When Bridey Elliott needed someone to play an obsessed fan in her debut feature “Clara’s Ghost” to pester the Reynolds family, a showbiz clan struggling with fading relevancy, as they try dining out before a magazine photo shoot at their home in Connecticut, she and her producing partner Sarah Winshall were tossing out names and Larry Fessenden, the king of indie horror films, came to mind. A frequent customer at Kim’s Video where the two used to be cashiers, they thought surely after being asked to do a killer Jack Torrance impression at parties as well as his long history of giving filmmakers a helping hand, he might be game.
“That character had a lot more creepy lines, too and once Larry said he would do it, it was like, ‘Oh, we don’t need any of these. We’ll just let Larry be Larry,’” says Elliott, of one moment of many on “Clara’s Ghost” where she could bring together the family she grew up with and the one she’s steadily been building as a filmmaker coalesced to create something special.
Although “Clara’s Ghost” wouldn’t be classified as a horror film by a standard definition, Fessenden’s presence to give it the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval is just one way in which Elliott is able to convey how scary what the Reynolds family is going through actually is during a weekend where the pangs of repressed anger are as sharp as the rapier’s wit they use to wound one another. A family where comedy runs in the blood, the Reynolds gather for a reunion celebrating the anniversary of “The Sweet Sisters,” the TV show that starred Julie (Abby Elliott) and Riley (Bridey Elliott) as precocious kids, with the unspoken aim of reviving interest in their careers but only serves as a reminder of how far they’ve fallen since with father Ted’s (Chris Elliott) supporting role on the show never parlaying into bigger parts or eclipsing his daughters’ fame while mother Clara (Paula Niedert Elliott), talented in her own right, gave up a promising career of her own to be the caretaker to them all. A night of heavy drinking brings out the worst in the family and besides the free-flowing gin, Clara starts to see a spirit of another kind (Isidora Goreshter), lingering around the house that no one else can, unsure of whether it has something to do with the estate’s provenance from the 1860s or perhaps regrets about deferring her own artistic ambitions.
Of course, there’s a natural tension in “Clara’s Ghost” emanating from Elliott casting her own family in the roles of the Reynolds, though their agreement to be in the film more than suggests those similarities are superficial, but the writer/director/actress is gifted at finding cinematic pressure points to amplify that unease, employing a mix of ‘70s-style long zooms mixed with reckless handheld camerawork to evoke the sense of destabilization Clara’s feeling and creating a transfixing aural atmosphere out of a steady drumbeat punctuated by swerves into pop songs from the swinging ‘60s. However, if stylistically the film is a throwback, its shrewd observations are not as the family fights against the roles they’ve long been assigned and work towards seeing one another as they see themselves as individuals. We’ve been excited for Elliott’s debut feature ever since her previous short “Affections,” and it was a thrill to get to catch up with her on the eve of her first feature’s release in theaters and on VOD to talk about filming with her family in her parents’ real home, giving her mother a much-deserved star turn and the preparation and improvisation required to make “Clara’s Ghost” come alive.
Was directing a feature what you thought it would be?
I don’t know if I had any expectations. It was so new. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be hell in some way or if it was going to be kind of the best time and it was definitely the best time. I was so excited and surprised every single day. It was a wonderful combination of working really rigorously, but feeling you were making something special and not having any expectation beyond that because once we got the money [to make it], it’s like, “Oh, we’re going in a couple weeks.” So there was this thrown together, pure indie filmmaking quality to all of this and it really felt like summer camp. A lot of the crew were doing a feature for the first time, so there was this energy of just putting your all into it, both in front of the camera and behind it, so it was all just a wonderful experiment.
The energy is there, but it sure doesn’t feel thrown together – for instance, that shot which plays under the opening titles at this watering hole where you pan from a pianist near the bar to your parents sitting in a lonely corner seems like something you may have had in mind for a while?
Yeah, our family’s been going to that place, the Griswold Inn, our whole lives, since I was a baby, so it felt right, but we got that location pretty last minute. I really wanted to show in that pan their isolation and them not talking as this sweet music happening and people enjoying their night. They’re just drinking, looking off, having their own existential thoughts, and I always wanted this movie to feel old. I wanted it to take its time and I think the pan helps set up this unease and weirdness to the whole thing [because that location] also feels very Connecticut. I also saw the case of a case of guns [that] they end up sitting in front of in the scene] and I was like, “Oh, I like this. This feels weird.” [laughs] Yeah, so that kind of came together last minute, but the pan…
[In general] I had actually written a lot of the camera moves down because I knew the architecture of my parents’ house, so I wrote it for that house and I had ideas of, “Oh, we could be off the balcony” or “Oh, we could be creeping up this corner and into this weird nook.” So I had all these ideas for movement, but also wanted those ‘70s zooms and this feeling of stillness when we can get it, making it so that as the night actually progresses into drunk chaos, it hits harder.
Did you have to goth up the house at all? You have these great swinging chandeliers inside and all this unsettling art.
A lot of it was already there. I always felt like I was living in a haunted house growing up because my parents are avid antique collectors, and they have always set dressed their house [in this] gothic, Victorian [style], so it was already pretty much set-dressed, which lent itself to the inspiration behind it because it was basically haunted already. And now my parents are selling that house. [laughs] I think we did our time there. They were like, “Alright, we’re throwing in the towel.” They’re empty nesters and it’s a big house to take care of, so I think the movie closes a chapter. The house itself [used to belong to] Elizabeth Tashjian, the Nut Lady, this old character who went on Letterman and Carson talking about her nut collection and ran a Nut Museum, so it has this history of crazy people doing weird things to this house, and I feel like we’ve put our mark on it and it’s time to move on.
Did you have a strong idea about how this would sound as well from the start? You’ve got this great pulsing drumbeat throughout and some choice needle drops.
Yeah, Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint was a friend to my producers and they said, “Stella might want to do this.” I had two ideas in my head [for the score]. I had this soundtrack of Apache drumming I kept playing, thinking that was the vibe, then I also had this album from Nico, “Marble Index,” which is this crazy, surreal, ambient album full of dread and I sent those to Stella. And Stella was like, “Oh, I got this,” and she immediately delivered this awesome drumming music that was really tense and also weird. Since I knew the score is going to be off-putting, then I thought we’re going to have this ‘60s “Georgy Girl”/“MacArthur Park” vibe, playing with both of those sides to the night, so it toggles [between] the darkness of the comedy and also the lightness.
You seem to bring all of that to bear on this one scene where Clara breaks her nail. What was it like figuring out the logistics of that?
Oh, that was a hard one. [laughs] Because there was all this talk of, “Are we getting nail continuity right? Did she break her nail yet? How bloody does this nail get? And also, how long is this nail and [actually] seeing the break — how is that going to look?” We had wonderful people that were working on this nail – and [with] zero time to get anything perfect, so the final iteration was a combination of cutting away at times and cutting into it and getting that break perfect in a way that we could edit around anything that looked a little bit weird.We used some After Effects too, so we could color the nail to look a little bit more realistic, but everything like that – the shot of us putting our heads in the bowl of ice water, all of that was so fun and weird, and really impressive for how little money we had going on. But our people went all in.
That includes your mom Paula, whose performance in this is incredible. I imagine you didn’t just hand her a script – what was your collaboration like in shaping this character of Clara?
She agreed right away [to be a part of it] because as she says, she never thought it was going to happen. [laughs] I’m always talking about a million things I want to make and I’m happy if one of them happens, and something as ambitious as this was could fall by the wayside, so right away [she said], “I’ll do this.” Then six months out, we had a table read with the whole family and that’s when it became real and she was very nervous about it, just coming out of actor retirement. But she really stepped up and worked with an acting coach of mine in the city who I love and who helped her immensely. And there was no time once we were shooting not to accept and fully embrace what was happening, so I think her experience of it being so new helped motivate the character because the character is having this kind of solitary experience and I know my mom was having that at the same time.
Has it been nice taking it out on the road seeing her appreciated and the film as a whole?
Yeah, it’s been so surreal. She won best actress at Cineapocalypse Film Festival, so she’s [been] blown away by people reacting to her and it’s really lovely to see mothers come up to her and say, “I feel like you. I so relate, and thank you for putting this on screen.” And she’s from the Midwest and we went to Wisconsin and the people of Wisconsin loved it. They didn’t love the language. [laughs] But they loved her performance and it was really gratifying to see her appreciated in the area she loved, so she’s having the best time.
“Clara’s Ghost” opens on December 7th in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge and in New York at the AMC Loews Jersey Gardens 20. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also now available on Amazon and iTunes.