Director Kieth Merrill's 'Evolution' turns him into author

Published: Saturday, May 7 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Thomas Hall is a gifted artist with amazing talent. He knows it and thinks the world should know it, too. He feels entitled: to recognition, to wealth, to adoration, to glory. Hall has no need of or belief in any power higher than himself.

But a series of bad business decisions leads him to conflicting commissions. He has been hired to paint an honorarium to Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution for a science museum, and to do a mural of Christ healing the sick and downtrodden for a children's hospital. It's a conflict that eventually rocks Hall's soul and changes his life.

Hall's journey makes a compelling story, told with equal artistry by Kieth Merrill, film director-turned-novelist, in "The Evolution of Thomas Hall" (Shadow Mountain, $27.99).

Merrill has worked in the film industry as a writer, director and producer for 35 years. He's produced 45 films, including "The Great American Cowboy," which won an Academy Award in 1973, and "Amazon," which was nominated for an Oscar in 1997.

But this is his first novel.

"I met (Deseret Book president and CEO) Sheri Dew back when we were working on the 'Windwalker' movie," Merrill said in a telephone chat from his California home just before he was heading off to China for a project. "She's been after me to write a book ever since. She finally made me promise I'd write one. Doesn't everyone kind of want to write a book?

"Finally, while I was waiting for some other projects, a window of time came along, and with it, the peace of mind necessary to focus on a book."

Merrill came up with several ideas, most of them based on unproduced screenplays, outlines and proposals.

"I'm sitting on about 70 of those altogether," he said.

He actually came up with an elaborate, extended outline for an adventure story featuring a character named Jack Stone. But when he sat down with Dew, she picked the story of Thomas Hall, the artist who found faith. "So Jack Stone had to wait; but I do have a lot of ideas for him," Merrill said.

Writing a novel rather than a screenplay was a pleasurable experience, he added. "I've always loved language. But screenplays are by nature terse and abbreviated. So, it was fun to plunge in."

Merrill has a "dream cottage" in the woods that "was built for writing. I can go back there and close off the world. It's a pleasure beyond words." Not to mention, he says, "all you have to deal with is the characters. You don't have to find someone to give you $10 million to make a movie."

With a movie, you have the finished story in hand before you begin, he said; you try to find the action to fit the description. "A film has to speak for itself. When the lights go down, it's what's on the screen that counts. I hope the same works for the book. I'm still trying to project the movies in my mind into the minds of others, but now it's through the written word."

Writing a novel is "a whole different process," he said. "It lets you play with language, chew on words, find subtle messages and metaphors — all things that are not appropriate in a screenplay. It's a joyous process."

And one that may have changed him.

"People tell me that the screenplays I've written since are different, have more prose," he said. "It used to be that the car just skidded around the corner; now, the tires squeal."

In the end, however, whether it's movie or book, Merrill said, it's all about story.

"I'm a storyteller, and storytellers want to have their stories told and heard," he said.

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