How ‘Clara’s Ghost’ Conjures Fictional Dysfunction with a Real Family of Actors
Producer Sarah Winshall takes us behind the scenes of the Kickstarter-funded comedy-thriller.
Family drama. An unexpected apparition. And lots — lots — of booze.
Unraveling over one dizzying evening, the Kickstarter-funded supernatural comedy-thriller Clara’s Ghost captures an eventful night for the Reynolds family as they confront the history of their New England home and the relationships they’ve built within it.
Fittingly, director and costar Bridey Elliott cast her real-life family in the film: father Chris Elliott (There’s Something About Mary), sister Abby Elliott (Saturday Night Live), and mother Paula Niedert Elliott as the titular character. Comically and tenderly played by first-time actor Niedert Elliott, Clara Reynolds is a wife and mother who begins to question her underappreciated role in the family at the urging of a mysterious ghost.
Clara’s Ghost marks the third collaboration between filmmaker Bridey Elliott and producer Sarah Winshall — and the pair’s first feature. In addition to her work on Clara’s Ghost, Winshall is a cofounder of Smudge Films and producer of the Kickstarter-funded documentary ¡Las Sandinistas!, as well as the short films “Affections” and “Men Don’t Whisper.”
On the eve of the film’s theatrical and VOD release, we talked to Winshall about funding the feature on Kickstarter, filming at the Elliotts’ New England home, and her advice for aspiring producers.
— Maura M. Lynch
Kickstarter: I think that people understand what actors do and what directors do, but what does a film producer do?
Sarah Winshall: It really can be a catchall title. Ultimately, the job of the producer is to make sure that the movie gets made right. Whether the producer is the one securing the money, running on-set logistics, overseeing script revisions — or all or none of the above — they are charged with the task of making sure that the film retains its creative integrity and is made with accountability.
What was your role as a producer on ‘Clara’s Ghost’?
Bridey and I developed the script together from the very beginning stages. It is Bridey’s film through and through, but I’ve been lucky enough to be able to usher it all the way from early inception through its release. These days, I am the primary liaison for the film to its cast and crew and to anyone working with us on the project. My job is to make sure we are doing everything we can to get the film out there for people to see it and hopefully love it.
What do you look for in a film that you want to produce?
Because I work so collaboratively with writers and directors, it really starts and ends with the people behind the film. I have to trust their vision and their energy, and we have to communicate well. Beyond that, I am very excited by projects that play with genre and present an unexpected worldview. I have trouble getting excited about films that aren’t weird in some way.
What about ‘Clara’s Ghost’ made you want to get involved with the film?
I love this story for so many reasons. I love low-budget ghost stories from the ’70s like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Robert Altman’s Images, and films that take place over one night like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Additionally, I was so excited to get to work with Chris and Abby and to film in the Elliotts’ beautiful Victorian home. The fact that we already had an amazing cast and location made me confident that we could pull it off.
With Clara’s Ghost, we really tried to live in the style of a ’70s supernatural thriller, while keeping the focus on Clara’s journey. Clara as the lead character is particularly touching to me. Bridey wrote the part specifically for her mom, and Paula performs beautifully. It really feels like a love letter to moms everywhere who might be taken for granted or be the eternal butt of the joke. There’s so much happening in the film that I love… I haven’t even mentioned the music or that it’s set in autumn in New England.
“It really feels like a love letter to moms everywhere who might be taken for granted or be the eternal butt of the joke. “
This is your third time collaborating with actor and director Bridey Elliott. How did you two meet and start working together?
Bridey and I met when we were both clerks at Kim’s Video [in New York]. We had really similar tastes in movies and always liked each other. When we both moved out to L.A. and found ourselves unemployed, we made a short film [“Affections”] and have been working together ever since. We founded our production company, Smudge Films, a couple years ago, and it’s been really rewarding to continue to make films together.
This project stars all four members of the Elliott family. What was it like to work with them on set?
It was such a pleasure. They are all really smart, with great taste in art and movies, and just wonderful company. They are also incredibly close with one another — it sometimes feels like they can communicate psychically. So it was a lot of fun to watch them work and to get to spend so much time with them.
The biggest drawback was that I was terrified we were going to ruin their home. We were shooting in there for three weeks and there was a film crew coming and going and all this equipment. I think we came close to ruining it, but in the end nothing suffered too badly.
Why did you decide to fund the film on Kickstarter?
We chose to start a Kickstarter campaign because it felt like a great way to get the starting funds we needed while spreading the word about the film. Our Kickstarter backers have been a big part of the Clara’s Ghost community. Some of them even appear in the film! Knowing that we have a whole group of people who are invested in the film and who are excited to see it really helped me stay motivated when the going got tough. Since launching the Kickstarter I’ve become friends with several of our backers, and I hope to continue to work with many of them on future projects.
What was the experience of screening the film at Sundance like?
Sundance was fun and exciting and very exhausting. We shot the film in late September , completed the edit just before Christmas , and then it was screening in Utah less than a month later. By the time I got to Sundance for the premiere, I was insanely exhausted and overwhelmed. But sitting in the room at that premiere and each subsequent screening was amazing. To watch the movie with an audience for the first time and hear people laughing and reacting really blew me away. Also, it premiered on my mom’s birthday, so that was exciting for the whole Winshall family.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to become a producer? What skills would you say are the most important to develop?
Producing is basically project management. To be a good producer, you will want to handle stress well, be able to multitask, and, generally, it helps if you like meeting new people. I would recommend identifying what kinds of movies you like and take it from there. I have found that most of the good things that have happened to me professionally are the result of talking to people about the movies we like and making great friends while standing around awkwardly outside of parties at film festivals.