The actress Bridey Elliot (Fort Tilden, Silicon Valley) has found the perfect role for her dry, dark but goofy sensibility in her directorial debut, Clara’s Ghost, which recently premiered at Sundance. The movie is a love letter to her family, and features her sister Abby Elliott (Saturday Night Live), cult comedian father Chris Elliot (Cabin Boy, Get a Life) and especially her mother, a brilliant actress with few credits. Like many indie film directors, Bridey used to work at Kim’s Video, where she obsessively watched old movies. That deep film knowledge is all over Clara’s Ghost, which deftly combines comedy with horror and mystery.
The story focuses on her mother Paula Nierdert Elliott (playing Bridey's mother in the film) as a brittle woman in a midlife crisis who is being haunted by a ghost in her home. The family has gathered for a drunken weekend to celebrate the birthday of a beloved family member with copious amounts of alcohol and their drug dealer named Pooh Pooh (Haley Joel Osment). At Sundance, Elliott talked growing up in her funny family, how the movie was using that family as a microscosm for the film industry, and women’s struggle to be heard.
You’re fairly young. What inspired you to make a movie about a middle-aged woman ignored by her family?
What seeded the idea was working with my family. That was the first idea. As I was writing it, I was thinking of how right now women are so empowered to speak their minds, to be heard, and I was thinking my mom’s generation had that in a way, but also missed the boat in a way. And as things we’re shifting in my life, I moved to L.A., I became more acutely aware of how hard it is for women to be taken seriously in this business.
Oh really, it was moving to L.A.?
Yeah, in a way I felt it in New York, too, but once I moved to L.A., you feel the business side more. And it made me want to write about women. And use the family as a microcosm of the entertainment industry.
After I watched it, I went to check your mom’s credits, because I felt like she must have been in a million things. I was shocked that she hadn’t. She used to act?
She pursued it for a little while in her early 20s, and she did theater growing up. Then she quickly moved into production, and that’s where she met my dad, working on the Letterman show. And she would be in small bits with him on David Letterman, where she would play his love interest, but that was kind of the extent of it. And a couple of years ago my friend made a very small movie in Connecticut, and [my mom] got to play my mom. And it was the first time I saw this side of her, and she was really good at it, and it made her happy, and that planted a seed.
And your dad [Chris Elliot], I’m a big fan, A lot of people are big fans. At what point did you see something like his movie Cabin Boy?
I saw it when I was a kid. And I thought it was kind of a monster movie. There’s Chocki and the giant. We actually had the props, like the miniature fish sticks, and I would play with them as if they were Barbies. But when I was 20, I saw it from the lens of my dad’s humor and realizing it wasn’t just this adventure movie I saw when I was little, that it was a cult comedy. I know so many people obsessed with it. So yeah, I’m a huge fan of my dad.
One thing I was aware of when watching your movie, was the genre filmmaking. You nailed the ghost/horror genre, but also the comedy, knowing just when to push it. Did that just come naturally from growing up with your dad? Or did you study comedies?
Yeah, it was kind of all of that. I've always been a big movie-watcher. I don't really have any hobbies beyond that, watching old 70's movies and horror movies. So it was kind of a collage of all of these genres I loved. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was the anchor and the prototype. We're all in a house and yelling at each other, yet there's this whole other track of a ghost pushing the movie forward. It was fun to play around with blending comedy and drama and horror, because that's what family is to me.
And Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf totally explains the alcoholism thing, which is so funny in the film.
Good. Alcohol is definitely a catalyst for what happens in it. And my family and I, we love to drink. Luckily it hasn't become a huge problem for all of us. Ritualistically, when we get together it's to drink and have a good time. It's a party.
I also wanted to ask how you brought in Haley Joel Osment.
My sister was in a movie with him called Sex Ed, which my sister's husband [Bill Kennedy] wrote. So Haley came to their wedding, which was last year at the house. And I saw Haley drunk with my family, and I thought, This is perfect, he's the one.
Going back to genres, you mixed horror in with this ghost thing. Was there a specific inspiration for that? It felt like your mom was looking at her younger self or her reflection...
I like the way my mom talks about it: "It's the ghost of my potential." The ghost itself isn't really scary, it's more unsettling. That was really inspired by the house. There was a woman who lived in the house who was probably bipolar but who was labeled crazy. She walked through the town naked and did all these things. And in my head, my mom is fully trapped by this house. The house is symbolic of her not being able to live her life fully beyond her family's prism.
So is that really your family's house?
And is that your dog?
We were going to use our dog, but our dog passed away.
I hate it when dogs die in movies.
I do, too. It's such an obvious red herring. I think we skirted that...
You did. At first I thought, On no, the dog. Not this trope. But then it was because of chocolate, which is such a weird irrational fear, that chocolate can kill a dog. Totally. I actually almost killed our other dog because I left chocolate out. And the original draft I think we have a line asking if I did that.
Did that happen in other parts? Where you were basing things on truth too closely?
I feel like when I initially wrote it, because it is personal, there was a lot of that. But as we went along it slowly became more of caricatures of ourselves than whoever you're talking to right now.
And in the caricature, you're at the Indie Girl.
I'm the Indie Girl! [In self-mocking voice.] I don't know if you saw Fort Tilden but I play a girl who's an artist but she's living off her dad's money, not really making anything. And people ask her what she's working on and she says. “Oh a lot.” So it's a lot but really nothing. And I feel like this character is similar. And it's definitely how I feel a lot of the time. I feel like I'm juggling, like I have eight balls in the air but really don't have any balls in the air, that sort of jack-of-all trades, master-of-none type fear. And I think a lot of actors have that because so much is out of their control.
So it's your fears about yourself, both the comedy and the horror.
Your character does this Kickstarter campaign, which your mom makes fun of. But you really funded the film through a Kickstarter campaign.
Are you making fun of yourself? Other Kickstarter campaigns?
I think all of it. Because you hear of Kickstarter campaigns from billionaires asking for money. And it's like, Okay… I think it is making fun of the routes that you have to go now to get work done, too. I think everyone has those fears of: Is this is worth other people's money? Is this project good enough? And then my father's character is so above it and yet so bitter at the same time. All the characters are resentful of their place in the Hollywood system but too bitter to do something about it. And my dad plays this washed-up actor who's just gotten fired and is making fun of female directors.
It was stuff that I was thinking about and in my own experiences, feeling disrespected and disregarded. But I really did want to show someone with that point-of-of view who is not a bad person but deeply imperfect and in pain. Because that's what mean people are; angry people are in pain. I like getting that out, and in the form of a family. Because a lot of people have to deal with their family saying shitty things, and just taking it.
And cutting to your core insecurity.
Yeah, the button to push.