Emma Seligman talks directing Rachel Sennot in 'Shiva Baby.'
Photo: Emma McIntyre

Entertainment

Emma Seligman On Directing Anxiety-Producing Comedy ‘Shiva Baby’

Seligman’s debut feature explored the loss of power in a way that will make you laugh out loud.

You’d be forgiven if Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby made you crave a Xanax.

Powered off distilled anxiety, the film follows soon-to-be college graduate Danielle, played by rising indie darling Rachel Sennott. She’s sexually empowered, thanks in part to Max, her salt-and-pepper haired sugar daddy with his own massive SoHo apartment who’s more than happy to pay her bills. He thinks she’s saving up for law school, but she’s secretly still very much supported by her well-off parents.

The lie gets shattered when they end up attending the same shiva — a Jewish wake — and reality sets in with a thud. Not only is Danielle still on mommy and daddy’s payroll, but Max is not the generous bachelor he’s made himself out to be. He’s married to a “shiksa princess” (Yiddish 101: a gentile woman) and has an infant daughter in tow. If the shiva wasn’t already hell on earth for Danielle, her high school ex-girlfriend is also in attendance and vying for her attention, all while her well-meaning but overbearing parents dote on her like a child.

Claustrophobia swiftly sets in thanks to Seligman’s tight direction and script, and composer Ariel Marx’s squirming, Klezmer-adjacent score. Not only is there nowhere to run, but around every corner there’s a yenta curious about Danielle’s graduation plans or ready to shove bagels and lox down her throat. Sennott plays up Danielle’s feverish insecurities in a breakout performance and makes one thing very clear — Shiva Baby is as close to a horror film that a laugh-out-loud cringe comedy could get.

Shiva Baby has come a long way from its origins as a short created for Seligman’s thesis as a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Initial plans of an IRL premiere at South By Southwest were dashed due to a then-mysterious and fast-spreading virus. “When we found out SXSW was canceled, we just had finished the movie, signed it off, fully finished the day before or half an hour before we found out,” she tells NYLON over Zoom from her new Los Angeles digs. “I sort of thought that maybe it was going to sit on a shelf and not go anywhere.”

Thankfully, Seligman fears were quickly put to rest. Shiva Baby became the buzzy talk of the festival circuit, picked up for distribution, and is now set for a VOD and limited theatre release on April 2. Let’s hear a resounding l’chaim to Hot Jewish Girl representation.

Warning: spoilers ahead for Shiva Baby.

Tell me the origin of Shiva Baby. I know it started off as a short.

I just wanted to make something achievable in a world that I understood really well. I felt like I had enough distance from my Jewish community in Toronto that I could just write really naturally from a setting in that environment. I was just inspired by Transparent, whether it was conscious or not, to write very modern, relatable Jews. One that I could relate to, at least. And there were a lot of sugar babies at NYU. [Laughs] Initially I thought it’d be funny if she ran into her sugar daddy at a shiva. I thought it was a funny concept. And then as both the short and the feature evolved over time, it became more interesting. It sort of explored more themes and emotions that I wasn't expecting when I first came up with the premise.

What was the experience of kind of turning it from the short to the feature?

It was difficult. It was just a lot. I knew I wanted to keep it in one house in one location, one day for a budget. I think the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to make it interesting enough so that an audience wants to stay there for a whole day in this one house without filling it up so much that it went into slapstick territory. I think it just took a lot of drafts to figure out the tone because I wanted the audience to feel grounded and naturalistic, like they believed Danielle and could relate to her, but it needed to be spicy. It took so many drafts.

Rachel actually was my main rock from beginning to end. Then we got our producers involved who are also incredible, but from the beginning and then until we shot, Rachel would read every draft and she would be my like Virgo accountability queen. She’d be like, "Did you achieve your weekly goal? Did you achieve your monthly goal? Where are you on act one?" And I felt really supported by my team and I felt like they were all giving me great notes and it took time though. It took a lot of time.

One of my favorite parts of the film is the score. It just had me squirming the whole time. How did you convey the vibe that you wanted to your composer, Ariel Marx?

I feel so grateful and lucky that Ariel, that we got the score that we got. I actually didn't want a score at all. I was like this is going to be naturalistic, like is Rachel Getting Married where there's no music. Because I'm not good with music. I didn't realize that I wanted music until we were shooting and I knew that something that was really anxious would amplify what Danielle's feeling. I didn't want the score that highlighted the comedy or even the drama and more emotional moments.

So we started working with Ariel who had a string background and I told her I wanted something Klezmer-like. You know, not full on Fiddler on the Roof, but very inspired and she just sent me a violin library of sounds. I picked all my favorite ones and then she just told me that that meant it was going to be a horror score based off of all the sounds that I picked. [Laughs] And then I was like, "Oh yeah, I guess that makes sense. I hadn't thought about it that way." So then she just sort of went to town and I think she did a fantastic job.

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Yeah, she really did. Another thing I want to talk about is how there's such a preoccupation with food and eating in Shiva Baby. What's the deal with that?

[Laughs] I wasn't trying to make a statement or anything. I just felt like my most uncomfortable interactions at any family event were post-losing weight. I didn't really consciously do it, but every time I had an awful interaction or a really awkward one, I just sort of mentally checked it. And I just was thinking about pulling from that sort of Rolodex of all those moments that I've had at family events where I was like, I could put this in a movie or like, You can't make this up. And a lot of them had to do with food to be honest.

I feel like Rachel and I talk about this, and I think it applies to many cultures, not just Jewish families, but you're either eating too much or too little. You can never win and I feel like growing up I was overweight and then I sort of had a sort of late growth spurt situation where I started losing weight in college. And then my family was just deeply terrified for me. No one was like Oh, you look great. So I don't know. That was just a moment in time where I felt like I caught a lot of those lines. So I just put them in.

I also think, again: one house, one day, one location. There's not much to do. There's not much for characters to physically do with their hands or bodies. So I just kept bringing them back to food, especially for Danielle, because there weren't a lot of other things. They can't go running, they can't go to another location. There's no walk and talk, it's just whatever's in a room.

Speaking of Danielle, how did this character come to be?

I think I sort of initially vomited her out of me and didn't really think twice about it, especially with the short. I think sort of the thing that Rachel and I kept coming back to was her journey being sort of built upon her just trying to hold on for dear life to her "sexual power" and the validation and the sort of sense of control it gives her, and just every step of the way like losing it and trying to hold onto it. I think that was the main undercurrent and all these other factors are just making her more anxious and not helping the situation.

I think that that was sort of the main realization I had after making the short, which I didn't again think too much about. I just sort of did it and was really happy with it, then just as I was making the feature, sort of trying to meditate on what it was really about and then I was like, “Oh, it was sort of about that moment in time.” At least for me in college where I was like the only power I felt I had as a young woman was sex. And then I was like, “Oh wait, this isn't even a power anymore. Like, this has died out.”

I think that that's where it started as a base, figuring out that you don't have what you need to build it for yourself. At its core, that's what Danielle is struggling with and I think that everything else affects that. I think putting her in a situation with her parents, where she's a kid and she has no power with them and they control her, with somebody that has seen her with all this power and she thinks looks at her with all this power which fucks with that.

So it started with me, but then Rachel talks about how when she made the short, she didn't really have much experience with that feeling, and then over the course of the two years in between the short and the feature, she went through a relationship that made her go through that process with sexual power dynamics. I think it was a meeting of Rachel and me for sure.

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What’s the story behind the “Let's Make A Baby Shake” lullaby? Is that a real thing?

Oh, my God. That's a song that Polly Draper sang to her sons when they couldn't sleep. And that was the sort of peak Polly suggesting something and me being like, "I am the director, let me do this movie." She was like, "We need to do this song!" and I was like, "Stop stepping on my toes." And I just finally caved and let her do it. Her and Debbie Offner were really close friends. They reunited on this movie coincidentally and they would come to set together and they would always be like, "You shouldn't have brought us in the same van because we have some ideas now."

That day they were like, "We should do the baby shake song." Originally in that scene, they were just supposed to be just touching Danielle and annoying her all over. But Polly was like, "We're doing that the entire movie! We need to do something different. Why don't we sing this song that I sang to my son when he couldn't sleep?" and I just let her do it. And thank God I did because I think it made the movie and she's so right that if they were just touching her, it would've just been the same scene over and over of them just annoying Danielle. And that was the most fun day of shooting. I think we spent the whole day shooting that scene and just getting every shot of every actor including Fred and everyone singing that song to Rachel, it was pretty hilarious.

Tell me about the experience of directing your first feature while working with such seasoned actors like Fred Melamed and Polly Draper.

I think at this point I feel comfortable saying it was really hard because I have distance from it. Getting the financing was the hardest part. And so I feel like initially going into it, I've never been more stressed out in my life. I was having panic attacks every night because we were starting to put things together and cast the actors, but we were still raising money up until the very last second. So every day I was just like, "What if we don't have the money and everything just has to collapse..." Honestly, it was the worst.

Rachel was consoling me every night. That sort of goes back to our relationship. I'd call her every night and she'd be like, "It's okay, we're going to raise money. It's going to be alright. You got this." It was very anxiety-inducing leading up to it. And then the night before when it came to working with them, I had total imposter syndrome. I was like,Why would they listen to me? I'm just a kid. I can't do this!”

I was terrified working with these actors, but they were so kind, sweet, and generous. Not one of them was a diva, and we were all packed up in this really tight, sweaty house. And they were like bumping elbows with our crew members. They all understood that we had no money and it was just the way it was going to be. I feel incredibly grateful and lucky that this was my first feature experience. Everyone, not just in the cast, but everyone in our crew was just really kind and down to sweat it out with us.

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Who were your directorial influences for the film?

The Graduate was a big reference for Shiva Baby, as were some other Mike Nichols movies. And then John Cassavetes, who I think is this like, not to be pretentious, the king of stress in closed environments. My cinematographer and I watched a lot of his stuff together.

Then Krisha, which is Trey Edward Shults' first film. He’s more well known now for Waves and It Comes at Night, but his first film is also based off a short and was one house, one location and more of a full on family psychological thriller, but that was a huge reference. I think the Coen brothers just sort of naturally for everything they do with their quirkiness and their Jewish content for sure.

And then Joey Soloway from Transparent I think is the biggest one. If Transparent hadn't come out I don't think I would've been inspired to make something as modern as Shiva Baby. If I did Jewish content, it would probably lean more in the sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm vein, which is also great, but I hadn't yet seen something so grounded and relatable. Then lastly, there's a French Canadian director called Xavier Dolan, and he has made some very awkward family movies that are also sexual coming-of-age stories, but with horrible family dynamics. So a lot of the cringe but also the sex stuff comes from his films for sure, too.

What's next for you? You and Rachel are working on something together, correct?

We hope that project goes through, I'll direct it, she’ll star in it. It’s a very campy high school comedy, much more in Rachel's vein of humor. A lot more sort of in the 90s vein of like, Drop Dead Gorgeous or Sugar and Spice or But I'm a Cheerleader. It's about two nerdy queer girls who start an underground fight club at their high school to win over the cheerleaders from the football players. I haven't yet seen a queer high school movie that makes me laugh and also is just about sex. I’m glad Love, Simon and Booksmart exist, but I’m like, We need more.

I'm also trying to work on a pilot about sugar babies. I also feel really lucky that I'm at a point in my career where I can be pitching on directing projects that aren't mine, which is a crazy thought, because I always thought I'd always be writing my own stuff. It's been really cool to read other people's material and see if I can have a perspective on it. I'm just sort of excited and open-minded. We'll see what happens.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Shiva Baby is available for pre-order ahead of its April 2 premiere.