Monday, 02 January 2017 10:00

West Michigan Native Educates Next Generation of Storytellers

Written by  Justine Burdette
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Liz Merriman with a young film fan at Movies in Park for Mosaic Film Experience. Liz Merriman with a young film fan at Movies in Park for Mosaic Film Experience. COURTESTY PHOTO

After feeling like a misfit her entire life, a film set was the first place Liz Merriman felt like she belonged. 

Merriman feels the industry is filled with other beautiful misfits — beautiful people who truly work hard together. 

“I felt called to film,” she said. 

Merriman has spent the last 13 years working in the industry as a producer and assistant director on a great variety of mediums: from shorts to commercials to music videos to feature films. Her repertoire includes the children’s show Come on Over with Jars of Clay, the Hank Danger series, Vanishing Act; the award-winning docuseries Ed’s Story, and End of the Tour (with Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg). 

In a four-year period, Merriman worked on more than 30 commercials and eight feature films.

Merriman hails from Muskegon, the “Phoenix of West Michigan,” as she calls it. Her family was heavily involved in the theater scene there — her father and sister acted, her grandparents did scenic work, and her mother did costumes and prop work. Merriman herself dabbled in theater as stage manager, stage hand, painter, constructor and sewer, then as an actor in her twenties. 

As a young adult, Merriman trained as a professional welder, but found she thrived behind the film camera. Beginning in 2004, Merriman did pro-bono and passion work with various filmmakers and friends to learn the craft and get acquainted with how filmmaking really worked. She cited her liberal, blue-collar working parents for instilling in her that a job pays the bills, but having a creative outlet brings joy to one’s self and purpose in service of others.

One of her first breaks in the industry came in a roundabout way: She met her eventual husband through a classmate, who then introduced Merriman to his best friend, Joshua Courtade. 

A West Michigan native and award-winning filmmaker, Courtade is most well-known for his feature films Black Paper, Twenty Years Later and Alone in the Universe. Over the past decade of working with Courtade, Merriman has had the opportunity to work and grow through multiple roles.

“My experience with (Courtade) helped me to form a big passion for not only the art of film but for the people that are in this industry,” she said. 

Deciding to get her formal education, Merriman enrolled at Compass College of Cinematic Arts, completing all of her school work and a short film each semester and continuing to work on any film productions she found.

When asked if she saw any advantages to going to film school after working in the industry, Merriman said, “I think the biggest advantage, honestly, was that I was older when I went back to school (for film). I had gone through my quarter life crisis. … I decided one day that this is something I really want to do.”

“I attribute life experience and my age to being able to see (film) school as not just a way to explore and express myself, but as a job,” she said. “I went there for training. I did not see it as how a lot of young people see college, but as training for my career.” 

Merriman also worked as the alumni relations specialist, in-house producer, film festival liaison and faculty member at Compass College for two years. After losing her father to cancer, she rethought how she wanted to move forward professionally. She teaches now at the adjunct level and continues to work behind the camera, currently with another Grand Rapidian filmmaker, Racheal Floyd, on her first feature film and with Peninsula Entertainment as a producer. 

Like many of the people Revue features for this series, Merriman is not only making her living in film, she is also living out her personal mantra: “Lift as you climb.” She has served in many positions for local arts organizations, such as West Michigan Film and Video Alliance, Dog Story Theater, West Michigan Film Office, Eclipse Awards, Grand Rapids Film Festival, and the Chiaroscuro International Film Series. 

Merriman also shares as much of her time as possible as head programmer for Mosaic Film Experience, showing films and running workshops for more than 600 students who normally would not have access to them.

“Mosaic brings the power of digital experiences and content creation to youth,” Merriman said. “By challenging the conventions of storytelling, we are developing creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration skills.” 

It’s a pleasure for Merriman, expanding the kids’ minds about what is possible and how they can turn their creative passions into a sustaining career that happens right here in West Michigan.

When asked where she thought the film industry could improve, Merriman cited the competitiveness of the business and feels that many do not ask enough questions or do not offer advice, thus missing out on valuable opportunities to learn something or meet someone new. She believes that there are enough film industry jobs to go around, and taking a mentorship and collaborative approach to finding work yields positive results. 

All in all, Merriman’s approach to life and film can be summed up with her own personal axiom: “It’s not finding yourself — it’s creating yourself.” 

 

Mosaic Film Experience 

Mosaic Film Experience’s mission is to provide conversational space, media literacy resources, and opportunities for diverse youth to tell their own unique stories. MFE began in 2012 in Grand Rapids as a film festival for commercial and jury-selected works focusing on under-told stories, particularly those of social outsiders. In 2015, the festival format expanded to a full-day event with both large group and workshop programming as well as adding a screening of student-produced, two-minute mobile videos. 

Requiring the use of only mobile devices to shoot, edit and produce videos attempts to minimize, as much as possible, any economic barriers to filmmaking, and to encourage students who may never consider picking up a movie camera to tell their story with the resources at hand. The festival was specifically designed to be replicated in any city.

MFE takes place in November. Stay tuned to
mosaicfilmexperience.com for 2017 dates. 

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