By Lee Chottiner
When Chris Easterly left for Los Angeles to start his screenplay-writing career, the last thing on his mind was the Holocaust.
After all, the Frankfort native grew up in a town where few Jews live. Further, his education about the Holocaust in high school and college had been, to put it mildly, spotty.
“I had seen ‘Schindler’s List,’” he said.
Then he met two producers who had the idea for a film about Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews in Budapest during World War II.
Twenty years later, after a long production delay (more on that later), the film Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, the screenplay for which Easterly wrote, will finally have its theatrical debut at 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 28, at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort.
“I was in my 20s at the time the project started,” said Easterly, now 45. “Honestly, learning about Lutz was my introduction to my knowledge of the Holocaust and the history of World War II.”
A career diplomat, Lutz served as Swiss vice consul in Budapest from 1942 to 1945. During that time, at great personal risk and against his government’s wishes, he issued protection letters to Hungarian Jews. At first, he negotiated permission to issue letters for just 8,000 for immigration to Palestine. Using a phony number scheme, though, as many as 60,000 received papers.
According to his biographer, Lutz inspired other diplomats in Budapest to save Jewish lives, most notably Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared in 1945.
After the war, the Swiss government stuck Lutz in an “insignificant job,” as Easterly put it, then forgot about him. He died of a heart attack in 1975.
Years later, though, the government finally honored Lutz for what he did. He also became the first Swiss national to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
Easterly first learned about Lutz from producers Michael Moehring and Bryan Boorujy, who heard about him while doing interviews for Stephen Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation.
“Chris was still pretty young,” Boorujy said. “He was still an assistant working on Touched by an Angel, and we hit it off.”
They sent Easterly a manuscript by Theo Tschuy, Lutz’s biographer. “He loved the story,” Boorujy said, “and that’s how Chris got involved.”
After research in Europe, including interviews with Tschuy, Lutz’s step-daughter, and Jewish survivors, Easterly returned to the States to write the screenplay. Then, with with the film 80 percent complete, they ran out of money.
Moehring said he sent hundreds of letters to corporate donors, pitching the project. He was inundated with rejection letters.
Life also got in the way. Moehring got divorced, then remarried. Boorujy moved to Florida. Their day jobs took time.
They essentially shelved the project, though they never forgot about it.
“We knew we had to finish it,” Boorujy said. “It was one of those things we felt an obligation to finish. We felt like it was a story that needed to be told.”
Five years ago, they resumed work. Boorujy edited the film; reenactment scenes were shot with actors who volunteered their time. Boorujy’s daughter even joined the project, doing the animation work
After 20 years, it’s done.
In a way, the time it took to complete the film was a blessing in disguise.
“Twenty years ago, all these streaming services didn’t exist,” Easterly said. “Even if we were to go on the History Channel, maybe a few thousand people would see it, then it would go away. But now, it will reach a lot more people.”
In fact, the film is already available on Amazon ahead of its theatrical debut in Frankfort. It will also be screened in Nebraska and Florida, where the producers live.
In addition to the film, Easterly has worked on shows for Fox and the Cartoon Network. He wrote a screenplay for a Hallmark Channel movie and he produces independent films in Kentucky, where he again lives.
“I’ll be here for a while,” he said.”
Want to go?
Tickets for Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy go on sale July 6. Contact the theatre at 502-352-7469 or grandtheatrefrankfort.org. A Q&A with the writer and producers will follow.
Film about Swiss diplomat who saved thousands of Jews to debut in Frankfort
By Lee Chottiner