Posted March 4, 2014 by Jeff in Flicks

Director Chiemi Karasawa: Sharing a universal tale

A Broadway star still performing at age 89, Elaine Stritch is quite a character. Director Chiemi Karasawa met her by chance at the beauty parlor and the two struck up a friendship. Karasawa’s new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, follows the actress as she’s prepping for a one-woman show and struggling to cope with health issues that make it difficult to rehearse. It’s a frank portrait of an actress with an incredible career that spans several decades.

What made you want to make a movie about Elaine?
I ran into her by coincidence at my hair salon. I had no idea she was a client. I saw her in the mirror go to the color station. I said to my hairdresser, “Is that Elaine Stritch?” He told me that it was and that she had been a longtime client.  He told me that I should be making a documentary about her. It was matter of fact. He’s not a guy of many words. I did my homework and decided he was absolutely right. I was embarrassed I didn’t know more about her and I was thrilled to have her brought to my attention.

There’s no voiceover in the film. Talk about the decision to not include one and what it was like trying to create a coherent narrative.
We shot about 150 hours over the course of a year and a half. She is an 87-year-old woman with an active career who lives in the Carlyle Hotel and has been on stage since the ’40s. She is still performing and has passion. She’s so independent and unique and untraditional, I felt like that was a great opportunity. There could have been 12 movies made about her. That is the God’s honest truth. She’s a really complex and engaging woman. After seeing the first couple of shows she did, it was clear that she was struggling. She was a point that was going to come to a critical mass. I had only seen her in performances that had been recorded for At Liberty and her legendary cabaret at the Carlyle shows. The real-life scenario was different. At first, I was taken aback at the way her lack of memory was coming off on stage. Everyone expects performances to be perfect. People don’t expect someone at 87 to be doing one-woman shows five nights a week. It’s an opportunity to show what it’s like to be doing this and navigating these obstacles when you used to be a top-notch performer. It’s a documentary about what is going on in her life. When she started going to the hospital for her diabetes, I thought it was a side of life we don’t see very often. She was very comfortable with us from the second or third week in. It’s essential for her to be able to engage with you. She and I became close friends. Her talk can be just for the camera. Until she’s comfortable and she forgets about the camera, that’s when you get the essence of her life. By the time she gave me that confession in the hospital about feeling that this is it, that’s when I started constructing the narrative of the film backwards. I knew that was a critical moment and I could put the pieces together.

I realized that this was a universal tale of aging and not just a story about Elaine Stritch.

So in a scene when she starts singing with the elevator guy, that’s an unscripted moment?
Yeah, none of it was scripted. That’s another day at the Carlyle. That’s how comfortable the staff is with her. She knows them all by name. She always has something funny to say and they always have something to share with her. That’s just how it goes.

Do you think of her as a conduit to another time, as Cherry Jones says?
Absolutely. But I don’t only think of her as a conduit to another time in the past. I think of her as a conduit to all time. She is kind of ageless in the sense that anybody who is that passionate about what they do and about their life will be ahead of the game in terms of what people expect of them. Just like her dropping the f-bomb on The Today Show. Who expects a woman at age 89 to do that? She still doesn’t know what she did wrong. She’s like, “I don’t understand. It’s 2014. Are you telling me that people are still that careful about what they say?” She can’t process it. It’s almost like everybody is a step behind her.

When did you get the interview with James Gandolfini?
We have known each other for a while. I did a film with him called Romance & Cigarettes in 2005. Elaine was cast to play his mother in that film. I met the both of them actually. I was a script supervisor for about 10 to 15 years. I went on to work on The Sopranos and worked on Where the Wild Things Are with him. I knew him pretty well. When I found out Elaine has this unrequited love for him, I thought he would be interesting to include that in the film. I remembered them having worked together.  I phoned him up and he was delighted to do it. He never saw the finished film, but I think he would have been proud of it. All performers that are worth anything have a reference for her. She has worked with all the legends: Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward and Marlon Brando. She does carry the history of this phenomenal career around with her wherever she goes. People admire and respect that.

She’s pretty vulnerable in many scenes. Did she have final say on what footage you could use?
We had her sign a release in the beginning to give us creative permission to do as we wanted. She did give me notes on the first cut she saw of the film. It was up to me whether I would deploy them or not. What I was most interested in was if she was offended or hurt or felt that anything was a misrepresentation. That was not the case. The things she commented on had nothing to do with honesty.

To this day, I think she appreciates the fact that the film reveals her to be as honest as she is. I think she finds that to be the real value of doing a film like this. She can be herself and be accepted for who she is. 

What was her final verdict on the film?
It was very difficult for her to watch the first time. She felt extremely vulnerable. She didn’t know if her fans would accept and appreciate her as Elaine the person and Elaine the performer they know for so long. Every time she sees it with an audience, she gets this remarkable reception. She has developed an appreciation for the film. People do accept and enjoy her for who she is, maybe even more so now. She loves it. It’s given her so much attention and acclaim. For someone like her, that’s a real asset to feel that acceptance and appreciation. I would say she likes it enormously and has had me read the reviews of the film to her.

So when did you initially meet and how long did it take to make the film?
We met in 2010. She was still on Broadway doing A Little Night Music with Bernadette Peters.  I started courting her then. We started shooting early 2011. We shot on and off and got hot and heavy when she started rehearsing for her cabaret tour later that summer. From 2011- 2012 we were shooting, roughly a year and a half. We were editing for six months and then premiered in 2013 at the Tribeca Film Festival. The journey was about three years.

What do you have planned next?
I have a company called Isotope Films. We have three or four different projects we are always working on simultaneously. As a producer, I have Seeds of Time, an environmental doc, and Do You Dream in Color?, a film about four blind high school students. I’ve also been commissioned to create a narrative story out of a true story that was a news piece. As a director, I’m still looking for something.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected]