How the 'Clara's Ghost' Filmmakers Used Family to Make a Hilarious 'Haunted House' Movie
For this feature film debut, it was best to keep it all in the family.
Two years after arriving at Sundance with their poignantly hilarious short Affections, multi-hyphenate Bridey Elliott and producer Sarah Winshall return to Park City heralding a debut feature that proves comedy may prove hereditary. Not since Francis Ford Coppola has a filmmaker cast as many members of their family tree as Bridey Elliott does here. With Clara's Ghost, Elliott, an accomplished comedic performer from a long lineage of notable comedic performers (her father Chris and sister Abby both had notable runs on Saturday Night Live), shows a strong hand for balancing the absurd with the horrific, the laugh-out-loud bits with moments of induced nail-biting (and breaking) tension.
Placed in Elliott's hometown of Old Lyme, CT, and set in her parents' actual 19th century home, Clara's Ghost follows a family gathered together for their celebrity dad's important press/photo-shoot. Once the two sisters—playing former child stars regretful of the constrictive shadow cast by their father—arrive, the alcohol (and, thanks to their hometown pothead friend Joe, weed) are consumed in full force. As the family grows more inebriated, beloved Clara (Paula Niedert Elliott), the soft-spoken mother with signs of alcoholism, continues to see the ghost of a woman who may or may not have formerly occupied the household. Is there really a ghost present in this gothic, beautifully lit house? Is Clara slowly losing her mind as her ungrateful family continues to unravel around her? And who the hell decided to give the family dog brownies?
No Film School spoke with Elliott and Winshall about their creative partnership, the advantages (and unexpected surprises) that came from shooting in Elliott's former home, balancing comedy with genre formalism, and how they shot and edited the film without a minute to spare.
No Film School: You’ve both previously worked together on Affections, a short that premiered here at Sundance in 2016, and now on Clara’s Ghost, a feature (the first for you both). How did your creative partnership begin?
Bridey Elliott: Well, we met at Kim's Video in New York. We were both working there at the time and had a few shifts together. We didn't know each other super well, but I feel like we definitely liked each other's tastes. Sarah had her shelf of "Sarah's Picks" and I was like, "Oh, I like your movies." We kind of bonded from afar. When we both moved to L.A., we really became friends and began to hang out because we had nobody else.
Sarah Winshall: Because L.A. is a scary and lonely place. [laughs]
NFS: You both moved to L.A. around the same time?
Winshall: Like six months apart, yeah. And then Kim's Video closed right after that, and I feel like I was like clinging to other people who knew the significance of that.
Elliott: I think the first time we met, Sarah was talking about finally quitting her film distribution day-job and was looking to produce more. From there, the wheels started turning.
NFS: And how did Affections, the short you wrote and directed (and Sarah produced) get off the ground? What was that experience like?
Elliot: It was great. It was a tiny, two-day shoot, involving only about four people! I sent Sarah the script and, to be honest, it really didn't change much [from the screenplay stage-to-the production stage]. We shot it four months after I sent Sarah the script.
Winshall: We didn't try to do anything that we didn't already know how to do. We said, "We'll just try to do what makes sense." We didn't know the rules.
Elliott: We didn't really have a goal in mind other than to just make something. We had moved to L.A. and were both pretty unemployed. We needed to put something on paper and just do something. It was really organic with no goal in mind other than to execute.
Winshall: It was really nice and I feel like I'll never have that experience again. Once Affections got into Sundance, it was like "Oh, this is something that we're good at and we should do this again." And that's how we ended up starting to talk about Clara's Ghost.
NFS: Bridey, Affections was a comedy featuring yourself in the lead role, and in Clara’s Ghost, the lead roles are handed over to your entire family. How did the screenplay come to fruition and how did you come to the decision of putting your mother, father, sister, and yourself in the film playing family members with traits similar to their real-life counterparts?
Elliott: I knew I wanted to cast my family in a film, to make something with them in it. That was the initial seed of the project. I originally had this other pilot idea for my father and me, based on Tatum O'Neal and Ryan O'Neal's estranged relationship, and I really loved that dynamic. The screenplay for Clara's Ghost features that idea, and then I wanted to include my whole family.
Winshall: And your parents' house was a big part of it.
Elliott: Yeah, the house was a huge part of it. My parents are probably going to put their house on the market soon, and I wanted to make something there. It was built in 1864 and is very Victorian. My parents are obsessed with gothic antiques. That helped to inspire and enhance the texture of the movie, this haunted house movie featuring a narcissistic family of actors.
"I had seen photos of the house, but I'd never actually visited. And then the first time we went to scout, it was super weird because I felt like I had been there already."
NFS: Since most of the film is set in that house, were you blocking and storyboarding the film in your head as you wrote the screenplay? Your home gives off, in a very positive way, a rather uncomfortable vibe.
Elliott: As I was writing, I definitely thought, "Oh, let's shoot in this corner of the house or let's shoot it over here," but it never really changed what I was trying to write. And once we were filming, we had to be a bit more logistical and realize what could and couldn't work. We had to compromise certain visions, sure, but everything worked out for the best. We had our production designer, Tory Noll, come in to dress up the house even more than it already was. I said, "We don't even need to dress it up more!" but...
Winshall: She made it more cinematic. It's interesting. I had read the script (and its subsequent drafts) and had been talking about it for close to a year. I had seen photos of the house, but I'd never actually visited. And then the first time we went to scout, it was super weird because I felt like I had been there already. It was exactly as described in the script. It freaked me out a lot! I was like, "I've been here in a dream, but it's real."
NFS: As a producer, you're coming into the film as someone who hasn’t lived with this family before and you haven't been in their house before (the primary filming location). You were in an interesting spot.
Winshall: Well, logistically and practically, the house is really maze-like. There are two staircases and there are two halves to the house. It's a very old house that still has a half for "the help" and a half that's somewhat fancier. It's really hard to find your way around. Bridey would reference a room and we weren't exactly sure where it was. It took at least a week to figure it out! Even Tory made a 3D rendering of the house and sent it to the crew that was L.A.-based (they wouldn't be able to come see the house until shooting began) and even after having seen the rendering, the actual space was still disorienting all the time. I think that disorienting feel of the house comes across in the film. It's part of the crazy experience involved in being in this haunted house.
NFS: You described the film as partially inspired by Long Day’s Journey into Night, and, with the influx of alcohol consumed throughout the evening, there’s some Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in there as well. Paired with the heavy 1970s horror influences apparent throughout—established as early as the opening shot and that opening yellow title card— you're less shifting between tones than featuring multiple tones simultaneously.
Elliott: I think I wanted it to speak to the push-and-pull of how fucked up families are. They can be scary, funny, and hurtful at the same exact moment. I did watch a lot of movies and the film is pulling from different genres, with Robert Altman's Images from 1972 being a huge influence. I think the freedom of a woman seeing a ghost that only she can see allows for a number of different tones, because 1) you're examining why she is seeing that ghost; and 2) you're wondering what part of herself is that ghost. I think it was a natural blend. It was really hard when we were first trying to describe the film: "Is it a horror-comedy? Is it a comedy-drama?"
Winshall: "Is it a dramedy with a ghost in it?" We thought about the obvious film comparisons and tried to figure out if we should avoid them or embrace them. Do we just say it's like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf but with a ghost in it? Do we say it's like Krisha and yet different than Krisha? What do we do? After having the experience of people watch it here at Sundance, it's nice to know that it's its own thing. Everybody who has seen it is saying what you are saying, which is that the film has multiple genres running parallel to each other. So whatever you want it to be, it is.
Elliott: When you articulate the story you're trying to hell, it can box you into something [that you don't want] and that's why we said, "Okay, let's not worry about what genre we are going for. Let's go for the styles we love and what impact it would have on our story."
NFS: How did you both work to find suitable locations (such as the train station and the creepy woods at the beginning) and then shoot them in ways that are at one moment making us crack up and at another creeping us out?
Elliott: It was cool. Those train tracks have always had a graveyard behind them and it's always been kind of creepy, you know? Whenever I've used that train station (and I've used it a lot throughout my life), I always found the experience to be kind of existential, to be waiting for a train while being a few feet from a graveyard and thinking, "Where am I going? I'm going there, toward the graveyard. I'm not taking the train anywhere else." I think those real locations really did inspire certain points of the movie. I mean, the place where we go and get drinks...
Winshall: That was the first location we locked in.
Elliott: That's like where my family goes and gets drunk. They loved it.
"We were watching movies together for about three weeks, just to get inspired in the lead-up to our production, planning out things that we liked and getting ideas."
NFS: What did your DP Markus Mentzer bring to the table that helped to visualize your family’s home in a way you may not have previously seen it?
Elliott: A lot. I mean, he's a master of movement, and he loves to track inward with his camera. While my script was pretty descriptive about camera movement, I didn't realize it would ever come to fruition. I was like, "We track in here..." I'm pretty particular about noting camera movement in my screenplays, albeit in my own nonverbal way (because I'm not good at camera articulation). Markus interpreted everything amazingly well and completely right on.
Winshall: From day one, his head was in the same place as ours' was and we were always on the same page.
Elliott: We all watched the Austrailian movie Wake in Fright together and that movie features some amazing drunk and chaotic scenes. We were getting that feel for our movie. We were watching movies together for about three weeks, just to get inspired in the lead-up to our production, planning out things that we liked and getting ideas.
Winshall: Markus, who's previously held a number of 1st assistant camera positions (and a few DP positions now), told me that no one ever receives the amount of time that he had to just sit with the production crew and Bridey and just be in the space and around these locations. No one ever gets to do that. He was telling me how special it felt to have that much time to plan.
NFS: Shot in that tight 4:3 aspect ratio, the film often pulls in and studies the angles and structure of your mother’s face. What was it like exploring her features with a camera?
Elliott: Well, it was really beautiful. He framed her beautifully.
Winshall: I think we all had a crush on her on set. All of us.
Elliott: There's this point in the movie where my mom enters the room and she's basically dancing to music in her own head and being seductive to Joe, Haley Joel Osment's character. And Markus did this pan-up and pan-down on her and I was like, "Oh wow. I didn't see the scene as going that way, but..."
Winshall: Hubba hubba!
Elliott: My mom would have never....it would have taken her a lot, in other circumstances, to be able to just do that. She was very nervous and then once we got on set and all the energy was so nice and Markus was so accommodating and cool, she got a lot more comfortable.
NFS: What kind of camera did you use for the shoot?
Elliott: We shot on a RED with a DRAGON sensor and a lot of lenses. We had all seen Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled before we began shooting and were using similar lenses to get that warped look.
Winshall: I think we might have even got the exact lenses that The Beguiled team had returned to Panavision.
NFS: So you were inspired by the visual look of The Beguiled, a film that came out in the summer of 2017. And here we are in January 2018, and you're film is already in the can and premiering at Sundance. That's an extremely fast turnaround.
Winshall: I don't think I would ever do that again.
Elliott: It was a marathon.
Winshall: I think we're still recovering.
Elliott: I mean, it worked. With a different movie, I don't think it could have worked, but I do think of it as a time capsule, at this point in time with this family, and you can interpret it however you want to interpret it. Getting it done really fast actually helped us. We didn't analyze what we had. We didn't try to make a new spin. It was like, "No, we have what we have," and we knew it was special when we were filming it.
Winshall: We had to pull the trigger.
Elliott: We had three weeks to edit before the Sundance deadline.
"I'm still learning things about what I will never do again and what I must do every time."
NFS: With, respectively, your first directed and produced feature now completed, what did you take away from the experience?
Winshall: I learned so much. I mean, I feel like it was the most amazing and probably hardest thing I've ever done in my entire life. And I'm still learning things about what I will never do again and what I must do every time. I keep going through the feeling of, "I can't ever do this again" and then being like, "of course I'm going to do this again." That's where I'm at. I'm really proud of it and it's crazy that we pulled it out. Everyone who worked on the movie was really, really helpful and did a lot for us. We brought on people who loved the idea for this movie and that's a big reason for its success.
Elliott: I really enjoyed planning, like you said before, the three weeks with our DP in Old Lyme [before production began]. Those three weeks were the most crucial to getting it to the right place. That planning stage is definitely something, in some way, that I would love to be able to set up for on future projects. It's how you breathe life into it, being on those locations—and having actors who actually live on the location was also helpful [laughs]. I had a blast. I mean, shooting in my house really helped me feel free, to fuck up or to not fuck up, to trust what was happening, and to trust in my family. It primed me to be chill and I was very relaxed. I was very happy.
Winshall: It was beautiful to watch. And Bridey is a very graceful director.
NFS: I'll cut that part of the interview out.
Winshall: [laughs] Yeah, cut that part out!
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