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

Interviews
by Meredith Alloway
March 13, 2014 2:10 PM
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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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