-centered Christmas movies) I think Jimmy Stewart’s fantasy of kneeling at the manger is one of the most moving expressions of faith ever captured on film. Was he a religious man, or was that just excellent acting?
KM: Just before we filmed the scene in the manger, Mr. Stewart pulled me aside and said, “Kieth, you need to get this in one take because I can’t do it twice. I believe in Christ and this will be a very profound and real experience for me. It is not something I can do twice.” We only had one camera so I shot the close up. When it was over I approached Mr. Stewart in the afterglow of what had been for him, a spiritual experience. With reverence and respect I explained that I only had one camera and wondered if he might consider a second take so I could get a wider shot. He was good enough to do so. Surely he was driven by the love he felt for the Savior and did what Jesus would have done.
JD: What was your experience working with Stewart?
KM: It is hard to select the right adjective. Marvelous.Exciting.Intimidating.Memorable. He was the complete professional. The one thing that struck me – having worked over the years with a lot of lessor actors and hundreds of wanna-be-actors, the greater you really are the less affected you seem to be.
To break the ice when we first met I said, “Mr. Stewart, it is such an honor to direct you in this movie but just so you understand, you have made more movies than I have ever seen so I’m at a bit of a disadvantage.” He was so good. So in tune with the character, so eager to do it right. We spent an entire day together at Western Costume in Los Angeles just looking for the right hat.
JD: How is it that he came to star in a “Mormon movie,” albeit one meant for all audiences?
KM: Producer Michael McClean was (and is) fearless. He went to Hollywood, arranged a meeting with Mr. Stewart and persuaded him to take the part. Jimmy told me (and by the time we finished working together I was “Kieth” and he was “Jimmy”) Jimmy told me that he did it because he had such great respect for the Mormon Tabernacle choir. “Who would pass an opportunity to direct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?” he said in his inimitable way [and yes, he talks like that off camera as well].
JD: In the years since, what has Mr. Krueger’s Christmas come to mean to you personally and professionally?
KM: I suppose that directing a movie with Jimmy Stewart that still plays after 30 years has been useful professionally, but the memories are all personal. Three anecdotes answer the question.
(1) I was invited to sit on a film panel at BYU the day they honored Frank Capra. Mr. Capra was an enormous inspiration to me as a young filmmaker. I read his book, Name Above the Title in my earliest days as a filmmaker. Frank Capra worked with Jimmy Stewart many times, most notably perhaps in It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr Capra and I sat side by side on the panel. Afterward, I persuaded him to go to lunch with me. Can you imagine? I sat across the table from him for an entire afternoon, enthralled by his stories. And if that was not enough, very shortly thereafter Michael McClean called and asked me to direct Frank Capra’s favorite actor in Mr. Kruger’s Christmas.
(2) We did not shoot Sunday. I invited Jimmy to come to Farmington and have a Mormon pot roast Sunday dinner with my mom and dad. He accepted with delight. Now just imagine. For my mother, Jimmy Stewart was Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. She never quite got over that marvelous Sunday afternoon. After one of my mother’s unbeatable Sunday dinner classics, we sat in the living room and listened to Jimmy Stewart tell stories the entire afternoon.
(3) My daughter played the little girl in Mr. Krueger’s Christmas. She was five years old. Because of Jimmy Stewart it was produced like a full blown Hollywood studio movie. Thus my little daughter had her own dressing room, make up person, hair dresser and woman to put her into costume. We shot nights so she had to stay up late. She discovered the gaggle of an adoring crew that attendedher and would give her anything she wanted. She got all the chocolate she could stand. I didn’t mind. It kept her awake all night. She was so spoiled by the time we wrapped it took us a year to get her back to normal. But Kamee was never normal. She was driven, talented and went on to become a leader in her school, star tennis player and runner up to Miss California. When she was a senior in high school she sent [him] her killer graduation picture together with a picture of she and Jimmy Stewart on the set of Mr. Krueger’s Christmas. She expressed what an influence he had been and continued to be in her life. He wrote her back a most charming and personal letter. It was signed: “Have a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart”
JD: What has been some of the most rewarding feedback you’ve received?
KM: It is most rewarding when people tell me that watching Mr. Krueger’s Christmas is a tradition for their family during the holiday season.
JD: In 1973 you won an Academy Award for The Great American Cowboy. What do you remember about that Oscar night?
KM: So many things. So many stories. In 1974 Raquel Welch was a Hollywood sex symbol. When they announced she would be presenting the Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, my heart stopped. I wanted to win, sure, but I suddenly realized that if I won I would go on stage, she would hand me the Oscar and I would be expected to kiss her. So what’s the problem, right? Well look at it from my perspective. If I kiss this gorgeous, sensual, erotic movie star in front of 70 million people watching on TV, not only do I have to explain it to my wife who is sitting in the 5th row, but I have to explain it to my mother who is watching in Farmington, Utah with the sisters from the Relief Society. On the other hand, if I don’t kiss her.
..I’ll be forever trying to explain it to the Elder’s quorum.
JD: Well, now I’m dying to know how the story ends.
KM: Yes, I kissed her.
JD: Haha! What a great story. Speaking of The Great American Cowboy, is there any way to track the film down now for those who’d like to see it?
KM: You can buy a VHS tape on Amazon for $175.00 or if you hurry, on E-Bay for 40 bucks. The film is owned by Walt Disney Home Video. I intend to make a deal with Disney to allow me to make DVD copies and sell them direct, but Disney is not an easy company to work with.
JD: Your 1990 film Legacy is rightfully considered a classic of Latter-day Saint cinema. For many of us, it was the first time we’d seen our story told cinematically. What can you tell us about how you came to make that picture?
KM: I was planning to build an IMAX theater in downtown Salt Lake City and do a movie about Utah, including of course the history of the Mormons. I arranged a meeting with President Hinckley to make sure I had his blessing and the cooperation of the church. He said, “Brother Merrill, I’ve intended to call you to talk about another project.” He then took me to the old hotel Utah that was been renovated. He took me to the ball room. “In this place,” he began, “I imagine a great state-of-the-art motion picture theater.” He pointed to the north wall barely visible in the din of the old hotel. “On that wall a giant screen on which we will tell the story of our people.” And then he asked if I would be willing to suspend my plans to build an IMAX theater and focus first on a movie for the theater that would eventually assume its name.
“Of course,” I said, “what do you want it to be about?””That’s for you to figure out,” he smiled, “but whatever it is, I want them to feel the spirit and cry.”Legacy has touched many hearts and caused many tears to flow. At the first official screening of the movie President Hinckley said, “I wish I had the Kleenex concession for this theater.” I took that to mean I had done what he asked.
JD: What was your favorite scene to shoot?
KM: That’s an impossible question. My favorite scene is the one I’m shooting at the moment. When people ask me which of my movies is my favorite, I always say, “the next one”. Perhaps the same is true of every scene. The next one is perfect. It is finished in my mind without a flaw. Untainted by the reality of time running out, actors forgetting their lines, light dropping fast, wagon stuck in the mud or mismatched piece of clothing that must be found and brought to set.
JD: The most challenging?
KM: Most people assume the wagon tipping over into the river was the most challenging. It was easy. It was rigged to slide precariously close to the edge but not intended to go over. It happened. It was great. I went back and reshot a few inserts to make sure it would work in editing. Easy.The most challenging was Haun’s Mill because of the numbers of people, complexity, and showing the horror that historical event without horrifying our G-rated audience.
JD: I know you’ve done plenty of IMAX films in your day. What are the challenges and rewards of that format?
KM: Movie-making is the art of telling stories with images. IMAX is the largest film format in the world and the films play on the largest screens ever created. How could you not love that?
The ten years I spent making 12 IMAX films were most rewarding. Mostly because they took us to incredible places, they were all G-rated, and the family got to go with me on many occasions. IMAX movies are much more than making movies. Each film is an amazing adventure. Riding the rapids of Grand Canyon.Living with a lost tribe in the Amazon jungle. Hanging over the edge of Niagara falls in a bucket. Being wherever I wanted to be at the winter Olympics in Japan. Scorching our matt boxes in the heat of flaming Fijas in Spain.Facing grizzly bears in Yellowstone.Sailing the Pacific with the Polynesians in an outrigger canoe. Diving the lead mines of Missouri. Staging the battle of the Alamo.Hard to beat those adventures.
JD: Sounds like you have a lot of terrific stories to tell. What do you think of Hollywood filmmakers (like Chris Nolan with his Dark Knight films) using IMAX for mainstream movies?
KM: The answer requires an entire article suitable for a movie trade magazine. IMAX means many things to many people. It is hard to give a simple answer without a short lesson on film formats and technology so let’s leave it at that.
As a movie guy you will be interested in my adventure last night. I was at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch for a private screening of The Dark Knight Rises, hosted by the director, Christopher Nolan. By the luck of the draw, I ended up in a one-on-one conversation with Christopher before the screening. As you know he shoots segments of his blockbusters in IMAX, so when I told him I have made twelve IMAX films we clicked.
JD: Skywalker Ranch and Nolan? As a film geek that’s a pairing that makes me salivate. Is that story a private one, or can I share that? I know some people whose minds would be blown.
KM: You can share it.
JD: Awesome. Speaking of large-format films, you directed Zion Canyon, Treasure of the Gods, a movie that plays on the Mammoth Screen Theater at Zion Canyon National Park. That film has some vertigo-inducing shots. How did you pull off that shoot?
KM: Very carefully. An IMAX camera mounted on a helicopter with gyrostabilizer allows the iconic aerial images of most IMAX movies.
We use a wide variety of rigs of course, including cranes, cables, dollies and rails but the visceral stomach pumpers are all from the helicopter.
JD: Did you have any close calls out there?
KM: Yes, but at the time they don’t seem quite as harrowing as when we’re safely home and realize what we’ve done and where we’ve been. We take calculated risks. I’ve been lucky.
JD: You wrote and directed The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd. It’s a favorite of mine. Why do you think the film has such a profound influence on people?
KM: The Testaments is a metaphor of our lives. We suffer trials. We cling to our families. We are blind and must live by faith. We look forward to the promises of the Lord but must endure to the end. The final scene in the movie has a tremendous impact on anyone tuned into the Spirit, because in that moment, we become Helam and consciously or otherwise, it is the moment of our greatest expectation: that one day we will meet the Savior and he will know our name
JD: What influence has it had on you?
KM: We work hard to recreate the life and times of the characters who live inside the movies we make. From time to time there is an inexplicable time warp that makes it all very real, I have been with Joseph Smith. I have sat at the feet of the Savior. I was at the cross and watched him die. I was with Mary at the empty tomb when her glorified son returned.When we filmed the Savior announcing himself in the temple during the filming of Testaments I had a life-changing experience. You needn’t suppose I pierced the veil but in some ways it was equally profound
JD: Have you always wanted a cinematic testimony of Jesus Christ to be part of your legacy?
KM: Of course. We hope our testimony of the Savior is evident in everything we do or say or are. Those of us who have a rare opportunity like this are deeply grateful. There is no greater joy that to be able to combine what you do with who you are
JD: The Evolution of Thomas Hall was published through Shadow Mountain publishing last year. What’s it about, and why should our readers give it a look?
KM: I could tell you want it is about but that would take 456 pages. Your readers should give it much more than a look’. If they enjoy great fiction that unspools like a movie in your mind’, they will love this book. It has received high praise from some very sophisticated critics. “Inside sources” at Deseret Book confided it is among the finest books of fiction they have published in a long time.
JD: Well shoot, now I’m intrigued [Author’s note: I’ll be getting a copy and will have a review of the book up soon]. Now, just for fun, what are your five favorite films of all time?
KM: The question should always be “your five favorite films’ in each genre. That is like saying What are your five favorite books?” Mormons have to name the standard works and then they’ve got one left. But, to humor you and crossing genresto snag one from here and there: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Magnificent Seven, Chariots of Fire, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Rango. Also, I like Avatar a lot because of what it means to the advancement of cinematic arts.
JD: Hard to argue with any of those choices. Excellent films.Thank you for the interview, it was very illuminating and I’m sure our readers will be thrilled. Good luck with 12 Dogs. I trust it’s finding the audience it deserves. It was well-written, well-acted, well-directed, and you’re right, fit for the whole family. My compliments.
KM: Thanks Jonathan. Upward and onward.
Our thanks to Brother Merrill for his legacy of wholesome and uplifting cinema. For more information on 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue, please visit the film’s official site.
For more from Jonathan Decker, including review of 12 DOGS OF CHRISTMAS: GREAT PUPPY RESCUE and the new film THE HOBBIT, please visit www.mormonmovieguy.com.