I had been looking forward to seeing "Clara's Ghost" for a long time and was stoked when I finally got the opportunity to watch it for Indie Memphis. Based on the trailer, I figured I would either love it or hate it, and spoiler alert: I loved it. I talked to Bridey Elliott, the director-writer-actress, a few weeks ago and was weirdly nervous about it. Any time I really like someone's work, I'm worried that they'll be a dick and somehow ruin it for me. That wasn't the case, though; Bridey is great.
If you're a millennial with tastes similar to mine, you've probably seen her in at least one project before. She was in Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers' "Fort Tilden" (2014), a movie that didn't get as many props as it deserved. She was the spaces advocate who drove Richard (Thomas Middleditch) crazy in "Silicon Valley." Her first short film, "Affections," (2016) is a goddamn delight (you can watch the full thing here). She's a true multi-hyphenate with real passion for what she does.
You've also seen her family, who star in this film, all over the damn place. Her dad, Chris Elliott, is hilarious in "Schitt's Creek" and a ton of other things (s/o to his role as Warren in the OG "Sabrina the Teenage Witch"). Her sister, Abby Eliott, was on SNL and in movies like "No Strings Attached." Her mom, Paula Niedert Elliott, who plays Clara is similar to the character in the sense that she isn't an actress by trade. This film is her first acting credit on IMDB. Art imitates life, blah blah blah.
As always, here's a quick overview of what you can expect while watching "Clara's Ghost," followed by an edited version of my conversation with Bridey.
Funny, depressing, and weird, often all at the same time. I am reluctant to compare it to anything, but the tone did sort of remind me of "What We Do in the Shadows." I think that those two films would screen well together, along with "Beetlejuice."
I laughed several times, but not really in a "funny ha-ha" kind of way, more like "that snippet of dialogue is mean as hell and these people are all horrible." If you think Paris Geller is funny in S4 of "Gilmore Girls," you'll understand the comedic elements of this film.
Best time to watch:
Set yourself up with a bowl of popcorn, bag of Sour Patch Kids, approximately 2-3 bottles of vodka, and a weighted blanket (for anxiety). "Clara's Ghost" is available in select theaters and on iTunes and Amazon starting December 6. Invite some friends over and screen "Affections" beforehand to really set the tone of the night.
Worst time to watch:
If your family is horrible and you have to spend time with them in the near future, you might want to avoid this film. If you're feeling like a failure in a sea of successful people who know what they want out of life, consider saving it for later. It is funny, but in a dark way that sticks out to me because I have been walking around with an Eeyore cloud hovering over my head for the past 8 months.
Where to watch:
Check out the full list of theaters here. If you can, definitely check it out on the big screen; if it's not playing near you, Amazon/iTunes is the way to go.
A family of showbiz assholes come together for their dog's birthday and the gathering quickly devolves into alcohol-fueled madness. Clara (Paula Niedert Elliott), the matriarch, is the only member of the family who is not an actor and therefore, a bit of an outsider. When she starts to see a ghost roaming around outside of her house, she's forced to confront aspects of her personality and family dynamic that she may not have previously considered.
Interview with Bridey Elliott:
WiR: Congrats on your win at Indie Memphis! Were you actually able to see any of the other films while you were there? The slate was awesome this year.
BH: Thank you so much! It was exciting and surprising, especially because it was later in our festival circuit and right before the release of the film. It was lovely to wrap that up with an award. Everyone in Memphis was great - super hospitable and filmmaker friendly.
I unfortunately didn't get to see any other films while I was there. I hadn't seen my family since the last festival we did together in May, so most of the trip was spent with them, exploring Memphis and just hanging out.
So you actually like your family?
I do. It's been surreal to realize that we're kind of doing business together right now. All of the interviews, festivals, and appearances - that's new territory for us. It's not good or bad, just weird. I kind of forgot that after you make something, you have to do this part [laughs].
Does it bother you to get asked about your family all the time? I assume it happens even more frequently now since they're all directly involved in your film.
It doesn't bother me. A lot of the questions are geared toward how "real" the film is, which, of course, is part of the fun. There is a meta aspect to this movie, but we are playing characters. Even though these characters are grounded in some darker aspects of ourselves that we're exploring, it's like any art: it's personal, but not real. I don't want that kind of question to detract from the heart of the movie, which is more about motherhood and what happens when familial roles become inescapable ... and the abuse that can come from family dynamics. I want people to take away those things from the film, not so much the comedy of my entire family's involvement.
It was definitely a funny movie but that isn't what stuck with me. I was more intrigued by Clara's darkness and the way the family treats her. Everyone else acts shitty with zero repercussions, but when Clara participates, it's somehow unacceptable.
That's the insanity of family, right? The concept of normal is so warped that the person who's not making a scene or being completely volatile is often the one who gets blamed or labelled the black sheep. The whole family is self-absorbed and communicates differently than her, so it's easy to understand why Clara feels isolated; she doesn't speak their language.
I think I'm also commenting on how show business can kind of warp your view of yourself and your worth. You just become a little rat, trapped by other people's power.
Clara is the sanest character, along with Joe (Haley Joel Osment), but that sanity makes her crazy because it's so foreign to everyone around her.
From the start of the film, it's not really clear what kind of person Clara is. She seems kind of eccentric, but otherwise a bit of a mystery. Was that intentional?
We see shades of a person who cares about things: her shoe, the people who made the wine that she likes. She's dying to reach out to someone and connect. Her personality is kind of dampened because of her role in the family. We catch bits and pieces of it and then see her become emboldened by this spirit in the house. I don't think Clara is really ever given a personality; it's more that she's stuck and hasn't even been able to develop one.
I feel like mothers in general expend so much energy caring for everybody else. This might not be the case as much right now, but I remember growing up and going to Catholic school for a while. There was a strong, old-fashioned homemaker vibe to living in Connecticut and going to Catholic school, where a lot of the mothers volunteered. What happens when you're that kind of person, but an empty nester? You've raised your family, including your husband, to be kids their entire lives because they don't know how to function without you. That's a big part of this family's problem ... none of them ever grew up.
It would be hard to have such a big part of your identity taken away or radically changed. I wonder about that a lot, especially since I was raised by a stay-at-home mom. My brother and I were a huge part of her life for 20+ years and then suddenly, not so much.
For some mothers, I think there is a sense that having a family will fulfill them. When suddenly, that period of their life is over, doubt creeps in and it's like, "Was this always what I wanted or is the wound that existed before still there?" I feel like Clara doesn't really figure out the answer to this question. Her life became a cog in the machine of her family's life as opposed to her family becoming part of her life.
I don't mind that Clara doesn't have some kind of big revelation. Just thinking about these things and being confronted with them in some way is important.
I wanted the movie to feel like a glimpse into one night in this family's life. Like ... this could happen again a week from now where they're all plastered and picking on each other. The mom is slowly rebelling against them and slowly gaining confidence to get out of this mold that she no longer fits into.
A big part of it, unconsciously for me, is that I'm twenty-eight and still very much 50/50 on whether or not I ever want to have a family. I've always been attracted to movies like "A Woman Under the Influence" and "Wanda." Movies that dive into female brains and hearts that have been kind of inherently rejected in some way. I like movies where pieces of a life unravel, and we get to watch the slow burn of someone navigating parts of themselves that have been neglected.
I love that these movies, like "Wanda," are having a resurgence. All of the film criticism about that movie when it came out was not super positive, even from women. We're finally getting to a place where we as a culture do a better job of understanding and appreciating those stories instead of writing them off as incomplete or somehow unimportant.
Yeah, I agree. It's awesome that an interest in traversing emotional breakdowns and psyches is coming back! It's bringing more light to the female condition, and the human condition in general, so that we can all understand each other better ... because obviously, we have issues with that.
And speaking of issues, I like that we saw the patriarch of the family, played by your dad, exhibit some of his own misogyny.
I wanted to show it in a family because it's everywhere. You see it at your kitchen table. It's not some unknowable force that's working on the world. I didn't want to represent it in a way where it felt removed. I also wrote this a long time ago in comparison to what was happening when we were shooting it, which I think was during all of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. It's easier for this kind of topic to resonate with people when it's shown in the context of close relationships.
There's one great scene where Julie (Abby Elliott) starts to perform a monologue and her dad interrupts her. Your character, Riley, acknowledges how rude this is by muttering a statement of irritation, but she doesn't stand up for her sister. It perfectly illustrates how this kind of meanness and ingrained misogyny works within family dynamics.
No one is trying to change anyone in that scene; they're all just deeply stuck in their narrow, sad views. I was in this movie, "Fort Tilden," that came out in 2014 and won the Grand Jury prize at SXSW. A lot of people were like, "Oh, these girls are so unlikable" because it's about these millennials who are always kind of judging others. But what they don't realize is that these girls are insecure; they're not bad people. It's hard for me to care about the likability factor. All I see are sad people with issues, who can be funny but it's all embittered and not pretty. I think you still have to empathize with people who are outwardly mean. If they're like that, it means they're mean to themselves. I like showing those kinds of people. I think mean people deserve their own place.
Your short film, "Affections," very much focuses on the same ideas and characters. You play a woman who definitely has touches of Clara.
Totally. She's lonely, looking for connection, and doesn't know how to find it or channel any of those feelings correctly. I think a lot of my creativity comes from a vulnerable, alienated little child that I kind of still am sometimes. "Affections" came out of me moving to LA and not really having very much happening. I didn't have many friends and was just trying to figure out how to stop being lonely. I found myself often having the most meaningful interactions in the form of small conversations with strangers. I got catcalled and was just like, "What if I turned this around and refused to leave this guy alone? What if I told him out of nowhere that I thought we really had something special?"
I relate to that hard. I moved to Ann Arbor two years ago and still don't have any friends here. I travel back to New York a lot for work, so I think I use that as an excuse to avoid making friends here. I legitimately look forward to my mailman coming every day because he's sometimes my only source of IRL human interaction.
I find it surprising that you're so interested in these lonely, misfit people, but make a living as an actress. Your line of work requires a lot of self-promotion and the need to maintain a public image. How do you deal with all of that?
I'm not great at it. I like the idea of my work speaking for myself. I did more comedy in New York. I do some comedy out here [in LA], but with the movie I've been too busy. It definitely helps me find my voice. If I do stand-up or a character in a small show, that helps keep me motivated as a performer and allows me to continue discovering things. As soon as I made "Clara's Ghost," I totally cocooned for like six months afterwards. I was like, "I'm writing the next thing," and I was, but I was really pushing it because I felt like I had to. I was like, "Oh, fuck. I just went to Sundance and I need to have the next project ready because I'm getting all of these meetings."
I think this year has been a lesson on how to treat my artist self ... or something. I realized how much I was pushing and how little I was getting out of myself because I hadn't recuperated. It was kind of like having a baby. I had a little post-partum mixed with the intense feeling of needing to keep the momentum going. But really, I needed to relax and give myself the time to get inspired again.
I love Sarah Polley. She's an actor, a filmmaker, an activist. She makes all of these movies that are different but all have her heart. That's what I want to do. I don't want to get pegged into one particular role or career, but just want to follow my passion wherever it takes me. I guess that's anti-careerist, but it's just how I'm built. If I try to think about how I'm going to succeed in someone else's eyes, I'll get all in my head about it. I need to trust whatever I'm doing instead of molding it for someone else.
Sundance boosted my confidence. I gave a speech at the short film competition last year and I was talking about how as an actor, you feel boxed in to your type and the kind of roles you're getting. People reference you in that way, like "She's this person meets this person," and it can be stifling. When I was accepted with my short, I was like "Ohhhh. I can do this." I forgot that this is always what I wanted to do. A huge part of why I act is because I love filmmaking ... all parts of the process. It affirmed something for me, that I shouldn't avoid my voice. It was a breakthrough and made me realize that I need to take myself more seriously.
My first short was something that I put up online. It was a comedy video that I directed, but I credited the cinematographer as the director because I was too scared to say I did it. The male DP saw it and he was like, "Oh, shit, wow. I directed this?" But no, it was me. For some reason, I resisted stepping into my power. It's awesome to see more women everywhere giving themselves the credit they deserve.
I've talked to so many different female directors who have said variations of the same thing. It's nice that we're getting to a place where women are moving past it and doing what they're qualified for and meant to do.
It's interesting to see the limits we put on ourselves as time goes by. It's an accumulation of energy, stifled creativity, and power dynamics.
Totally. I was talking to a friend the other day about how I never thought of myself as a people pleaser, but the more I put my work out into the world, the more I realize that I totally am! I want people to like me ... to think I'm smart and to say nice things about what I create. There has to be some small component of every person, no matter how confident, that feels that way.
Also, the worker bee thing of like ... work for other people first. What's that phrase? Like ... "fill up your own cup first" or something. That's my people pleasing issue, for sure. I'm beginning to shift from prioritizing other people's work to prioritizing my own. That's always been a big thing for me.
This is totally unrelated, but before I forget, I need to know if the Sweet Sisters is a reference to those Mary-Kate and Ashley VHS movies.
Yeah, I'd say it's based on them. I don't think the Sweet Sisters were ever Mary-Kate and Ashley status, but I think they were close. They probably fancied themselves as rivals. Shooting that was really fun.
What were those videos, though? I can't remember. I just know the tagline was like, "We'll solve any crime by dinnertime."
"Olsen and Olsen Mystery Agency." I loved those tapes.
I had a friend in elementary school who owned all of them. Sleeping over at her house was the best.
My sister and I were really into them.
Are there any other shitty movies from your childhood that you have a special fondness for?
I really loved "The Garbage Pail Kids Movie" and "Gremlins." I always loved horror movies. I was scared of movie theaters growing up and didn't like the idea of sitting in a room with strangers, so I would overcompensate by forcing myself to watch scary stuff. There was this movie called "Pet Shop" that I loved. It was like ... about dinosaurs in a pet shop - super 90s and silly. Abby and I loved "Teen Witch," too.
The musical numbers that make zero sense! So good.
GO SEE "CLARA'S GHOST" IN THEATERS OR ON AMAZON/ITUNES STARTING DECEMBER 6. IT IS FANTASTIC AND YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT 🔥💫✨