A young Jewish woman runs into her sugar daddy at a shiva. This unlikely premise has gifted us with one of the standout titles from last year’s Toronto Film Festival, now streaming on MUBI – Shiva Baby. The film’s writer/director Emma Seligman sits down with Saffron Maeve to explore the artistic process behind her high-stakes comedy of errors.
This interview was previously published in September when Shiva Baby played at the 2020 Toronto Film Festival. The film is now streaming worldwide.
It begins with a sex scene—fleeting, blurred, and unremarkable. “Did you remember?” she asks him afterwards. “Oh!” He hands her a wad of bills and clasps a gold bracelet around her wrist. Explicitly transactional but clumsily arranged; this is the nature of their relationship that morning. The afternoon, however, takes on an unwieldy life of its own. Shiva Baby follows Danielle, a soon-to-be college graduate who, by chance or some cosmic misfortune, bumps into both her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend at a shiva. Equal parts chaotic and sexy, this film is the hellish catharsis we needed from this year.
Shiva Baby is written and directed by Emma Seligman, a Toronto-born and New York-based filmmaker, whose NYU senior thesis—a short film by the same name—spurred the development of this full-length feature. Pre-pandemic, Shiva Baby was set to premiere at SXSW until the festival’s cancellation left the film in a tricky spot. Fortunately, it was picked up as a part of TIFF’s 2020 lineup, where its rights were subsequently sold to Utopia Media. An emerging feminist voice in independent cinema, Seligman helms this ship with a fervor that feels especially impressive for a debut feature. Her vision is clear, forceful, and punctuated by screeching babies, lox bagels, and bathroom mirror nudes.
Releasing a film in the midst of a pandemic is far from ideal. How have you been handling it?
By having very low expectations! Having a wonderful team of producers surrounding me has been really great; they’re my good friends Katie [Schiller], Kieran [Altmann], and Lizzie [Shapiro]. They’ve been handling this uncharted territory so well and I feel very protected and supported by a really strong team. And we keep having these small little wins for our movie, so I just feel very excited and grateful every time we get one.
When the pandemic first hit, I was like, “You know what? If this movie sits on a shelf, at least I made a movie. I did the thing and I completed it.” We had just finished it when we found out that our first festival, SXSW, was cancelled. But I think we’ve been handling it alright.
As a Toronto native, does the shift from SXSW to TIFF feel like a homecoming?
Yeah! I love SXSW because the short premiered there, so I have a lot of love for that festival. But the fact that our first in-person screening is at TIFF definitely feels like a homecoming. I never want to be like, “It was meant to be!” because a pandemic is not meant to be, but I do feel so grateful. I was a part of Next Wave in high school and I did Sprockets when I was a kid, and I went [to the festival] every year. I love TIFF so much, so this is kind of wild.
Can you tell me about the process of adapting Shiva Baby from a short film into a feature?
Creatively, expanding was a bit of a challenge. They both take place in one day, in one location, at a shiva. What I struggled with the most in the adaptation was keeping it grounded and naturalistic, making it believable so you can be invested in these characters – but not having it be so realistic that it’s boring; but also not having it slip into slapstick or a completely unbelievable tone. It was trial and error to get that tone right.
The cast and crew looks so tight knit. What did a typical day on set look like for you?
You’re the first person who’s asked me that and I’m so excited and ready to say that it was hot—we were in a gorgeous house in Flatbush and our cast was rubbing up shoulder-to-shoulder with our crew. There was very little space. They had bedrooms they could go to, but often they were blocked by lighting setups, so we just had this one room that was designated for the cast.
That was the AC room where the cast would sit and it was literally filled with ACs. Sometimes it was so cold that they couldn’t handle it, but our cast was so wonderful.
Dianna Agron would bring Jewish treats to set and give them to everybody. Rachel [Senott] was constantly goofing around with our producers. None of them had done a budget this small, so we were really tightly-knit. It was just great. There were a few days when we had the baby and it just couldn’t stop crying, so that also added to the mix. Dianna and Danny Deferrari had to sing to it to calm it down.
Rachel Sennott is such a star in this. Tell me a bit about working with her.
She’s incredible. She was in the short film and I definitely knew I wanted to make it a feature film, but I didn’t feel motivated until I talked to Rachel about it. She’s a Virgo and she was just like, “What are your weekly and monthly goals in order to achieve a feature film?”. She’s an executive producer on the feature because she was just so invested in seeing it come to fruition, find financing, and do whatever she could to motivate me and be my accountability person. She’d say “Have you done this this week, have you done that?”, so on top of being a fantastic actress, she’s just a wonderful friend and motivator.
She’s a comedian and is so hilarious. When you meet her in person or see her do her comedy, she’s so outgoing and extroverted and an open book. Then in this, she’s not playing herself at all and I think I forget that sometimes. I feel so honoured that I got the chance to do something totally different with her. I’ve got nothing but incredible things to say about Rachel Sennott.
When piecing together Shiva Baby conceptually, what films did you draw inspiration from?
In terms of writing it, I was thinking about films like Obvious Child or Kissing Jessica Stein or other Jewish romantic comedies like Crossing Delancey and Keeping the Faith. But in terms of making it, I wanted to pull from thrillers or horrors so it would feel a little different. A big reference was Krisha as well as The Graduate, Black Swan, and Opening Night.
When I watched it, I was struck by how well suited the subject matter was to play on those tense, anxious feelings.
We tried to look in places that you wouldn’t expect to think about anxiety and claustrophobia.
Sex work seems to have informed all of your work thus far, Shiva Baby especially. Why is that a topic you gravitate towards?
Sex was a huge source of insecurity, power, and validation when trying to figure out my independence and my self-worth in teenhood and early adulthood. The sugar baby community where I went to school was huge, and it affected a lot of my friends’ lives and my life. It feels like in that community, in school, and in porn, there’s a blurriness when it comes to technology and sex work and how accessible it is to young people—especially porn.
With sugaring, the way that it entered our lives in college didn’t feel that different from online dating apps. Especially because college hookup culture everywhere, but especially in New York, sucks. You already feel like you’re getting used and it’s transactional; you don’t have expectations and you’re not hoping to find “the one”. Sugaring made it easier for me to explore a relationship about power, and a woman realizing that her self-worth is completely based on sexual validation and that underneath it, she has none. I gave all of that to Danielle.
That world is usually portrayed with very little realism, especially in films directed by men.
Definitely! I don’t think people are dating in college anymore...
Queer and Jewish identities are notably intertwined throughout the film. How did you go about that?
With Jewish identity, I just wanted to write what I knew. In college, I felt like I might as well do something confidently, in a world I understood confidently, with characters I understood confidently. I just wanted to make a good short with the opportunity I had in college. I originally wanted to do some sci-fi dystopian thing and my professor was like “Why don’t you just do something that you know?” And I felt removed enough from my Jewish community in Toronto that I could write about it.
In terms of queer identity, I didn’t have room to explore that in the short. I was really keen on putting that in the feature because I’m bisexual and that’s affected my anxieties when it comes to my community, my family, and how I see myself. I thought it would be a good opportunity to have another young female character who you can understand Danielle’s queerness through, but also represents everything she’s not, being a perfect, nice Jewish girl. Maya [played by Molly Gordon] felt like an important character to have both in terms of the community she represents and for Danielle’s bisexuality.
What advice would you give to young women gearing up to their first feature?
I got this advice from a lovely producer, Orlee-Rose Strauss, given to me and my friend Alicia K. Harris, who’s another wonderful filmmaker, and that’s just to be completely shameless when asking for anything. I had a hump to get over of being Canadian and female and thinking, “That’s impolite, I don’t want to do that,” but then for this feature, we just started asking. Very rarely, especially when you’re young, do you get to be like, “Hey, here’s my script,” and have them say, “We’re gonna help you make it! We’re gonna raise the money for you!”
So I think my advice is have a partner for accountability—which Rachel was for me. Somebody that can check in on you and your goals and deadlines. It’s about thinking outside of the box and asking anybody you know without any guilt or shame.
What do you hope audiences take away from Shiva Baby?
My main goal is that young women feel heard and seen in terms of their insecurities and the pressures put upon them. And for everyone else to see how young women can’t catch a break; they’re trying to be a nice Jewish girl, or a nice Italian girl, or a nice Indian girl, or any girl in any sort of community, while also wanting to be independent and sexy young women. All of that while also having a career ahead of you at the age of 21 or 22 can make you feel like you’re going insane. They’re conflicting and contradicting pressures, so I just want people to see that and hopefully feel alleviated and, at least in this time, entertained. Maybe the goal in this time is for people to take away that anxiety is okay, because everyone’s feeling anxious right now.
The film seems to perfectly match how chaotic this year has been.
Someone said to me, “Do you think this film will be more successful because it’s about anxiety and we’re in a time of anxiety?” and I didn’t ever think about that, but if you think so, then maybe! We’ll see...
Saffron Maeve (@saffronmaeve) is a film writer studying English and Cinema at the University of Toronto, with aspirations to have her own Criterion closet video. When she’s not writing, she can be found rewatching The Goonies and pestering everyone she knows to do the same.