INTERVIEW: Clara’s Ghost: A Conversation With The Elliott Family
Chris Elliott, Abby Elliott, and Bridey Elliott in Clara's Ghost.
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Towards the end of my weekend at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, I had the opportunity to sit down with the Elliott family (Chris, Paula, Abby, and Bridey) for twenty minutes on the Sunday afternoon following the world premiere of Clara’s Ghost on January 19, 2018. While discussing a wide array of topics, among those discussed was the 25th anniversary of Groundhog Day.
Bridey, congrats on making your feature directorial debut with Clara’s Ghost. Bridey Elliott: Thank you.
How much of a thrill is it to be able to premiere the film at Sundance? Bridey Elliott: So fun. I had an amazing time. My short was here in 2016 and weirdly, Sundance feels like one of the few places that I feel very accepted and I found a community. I love it here. It’s really exciting.
How exciting is it to be able to do it with a film that stars your immediate family? Bridey Elliott: Very exciting. Very unique. I feel like we have this weird upper hand just because we all did it together. It’s a weird thing to do and rare. I feel like we’re a little bit like a band or something.
Abby Elliott: There’s no one we’d rather do press with or hang out all day and have a good shorthand with.
Bridey Elliott: Totally.
Is it a challenge directing your family? Bridey Elliott: No, it was pretty wonderful. We shot it in our actual house so there was this kind of freedom to that—kind of owning the environment a little bit. They are pros—every one of them. We’re all pretty self-aware and have similar senses of sensibility. They kind of knew what I was after.
Chris Elliott: I think I had to tell you to say “Action” once.
Bridey Elliott: Yeah, as opposed to go or whatever.
Abby Elliott: You said “Go” a lot. Okay, go!
Chris Elliott: Okay, go!
As far as directing goes, who are some of your influences? Bridey Elliott: I love John Cassavetes. I really like watching actors play around and I like the rawness of that—where you’re like is this necessary, is this unnecessary? You just kind of get lost in the performances. I love a lot of people. I love Sarah Polley. I love her movies and how personal and unique each one of those are. She has her own auteur vision. I’d say those two are big influences. I love 70s movies and the style of those a lot.
Chris, your father was in comedy. You followed him into the business. Did you ever try talking your kids out of doing the same? Chris Elliott: Never. I don’t think so. Did I ever try talking you guys out of doing it? I mean, it’s a hard business for guys and it’s definitely hard for women. I was a little quietly hoping maybe they’d find something else but I always knew they’d were going to go into it.
Abby Elliott: I remember when I got SNL, you said you can turn it down. You don’t have to.
Chris Elliott: You have to know that you don’t have to do everything.
Abby Elliott: That really stuck with me.
Chris Elliott: Like I said, Dave Letterman’s Mark Twain thing—the advice he gave me: The more you say no, the more people are going to want you. That so screwed me up for most of my career but you can say no.
You got to be involved in one of the greatest comedies of all time, Groundhog Day, celebrating 25 years next month. Chris Elliott: I hear that it’s—you told me that. Next year or this?
Next month. Chris Elliott: Wow. Is there a party that I’m not invited to?
I don’t know. Paula Niedart Elliott: We haven’t heard. February 2nd is coming up.
It’s like a tradition for me. There was one year that I didn’t have it on DVD yet so I DVR’d it on TV. Chris Elliott: Wow. It is March—
Paula Niedart Elliott: February. February 2nd is also the day we met—
Chris Elliott: Yes.
Paula Niedart Elliott: And my parents’ anniversary. It’s a pivotal day.
Chris Elliott: I don’t think I ever discouraged you guys and we all have some of the interests. Abby and I like watching rom-coms and cringing while we watch or them.
Abby Elliott: Or crying.
Chris Elliott: You cry. I’m just like, “Oh my God! It’s awful.”
Abby Elliott: I love Hallmark movies.
Chris Elliott: Bridey and I share a 1970s thing.
Paula Niedart Elliott: Their interest in serial killers.
Bridey Elliott: I love serial killers.
Paula Niedart Elliott: They’re both very fascinated by that—Chris and Bridey.
Chris Elliott: Thank you for bringing that up.
Paula Niedart Elliott: Well…interesting profession.
As far as I know, your family is the only one that has had three generations appear on SNL. Chris Elliott: I think it is so far but there will be more. I’m sure Ben Stiller is going to be up there, yeah.
Abby Elliott: He’s got two kids, I think, and one is interested in performing. I remember because Christine, his ex-wife, told me that’s she’s very proud of her daughter singing.
Chris Elliott: I still get people talking about Papaw’s SNL—the Rod Stewart taunt.
Bridey Elliott: Do ya think I’m sexy? If you want my body.
Chris Elliott: It’s really, really funny.
Paula Niedart Elliott: If you haven’t seen it, you have to see it. Bob and Ray doing “If you think I’m sexy,” it’s hilarious. I didn’t really know about Bob and Ray growing up in Iowa that much and it was one of the first things I remembered from SNL and coming down to the kitchen and telling my mom I saw the funniest thing I’ve ever seen last night and it was us just rolling the next day just thinking about it. It’s hilarious.
You don’t quite have the on-screen experience that the rest of your family does. What was it like to have a major leading role? Paula Niedart Elliott: Well, very intimidating and I told Bridey she could fire me if I sucked. I meant it and I wouldn’t have any hard feelings about it. I had only done theater and one little thing with Bridey a few years ago where I played a woman who had had a stroke so I had no lines. That was great because I didn’t have to remember any lines. My instincts as a theater person was like, Oh, you guys remember the next line—I have to cover so I would start doing that and they were like, no, just let him do…
Bridey Elliott: I don’t remember.
Paula Niedart Elliott: I thought Dad missed a line one time and I was doing a theater cover for the actor who had missed a line. In truth, I don’t think he missed a line either.
Chris Elliott: I never miss a line.
Paula Niedart Elliott: It was intimidating but she was very supportive.
Chris Elliott: She did stuff with me on Letterman. We did like bits—
Paula Niedart Elliott: I did stuff with Chris.
Abby Elliott: You took this role very seriously. You took classes—
Paula Niedart Elliott: I worked with a coach in the city and she was great, very helpful.
It’s kind of ironic that it’s your character that sees the ghost and not Haley Joel Osment. Bridey Elliott: There was a point where he was at the monitor and our script supervisor, who told me the story, and he was like, “Is this where we’re going to see the ghost?” And he was like, “Yes, Haley Joel Osment, this is when we see it.”
Paula Niedart Elliott: He was so good. He was just the perfect—
Bridey Elliott: Yeah, he’s an awesome dude.
Abby Elliott: He’s great.
Paula Niedart Elliott: We all want to have him in our family. We would like to adopt but I don’t think he’s up for it.
Abby Elliott: I met Haley first a couple years ago on Sex Ed, which my husband wrote. That’s how I met my husband so Haley’s kind of felt like part of our family for a while now. He came to our wedding—he had already been at the house. It felt all very natural. It made mom feel super comfortable with all of their intimate scenes.
Is that your real dog that was in the movie? Paula Niedart Elliott: No. Our dog passed away last March.
Bridey Elliott: He was going to be in it. It’s dedicated to him in the credits as well. This was a great actor dog.
Paula Niedart Elliott: This was a sweet dog that we all fell in love with.
Abby Elliott: He has an impressive resume. This dog’s resume is long.
Bridey Elliott: She didn’t recognize me but I recognized her.
Paula Niedart Elliott: She’s played Sandy a few times.
I got worried there late at the end with the brownies. Paula Niedart Elliott: That happened to our dog so that came from real life. Our dog, the day before Christmas Eve, ate a basket of dark chocolate that a neighbor had given us so we spent the night basically in the ER for dogs.
Bridey Elliott: I left it on the couch. I almost killed the dog so I feel like it was an admission of guilt when I put it in the movie. I also don’t love when dogs die in movies so I was happy to save him. I feel like it’s kind of a red herring that happens too often.
Paula Niedart Elliott: If it saves the life of one dog—
Abby Elliott: You don’t have to kill the dogs.
Paula Niedart Elliott: I was not aware that chocolate killed dogs before that happened.
Abby Elliott: But the dogs don’t really die in the movies. People don’t kill them. Save the dog!
I can’t even watch Marley and Me at all. Abby Elliott: I know.
Chris Elliott: I won’t watch it just because I know I would be—
Abby Elliott: Marley and Me—I cried and I really cried. We watched A Dog’s Purpose and I was a mess.
Paula Niedart Elliott: My Dog Skip—same thing. Heartbreaking.
I think there’s actually a website, Does the Dog Die? I found out from a friend after watching another movie and I cannot remember for the life of me which one it was but I know it was not The Mountain Between Us, which had some scary moments. Paula Niedart Elliott: Having just gone through that—too fresh.
What’s next after Clara’s Ghost? Bridey Elliott: I have a few ideas. I have some stuff I’m working on with Abby—us two because she just moved to LA. We’re trying, now that we live geographically closer together, to work together more. Basically just writing this way—we just shot this in October so I’m still kind of recovering from the process.
Abby Elliott: We just finished editing!
Bridey Elliott: Yeah—about two weeks ago so things are percolating but not much formulated just yet.
Chris Elliott: After Sundance, you’re still going to be sort of rolling with this movie.
Abby Elliott: As long as you surround yourself with your drunken family, it’s going to be hard to come up with other ideas when we’re just in your face wasted all the time.
Bridey Elliott: That’s true.
Chris Elliott: Mom and I are going to get creative and do Virginia Woolf.
Abby Elliott: A stage production.
Chris Elliott: We’re just doing it because we can drink.
Abby Elliott: A stage production in the living room but anyone can come.
Paula Niedart Elliott: This is just going to be a two-person show.
Chris Elliott: Right. We’re cutting out the other characters.
Abby Elliott: You’re not going to stay on script.
Paula Niedart Elliott: Georgie, Georgie—
Chris Elliott: We’re not calling it Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. We’re not performing it for anybody. We’re just doing it drinking at home.
How much of the film was improvised? Bridey Elliott: It was pretty scripted. There’s more drunken montage scenes where we’re just playing around and improvising. Specifically when we’re dunking our heads in the ice bowl—that was sort of ranting around. Most of it is scripted.
Paula Niedart Elliott: Hardly anything I did was improvised except for dancing.
Abby Elliott: Everything was on the page pretty much. If anything—Bridey, can we say this word instead?
Bridey Elliott: I would say, “Nope, stick to the script.” It was a very free space.
Abby Elliott: Something felt—we would internalize a line and it would not come out naturally so we would have the comfort and luxury of being able to ask Bridey.
Chris Elliott: It’s a hard movie to be able to improvise a lot.
Abby Elliott: Totally.
Chris Elliott: Especially on a low-budget thing that we shot in three weeks. We don’t have the time. We only did two takes of everything.
Paula Niedart Elliott: We would only rehearse a scene like maybe twice.
Chris Elliott: While people were hanging lights and talking and all that.
Paula Niedart Elliott: It wasn’t a dedicated rehearsal so it was very off the cuff.
Abby Elliott: I think for you because you had come from theater—
Paula Niedart Elliott: That was hard. I was used to a month of rehearsal before you—
Abby Elliott: Your muscle memory.
Paula Niedart Elliott: That was more of a challenge.
What’s the reaction been like at the screenings? Bridey Elliott: Great. A lot of mothers coming up and saying they felt invisible.
Paula Niedart Elliott: That was very gratifying.
Bridey Elliott: It seems to—which I love. I love that a lot of women seem to relate to this specific point in Clara’s family life. This woman had her grown up daughter next to her last night and was like, when she grew up, I was like now what? I think that’s pretty universal if you’ve spent your life raising their kids and now their old. But yeah, people seem to like it or at least seem surprised by it. Maybe they don’t like it or they were still surprised which is gratifying.
Chris Elliott: The screening that I think you were at—
The world premiere. Chris Elliott: It seemed like everyone was laughing at the right moments and then there’s a part in the movie where it starts to get sort of dramatic a little bit and even though there’s still jokes flying around, they stop laughing at the jokes and start watching the performances—Paula’s—and getting into, okay, how does this end up? It sort of ends up, as some reviewer said, in this kind of poignant place. It was really nice to hear that. You could read it in the script and know that was going to happen. When you shoot something, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out but it did translate when everybody was laughing, listening, and feeling in the right places.
Abby Elliott: There was an audible reaction when at the end of the movie when mom walks—I don’t want to give it away but–
Thanks again and congrats on the premiere. Paula Niedart Elliott: Thanks, Danielle.
Abby Elliott: Thank you, Danielle.
Has there been any word on distribution yet? Bridey Elliott: No, not yet. We’re kind of riding the wave. We’re probably going to wait a bit and see what else people say. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.