Chiemi Karasawa first encountered Elaine Stritch [editorial note: if you are not familiar with Elaine Stritch, please hit pause on reading this article and watch this, this, and this] when she was working as a script supervisor on the indie film Romance and Cigarettes. "The first time I came into contact with her was when I had to give her a line or blocking," Karasawa says. "I remember looking at John [Turturro, the film's director] and thinking, ‘who is this woman?'"
That question wouldn't be answered until a few years later, when Stritch's name came up during a conversation Karasawa was having with her hair stylist, who also happens to do Stritch's hair. "He asked what I was working on [Karasawa has her own production company] and then said he thought I should make a documentary on Elaine Stritch. And I thought ‘do enough people know about her?'" The answer, as Karasawa soon learned, was a resounding yes. "When I started Googling and Youtubing her, I couldn't believe her history, both personal and in the theater, and I was blown away in that she is such a singular talent. You can't really compare her to everyone else.…She just gets away with everything because she's in everything." The background research solidified Karasawa's interest, but getting Stritch on board was a bit of a challenge. A courtship ensued over the next few months, with the stylist trying to schedule both women's appointments around the same time so that Karasawa could "bump into" Stritch. After a few rebuffs, there was a breakthrough: "She called and left me a voicemail at two a.m. and was sweet as honey and said she wanted to work with me on this," Karasawa remembers. When they finally met to discuss the project, Stritch had a very specific view of what she did and did not want the documentary to be. "She sat me down in the beginning and said I don't want this to have any artifice or fluff," says Karasawa. "She was not into the idea of sending herself up in any way."
As Karasawa began production on Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, she developed a close friendship with her subject, which gave Karasawa an intimate look at Stritch's daily life and emotional complexities. "What's interesting is how vulnerable she is. As Hal Prince says in the film, ‘she has several different hats. What she's dealt with in life, her diabetes, her alcoholism, and how she relies on the people around her.'" Karasawa reflects on this further. "She's really fearless. And those are things that fascinate me about her still — her fearlessness, and yet she's extremely vulnerable."
As shooting continued, Karasawa saw the documentary revealing a greater universal message. "When you get to be someone of her age at a time where your faculties aren't what you'd like them to be, whether it's [the] ability to remember lines, walk two miles a day, etc.…it's just devastating to her not to have the independence," says Karasawa. "I started to realize while filming her that she's coming to a place where she's not going to be who she's always been. You don't see films where people talk about that and rail about that (especially in the way she can) and being completely open about it." And, despite a lifetime of playing steely and steadfast characters (most recently Alec Baldwin's unrelenting, high-maintenance mother, Colleen Donaghy, on the TV show 30 Rock), Stritch's ability to change her thinking about issues both big and small impressed Karasawa. "She's not stuck in any ideas or impressions, her mind is constantly thinking and evolving and she as a person hasn't stopped evolving in many ways. And that's what's fascinating to me: that she embraces and tries to change."
The documentary also takes a look at the legend's next move…to Birmingham, Michigan, where the actress has family. "She's moving back to Birmingham at the end of April," says Karasawa. "Her health has been somewhat precarious. She's been setting this up for over a year, furnishing a home and all of that."
Karasawa secured the first half of the money to make the film through private investors, but the last bit of funding became complicated, with credit demands and funds that never materialized. Karasawa kept it running for as long as she could, even dipping into her own credit and IRA. "I was at a place where my credit would be destroyed and I was in my IRA and I gave so much of my own money," she says. Though some immediate money came through with another investor, it's not enough to finish the film. Karasawa is now turning to crowdfunding on a website called indiegogo to help get the final $50,000 needed to finish the film and ready it to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was recently accepted (and where Karasawa hopes to find a distributor). As of press time, they have 28 days left to raise the money. "When you've made an entire film by yourself, you've been the producer, the director; chasing Elaine down the street by yourself with a tripod," says Karasawa, "it [is] too much to give up."
To help fund Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, click here for the official indiegogo donation page. And please, don't make Elaine beg.
LIMITED TIME OFFER: Whoever donates $20 or more between Wednesday, March 13 and Monday, March 18 (at 12 P.M. EST), can have their name listed as a "backer" in the film's end credits along with all the previous backers.
When else will you have the opportunity to see your name alongside Stritch's?