'Shiva Baby' Director Emma Seligman on Embracing the Painful Anxiety of Jewish Family Gatherings

The Toronto filmmaker discusses sugar babies, bringing queer stories to the screen, and whether Jewish characters should be portrayed by Jewish actors
'Shiva Baby' Director Emma Seligman on Embracing the Painful Anxiety of Jewish Family Gatherings
Often, you know if you're going to like a film based on its enticing premise. But every so often, your appreciation for a film grows as you're watching it, and it stays in your subconscious for weeks after you've seen it. Shiva Baby accomplishes both, while writer-director Emma Seligman establishes herself as a filmmaker to watch.

Seligman's debut feature follows college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who is on the verge of graduating. Unsure of where her future is taking her, she manifests her power through being a sugar baby. While at a shiva, a Jewish tradition for mourning someone's death, she unexpectedly runs into her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) and his family, her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), and a lot of intrusive relatives. Her accumulated anxiety comes to the surface and, over the course of one afternoon, chaos ensues. Shiva Baby feels like a universal coming-of-age film, with moments of specificity that explore modern womanhood. The film received rave reviews after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September — and rightfully so.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Seligman, 25, has been quarantining with her parents in Toronto, but has plans to return to New York, where she's currently based. During her last days in the city, we chatted with Seligman about the conception of Shiva Baby, the importance of Jewish and queer representation in film, and having a full-circle moment at TIFF. Shiva Baby is available in select theatres and on VOD starting April 2

How did you develop the idea for Shiva Baby?

In college, I made a short film that [Shiva Baby] was based on. It was my thesis. The idea came from wanting to make something that I felt was achievable, in a world that I understood. I thought it would be funny to put a sugar baby at a shiva. I thought shivas were always really funny family events for me because at least in my specific Jewish community, they always feel like any other event. There's boundary-crossing, nosy questions and eating, for sure. I also knew a lot of sugar babies at NYU. So initially, I thought it would be a funny concept that would be uncomfortable and awkward. As I developed the short, and then definitely as I developed the feature, it became more meaningful and I tried to focus more on the coming-of-age themes.

What was it like expanding the plot into a feature film?

It was difficult and it took many tries, because we knew it was going to stay in the house and take place over one day. It was tricky, [my producers and I] were constantly balancing a tightrope of not wanting it to be so slapstick, but at the same time, enough needed to happen that would keep an audience interested in staying in the same house and in the continuous timeframe. It ultimately became about how to make Danielle's anxiety as palpable as possible, so the audience had a reason to stay.

There's a lot of anxious, neurotic energy throughout the film. How did you effectively capture that?

Each department added their own addition to it. I was watching a lot of romantic comedies as I was first writing it, and then I was trying to think of movies that were very anxious. Maria Rusche, our cinematographer, really helped us get there with watching movies like Black Swan and Krisha and some claustrophobic, [John] Cassavetes movies. Our editor, Hanna [Park] sucked the air out of the movie, so you never had a chance to breathe by just cutting it all super tight. Ariel [Marx], our composer, came in with the most interesting score and helped bridge this comedy-anxiety vibe, to get a sweet spot of something that sounded really scary but still worked with a comedy. Rachel contributed to looking like she was on the verge of a panic attack all the time. Everyone put their stamp on it and helped me get to that anxious place.

Do any parts of the film resemble your personal experience?

I grew up in a very big, extended Jewish family, and once or twice a month, seeing a million middle-aged and older cousins. My sister and I were the youngest of our generation. So, I cherry-picked some of the worst, most cringeworthy, most annoying or funny lines I wrote down from family events. People [in the film] were definitely conglomerates, but no one was individually based on a specific family member. I also had a very limited experience with sugaring. It wasn't nearly what Danielle has with her developed relationship with Max. Maya was also sort of a conglomerate of different women in my life. I didn't have a particular Maya the way Danielle does, and the way their relationship is mapped out. Everybody was sort of inspired by somebody, or multiple people in my life.

Why was it important for you to bring queerness into the plot?

I'm bisexual, and I'm always eager to see more queer stories on screen. I wanted to see an accurate reflection of how anxious I look at a family event, whether or not there's exes or sugar daddies there. Even though my family's definitely not homophobic, or biphobic, they're very accepting, it's just one more thing that makes me feel confused and uncomfortable in a world that is still pretty traditional and has traditional standards. Despite the fact that we keep moving into more of a modern era, the low-key standards to get married, have a husband and have a stable job and family still feel under the surface. Being bi sort of throws a wrench in all that, as well as being a sugar baby, or being in the kind of program Danielle's in where she doesn't know what she's studying. I also really wanted to have a character other than Max that gave Danielle a little bit of hope in the story, and a little bit of a silver lining. I also thought Maya would be a perfect representation of all the things that Danielle isn't in this community — like going to law school, being very charming, and everyone wanting to know what she's up to.

Rachel Sennott isn't Jewish, but she does an incredible job. What are your thoughts on people needing to be Jewish to play Jewish characters? How did it affect your casting choices?

I think it's a really important conversation and it's one that I'm happy to participate in. I don't think it's necessary for every character in a Jewish film to be played by a Jew. I don't know what I would have done if I didn't meet Rachel on the short film. Even though she wasn't Jewish, she knows what it's like to come from a really big family. Her family's Italian and they're lovely, but definitely religious and have standards and traditions that are a little conservative. Rachel's very similar to me, living in New York and having more of a modern life. She related to the story on an anxiety level and an emotional level, and that felt really important to me.

When it came to the feature, Rachel was so invested in seeing it happen and there was no way it wasn't going to be her. But because I knew our lead wasn't going to be Jewish in a very Jewish film, I felt like it was really important to try to find as many Jewish actors as possible for any roles, including Kim, who's not Jewish, and ended up being played by Dianna Agron, who is Jewish. Polly Draper, who played Debbie, isn't Jewish, but she's married to a Jewish person. There's got to be room, at least for me, for flexibility. But it's really important to have authenticity in the mix when you're making something that's so culturally specific. I'm annoyed when I see a film and there's absolutely no Jewish actors playing a heap of Jewish roles, because it feels like they didn't even try. When people are offended that actors playing Jews aren't Jewish, I get it. I'm starting to understand how important it is to people.

What was something unexpected that you learned during the process of making Shiva Baby?

I re-learned that it's impossible to work with babies. I learned that on the short, so I don't know why I didn't think it was going to be a problem again [laughs]. I honestly think I learned more about adult relationships. Kim and Max's relationship was the one dynamic I understood the least in terms of its emotional core. I kept seeing everything from Danielle's perspective. It wasn't until I started working with Danny and Dianna, and even other people chiming in, that I realized that Danielle thinks she's a part of this guy's world. She thinks she takes up a huge spot in his mind, and she doesn't, because she's a kid, and he's got so much else going on. I think I matured a little bit learning about their relationships.

You've been a part of the TIFF community since you were young. What's your connection with the festival and what was it like for your debut feature film to be screened at TIFF?

It was very surreal. I was part of Sprockets when I was a kid, which was the kids' film festival. I became a juror for their film festival when I was nine, and I got to watch and review films from all over the world. Then I was part of TIFF Next Wave, which is definitely the most formative experience that made me want to be a filmmaker. It's made up of 12 high school students from Toronto and together we planned events and our own film festival and tried to get young people involved in film, and it still exists. It's the best thing that ever happened to me. I got to meet so many young filmmakers. Before, I never had a concept for what making a short would be like, and I didn't understand filmmaking at all on a technical level, I just liked watching movies. I'm very thankful for TIFF Next Wave.

Screening my film [at TIFF] was very strange and awesome. Cameron Bailey did our Q&A and intro — it was definitely a pinch-me moment. I felt like I was in an odd parallel universe just because it was virtual, but it was so amazing.

What's it been like to promote your first film virtually?

Weird. I mean, it's been very convenient. It's a nice thing to look forward to in the middle of this mess. But sometimes I forget that I have a movie that's been at festivals or it's that's going to be released, because it's all coming through my computer or my phone. It's very strange, but also very encouraging. When South by Southwest was cancelled last year, I thought my movie was going to be shelved. It's been really nice for this creative industry to adapt and see people still be hungry for new movies and see festivals pivot to release everything online.

What stories do you want to tell in the future?

I want to keep telling on-brand, like, female and bisexual stories. Rachel Sennott and I are writing a script that we started four years ago, that's much more campy and silly than Shiva. It's about these two nerdy high schoolers who start an underground fight club to win over cheerleaders from the football players. It's sort of like a queer girl's Wet Hot American Summer in a high school setting. That's been fun, and I'm hoping to do that next.

Shiva Baby will be available in select theatres and VOD starting April 2.