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, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens this Friday (it’s also available to view On Demand).
[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.]
I got a chance to sit down with Stritch and Chiemi at the actress’ former 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.
You don’t wear 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.
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.
ES: I see, OK. Alright, let’s press on.
Chiemi, you have your hairdresser to thank for bringing you two together, 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.”
Was Chiemi’s pitch to document your life a hard sell on you?
ES: I have no idea. I’m not selling.
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.
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 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 meeting 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.