Filmmaking, for many people, is a distant dream, one unable to be fulfilled. To Ken Merritt, this lifelong “crazy dream” has become reality. The dream of being a filmmaker emerged in him at an early age, but Ken initially pushed the idea aside. It seemed too far-fetched. Not until he reconnected with his son, Gabe, did Ken decide to pursue a career in film.
A native of Warner Robins, Georgia, and self-described “preacher’s kid,” Ken graduated from Northside High School and attended Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee, where he majored in communication arts with an emphasis on drama, theater, and broadcast journalism. At Carson-Newman he fell in love and got married. The couple had three children before going through a contentious divorce.
The divorce took a tremendous emotional toll on Ken, who was not in contact with his children for nearly ten years. Ken was persistent in reaching out to them, though, and was thrilled to receive a call from his son Gabe in what Ken describes as a watershed moment. In attempts to rebuild a relationship they met for dinner, and before long, Ken offered his son the opportunity to work for his commercial cleaning business. After accepting the proposal, Gabe worked in the cleaning business for nearly a year before he expressed interest in a new career: acting.
Gabe’s idea of moving to Los Angeles to work in the film industry devastated Ken at first, since he had only recently reconnected with his son. Regardless, Ken pushed aside his inclination to keep his son behind and instead supported him throughout the journey. They took a road trip to Los Angeles to spend time together and bond, after which Ken flew back to his then-home in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Los Angeles was much tougher than Gabe anticipated. He spent his first year living in his car, often parked in a Walmart lot. He couldn’t even afford meals at times. In an effort to help from afar, Ken called restaurants near Gabe and ordered meals so Gabe could pick them up. Through perseverance and determination, Gabe eventually landed his first commercial role in a series of commercials for a Beverly Hills construction company. He then booked roles with Nintendo, Samsung, Reese’s Puffs, and Fujifilm. Gabe is now also an accomplished producer and cinematographer.
Inspired by Gabe’s determination and accomplishments, Ken pursued the lifelong passion for filmmaking that he shares with his son. Taking an enormous leap of faith, Ken, who had since remarried, moved with his wife to Canton in 2018 to pursue a career in film.
Learning His Craft
While Ken was attending the Georgia Film Academy, a classmate asked if he’d like to play the role of a father in her sister’s short film, and Ken agreed. Throughout the making of the film, the sisters explained that they learned most of their in-depth evaluation of filmmaking through Clayton State University. To take another large leap, Ken reached out to its department and took a screenwriting class.
A company working with the university hosted a contest wherein students pitched film ideas, and the winner would get assistance in production. After creating a twenty-eight-minute short film titled Jesse’s Gift, Ken won the competition and was then tasked with transforming it into a feature-length film. Gabe assisted Ken in the creation of the film, and Ken’s brother, Michael, played the lead role in the soon-to-be released film.
The story of a washed-up musician on the brink of losing everything that matters, in Jesse’s Gift the musician finds new hope through a gift from his dying father. Both dramatic and inspirational, the film touches on many issues affecting families everywhere.
One of the settings in the film is called Timber City, and according to Ken, “Timber City is Canton. [We] thought about using the name Canton but decided to go with Timber City. We show a lot of the iconic images that Canton is known for.” Among the local filming locations for Jesse’s Gift are Green Line Brewery and The Mill on Etowah in downtown Canton, Reinhardt University in Waleska, Bedoe’s Bar & Grille in Canton, and MadLife Stage & Studios in downtown Woodstock.
Cherokee County, a Natural
Ken was drawn to Cherokee for filming and says Canton is “not only a supportive community in the filmmaking realm, but it also holds beauty in its vast locations that provide many options for shooting scenes.”
The Cherokee Office of Economic Development proves his statement, showcasing Cherokee County as a rising star in terms of broadening selections for filmmaking. Georgia offers free scouting assistance for films, videos, and movies and has assisted in the production of more than one hundred films, television series, and video projects in Cherokee County alone. More than a thousand production suppliers and support vendors are in Georgia’s deep crew base, and eighty-eight film and media establishments are in Cherokee County.
Wes Hagan, supervising locations manager for the Netflix series Ozark, states, “Cherokee has been a fantastic place for us to work. We’ve been well assisted with permitting, and the local law enforcement understands our needs. When we returned for season two, they didn’t miss a beat. It was seamless.”
One of Ken’s next projects is a western anthology, Boot Hill, the bulk of which is being filmed in Canton near the Etowah River Trail.
It truly takes a village to bring a film project to life. Ken wishes to express special thanks to Charles Holbrook, the film’s senior editor who offered his forty years of experience as a film production company owner and editor free-of-charge.
Ken says, “Editing a full-feature film with someone of his abilities would have priced this project out of our budget, and it simply would not exist without him.” According to Ken, Charlie has filmed in many locations throughout his career, but he counts Canton and Cherokee County among his favorites for the “kind people, open atmosphere, and colors.”
Ken also extends his gratitude to the culinary crews at Riverstone Corner Bistro and J. Michael’s Prime, both of Canton, who donated meals to the film crew thereby helping provide one of filming’s most significant expenses – food!
“Jesse is a talented musician that falls into a downward spiral of failure after blaming himself for the death of his wife and the estrangement of his daughter and only child, Brooke. Cracking under pressure, Jesse takes to the bottle and leaves the small town of Timber City, becoming homeless in the streets of Atlanta.
That is, until his father William is stricken with a terminal illness. William petitions his younger son, Gabe, to find out if Jesse is still alive and to bring him back by his side before he dies. William has high hopes for Jesse to reconnect with Brooke and fulfill his destiny as a gifted musician. He gifts Jesse with a family heirloom that gives him hope and strength to face his battles. But is it enough to overcome the demons that have haunted him for life?”
Boot Hill tells the story of a widowed pioneer woman as she embarks on a journey through the hostile wilderness to find medical aid and food for her sick child. But will she make it to Boot Hill before it’s too late?
In addition to Ken Merritt, we spoke with local filmmakers Cheryl McKay and Matthew Prokopek for even more insights into the local filmmaking industry.
Cheryl McKay | Writer, Producer, Director
These Stones, The Ultimate Gift, Indivisible
After leaving Hollywood eight years ago, Cheryl McKay feels no regrets about abandoning the big city; she’s been hired to write twenty-five scripts since relocating to Cherokee County. In hopes to pursue her screenwriting career in the Woodstock area, she was pleased to find beautiful locations in the county that provide astounding visuals for her films.
She wrote scenes for her forthcoming series, These Stones, that involve specific areas in Cherokee that inspired her the most. Cherokee County residents’ kind nature and welcoming of newcomers also inspires her. Her most recent film release, Indivisible, is about Darren Turner, an Army chaplain native to Cherokee County. Madeline Carroll, an actress in the film, left such an outstanding impact on Cheryl that she felt the desire to write the leading role in These Stones for her.
Cheryl’s impact on Cherokee County and crew members would’ve never occurred if it weren’t for her love for After School Specials as a teenager. A particular film caught her eye: Never Say Goodbye by Susan Rohrer. Wanting to learn how to produce and write screenplays for a living, Cheryl contacted Susan and was promptly mentored and transformed into good friends. Cheryl says it was “an honor to be able to invite Susan to direct each episode of These Stones.” Susan stayed in an Airbnb for a few months while producing the film in Woodstock and says she was captivated by the area and fell in love with its beauty.
Matthew Prokopek | Production Assistant, Assistant Director, Actor
Avengers: Infinity War, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Thank You for Your Service, Captain America: Civil War, The Walking Dead
Growing up Matthew Prokopek enjoyed watching The Vampire Diaries [TVD] with his parents and was later given the opportunity to become a background extra. Working within the TVD family nurtured his interest in the film industry, sparking the notion that a career in film was achievable, rather than a distant dream. Wanting to film close to home, Matthew decided that Cherokee County would be his best choice for furthering his newfound career; he was also adamant about seeing areas he dwelled in daily being featured on the big screen.
Matthew explains, “With so many local businesses and residents excited to see filming here in Cherokee County, it makes the film process much easier.”
According to Matthew, budgetary levels and needs of production are easily accessible thanks to many local film crews in the area. He says that Molly Mercer, the camera-ready liaison with the Cherokee Office of Economic Development, provides tremendous help in making the process easy to follow.
Matthew’s favorite project so far is The Peanut Butter Falcon, a movie produced in Georgia. As amazing as it was for him, he still says nothing compares to working on projects in Cherokee County such as Thank You for Your Service and Ozark.
Cherokee Film Summit
ABOUT THE EVENT
The Cherokee Office of Economic Development proudly presents the 4th Annual Cherokee Film Summit. Designed to cultivate the local film community by bringing business partners, film industry professionals, and local creatives together to create meaningful connections, the Cherokee Film Summit features breakout sessions, networking, and expert panelists to ignite ideas and provides connections for seeing them through. Panelists include Writer/Producer Cheryl McKay, VFX Supervisor DB Hansen, Show Editor Judd Brannon, BTS and Additional Camera Operator Chris Price, and Leading Actors Rusty Joiner and Charlene Amoia from the These Stones project. Hear from the show’s creator and key team members as they discuss the production process, the abundant resources available in our community, and the tremendous benefits of hiring local on and off-screen talent.
The 2023 Cherokee Film Summit is an initiative of the Cherokee Office of Economic Development and will be presented at the YANMAR EVO//Center on March 16, 2023, from 5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. For more information on the Cherokee Film Summit, email Film Project Manager Molly Mercer at email@example.com, call 770-345-0600, or visit the Cherokee Office of Economic Development website.
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Emma Tyler is a Cherokee High School graduate and two-time Governor’s Honors Program nominee for literature. She is an incoming freshman at Georgia College & State University where she plans to study journalism.