It’s not often that documentary subjects admit to disliking the films about them — especially in the presence of their directors. Then again, Elaine Stritch isn’t known as a gal who plays by the books. The uncompromising Tony and Emmy Award-winning legend is profiled in producer Chiemi Karasawa’s directorial debut “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” an uproarious and highly entertaining peek into the life of the 88-year-old Broadway star that doesn’t shy away from chronicling her struggle with alcoholism and diabetes. The film, which includes interviews with Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Hal Prince, Alec Baldwin and others, premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival.
I got a chance to sit down with Stritch and Chiemi at the actress’ residence, the famed Carlyle Hotel, to discuss the year-long process of making the film, how a hairdresser brought them together, and Stritch’s fondness for wearing tights over pants any day.
You’re moving out of the Carlyle and away from New York soon after the film premieres. Coincidence?
Elaine Stritch: Not really, it just happened to work out that way. I have to collect an award, the Niederlander award, in Detroit on the 28th and so it happened to work out that way. Chiemi was opening her documentary so it all oddly enough worked out. And I had to stay for 28 interviews with my producer so it kind of all fell into place… it doesn’t seem to be doing that now because we’re hit with all the pressures of moving and packing. I’ve done quite well, actually. You live in a hotel for a long time and you adopt what happens in a hotel. You don’t accumulate a lot of stuff ’cause you don’t have a lot of room and I love that — the fact that I don’t have a lot of stuff. If I entertain, I come down here in the hotel. I don’t accumulate clothes and books.
Well, you don’t have to worry about packing pants.
ES: No pants?
You don’t accumulate pants.
ES: I don’t understand.
Given that you don’t wear a lot of pants. I was trying to make a joke.
ES: I don’t know what you mean. I’d like to get the joke.
Chiemi Karasawa: No, because you’re famous for wearing your tights and your men’s shirts.
ES: Oh, tights!
And for not wearing pants. That’s all I was trying to say.
ES: I honest to God don’t know what you’re talking about. I wear slacks. I’m quite serious, I don’t understand what you’re talking about.
CK: Because whenever you perform you wear tights.
ES: I wear tights!
CK: And so people consider that you don’t wear pants.
ES: But I don’t call tights pants.
CK: That’s what he’s saying.
I was saying you’re not going to be bringing a lot of pants to your new home given that you don’t wear them.
ES: I see, OK. Alright, let’s press on.
So I need your hairdresser, Chiemi. He was the one to inspire you to make this movie, correct?
CK: I mean, it really kind of happened at Bartali. We have the same hairdresser. He had talked to me and he said you should make a documentary about Elaine Stritch.
ES: Almost everything starts with your hairdresser. I can offer that as a quote.
CK: He’s a guy actually that doesn’t speak very much.
ES: No, he doesn’t, you’re absolutely right.
CK: So when he says something, you listen to him.
ES: Yes, it’s really true. And he’s a darling guy, just adorable.
You two had met before though right?
ES: Not before the hairdressers, no.
CK: Elaine wouldn’t remember but we actually worked on the set when she was doing “Romance & Cigarettes.”
ES: I broke my ankle and I also worked with James Gandolfini hungover. So as much as I love him, that was not my day. So I don’t remember meeting anyone, nor did I want to.
CK: Yeah, it was very brief.
ES: I just did my job and I understand I did it well. And I was grateful for the movie because I love John Turturro [the film’s writer/director] and I love, love, love James Gandolfini, but not on a bad day. He’s got more good days than bad days now. I’m very proud of him, he’s doing fine. Just had an new baby girl and he’s so excited about that and so am I. I think he’s one of the finest actors that ever lived.
Was Chiemi’s pitch to document your life a hard sell on you?
ES: I have no idea. I’m not selling.
Were you gung-ho to do it from your first meeting?
ES: I didn’t want to do it. I did not want to walk around New York and talk about myself. I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t. And that’s what I was more or less pushed to do for a couple of years; that’s what a documentary takes. It also takes telling the truth — that’s very difficult. And I managed to do it. I don’t like the documentary much but I think it’s very good.
Why don’t you like it?
ES: I think it’s a downer. But I do like it because it’s telling the truth and what’s the point of doing a documentary if you don’t tell the truth? A documentary is a step beyond drama; it’s what’s really going on.
So are you excited about the Tribeca premiere then or not so much?
I’m always excited about something that’s opening to the public. I wish Chiemi well with it and I hope it makes some money for my own sake and
for her sake certainly. Absolutely, I just want it to be a success. I
don’t want anything that I do not to be a success. And I’m talented
enough to promote that and have that happen so I hope it happens.
CK: What did you think of the film, Nigel?
ES: He’s sitting here, isn’t he. So that proves something.
Did you set up any kind of boundaries before going to camera, Elaine?
ES: No, I didn’t. I just sat down and told the truth to every question they asked me. And that takes guts and it takes initiative and it takes a terrifying amount of energy to tell the truth. About your life? Come on!
Chiemi, in the press notes you make no qualms about revealing the fact that prior to making the doc, you weren’t that familiar with Elaine’s work. What made you the right person to document her life?
CK: Well, I don’t know if I am. I just knew that when I was introduced to who she was and I started researching her, I just couldn’t believe that more people in the world didn’t know about her. I think that Elaine is just such a singular character and such a singular talent that how could there not be more of her out there? And so really that was my quest.
How has your relationship evolved since first meeting via the hairdresser to today?
ES: Well, someone expresses a desire to do a documentary on you which means they have more interest beyond a certain point — then you pay attention to them. So I paid attention and I liked what I saw in Chiemi, and she had a way of talking to me about my life that was simpatico and fine. It worked out fine.
I don’t have many fears about who knows what about me.
I can tell that from watching you.
ES: That’s why I agreed with her title, when she called it “Shoot Me”… except she doesn’t call it a documentary. I’d like her to call it a documentary but she didn’t call it a documentary and I’m angry at her because of it. “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, A Documentary”: that’s funny to me. To explain to the audience what it is because they don’t need an explanation, they know what it is. Apparently she doesn’t agree with me so I really don’t give a shit what she thinks anymore. That’s the end of that. You know what I mean? That’s what I think the name of it should be. It should say “a documentary” at the end of the title.
CK: I think, for me, when we first started to meet, it was incredibly intimidating just because she’s such a figure in the world and in the theater world. But then as we got to know each other… one thing that I think that you don’t see about her is that she’s an incredibly generous friend. And I was going through an awful lot in my life when I started the film. And she could probably tell you more about me and my life and my parents and my relationship than my own mother.
ES: Well, the load was coming this way and I’m a good listener and I have a great deal of simpatico for people when they’re in trouble. Especially when they’re along the lines that I have been in, in my life. So that they profit by my experience I hope.
CK: Well, I mean there’s really nowhere where you haven’t been in your life, so let’s be honest.
ES: That’s about it.
CK: I mean, if you’re looking for someone to talk to who’s been everywhere you’ve been and beyond, I think you couldn’t probably ask for a better ear or a support. I think Elaine is very supportive of people’s independence and their ability to just make a decision that’s not pressured by outside influences. I think that’s something you don’t see in the film that was definitely part of our relationship. And I appreciate it very much because it was a hard time and I felt like I had a real friend in her.