Sundance interview: Bridey Elliott, Abby Elliott, Chris Elliott and Paula Elliott

In between Paula and Chris Elliott, with Bridey Elliott and Abby on the side at the Sundance Film Festival

The Elliott family is now three generations deep into comedy. It began with Bob Elliott, half of the comedy duo Bob and Ray. His son Chris Elliott went into comedy on Late Night with David Letterman, his own sitcom Get a Life (costarring Bob) and movies like Groundhog Day and There’s Something About Mary.

Now his daughters, Abby and Bridey Elliott, are working actors. Abby was a Saturday Night Live cast member and now appears on Odd Mom Out. Bridey acts in indie movies and series too (Fort Tilden won SXSW) and she directed the whole family in Clara’s Ghost, including her mom Paula.

The Elliotts were kind enough to adopt Monsters and Critics at Sundance, at least for 20 minutes while we spoke about the film in which a showbiz family faces conflict, both internal and supernatural. Read our review of Bridey Elliott’s film.

Monsters and Critics: Was directing something you always wanted to do?

Bridey Elliott: Yes, it was. I didn’t know what part of the business I wanted to be in. I acted and I directed in high school, directed a play. We had a really good playwriting program and that’s when I first started directing.

I did it in school a little bit. Then it kind of took a back burner to just acting and performing. Then when I moved to L.A. about three years ago, I told myself I wanted to get serious about it.

M&C: Paula, was acting ever something you considered?

Paula Elliott: Yes, and I acted through my teens and into college and moved to New York wanting to be an actress. I sort of was holding back even because I did that and just decided to work behind the scenes and maybe go back to it when I was old.

M&C: Now that you have, do you feel like you missed acting?

PE: I feel like I’m kind of a dramatic human being in general. I couldn’t say I missed it. Sometimes I feel bad for what they go through professionally. It’s kind of brutal sometimes, the rejection, putting themselves out. It’s hard.

Bridey Elliott, Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Don Stahl.

M&C: How did you enlist the whole family, the professional actors and nonactors to do this with you?

BE: Definitely part of the idea was to make something with my family. I really was thinking about an idea for my dad and I that was kind of based on Tatum O’Neal and Ryan O’Neal’s estranged relationship.

I’m pretty fascinated by actors and their families and how they balance that. I wanted to make a show exploring that. This kind of came out of that idea and containing it within a house was strategy because we didn’t have any money.

Also I wanted to make something where we could just be in one location and get really complex with the relationships and characters and not have to worry about much else.

M&C: Abbie, Chris, what did you think of the idea?

Abby Elliott: Honestly, we didn’t know how far along in the process you were. I think you’d been talking about it for a while. Then it quickly came into fruition.

You kind of didn’t think it would happen just because of the way things go in this business. I was, I think, avoiding reading it for a long time because I knew that we were definitely portrayed. Not negatively, but Bridey cuts us down to our core in it for sure.

We’re playing versions of ourselves that aren’t ourselves but are the monsters inside of us. I think a lot of that I pushed aside until the Kickstarter really. That’s when it was like okay, this is happening. Bridey’s serious about this. It’s going to be a real thing.

M&C: Did you need a lot of alone time after days of shooting the intense scenes?

BE: We didn’t have any time to do anything but work more.

AE: And we were staying in a house together.

BE: It was very summer campy, if it was a really intense summer camp. The schedule was pretty sadistic. We didn’t have any time for anything but shooting. It was three weeks and it was great. It served us. The frenzy of it all actually helped I think.

M&C: Is it just a function of living in a family with funny people that pretty much every conversation turns into some form of mocking or joking that you have to keep up with?

BE: Yes, it does, when we’re drinking for sure. We all have our moods because there’s that personality and then we all have a time where it’s like okay, we’ve got to go to bed. We’re all pretty antisocial in a way too.

Chris Elliott: We also all, I was thinking, we know each other’s buttons. We know how to push each other’s buttons. The result isn’t the same as you would imagine.

It’s sort of like you push Bridey’s button and it brings up something and I know it’s going to lead us into this funny area where we’re going to play around and we’re going to reminisce about something that happened that was really funny, or maybe was embarrassing but now we can laugh about it.

A lot of that was in the movie except it was dialed up.

BE: Yeah, it was dialed up and angrier. It was almost like the intimacy of it is lost in the movie. We’re estranged but we’re still acting like we’re close.

It’s that thing where someone makes a joke and you’re like, “We’re not close enough for you to make that joke.” I think that’s a lesson for a lot of friend groups and families, just joking too hard.

AE: I do think in our real lives, we don’t ever get to the point where one of us runs upstairs and slams the door.

PE: We’re not that mean to each other.

AE: Well, maybe in our teen years.

M&C: I’m glad you don’t go to the mean place in real life. That part was acting.

PE: We wouldn’t be here if we did.

AE: That would be very hard to do this.

BE: We joke around a lot about my mom’s cocaine habit but that’s about it.

PE: That was completely contrived.

CE: Well, honey, you don’t remember it. That’s why.

PE: If we drank that much, we would be dead. There was that .

M&C: You and Abby weren’t child actors. Did that come from Tatum O’Neal or some of your actor friends who dealt with a past phenomenon?

BE: Totally. We weren’t child actors but I think because of my father, and my dad has the same experience with his father, I always felt the glare of the business even if we weren’t inside it.

We knew how hard it was to be in the spotlight always and how easy it was for that spotlight to go away. I’m fascinated by actors who have been in the spotlight as a young child and how that comes into their reality now and how that has shaped their relationship, their sense of self.

It must be very hard and I have only got a glimpse of it through my dad’s career and going into it when I was 20ish.

AE: I think we wanted to be child actors too.

BE: Oh, we definitely did.

AE: We would’ve wanted to be The Olsen Twins in a heartbeat. Now I’m grateful we weren’t.

PE: We lived in a place, they grew up in schools where nobody’s dad was an actor. So there was a little bit of a quality of “That’s peculiar” of our family that we lived there.

BE: Yeah, a little bit of an outcast quality with our family growing up because we were in Connecticut. We went to Catholic middle school. It was definitely strange for our father to be in R-rated movies.

CE: But, you know, that’s the same with their grandfather. His view of show business was not Hollywood. They never went out to Hollywood.

They did some cameos in a couple of movies, but he left for work with a briefcase and a suit, went down to midtown and would come back at 5:30 in the afternoon, like a nine to five job. But, during that day he was on the radio for six hours.

M&C: Was the show that Ted is developing inspired by any shows you’ve had in the works?

BE: Well, Ted is hired in it. He’s an actor in Benny’s show but it wasn’t really inspired by any. There were definitely close calls I think for everyone in the family where we thought we were hired for something.

AE: Talked. I’ve been talked to about a father/daughter sitcom so there have been close calls with us working together, all of us.

PE: And thinking that something was a done deal and then it vanished.

CE: I’ve gotten on a plane so many times with a bottle of champagne from somebody saying, “Congratulations.”

AE: Only to land and turn your phone on.

CE: To find out oh, it didn’t happen.

M&C: Was that father/daughter show something you wanted to do or something that was unfavorable?

AE: No, we’ve always wanted to do something together.

CE: We haven’t really pinned it down yet.

AE: We all have. Bridey and I really want to do something together too.

BE: Yeah, that wasn’t really based on anything other than the idea of Riley’s character is less thought of than these two being put together. She’s the less castable.

AE: I did audition to play my dad’s daughter in something that the network said I wasn’t right for. They didn’t believe I could be his daughter.

CE: They couldn’t see her as my daughter. I’m really insular and you guys aren’t. You know so many people in the business now which is so great. But it’s the same thing.

When I had my sitcom, I cast my dad as my dad. I didn’t want to have to get to know somebody else. I think that’s the same thing with Clara’s Ghost. All that having to get to know the other actors, the director, we didn’t have to do.

M&C: Were you working through some opinions about the state of internet platforms?

BE: It’s more of a thing of just to see the different generations and how it’s changed. We’re into this world, my dad’s not on social media at all in real life, and also the character.

It’s totally generational. I think that was the point there. Everything’s chaos. There are so many shows that none of us have seen and they’re on platforms I’ve never heard of. They’re amazing work.

I don’t know, there’s so much to be reached at right now. I feel like the movie also shows how everything’s disassembled. Show business is being reinvented and these people who are clutching onto fame that they had before, it’s never going to happen because it’s all a different landscape now. I think that’s on there.

CE: There’s a Long Day’s Journey Into Night kind of theme even though it’s a comedy.

M&C: It’s my job to watch everything and I can’t even keep up.

BE: It’s a little scary I think. I also think with actors, with me, with everyone, you want to leave your mark. There’s no mark anywhere. There’s no sand anywhere. There’s no place to put your hands in cement. No one cares.

AE: It’s accessible now because you can create your own content and put out there regardless.

BE: It’s all digital.

CE: You can make a complete living now in the business.

AE: Totally, you can make a living hawking hair vitamins. You can make a living with paid advertisements on Instagram and taking pictures of your outfits. An older generation, there is pride. Your character doesn’t think this huge director should pander to the internet.

CE: But it’s also bitter, because my character, probably like me, has not kept up with technology. I feel at 57 I’m too old to embrace it, too old to understand it, too old to be involved in it. If somebody says, “Do this, it’s going to be on here, blah blah blah.” I’ll do it.

BE: Leonard Maltin just retweeted our interview so he’s not too old for it.

CE: That’s right, but he’s been keeping up with it. I stopped after a while.

AE: My husband turns on their Apple TV for them. I don’t think you guys know how to turn it on.

PE: We watch Apple TV.

CE: There’s something wrong with it though now. I don’t know if it’s our Apple TV or Netflix. That little light that’s on all the time on the little box.

PE: Technical glitches.

BE: My God, we always hear about it. “Did you change the password to Netflix?” No, I haven’t been home in three months.

CE: Well, it’s always saying enter your password and I don’t know what it is.

PE: The glitches send us into a tailspin.

M&C: It is possible to make a living on these platforms but don’t you think a lot more people are being sold this pipe dream that if you put this content out you’ll make money? A lot more people are investing time and creating things that aren’t getting seen and monetized.

CE: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what the research shows on that. I assume there is some sort of data on what pays off and what doesn’t pay off. To me, it seems great just because there are so many venues.

When I was starting out, there were essentially three networks and HBO. If you did something, then it was seen, like Letterman, that was a big deal. People saw that. Nowadays, something happens and somebody wants to parody it.

AE: And followers on social media. If you have a certain amount of followers, you get signed by CAA. I just remember I was at one of those bigger agencies for a while. We were parting ways, it wasn’t working out.

I remember the last time leaving and seeing the Toddlers and Tiaras kid, being introduced to this kid who had this entourage. In that moment, I was like oh, this isn’t for me.

M&C: I think I’m with Chris. If you want me to do something on YouTube or Snapchat, if you’re paying me I’ll do it. But I’m not interested in doing it for free to look for an audience.

CE: That’s the thing. I’m even like, the girls are so funny on Twitter and they write so many funny comments. To me, I’m thinking don’t give those jokes away. Hold onto those. Put them in the file, put them in a script. Because somebody else will use them.

AE: Joan Rivers had a library of index cards with all of her jokes.

CE: Grandpa used to do that. He kept a thing of funny lines and funny comments. I don’t think he would’ve put them out on Twitter. I think he would’ve kept them and done what he did which is give them to me.

PE: I just worry about overexposure. Don’t show every inch of yourself. Keep some of it a mystery.

CE: That’s me.

BE: I mean, we don’t show our bodies on there.

CE: No, but it’s the people that are telling you they’re at So and So having their third margarita. Who cares? Okay, that’s great but I think there should be mystery. What you do is so funny and it makes you have more followers and more people aware of you.

BE: Twitter was great for me to meet people and get on comedy shows. I kind of started out on Twitter writing so it was actually great.

The titular ghost (Isidora Goreshter) in Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost, Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Markus Mentzer.

M&C: In all of this, where did the ghost come from?

BE: Well, I always wanted there to be a ghost in it. I always felt like the ghost was this manifestation kind of of my mother’s anger and pain and need for recognition.

The ghost’s character needed that and didn’t get it and was kind of banned from the house and made to think she was crazy. I always wanted it to be a ghost story.

That house is such a haunted house. The history of that ghost is true. There was a crazy woman who was probably suffering from Bipolar. She walked through town naked and did all these things. That’s in the script so it’s very specific to that.

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