Soozie Eastman reflects on filmmaking, family and turning 40
By Laura Ross
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Styling by Andre Wilson
Hair & Makeup by Lorie Karnes, CEO of Vanity Beauty Haus and Brooke Spurgeon
THE SCENE: Our hero is a single mother, filmmaker, business executive, world traveler and comedian. She is wrapped in a whirlwind that includes movie premieres, pounding the pavement for money and loads of dirty diapers, late nights and the juggling of public and private personas. Add in scenes of a near-death experience and rising from the ashes for a triumphant denouement.
It sounds like the setup to a movie, but it’s truly a reality for Louisville-based filmmaker Soozie Eastman.
When most people reach the age of 40, they begin to reflect on their lives and the paths they have taken. What were the successes or failures of the last 40 years? Eastman is a consummate goal setter and list maker but tracking age? Not so much.
“I’ve tried to not let age define me,” Eastman reflected. “I had a friend pass away at 12 and every time I hear someone complain ‘I’m so old,’ I think, Anna Thompson would love to be 25 or 30 or 40. Getting older is a privilege denied many, and if I live to be 90, (that means) I’m a baby right now.”
She’s also a single mom to a baby, Irie Eastman, current executive director of the Louisville Film Society and she serves on the Louisville Film Commission. She is the producer of the popular Flyover Film Festival and a documentary filmmaker, ready to launch her first feature film, “Overload: America’s Toxic Love Story.”
Her journey began in Louisville and took her from coast to coast before bringing her full circle: back to her hometown for the next chapter of life with her child.
“Soozie would set up a nightly news set when she was young and film entire newscasts with those big cumbersome camcorders from the 1980s,” laughed Linda Eastman, Soozie’s mom. “We also built a little office that she’d use as a (pretend) travel agency called Everywhere You Want To Go, and she’d order tickets to Paris, and she’d fill out a file system for all her ‘customers.’ Her creative imagination was flourishing.”
“I didn’t think much of it, it was just fun,” said Soozie Eastman. “I figured I’d become a marine biologist or something, not a filmmaker.”
After graduating from South Oldham High School, Eastman realized major decisions had to be made. She thought about what made her tick, and the artistic world of film stood out to her. Her parents encouraged her to head to New York City, where she enrolled in Hunter College and began studying broadcast journalism.
“My parents always said, ‘Be the best you can be – whether it’s being a doctor, making coffees, being a janitor or whatever,’” said Eastman. “I needed to see the microcosm of New York, where I could see the cultures, the ethnicities, the world, and just have my eyes blown wide open.”
However, broadcast journalism didn’t offer enough creativity for Eastman. She returned home and enrolled at the University of Louisville, where she carefully customized a major that blended communication, theater arts, sociology and Spanish.
Around the time she graduated, the Sept. 11 attacks changed the world in an instant. Going back to New York seemed frightening, but the siren call of Hollywood beckoned.
LA (Louisville Area) to LA (Los Angeles)
Eastman landed in Los Angeles in 2001 and enrolled in Chapman University to pursue a masters degree in producing for television and film. “It felt like a three-year summer camp where we were playing with equipment and telling stories, but it allowed us to find our voices and flex our film muscles,” said Eastman. “I made raunchy dark comedies and was nicknamed ‘Baby John Waters’ (director and screenwriter of cult classics like ‘Hairspray’ and ‘Serial Mom’) by my professors, which I loved.”
Eastman settled on making a mockumentary for her thesis, but her plans shifted dramatically after she came home for a holiday visit in December 2004. For years, the Eastman family has volunteered during Christmas at the Wayside Christian Mission homeless shelter. That year, Eastman and her mother met a woman, Denise, whose own story re-directed Eastman’s plans.
“She had been robbed at the Greyhound station, so we drove her to her family through a massive snowstorm,” said Eastman. “We listened to her story and hope for the future. (Hearing) her story of absolute tragedy to her hopefulness on how she was going to overcome homelessness changed my whole career.”
Eastman shelved her mockumentary idea and immediately started sketching out plans for “By The Wayside,” a featurette documentary about homelessness.
“By The Wayside” won several awards on the film festival circuit and her career was launched.
While in California from 2002 to 2014, she immersed herself in the film industry, making contacts and working under such notables as Michael Ovitz, former president of ABC/Disney, and “The Joy Luck Club” producer Janet Yang. She also worked as director of programs for the HUMANITAS Prize, honoring television and film writers.
“The industry is incredibly hard to break into, but it’s about tenacity,” said Eastman. “It will chew you up and spit you out if you don’t stay on top of the game. There are three reasons people succeed there: a fluke, your rich uncle or you busted your rear end to make it work.”
Networking is key in the world of filmmaking. Louisville-based entrepreneur and film producer Gill Holland met Eastman in 2005 when he was also screening one of his films at the Vail Film Festival. “She showed great talent in that first film (‘By The Wayside’) so she went on my mental list of folks I wanted to work with one day,” said Holland. “I didn’t realize then that it would be later on the Louisville Film Society and Flyover Film Festivals.”
Overload: America’s Toxic Love Story
Eastman thought she had it all – a busy career, an office window that faced the ocean, a place to call home in Los Angeles and Louisville and friends on both coasts. “(But) I started to think that one day I’d like to have a child,” she said.
With the proverbial biological clock ticking, she knew having a baby might not happen in the most conventional way. She began researching options and came across a study that simultaneously intrigued, scared and motivated her.
“I stumbled upon research done by the Environmental Working Group that said every baby born in the U.S. has no less than 200 synthetic chemicals in them at birth,” she said. “That blew me away to think that pesticides, flame retardants, plastics and more are in this new, fresh life we assume is completely pure.”
The more she thought about it, the more she knew that the story needed a voice. She pressed pause on her immediate journey towards motherhood and instead began raising money to fund a documentary film, which became “Overload: America’s Toxic Love Story.”
“I left my job and focused full-time energy on developing and fundraising this film,” Eastman said. “It took me about three years, but 280 donors later, I did it. I returned to Louisville to dabble in things here while I was fundraising, and Gill Holland asked me to volunteer with the Louisville Film Society. Then, Christy Brown reached out and asked me to produce Prince Charles’ visit to Louisville. I produced the event, overseeing 1,400 people in multiple locations in a seven-hour visit. It was my jam and was so exceptional and special. I was then hired as the first paid executive director of the Louisville Film Society. All of that was my door-opening moment, and I realized I was going in the right direction.”
Production soon began on “Overload,” with Eastman as both director and subject. She was laboratory tested for 119 of the most commonly used chemicals in food, personal care and household products. Eastman – who already maintained what she thought was a healthy, clean lifestyle – was shocked to learn that she was full of chemicals.
“I was tested on day zero and then days 30 and 60. I shopped my way around to find alternative products and resources,” she explained, “I had experts help me make changes and checklists, and when I was retested, it worked.”
She still had chemicals in her body – since many have long lives in our bloodstream – but overall, her health improved. “During the second 30 days, the Cleveland Clinic created a detox program for me,” she said. “(It felt like) I ate sticks and berries and cried and detoxed. I lost 40 pounds, but I had an incredible level of energy and mental clarity.”
“By making small changes, I was able to impact what was going into my body,” she added. “It was empowering and infuriating that I as a consumer had to consciously make this effort, but I learned a new lifestyle.”
Does she hope to start a conversation or build a revolution with “Overload?” “Both, I think,” she laughed. “I want to motivate change.” The film has had a few showings so far – including an upcoming screening at the Flyover Film Festival this summer – and will be streamed and distributed through Bullfrog Films later this year. To coincide with the film’s release, Eastman is currently building a social impact campaign and website entitled Cleaner Greener Me. This will provide a platform and toolkit for consumers to learn simple, inexpensive ways to lower the amount of toxins entering their homes and bodies.
“In the back of my mind as I started this film, I thought, ‘What if I run out of freaking eggs before the film is done?’” she said. “It was remarkable that during the filming, I ended up becoming incredibly fertile. Not only did I make a film, I changed my health around.”
Eastman consulted with doctors in both Louisville and Los Angeles who told her the time was, literally, ripe in January 2018. As per usual, she had a full plate. She was in the middle of making final edits for her film while traveling and working non-stop, and her father was facing serious health challenges. She asked for more time. Her doctor said no.
“She told me, you can change anything at any point in your life, but you can’t barter with biology,” said Eastman. “She said I was at my expiration date and was ovulating in 10 days, so in eight days, I needed to try and make a baby.”
Using a known donor, she became pregnant on her first try, using no hormones or medicines. “I took my future into my own hands and made it a reality,” she said. “I realized that life is finite and some decisions need to be made in the blink of an eye.”
Friend and owner of Revelry Boutique Gallery Mo McKnight-Howe was one of many friends who supported Eastman’s decision. “I remember being caught off-guard by her telling me she was going to live chemical-free, have a baby and produce a film all in the same timeline,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how ambitious these goals were, but I saw how confident she was that this was all going to happen.”
Eastman teamed up with her mother, who supports her as a co-parent. Together, they made plans, built nurseries in their homes and prepared to welcome the baby. “It was a healthy, fantastic pregnancy… until it wasn’t,” said Eastman. “I worked out one day and then the next, I was in the hospital with preeclampsia that rapidly turned into organ failure.”
As doctors raced to deliver Eastman’s baby several weeks early, they ran into roadblock after roadblock. She was in organ failure. Her throat and brain began swelling. The odds that both mother and baby might not survive skyrocketed.
“As a mother, I was absolutely terrified, but I could not show it,” recalled Linda Eastman. “I had to look strong, but inside I thought, ‘I’m going to lose them both.’”
“There were moments of panic, but on Sept. 1, we got a 4 lb., 4 oz. baby girl, who I named Irie, which is a Jamaican word meaning positivity and heaven on earth,” said Soozie Eastman.
Baby Irie was whisked away to the NICU for two weeks, and Eastman began her own long recovery. “The docs kept asking what I did when I was pregnant because the baby was so healthy overall,” said Eastman. “They called her the ‘zen baby’ because each day she’d reach a new goal to bypass. I truly think that was because of my film and the choices I made while I was pregnant. She was off the preemie charts at four months instead of two years.”
Happily Ever After
Not much makes Soozie Eastman happier these days than spending time with her daughter.
“It’s remarkable to have this thriving baby and film,” she mused. “I just sit in appreciation for the life I’ve been given and the life I’ve created.”
“We celebrate all the stages,” added Linda Eastman. “Irie, or ‘Little Stuff,’ and Soozie are both the lights of my life. I’m 72, and I wish I could be with them for another 30 years, but time is short and every day is a celebration for us. I’m trying to pour everything I have into her life every day and imprint as much as I can on my girls with love and joy and appreciation.”
As she celebrates her 40th birthday, Soozie Eastman is back to making her infamous lists and setting goals. She’s focusing on strength in health, happiness and focus and overcoming obstacles.
“I feel content and I live in the moment of whatever age I am,” she stressed. “I wrote a note the day before my 30th birthday to read before my 40th. I found it and it said, ‘Only focus on making money if it’s also making the world a better place.’ I hoped for health and happiness. Reading that was amazing.”
For Eastman, her life is just beginning in many aspects as she looks to the future with Irie. “Life is absolutely exceptional,” she said. “From the darkest nights come the brightest mornings, and we all have to make our own, authentic story and journey. We only have one shot on this earth, so make it count.” V