7 Screenwriting Lessons from Bridey Elliott and her Famous Family

By Shanee Edwards · February 11, 2019

Clara’s Ghost is a family comedy that is a rare coming-of-age story for a middle-aged woman. Clara is a devoted yet underappreciated mother and wife who finally gets fed up with her show-biz family after she’s visited by a ghost. For the first time, Clara must confront her toxic family dynamic that is fueled by negativity and alcohol and stand up for herself. The film is both funny and moving as it explores the life of a woman who deserves much better treatment from the people she loves.

The film is a true family affair, in that it stars the entire Elliott family. You probably recognize funny-guy Chris Elliott who stars on the show Schitt’s Creek. Bridey’s real-life sister Abby, whom you may know from four seasons on Saturday Night Live, also stars. In addition to writing and directing, Bridey also acts in the film alongside her real-life mother, Paula Neidert Elliott. As Clara, this is Paula’s very first credit on IMDb as she’s truly the one in the family who prefers to stay behind the scenes. 

I had the chance to chat with Bridey about making the film and discovered there are some great lessons we can learn from her experience. 

1. Take inspiration from what you know. 

“I wanted to do something with my family,” says Bridey, “especially my mom. I knew I wanted to shoot in our house because it already felt like a haunted house and the idea came from there. One day I was visiting home and it felt like A Long Day’s Journey into Night and it all kind of dawned on me. I wanted to write something about family dynamics and crossing it with the industry and how you can get typecast in roles but in your family, too – you can really get stuck in the roles you were born into.” 

2. Allow your characters to defy stereotypes. 

For Clara, she’s the brunt of the family’s jokes but still loves them unconditionally. A dynamic that’s often seen in real life, but rarely acknowledged.

Bridey says her generation has been encouraged to break any stereotypical molds they might run into, so she wants to give permission to the generations ahead of her to do the same. “I want this wave to hit all of us, so that was my idea for focusing on the mother’s story.”

The story is fresh and unexpected, and it’s hard to tell whether the family dynamics are real or acted, which is a good thing. 

Coming from a family of comedians, it’s no surprise her famous father and sister have influenced Bridey. “We all went into this business and we all have different angles on it. My dad made a career of making fun of himself on Letterman and these characters where he was playing himself playing characters. I think that’s really what Clara’s Ghost is, only more dramatic, getting to the core of that. 

3. In the film industry, all you can control is yourself. 

Bridey says that while her dad Chris never sugar-coated the perils of the entertainment industry, he did shelter her a bit. “My dad has set up a way of looking at this business and saying it is ridiculous and all you can control is how you react to it and what you make. It can be a delusional, warping business and my dad has always kept it separate from family.”

She adds that she never felt seduced by fame. “We lived in Connecticut and I didn’t know any other families of actors. It was a very straight-laced community and if anything, we all kind of felt like weirdos in the woods.” 

4. Explore many ways of telling stories.

Despite Bridey being an accomplished actress with roles on shows like Silicon Valley and appearances in movies like Battle of the Sexes, she says she’s always been a writer first. “Acting has just been an extension of my writing. I went to theater school and felt like I was a playwright. Then I went to New York and playwriting felt hard so I started doing stand up. Stand up was actually the gateway for me to accept myself as an actor, which I am too. I love all of it, but I’ve always wanted to direct what I wrote. It’s just the way I tell stories.” 

5. Follow your instincts.

Though she’s taken a few screenwriting classes, for her it’s about following instincts. “I mostly learned by doing it and stand up helped me learn about the comedy world, I got to meet funny people who inspired and motivated me”. 

She says that these days, generating your own content is a necessity. “If you don’t have your own stuff to put out there, you’re not distinct. You’re not in your full potential.”

Do you need help getting your own stuff out there? Finish your first draft in five weeks with this guide.

6. If you do begin to find success, stay cool.

Though Bridey is reaching new heights in her career, she seems to be staying grounded. The success of Clara’s Ghost is as surprising to her as anyone else.  

“I never thought this movie would go to Sundance, I never even thought it would get released. I thought it would just be this fun art house movie that’s an intimate night with a family.” 

7. Writing doesn’t always feel great when you’re doing it.

Bridey’s advice to other writers is not to worry about whether or not a script is good while you’re in the process of writing it. 

“There’s so much expectation of when you’re writing something good that it should feel good or you should feel you’re on the right track – and I’m not even saying this script is amazing or anything – but I think it is really about following through and then fleshing it out. Over time, you’ll grasp what you have on your hands.” 

Clara’s Ghost is currently streaming online.

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

Photo credit: Clara’s Ghost

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