By Charles Pearl
A week after graduating from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s in telecommunications, Chris Easterly headed for Los Angeles in his old Chevy Cavalier. It was the spring of 1998 and he was following his longtime dream to make movies.
“When I was maybe four and too young to read or write, I remember sitting across the kitchen table from my mom (Vicki Easterly) and she had a yellow legal pad,” Easterly recalls. “I was giving her ideas and dialogue for a movie and she would jot it down. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to make movies and tell stories.”
His dad, Ron Easterly, bought him a video camera when he was a student at Elkhorn Middle School and Chris and his friends started creating movies.
“I was always fortunate to have supportive parents.”
At Franklin County High School, Stephen Schenck, his broadcast journalism teacher, inspired him. “He was a teacher who wouldn’t take any crap, and would call you on stuff and challenge you. But he was really supportive of my being creative.”
One tough lesson he’s learned in nearly two decades in California is that “you have to be persistent. I was out there 10 years before I finally got paid to do what I wanted to do. You do what you have to do to pay the bills while you’re pursuing what you want to do. I did all kinds of crazy stuff.”
He worked as an extra — in the background on movies and TV shows. He worked as an assistant for producers, washing their cars and picking up their lunch. He photocopied scripts. He was a substitute teacher, and worked as a copy writer and editor for Azusa Pacific University.
Eventually, Easterly got accepted into Warner Brothers Writers Workshop, an annual competition for aspiring TV writers. In the six-month program, professional directors and writers speak to participants.
“You write a script and Warner Brothers gets you interviews with producers of TV shows,” Easterly said. “Coming out of that workshop I got my first fulltime TV writing job. I was a staff writer on a show called ‘Past Life’ on FOX Network. It was canceled after six episodes and probably four people watched it, two of those being my parents.”
He laughed, saying, “But it was a great experience. I got to sit in a writers’ room and we could come up with story ideas all day, and then one of us would write the script for that particular episode. It taught me how TV business works.”
After the show was canceled, he was hired for a program called “Unnatural History” on the Cartoon Network.
“It wasn’t a cartoon. It was a one-hour action-adventure show for children about high school kids who solved historical mysteries. I worked on that one full season.”
He meets an angel
Next, Easterly lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, two years while working as a production assistant on the popular TV show, “Touched By An Angel,” which ran for nine seasons, from 1994 until 2003.
“I photocopied scripts, took notes in meetings, picked up lunch, picked up people from the airport, and did whatever else was needed. I got to see the actors every day, and they were nice people for the most part.”
On the stairwell his first day on the job, he ran into one of the stars, Roma Downey, who played an angel named Monica.
“I knew who she was but I wasn’t going to make a big deal about it. I said, ‘hi,’ and she asked, ‘Are you Chris?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and she welcomed me. I thought that was cool that she had taken the time to know who I was. I’ve found that most of the bigger actors are usually kind. Sometimes it’s the guest actors, the ones in the smaller roles, who can have an ego.”
He’s delivered scripts to movie star Kirk Douglas and singer, songwriter and actor Kenny Rogers in their hotel rooms. When Douglas answered the phone, Easterly thought, “Oh my, I’m talking to Spartacus,” referring to the 1960 hit movie in which Douglas played the title role. When Easterly knocked on Rogers door, Rogers invited him to come in and have a beer. “I was trying to be conscientious, professional, so I said, ‘I appreciate it but I need to get back to the office.’ To this day, I regret that. I could have had a beer with the gambler.”
While working on the “Touched By An Angel” series, Easterly met a producer, Brian Bird, and has kept in touch with him through the years. Later, Bird hired Easterly to write a movie for the Hallmark Channel titled “The Shunning,” based on a novel by Beverly Lewis.
“Relationships are so important in the TV industry,” Easterly says. “Because I did a good job on ‘Touched By An Angel’ — washing a producer’s car, picking up lunch, answering phones — (Bird) remembered me years later and knew I wanted to be a writer. If I had been a bad assistant, he would have written me off.”
Movie and TV jobs in LA and Hollywood are extremely competitive, Easterly says.
“I’ve worked on a couple of network TV shows, I’ve written a movie, and it’s still hard to get a job sometimes. I have a manager in LA who sends out my material. But one lesson I’ve learned is, you have to always be hustling, even if you’ve made it.”
Easterly does freelance writing for Family Theater Productions, a Catholic company.
“They have a Web series and they’ll assign me topics.”
He also gets paid for writing an occasional blog for Catholic Match, a dating service.
Returning to Frankfort
After living in California and Utah 16 years, Easterly decided to spend more time in Kentucky. He taught a TV writing class at UK in the spring of 2014.
“In California several years ago, I went on a series of interviews during TV staffing season to try to get a job on a TV show. I got close to a few things but didn’t get hired. I remember sitting in my apartment, thinking, man, I need work. And I thought, I’m a writer. I can sit around my apartment waiting for my manager to call with a job offer, or I can just write something myself and go back to Kentucky and make it.”
“So I wrote a script, ‘Devil’s Hollow,’ with the idea we could shoot it in Kentucky for almost nothing. I came back to Frankfort and we did a kick-starter campaign to raise a little money for development. We shot a trailer for the movie and my manager and Brian Bird, said they liked the script. But they said if you want to do this right, you need to get a main actor attached and you need to shoot it for a real budget. Otherwise you’ll end up with a real expensive home movie nobody will ever see. We’ve been trying to attach a recognizable actor to it and raise the money for that. That’s always the hardest part, finding the money.”
In “Devil’s Hollow,” an ex-con on house arrest must risk his freedom to save his estranged teenage daughter from his former criminal associates.
An Easterly film he wrote in LA called “Relict” premiered at the Kentucky Theater in Lexington and the Grand Theatre in Frankfort last summer. It’s available on Amazon. Most of the film was shot at his dad’s house in Two Creeks.
“It’s a story about a guy who comes home at the end of the day, locks himself in his house, and starts talking to the ghosts of his family. You find out earlier that day he went out and murdered the man who killed his family and now he’s at home waiting for the police to come and apprehend him. In the meantime, he’s having back-and-forth conversations with his family about what he did.”
Frankfort historian Russ Hatter was one of the main characters, as was Easterly’s longtime friend, J.C. Karsner, who helped him produce it.
Wrapping up a documentary
Easterly’s biggest film project this year has been a feature-length documentary titled “Method To The Madness.” It’s about the life and career of indie music artist Chris Ballinger, also known as Hybrid The Rapper.
The documentary tells the story of a “small town underdog who refused to stop dreaming,” Easterly says. “It’s a story of overcoming obstacles to create art. It’s a celebration of music and the creative process.”
Like Easterly, Ballinger is a native of Frankfort.
“His story attracted me because he’s a rapper, singer, writer and producer,” Easterly says. “I saw him as a kindred spirit. He knows some of the same struggles about trying to make it in the entertainment industry.”
Easterly has been working on the documentary since January, “and we’re on the homestretch with it. We’re hoping to have it done and show it at the Grand Theatre, maybe in the fall. The plan is to get it on Netflix and Amazon.”
Easterly is working on two other film projects:
• “Between Us” is a movie adapted from a book written by a Lexington woman. It’s inspired by a true story. An overwhelmed young mother, Christa, gives up custody of her daughter, Jess, to her ex-husband and his new wife. Christa soon regrets her decision when she sees the unhealthy new home life Jess must endure. Heartsick for her daughter and struggling with her own guilt, Christa sets out on a mission to reconnect with Jess. But it’s not easy.
• “Where We Go From Here” is a comedy drama based on Easterly’s divorce. In the movie, when Will’s wife reveals she had an affair that resulted in a pregnancy, he struggles to move forward with his life. Having to deal with the betrayal and challenges of his job as a professional TV writer, Will finds himself in a place he never expected to be. It’s a poignant story filled with heartbreak, humor and hope.
Writing a memoir and more
Easterly wrote a book about his 2011 divorce after a seven-year marriage titled “Falling Forward.”
“I wanted to write about my divorce experience. It’s not a hit piece on my ex-wife. It’s more about how I got through it and survived. I wanted her to read it before it was published. She said she went through a box of tissues reading it. But she said she believes it will help others. I still care about her and we have a cordial relationship.”
Easterly is talking with a Catholic publisher about writing a sequel to his memoir.
“It will be about the annulment process. Since I’m Catholic, I wanted to get my marriage annulled, and I got my annulment last year.”
Easterly says he was inspired to become Catholic in 2007, partly because of reading books by the late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, writer and peace activist who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown.
“When I was flirting with Catholicism, everything was beautiful and mysterious, but also kind of intimidating and scary. I didn’t understand it all but I was drawn to it.
“At one time I thought I could be a monk. But then I took a weekend retreat at a Trappist monastery in Utah. By Saturday morning I was thinking I’ve got to get out of here. I liked the peacefulness and solitude of the monastery but I also found I needed to listen to some rock music on the radio and go eat a cheeseburger.”
At age 43, Easterly likes being back in his hometown and having California as a second home.
“LA is such a creative community,” he says. “There are creative people in Frankfort. But out there, everybody you meet is pursuing acting, dancing, writing or photography, it seems. I love writing and I think I’ll be writing for the rest of my life. I hope so. I don’t want to do anything else. Basically, I write because I can’t not do it.”
He’s had numerous jobs through the years — in LA and Frankfort — to help pay the bills while he writes. He was a newspaper carrier for The State Journal for a while. One of his first paid jobs, which had a link to the entertainment business, was working at the Starway Drive-In theater in Bridgeport when he was 16.
“It was like the best of times and the worst of times. I got to see free movies,” and he didn’t mind selling tickets, popcorn and candy. He liked working in the projector room unless there was a malfunction or the film broke.
“Then all the angry bikers would throw beer cans at the screen,” he recalled. “But the worst job I’ve ever had was when I was sent out with a Will Rogers Charity bucket. I had to go from car to car, knocking on foggy windows trying to collect money, and everybody hated me.”
But Chris Easterly is a survivor and now he can laugh about it.