MIDWAY — LDS filmmaker Kieth Merrill says he picked the background for "The Testaments" by default and if he had it to do over, he would have sought locations in North America rather than Central and South America.
Speaking Friday at the Book of Mormon Prophecies Conference at the Zermatt, Merrill said he believes evidence supports a North American backdrop in the "promised land" for the Book of Mormon stories, wars and visits from Jesus Christ.
"I know that the Book of Mormon is true. I can't say I know where it all took place," Merrill said as he addressed a packed house as the conference's keynote speaker. "I'm the guy who made the biggest, most expensive film (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has ever made, and I put it in the wrong place."
Merrill said the common notion that the Mayan and Aztec peoples and other such civilizations known to have lived in Central America during Book of Mormon history influenced his choice of jungle location. (He ultimately filmed "The Testaments" on the Hawaiian island of Kauai after roaming the jungles of the Yucatan.)
"I can't wait to redo the movie and put buffalo in it," he said.
Merrill said his mental map has been altered by DNA experts who are not finding hard evidence that the Book of Mormon people ever lived in Central America and by researchers such as Rod Meldrum, the author of the new DVD "DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography." Meldrum and other researchers argue that the Nephites and Lamanites lived in the same basic area of the United States where the LDS Church was founded.
Merrill said when he was asked to make the new film about Christ, LDS Church leaders never designated where to film. In fact, President James E. Faust, then second counselor in the First Presidency, told him specifically not to shoot footage with recognizable landmarks in the background for fear church members would assume that whatever landscape was portrayed would be accepted as the prevailing truth.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made no official statement. Therefore, every statement, every idea you hear about today, is simply a theory," Merrill reminded his audience.
"I went with the default location," he said. "My comfort zone was that the book is true and it doesn't matter where it took place. But looking north instead of south has allowed me to see the drama in a whole new way. It's like I'm now seeing it in 3-D digital. It's exciting."
Merrill said members of the church shouldn't get overly exercised about the specifics but remain open-minded and centered on truth.
"To the honest in heart, there is nothing at stake here," he said. "If you remain skeptical, may I suggest a rereading of the Book of Mormon and see if you don't discover a new perspective."