Director Chiemi Karasawa on Elaine Stritch, Documentaries & Working With Spike Jonze

Director Chiemi Karasawa on Elaine Stritch, Documentaries & Working With Spike Jonze

One of the great actresses of the cinema, television, and
theater was brought to light recently in the documentary Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me. Stritch has won three Primetime
Emmys and been nominated for a Tony five times. Most recently, she played the
hilarious Colleen Donaghy in 30 Rock. Additionally, she
starred on Broadway in multiple plays, including Stephen Sondheim’s Company. 

As director Chiemi Karasawa studied Stritch’s body of work. the idea to make a film about Elaine emerged. Countless actors are interviewed for the documentary, including Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and James Gandolfini.
Through archival footage from performances and appearances alike, Stritch’s
unique and inspiring talent is showcased.

I had a chance to chat with Karasawa about her path from
script supervisor to documentary producer to director. From working alongside
Spike Jonze, to starting her own production company, to befriending Elaine
Stritch, an inspiring story exists within Karasawa herself.

Meredith Alloway: You first
worked with Stritch on Romance and Cigarettes! She
was in the cast and you were a script supervisor. Did you know her then? 

Chiemi Karasawa: No! That was maybe three years earlier. I do remember the
particular reverence that John Turturro [the director] had towards her.
I had the challenging job of being in charge of her lines and blocking and
continuity. She was a tornado of energy and performance! And she was so
spontaneous. I looked at him and said, ‘How would you like me to handle this?’
He said,  ‘It’s Elaine Stritch. You just
have to let her go.’

MA: Is there a particular
performance of Elaine’s that most impacted you as a filmmaker? 

CK: Having worked in the narrative film business for 15 years
and then getting into documentaries, it was the body of the work and the diversity of it. She is so unconventional
and has such a unique talent that nobody else has. Here is somebody that has
such a history behind her. She had such empathy watching herself 40 years ago.
She’s very complex and dynamic.

MA: There are some
incredible cameos in the film. How do you conduct interviews with acting icons
as well as Elaine, making the atmosphere comfortable and open? 

CK: I think the key to a lot of this success of the
accessibility of filmmaking I really have to hand over to Elaine. We never sat
her down for a formal interview; we never put up a light. As soon as she gets
past that stage of understanding who you are and she can like you, it’s all
access. She doesn’t think of herself as a star by any means. She considered
herself a working actor. She considers herself like anybody else. She kept
asking me why when I wanted to make
this film.  She and I gradually become
close friends. 

MA: Given that she’s
such an icon and you were initially blown away by her work, in what ways did
your image of her change after making the film? 

CK: First of all, I think going into it I had no idea what I
was in for. In the beginning I was so trepidatious. She scared the shit out of
me! She can be really prickly when you don’t know her. When you do know her, you
know you can’t take it personally. Now I see her as a dear friend. I recognize
the vulnerability behind her personality. That she really has such a dynamic
and modern sensibility. There’s something ageless about her that’s so
appealing. Off camera, I was going through so many of my own challenges in my
life and she would offer me so much counsel and conversation. She never
pretended to know everything. She can see so many different perspectives on
things and she’s a survivor. 

MA: You founded
Isotope Films in 2005 in order to produce non-fiction films. How has the
company’s journey been?

CK: I had been working in narrative film and TV for about 15
years as a script supervisor and I had an amazing career. I recognized that I
actually started out as a script supervisor as a stepping-stone to directing. You
have these key relationships with the actors and the DP. The crews were getting
younger and younger and I found myself giving a lot of advice. I started to
think maybe I should be doing this myself.
I recognized it was easier to turn the camera on real life, start
constructing a story, and raise money with that story. By sheer luck I fell into
making the film Billy the Kid with
Jennifer Venditti. We just started working together and that’s when it hit me.
You don’t need millions of dollars and fancy movie stars. Nonfiction filmmaking
has been much easier and more accessible. 

MA: Documentaries are
notorious for not making money and because of this, many filmmakers steer away
from the medium. How can a documentary filmmaker stay passionate about their
non-fiction story without spending too much money? 

CK: I think first off all you have to [want to] tell a story
a lot of people will want to see. That will facilitate investments. Also,
having the talent to bring those stories to life in the best way helps. You have to
have a talented editor. Editors are storytellers, they’re among the most important
elements of the team. The other thing is there are so many other avenues for
filmmaking now. People are making short web content sponsored by industries.
They’re looking for content. A lot of commercials are borrowing from the
non-fiction world. A lot of doc filmmakers are making commercials. People need
to explore all the other avenues of content and figure out how they can align
with corporations and people that have the money.

MA: You’ve been a
script supervisor on some incredible projects, from High Fidelity to Coffee and
Cigarettes
. It’s a position that I think many aspiring writers
and filmmakers overlook. How did you get involved and what does the position
actually entail?

CK: It’s true with many positions below the line on a film
crew. I was exposed to it because I was an assistant to a producer. His film
went into production and I got taken to set many times and that’s when I first
saw the woman sitting next to the director and I thought that’s the job that I want. It’s a perfect vantage point. You’re watching
take after take. You’re engaging with all the key players. You’re on set every
moment the camera’s rolling. Your job is to pay attention to the take. It’s a complicated
job, but it you can master it, it’s the best place to watch a director
direct.

MA: Given Spike
Jonze just won the Oscar for Her, and
you’ve worked with him many times, I have to ask what was it like working with
him!

CK: I worked with him when he was coming out of the music
video world. It’s interesting because by the time I was working with Spike on Adaptation, we’d
already been working in commercial work for seven years. I had a lot more experience working with
directors before he directed his first film. I think he found it a relief for
me to be with him! He is not afraid of experimentation. He’s not afraid of the
first take. He’s not afraid to roll camera without a rehearsal. He exploits the
spontaneity of the situation, the authenticity of response.

MA: So you’ve done
narrative and documentary. What’s next? 

CK: Just because I spent so much of my career in the
narrative world, I really don’t see any boundary between fiction filmmaking and
nonfiction filmmaking. Right now I’m being commissioned to produce a screenplay
of a true story. That’s what I enjoy, bringing a story to the screen. I just
like storytelling, and the way it can change and affect people.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm
“All the Way with Alloway,” where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.

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