It’s rare to encounter a first-time writer-director who’s as assured as Emma Seligman. Her debut feature Shiva Baby was a favorite of The A.V. Club’s at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and arrived in theaters—as much as anything arrives in theaters these days—buoyed on a wave of praise from critics who called it “a witty, jittery trip” and “the most anxiety-inducing, claustrophobic film experience of the year.” (To be clear, those are both compliments.) It’s so confident, in fact, that you’d never know the short it was based on was also Seligman’s NYU thesis film, or that its production was so scrappy, producers were scrambling to find funding for the movie while it was being shot.
Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, an aimless college student who runs into both her ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy while attending a shiva, or Jewish post-burial reception, with her doting, clueless parents. The film takes place over one intensely stressful afternoon, and uses humor not only to underline the sexual and generational conflicts that drive the story, but also as a release valve for the intense awkwardness that results. Speaking to Seligman in the lead-up to Shiva Baby’s release, it’s clear she’s thought through every aspect of the film’s characters, themes, and execution, and even has a few practical tips for other low-budget filmmakers looking to make their ideas a reality.
The A.V. Club: Tell me about the process of taking Shiva Baby from a short film to a feature.
Emma Seligman: I made this short in the spring of 2017, and I always wanted it to be a proof of concept for a feature. I hadn’t started working on [a feature-length script] or anything like that, but Rachel Sennott was in the short as well, and she was very encouraging and helped me set goals to write the feature. So I started just writing drafts, and turning them into her.
Eventually I brought on two of my friends as producers, and none of us had ever made a feature before. So we tried the way we knew of—we didn’t assume it would happen, but we just didn’t know any other way—going to production companies that we’ve either interned for or worked for [and pitching them the film]. And that didn’t work. Then we brought on our third producer, Lizzie [Shapiro], who had just produced her first feature. And we just started going to individuals who had never done anything like this before, who we were connected to in different ways [to fund the film]. It was a stressful process. I think it was the hardest thing I’ll probably ever do.
AVC: Harder than writing and directing the movie?
ES: Yeah, honestly. I mean, writing and directing it was also hard, but I had control over that.
Originally I wanted to shoot in the summer of 2018, a year after I’d made the short, and that didn’t happen. We talked about doing it the next summer, and then time was passing, and we still didn’t have money. And I was like, “Oh, well, we’ll shoot next summer. It won’t be a big deal.” And then Rachel was like, “It’s going to be this summer.” And I said, “Okay.” And so we were working against this ticking time bomb, casting and putting a crew together, and we still didn’t have money. We were raising money until the very, very end, just before the shoot. And even then we only had enough to pay people their first installment.
It was hard creatively as well, because I knew I wanted to keep [the story] limited to one day and one location for money reasons. And it was hard to find the right tone, because if too much was going on, I worried about slipping into slapstick or melodrama, where it wouldn’t seem believable. But I also needed to make sure there was enough going on that an audience would be down to stay in a house for an hour and a half!
AVC: So what did you end up landing on, tonally? You were talking about having enough but not too much going on. When I watched the movie, I felt like I was like caught up in this whirlwind of a million things going on!
ES: I wanted a naturalistic tone, for the most part. And I think that focusing in on the anxiety was the only thing I had to keep it exciting, but also if an audience is watching this girl go through so much stress, they’ll believe, to a certain extent, the choices she’s making. I asked myself, “How much can I get away with?” So I erred on the side of caution.
A month before we were shooting, my draft of the script didn’t have [Danielle’s sugar daddy’s wife] Kim entering until later. And I added the scene where Danielle goes upstairs and to the bathroom and does some… questionable things. Oh, I added the nudes, too. I felt too scared to do that at first. I was like, “Is that crazy to do at a shiva?” But I decided to go for it.
AVC: It’s a little crazy, but that’s the humor, right?
ES: I think so. [The story] ended up in the middle of a lot going on, like you said. But I still feel like I got natural performances out of people. And I felt good with the tone we landed on, honing on Danielle’s perspective and letting that become more surreal and more anxiety-inducing. I intended for the audience to go along for the ride with Danielle, where she’s so anxious and having panic attacks.
AVC: Which is relatable to a lot of people.
ES: [Laughs.] There’s also that.
AVC: Another thing really impressive in this film is the staging. We’re moving through the house, following Danielle on this journey, and keeping it visually interesting at the same time. What was your strategy as you were planning the camera movements?
ES: That was the thing we worked on the most in prep. And it was collaborative between so many people, because it also involves money when extras and actors are involved. We started by building a Lego version of the set, which is something my [NYU] professor recommended for the short. It was definitely not to scale, but it worked. The figurines were huge; they took up the entire room. [Laughs.] But that really helped us to get an understanding of the house.
We got access to this miracle house for about a week before we shot, so we visited a few times. That also helped us understand the layout. And then once Maria Rusche, our cinematographer, and I felt confident in our shot list, we presented it to our AD—who, of course, makes the schedule—and our producers. That’s when it became more collaborative, because we had an incredible cast. I’m so grateful they worked on this movie.
But they’re all very busy actors, their schedules were crazy. So I’m showing the producers the staging, and they’re saying, “Okay, well, we don’t have Molly [Gordon] that day, so we can’t see into that room because technically she should be in that room. So you’re going to have to change the angle.” Or, “Can we make it so you don’t see into a room where there should be 30 extras? Is it okay if we create an interesting frame by having Danielle in the corner of the room, so we don’t have to have as many people [on set] that day?” It was a logistical and a creative process.
In terms of creativity, I felt it was important to keep it fresh. [Cinematographer] Maria [Rusche] and I watched a lot of different anxiety-inducing references so that we could just switch that on. And performance helped too, working with Rachel and making sure her performance was dynamic. So, yeah, that was definitely the most collaborative part [of the film], especially on a technical level.
AVC: You talk about anxiety-inducing references. Why did you want to go for that feeling? Is anxiety inherent in the character of Danielle?
ES: My main motivation was something I was mentioning earlier, where I felt that anxiety is a feeling that’s going to keep us engaged. And there’s the dramatic irony of, “Is [Danielle’s secret] going to be revealed to everyone? Is it going to be revealed to one person?” And then I started to think about it creatively, too, going along with what I think Shiva Baby, at its bare bones, is about, which is being a young woman and realizing that your sexual power is limited and having that power slip away from you while you’re trying desperately to hold on to it. That’s really an anxiety-inducing feeling.
And I definitely felt extremely panicked approaching graduation, as I know many people do. It felt important [to convey that] for people who can relate, for other young women or young people terrified about their future, but also expressing it to someone who can’t relate, like older people who had it a little easier when they graduated, when the economy is not as horrible. Millennials are just fucked So, yeah, it was an important way to get into Danielle’s head and understand how much this process and realization was affecting her.
AVC: Speaking of that idea of the limits of sexual power–that’s another thing really interesting in this film, because it does have the sugar daddy/sugar baby element to it. And Danielle doesn’t do it for money, really. She has her own reasons. Why did you choose to not have that be the motivation?
ES: Sugaring is so popular at NYU. And I noticed that people did it for many different reasons. I tried it for a very, very brief moment, and I definitely didn’t need the money. I mean, I needed it—I was always looking for a part-time job. But at the end of the day, I felt extremely privileged in that if I couldn’t find a part-time job, I wouldn’t be totally broke. So I felt, at least on a personal level, that since I can’t really relate to needing the money, [having that as Danielle’s motivation] would be inauthentic. I just think that’s a different conversation.
And I noticed that it did give me and some of my friends power, because so much of college now is just hookup culture. And I didn’t know anyone, any of my friends, who were actually dating someone that they wanted to date. Usually a guy didn’t want to commit and etc., and you were always waiting on and working around them and hoping they would change their mind. And I think with the consistency and the guaranteed validation of an older man paying you, you felt like you had more—quote unquote—“power” or “control.” And I thought it would be a funny situation to have someone assume that they have all the power, and then see that they don’t.
AVC: Another interesting layer to this film is Danielle’s bisexuality. Is there such a thing as “bisexual humor?”
ES: That’s an interesting question. I still can’t put my finger on what “Jewish humor” is, so I don’t know if I can define bi humor. I think it’s mostly just relating to the confusion of it all, and also the way [bisexuality] is downplayed and dismissed by older generations, and how it’s unfairly associated with promiscuity. I think it’s like any group of people that feel marginalized or misunderstood by the mainstream. It’s making humor out of the annoyances and frustrations of life. I feel like that’s universal. I don’t know if that’s specific to being bi, but that’s that’s where the humor came from for me—between generations, especially.
AVC: It’s interesting that you talk about this movie reaching out across generations, because something that is relatively new in comedies is having a messy female lead character like Danielle.
ES: I definitely feel as if the messy female leads that [have started appearing] over the last 10 or so years on screen encouraged me to tell stories like [Shiva Baby]. I think most of my friends, and definitely myself, are messy women. Being human is so difficult in this world that there’s bound to be messiness. At the core of this film, I was trying to show that we have to be so many different things to so many different people. And with Danielle trying to be all the all of those things in one day and in one location… It’s going to be messy.
AVC: It’s like every aspect of her is colliding all at once.
ES: I just think it’s funny that that’s a new thing [in movies] when that’s all women, all the time, you know?
Shiva Baby is out now in select theaters and on VOD.