Learning from the Best: An Interview with TV and Screenwriter, Chris Easterly

TV and Screenwriter Chris Easterly (Unnatural History, Click Clack Jack, The Shunning)

TV and screenwriter Chris Easterly is a graduate of the Act One screen and television writing program and the prestigious Warner Brothers Writers Workshop. He has written for Cartoon Network’s first live-action mystery adventure series Unnatural History, as well the screenplay for Click Clack Jack, and a new project, The Shunning premiering tomorrow night (Saturday 4/26) on The Hallmark Channel.

Emmy® and Golden Globe Award Nominee Sherry Stringfield and Danielle Panabaker Star in the Hallmark Channel Original Movie Chris adapted from Beverly Lewis’ best-selling novel. The Shunning is the retelling of some of the heartbreaking experiences of Lewis’ maternal grandmother in the Amish Community of the Old Order Mennonite Church.

Chris was given the job of adapting Beverly Lewis' bestseller into a viable screenplay

Executive producers Brian Bird, Michael Landon Jr. and Maura Dunbar selected Chris to write the screenplay for Believe Pictures and Lightworks Pictures. Said Bird, “I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film… We hired Chris …and he knocked it out of the park.” (See, Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Brian Bird.)

In celebration of tomorrow night’s premiere of Beverly Lewis’ ‘The Shunning’ I asked Chris a few questions about the film and about the greatest influences on his life and his writing.

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An Interview with TV and screenwriter Chris Easterly

THW: Yesterday Brian Bird told us how he specifically selected you to write the screenplay so he could keep his promise to his mentor, Michael Warren, to open doors for future writers.  What was that like?

According to Executive Producer Brian Bird, Chris' screenplay "hit it out of the park."

Chris Easterly: It was a great experiencing working for both Brian and director Michael Landon, Jr.  They are pros at developing story, so I learned a lot from them.

THW: Like what?

CE: I remember they suggested one scene in particular, and in my naïveté, I thought it might not work.  But after putting it in the script and seeing how it worked in the context of the whole movie, it really packed a strong emotional punch.

THW: What did you take away from that?

CE: (Laughs) It taught me I don’t know as much as I thought, or at least that my instincts aren’t always right!

Madeline L'Engle's 'Walking on Water' shaped Chris' understanding of Faith and Art

THW: Okay, other than Brian and Michael, who are the people who have really influenced you?  Let’s start with books.

CE: Hmmm? Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, by Madeleine L’Engle, Evangelical is Not Enough, by Thomas Howard; and God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, by Julien Green.

THW: Beyond individual books, any authors who have helped you over the years?

CE: Definitely!  Frederick Buechner, and Thomas Merton, in particular.  Also, G.K. Chesterton.

THW: You’re a TV writer, any TV shows really impact you?

CE: Yes, I really like The Shield, and The Wire, but I can think of more movies that actually influenced me: Rainman, Glory, The Empire Strikes Back, and Taxi Driver.

Chris lists an eclectic range of influences from 'Rainman' (1988) to the artist formerly known as 'Prince.'

THW: That’s quite an eclectic list.

CE: There are also musicians like the late Rich Mullins, and even Prince who have helped shape me as an artist.

THW: Any more?

CE: I could go on all day, but that’s enough for now.

THW: Okay, going back to The Shunning, I understand you got to be on set for the film shoot. What was that like?

CE: It was amazing seeing it all come to life.  The local North Carolina crew was exceptionally professional and cool.

THW: Did you enjoy the whole movie “scene”?

CE: Absolutely! It was fun to just loiter on set, behind the video monitor, in the wardrobe trailer, at the craft services table.

With Danielle Panabaker (center) and Emmy Nominee Sherry Stringfield on set, it's too bad we didn't get to see Chris in a cameo with Amish garb and beard.

THW: Any regrets?

CE: I tried to get onscreen as an Amish extra, but they wrapped early that day.  Oh, well. Maybe next time…

THW: I would have loved to see you in Amish garb.

CE: Me too!

-THW

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Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).

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Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Screenwriter Interviews:

Sheryl J. Anderson (Charmed, Flash Gordon, Dave’ World)

Dean Batali (That 70’s Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hope and Gloria)

Brian Bird (Touched by an Angel, The Shunning, Not Easily Broken)

Kevin Chesley (The Hard Times of RJ Berger)

Jessica Rieder (Leverage, Hawaii Five-O)

Monica Macer (Lost, Prison Break, Teen Wolf)

Michael Warren (Happy Days, Family Matters, Two of a Kind, Step by Step, Perfect Strangers).

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Also:

Chris Easterly on ‘Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God’ – Icons of Heroic Celebrity:

Randall Wallace (Braveheart, Secretariat) Speech to President Obama and World Leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast

Fresh story ideas a tough sell in Hollywood, by Nicole Sperling

Joel and Ethan Coen Spill Their Screenwriting Secrets to the Hollywood Reporter

 

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Producer & Mentor Brian Bird

Brian’s latest project ‘The Shunning’ premiers this Saturday.

Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures (with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).

Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.

Brian’s credits include more than 250 episodes of the hit CBS series ‘Touched By an Angel’

Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angel and his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.

On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.

In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.

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Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird

GDS: What excites you most about the film?

Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.

Brian worked with T.D. Jakes to adapt ‘Not Easily Broken’ for the big screen.

GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?

BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.

GDS: Any personal stake in the film?

BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.

Horton Foote’s screenwriting taught Brian to default from plot to character whenever you can.

GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker.  First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?

BB: I’d have to say The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, and Tender Mercies.

GDS: How ‘bout screenwriters?

BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.

Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.

GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?

“Tony Gilroy’s screenplays taught me to strive to be ‘taut’ in my writing.”

BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture.  Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.

GDS: Any others?

BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.

GDS: Like who?

BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.

“Morgan Freeman …told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.”

Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.

Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.

Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.

Michael Warren, legendary TV writer-producer who gave me my first TV staff writing job, told me he was leaving the door open for me as long as I would promise to leave it open for others. (See, Michael Warren’s Greatest Influences.)

GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?

TV legend and mentor Michael Warren launched Brian’s career by opening the door for him on a CBS one season wonder, ‘The Family Man’ (above). It was all that Brian needed to prove himself.

BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.

GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?

BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself.  We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.

GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?

BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.

GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?

BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.

THW

Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).

Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.

Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Filmmakers:

Sheryl J. Anderson (Charmed, Flash Gordon, Dave’ World)

Dean Batali (That 70’s Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hope and Gloria)

Brian Bird (Touched by an Angel, The Shunning, Not Easily Broken)

Kevin Chesley (The Hard Times of RJ Berger)

Chris Easterly (Unnatural History, The Shunning)

Jessica Rieder (Leverage, Hawaii Five-O)

Monica Macer (Lost, Prison Break, Teen Wolf)

Korey Scott Pollard (Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, Monk, House, Grey’s Anatomy)

Kurt Schemper (Emmy Award winner for Intervention)

Michael Warren (Happy Days, Family Matters, Two of a Kind, Step by Step, Perfect Strangers).