It may not be a rags to riches tale, but it is one of God bringing a man out of the nightmare of false accusations and lies to a place of helping others.
“Jesse’s Gift” is an upcoming film about a singer/songwriter who loses everything, only to find redemption. But this comeback story isn’t only about Jesse — it’s about Ken Merritt, the producer, director and writer.
“It’s such a big dream and so unusual that sometimes you don’t even want to tell people about it because they would say, ‘You know you’re in your 50’s; you have a business in Knoxville, and what — you’re going to Atlanta to start over in filmmaking?!’” Merritt said. “It’s almost laughable — the idea of doing that. I wasn’t really sure myself if I was going to make it.”
Merritt started out living a family-centered, traditional life. He had a good job, a wife, three children, a home …. then his world was turned upside down. During a contentious divorce he faced accusations from his soon-to-be ex-wife concerning their children.
A great deal of time, money and prayer went into the six years it took for the charges to be cleared, in which Merritt rented a small basement apartment without a kitchen and washed dishes in the bathroom sink. He worked whatever job he could find.
But his children were affected the most.
“They had enough time to decide that, ‘Look, I don’t care about my dad anymore. All my dad does is bring me pain. He brings me courtrooms and interviews and forensics,’” Merritt said. “The easiest thing was to say, ‘Go away.’”
After Merritt was exonerated, the judge mandated therapy for the family individually and as a group. Another year-and-a-half passed.
“At the end of that time the therapist just told me, ‘The kids have said they don’t want to see you anymore,’” Merritt acknowledged.
He had done everything he could to get his children back but there was too much damage, and he decided not to push a relationship anymore. Though he desperately wanted his children back, he knew he had done all he could.
More years passed. Merritt worked various jobs and remarried. He occasionally tried to contact his children, with no success.
He always had a love for cinema so, years after losing his children, Merritt felt a pull to check into a film career. As Atlanta was becoming known for filmmaking, he decided to find out more.
He got certification from the Georgia Film Academy and took classes at Clayton State University. One of his short films received recognition at some film festivals, Merritt said.
With one class left, “I came up with the next [idea],” he recalled. “I was like, ‘This could be it. This could be the last time I have the opportunity to do my pitch and have somebody actually make the movie without me having to pay for it. I’ve gotta give it my best shot.’”
Recognizing he had to consider what audiences wanted and available resources, Merritt’s main goal was to share a message. So he decided to base the movie loosely on the prodigal son, highlighting both the dark times and the feel-good moments.
“How can you show redemption and light if you don’t show the darkness that you have to come out of?” Merritt remembered thinking. “Sometimes if you don’t show the true problems, then you can’t relate to people that are in it, that have those issues. Life is not that way; my life is not that way.”
After coming up with the theme, Merritt started thinking about potential resources.
His brother, Michael, is a professional songwriter, singer, musician and worship leader. He also has some acting experience.
Merritt decided to write a redemption story about how God’s love brings family back together, with Michael as the main character, Jesse.
Though never estranged from Michael, Merritt was thankful he could work on the project with his brother.
But his own redemption story didn’t end there.
Merritt continued reaching out to his children occasionally. Months after one attempt, his son responded. Merritt found out he had a shared passion for film and had moved to Los Angeles to pursue that dream.
He asked his son to help with the script and saw another way the movie generated redemption.
“We had been alienated through all of these lies and accusations and now have found a way to connect over a passion that we both share,” Merritt said. “Now when we talk, we hardly get to the normal small talk we have with our kids — we have so much to talk about and we’re connecting on.
“How many people in life get to wake up in the morning doing what they love doing? I’m blessed,” Merritt declared.
“Jesse’s Gift” is now in post-production with an expected release date later this year. To follow its progress, find it on Facebook or sign up for an email newsletter: https://lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/omy2B0y.