Sisters Bridey and Abby Elliott followed in the show-business footsteps of their father, absurdist comic Chris Elliott, and grandfather, the late radio star Bob Elliott. While Abby’s best known for her work on television as a second-generation Saturday Night Live cast member and as Brooke von Weber on Bravo’s Odd Mom Out, Bridey turned to film, with roles in Sundance darling Fort Tilden and 2017’s Battle of the Sexes. Bridey, Abby, and Chris Elliott have been individually entertaining their own niche audiences for years, but they’d never actually all worked together before, which was one impetus for Bridey to write a script that would make the family an ensemble cast and — in classic Elliott-family fashion — dredge up everyone’s insecurities and darkest fears for a laugh.
Clara’s Ghost unfolds like a twisted comic-horror version of the Eugene O’Neill play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which a family of four devolves into hysterics and accusations in one seemingly endless, existential day. In Bridey’s version, which also marks her directorial debut, beleaguered mother Clara (played by her real mother Paula Niedert Elliott) becomes the butt of her actor husband and daughters’ jokes. Throughout the day, they all drink to excess, wreck the kitchen, and jab at each other’s emotional sore spots at the dinner table, while Clara begins communicating with a ghost that only she can see. The film, loosely based on their real lives and shot in the family’s actually haunted Connecticut home in Old Lyme, morphs from off-kilter comedy to an anxiety-inducing drama of intermittent horrors that cut through toxic family dynamics. (Oh, and Haley Joel Osment plays a townie who kisses their mother.) In a conversation with Vulture, Bridey and Abby Elliott spoke about facing their insecurities for art, Elliott-family fun nights, and living in a Nut Museum.
Your film has these ghost elements, so it’s a little bit horror, but also a little bit comedy. Yet it’s not technically what I would call a horror-comedy. It’s almost like a Surrealist tragedy that just happens to be funny. What were the influences for that tone?
Bridey: I was just taking a gamble. I knew it wasn’t a horror-comedy, What We Do in the Shadows or something. It’s not this big comedy that’s also scary. It’s a blend. There’s a Cassavetes movie called Opening Night where Gena Rowlands plays an actress who sees one of her fans get hit by a car, and that fan begins haunting her. That was a big influence, as well as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, which was also shot in the same place [in nearby Old Saybrook, Connecticut].
Abby: So much of the comedy is coming from us doing bits and joking around and dad doing his shtick, and while it’s funny, it’s also super grounded and definitely tragic.
Bridey: The comedy is seeded in darkness and that’s what makes it … [laughs] sad! And dark. It’s a lot of ego poking and prodding, especially for our dad. Which I think is also indicative of our own relationships with comedy. It’s complicated. Dad does it; our grandfather did it. There’s this sense that we really couldn’t do anything else with our lives.
Abby: Not that we’re not allowed to.
Fatalism. It’s your destiny. That’s a kind of horror movie.
Abby: It’s a nightmare.
Bridey: And we can’t wake up.
Were there times in your adult life when you thought you definitely weren’t going to do this anymore and you come back to it anyway?
Bridey: Now more than ever.
Abby: This morning. If I’m super down about a pilot not getting picked up, it’s like, Okay, I’m throwing in the towel. I’m done. And suddenly there’s an audition for a fun Disney show where you get to play a fun animated character named Squee! And she’s a circle! And, Oooooh, I can play squee!
Bridey, what gave you the idea to write a script for your family to star in, besides the fact that you’re all performers?
Bridey: I’d written a pilot for my father and me to star in together, based on Tatum O’Neal and Ryan O’Neal’s relationship. I was obsessed with their weird, short-lived reality show on Oxygen about them mending ties, and I wanted to do a show like that. This sparked the idea of an estranged family in show business, and I’ve worked with every member of my family creatively, but we’ve never been in something together, and I knew I wanted to use their house. Their house is very cool and haunted in Connecticut. Once it was set in the house, it was clear it was a Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But with the Elliotts.
Abby: Yeah, Bridey came to us with the idea. And we said, “Okay, okay, we’ll believe it when we see the script in our hands.”
Bridey: Nobody believed it was gonna happen. I didn’t even believe it was, until the Kickstarter worked out.
Abby: We did a table read in our house with Bloody Marys. It was, Oh, shit, I guess it’s gonna happen.
There’s an element in the film about how Bridey’s character Riley isn’t going to get things done as well.
Bridey: That’s the whole fun of this movie is that it’s just us playing our shadows, the worst versions of ourselves. We know each other’s darkness because we’re a family.
Abby: That was a little insensitive at first. She calls out, like, my getting lip injections, which I’ve experimented with in the past. But for the most part, our family is self-aware, and we don’t take ourselves that seriously.
Bridey: Part of what we like about performing is putting that out there because it’s vulnerable and risky and that excites all of us. That’s what my dad has been doing his whole career, making fun of himself.
Was making the film like family therapy for you guys?
Abby: Oh, yes. It was very therapeutic. It was intense. These indie movies, it’s a three-week shoot, and we shot for 17 days, and the schedule was insane.
Bridey: We didn’t have time to think about it logistically, like, Oh, are people gonna think this is just who we are? Well, it’s part of who we are. The questions we get now are, “So are you guys really like this?” I never even considered people would think this. I just wanted to work with everybody and from an independent filmmaker’s standpoint, we were shooting in the house because it’s cheaper than finding a location, and my family just happens to be actors.
Even though you’re playing your shadow selves, it’s still pretty striking how the daughters and husband just constantly crack jokes at this poor mother’s expense, so there has to be some kind of painful truth in that.
Abby: It was strangely easy to tap into the bad side.
Bridey: Really, because none of us have kids yet, and it’s just sort of adults hanging out with adults when we get together; things can get really intense. It can get dark. And I think that regression occurs because none of us are distracted by a baby or something.
Abby: We use a six-pound Yorkie-poo for that.
Bridey: We use our pets.
Abby: But the first time I read the script was the table read; I didn’t know exactly how hard it hit with mom’s character. It resonates with me, though. She’s always been the caretaker, always been the butt of our jokes.
Bridey: I feel like that’s universal. The mom in every family has to get comfortable being the joke, and everyone can make fun of mom and it’s okay.
Abby: It’s pretty universal with moms around the globe.
Bridey: Other planets as well, I’m sure.
Some of the family activities depicted in the film seem a little outlandish, but I heard this is stuff that you actually do when you’re at home.
Bridey: We do, as a family, put our faces into bowls of ice to see how long we can hold our breath.
Abby: It’s an inebriated game we play. It’s the least complicated game you could imagine. The first time my husband met my parents was at a wedding, and the brunch the next day was at our house, so we played it that day. His first meeting with my parents was them shoving his head into an ice bucket.
Bridey: Ice bowl. We should be clear. It’s not for a good cause.
Abby: Yeah, it’s just to sober us up. And gives you a nice little face-lift.
What’s the most personal part of the film that you didn’t think was going to be the most personal?
Bridey: The thing that’s tricky to talk about is something I saw with the Tatum and Ryan relationship, that once you’re in the same business with your family, there is a business side to your relationship, especially in this one that’s full of rivalry and competition and weirdness. I think parts of our relationship have been colored by the business. It can warp friendships and your sense of self. I think all of my dad, my sister, and I have traversed that, and are more conscious of that now than maybe before this movie.
Yes, you have those scenes where your father’s character is giving Abby’s character a hard time because her husband fired him from a film and replaced him with a different actor. Do you feel that tension in real life?
Abby: We all do different things, really. Bridey and I do something different from my dad. That became apparent when I started on SNL. When my dad was there, his whole shtick was making fun of himself, and he’ll say this, too, but I was very serious about my impressions, as opposed to my dad who was always playing himself, doing an impression. We figured out how to not step on each other’s toes along the way, and now I think it’s fine.
Striking to me about the relationship with the family in the movie is that whatever narcissistic or toxic personalities the kids have, it doesn’t feel as though the parents see them in a particularly gendered way. Like, they’re not doing the usual thing you see in movies where they ask about when the women are going to have kids. And the father just naturally accepts that his daughters are his equals as drinking buddies.
Abby: That’s based on real life. When we were little, we’d put on plays and dress up in different characters. There was no “you play the girl” kind of talk. Our dad just told us we were funny.
Bridey: Growing up, I played hooky a lot from school. I was so socially anxious that I had constant insomnia, and my parents were like, “Well, you can just stay home and chill out, I guess.” So I really did become kind of friends with my parent at a certain age. That lent to this. I’ve observed a lot from growing up, and not going to school, and not learning about anything else ever.
You said before that the house is haunted.
Bridey: Like in the movie, there was a captain who lived there with his daughter who was deemed crazy and sent away. Dark story. But very Connecticut. There was also an organ in the house that the last owners donated to a church, but we hear organ music at night sometimes. And the old owner was the “nut lady” who was like this famous Letterman or Carson character who would come on television and show her collection of nuts. The house was actually the Nut Museum.
Abby: It’s like Grey Gardens.
Abby: It was like Grey Gardens. And she’d charge people a nut for entry, and she’d let people come in and see the exotic nuts she had, and there were squirrels living there with her.
Bridey: You feel stuff, but it’s never aggressive.
Everything is haunted in Connecticut. Did you find any nuts left over?
Bridey: Oh, yeah. When we first came in, there was an old coconut in the doorway. Oh, and during filming, our editor was editing upstairs because we had a really fast turnaround for Sundance. He was in a guest room upstairs and kept turning around because he would think I was standing behind him.
Your mother’s performance as a slightly spacey, stammering woman feeling ignored by her family and pressured into doing nutty things by this ghost is a revelation. She’s incredibly funny, but this is her first acting role on IMDb. Was her skill a surprise to you? What did surprise you about your family?
Abby: I already knew mom had it in her. We’ve always known she’s had this passion for acting. She acted in plays in school. [To Bridey] Your revealing yourself as a director was an awesome thing. Taking control and having a vision. We knew you had it in you, but you showed you had the skills to direct a real production.
Bridey: Aw, thanks. It’s always so weird in interviews now because it’s always with family, and it feels like we’re just constantly complimenting each other.
Outside of the family, though, is Haley Joel Osment, who plays this Connecticut drug dealer your characters knew in high school, and he’s viewing these people who think their behavior is absolutely normal, and he can hang for a while until things take a dark turn.
Bridey: He’s actually a family friend. He’s worked with Abby and her husband.
Abby: He did a movie with my husband Billy [Kennedy] called Sex Ed. He came to our wedding at my parents’ house, and Bridey saw him —
Bridey: Just drunk and having fun with us, and it was, Oh … he’s perfect. He’s sweet and he can party, but he’s got kind of a townie vibe, like he’s down for anything. I asked him, and he said, “I wanna do it. This thing needs to happen, Let’s do it.”
Did he know he was going to get to kiss your mother?
Bridey: Oh, he was very lovely with her, so sensitive, and that kiss really helped my mom throughout the shoot. It gave her a swagger after it happened. She came into hair and makeup — which was also my bedroom — and my friend who did the makeup was like, “Your mom just came in asked for more eyeliner and rouge.”
You’ve mentioned a lot of classic films talking about Clara’s Ghost, so I’m curious if that’s the type of education you guys got in your family, watching these classic films?
Bridey: We kind of got to see everything, except for There’s Something About Mary.
Abby: I couldn’t see Kingpin either.
Essentially the Farrelly brothers were banned for the children in your home.
Bridey and Abby: Yes.
Bridey: I just realized something as I was talking. I was really scared of movie theaters growing up, so much anxiety. Being in a roomful of strangers terrified me. To compensate, I would rent and watch a lot of horror movies. And I think that kind of played into our education.
Abby: You have always been super into film. Your bookcase was all Leonard Maltin and books about movies, and I grew up watching a lot of Nick at Nite — I Love Lucy, Brady Bunch, the old sitcoms. That’s what made me fall in love with acting, and what we were interested in as kids shaped how we’ve gotten into this business.
Working with your dad has to be really … weird? At least when he’s performing, you’re never quite sure which version of him you’re going to get.
Bridey: Wind him up and let him go. But I wasn’t scared or worried that dad is gonna make this insane and weird and crazy and creepy and funny. That’s great. And there wasn’t any tension with me directing him. All of us have similar buttons. The thing that frustrates us is, like, “Why were we called in at 6:30 a.m. when we’re not shooting until noon?”
Abby: Ugh, and the clothing and stuff was on the third floor in one room that just had a big futon on the floor with HGTV for mom and dad.
House Hunters International?
Abby: A lot of Chip and Joanna.
I know you all are supposed to be kind of terrible people in this movie, but I found myself so endeared to your characters because it feels like you’re getting to watch these people speak these secret languages and perform these secret rituals. At the same time, I can see a moral message in there somewhere.
Bridey: I wanted people to come away from the movie with a more conscious mind on their own dynamics in their family. This movie is all about getting stuck and regressing into the familial roles that you were born into. If you don’t become conscious of them, they kind of run your life. The family is a microcosm for show business because you’re often typecast into the roles at a young age that you are going to play forever. I don’t know. Maybe people don’t see that. Maybe they just see that I put my famous family into a movie I made.
[At this point, Abby, who has been sharing a single chair with her sister, reaches over and touches Bridey’s arm.]
Abby: [To Bridey] Well, those people don’t matter. Because they don’t get it.
Bridey: Thank you.