The Ahwatukee Foothills News recently talked to Chiemi Karasawa, director of the new documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” The film offer’s a glimpse into the life of Stritch, a Broadway legend and clearly the most outgoing actress over 85 working today.
Ahwatukee Foothills News: How did you first meet Elaine Stritch?
Chiemi Karasawa: I had only worked with Elaine for one day on a film called “Romance and Cigarettes.” Elaine was cast as James Gandolfini’s mother and she was this tornado of a character. Then I officially met her in my hair salon, where she was a long time customer. And that was my introduction to her outside of Alec Baldwin’s mother on “30 Rock.” I did not know about the incredible history she’s had in the theater until I started researching her.
AFN: In the past you’ve worked as a script supervisor and producer. Has it always been an ambition of yours to direct a feature documentary?
CK: I was a film major at Boston University and I think every film student leaves school with the aspiration of directing. It was actually Elaine’s idea that I should direct this film. I told her I was probably going to look for a well-known director and she said, “Why don’t you do it, honey?” And so I did.
AFN: Did you form a strong bond with Elaine while filming this documentary?
CK: I think our journey is pretty well documented in terms of the accessibility she wanted to provide. She demands that you engage with her and there’s no chance the camera crew was just going to be a fly on the wall. Elaine wanted to know who we were, what he did, who we were dating. That’s what made it comfortable for her and for us to be around her. Once we started becoming friends, she wanted us around more and more. So yes, we did become very close and we’re still very close right now.
AFN: Elaine dishes out a lot of great stories about her life in the documentary. What’s your personal favorite?
CK: That’s almost impossible to say because we shot almost 150 hours of her. I love her talking about her husband, John Bay. He was the love of her life. She met him so late in her life, they were married for ten years, and then he passed from brain cancer. It’s something she doesn’t talk about often, but she speaks so incredibly lovingly of him. I loved any time she was able to share moments of her life that meant a lot to her. But every story she told was unbelievable, from her liaison with Rock Hudson to the two dates she went on with JFK.
AFN: In the film, there’s a brief moment when the late great James Gandolfini talks about his experiences with Elaine. I take it that his untimely death especially hit her hard?
CK: I think it hit all of us very hard. I met James while filming “Romance and Cigarettes” and he was an incredible man. Elaine was cast as Jim’s mother. They had a very close connection and she had sort of an unrequited love for him. When I found that out, I asked him to be in this movie. James was delighted to do so because he adored her as well. It’s unfortunate he didn’t get to see the film when it was finished because he would have been over the moon for it and her. Elaine was devastated by his death, as we all were, because it was such an untimely passing of someone who had so much to give.
AFN: Elaine gave your crew a lot of access to her personal life, allowing you to film her in weakened conditions. Was there a particular moment that was difficult to capture on film?
CK: Any moment of vulnerability is difficult to capture, but I think there is something very validating about witnessing someone in a vulnerable state. You’re allowing them to share what they’re going through. Ultimately, I think it’s very helpful to put it out there because it’s something that doesn’t often get translated in the media very often. It allows people to connect because everybody’s going through it on some level.
AFN: Do you still keep in contact with Elaine?
CK: We speak probably every week. She was just here in New York doing press for the film and was incredibly thrilled to be back in the city. I go out to Birmingham as much as I can to spend time with her. She’s really become a dear and important person in my life.
AFN: How is her health doing now?
CK: It’s been almost three years since she was depicted in the film. She’s 89 and her health is declining, but her spirits are very high. She still has the same strength of character, conviction, and personality she always did.
AFN: The end of the documentary implies that Elaine will likely either retire in 2014, or 2015, or 2016, or 2017, or 2018. What do you think is next for Elaine?
CK: Last spring she moved back to Birmingham. I think her life has been a lot more peaceful and calm. She can have around the clock care and can relax a little bit.
AFN: And what’s next for you?
CK: I have a company called Isotope Films. We’re always working on several projects at the same time. A film I was a producer on that I really hope comes out is called “Amazing Grace.” It’s a concert documentary about Aretha Franklin’s bestselling album, which was released in 1971.
AFN: One closing question. Why does Elaine choose not to wear pants?
CK: She said it was Judy Garland’s idea. Judy was in rehearsal for a show wearing a man’s shirt, tights, leotard, and dance shoes. Elaine thought was pretty great and so she’s adopted that. With those legs, who could blame her?
Be sure to check out “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” when it opens in Phoenix on March 7.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.