Chaotic Bisexual

Shiva Baby writer-director Emma Seligman tells Ella Kemp about expanding her wildly cringey short film into an even more anxiety-inducing feature, why Virgo and Taurus make the perfect producing pair, and the eternal conflict of being a good Jewish girl.

If I can skip a bris to see E.T., I like movies!” —⁠Emma Seligman

It sounds like a strange riff on a guy-walks-into-a-bar joke: a girl walks into a shiva and bumps into her secret ex-girlfriend, then her sugar daddy, then his shiksa wife, oh, and their baby—yet the payoff is so much more rewarding.

Filmmaker Emma Seligman’s debut feature is a new kind of teen classic: 78 non-stop minutes teeming with well-drawn traits and tropes that define the best coming-of-agers, the best Jewish comedies and the best day-in-a-life psychological roller-coasters.

Shiva Baby began as a grad project—a short film of the same name—and Seligman’s feature-length embellishment impressed at last year’s virtual editions of SXSW and TIFF, where it was quickly snapped up for international distribution. In a way, Shiva Baby was perfectly tailored to the times we were living in: Danielle, our reluctant heroine, is trapped in a claustrophobic family event she can’t escape, as people from her past and lies about her future make their way deep under her skin.

Fred Melamed, Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper in Shiva Baby.
Fred Melamed, Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper in Shiva Baby.

Shiva Baby is very much the product of a wry school of emerging filmmakers who understand excruciatingly mundane horror and pin-sharp comedy as intimate bedfellows. Seligman’s writing finds a way to flesh out gloriously caricatural Jewish relatives, probing and overbearing and irrational. She does this both through dialogue and a visceral, haptic aesthetic that lurches in and out of focus visually, and has a nails-on-chalkboard unease sonically.

Coming in hot with a 4.01 average rating, Shiva Baby is striking all sorts of discordant notes with film lovers. “Combines some of my biggest anxieties: being asked if I have a boyfriend as well as what my plans for the future are and people talking with their mouths full,” writes Muriel.

The film’s “bisexual chaos”, which hinges on a haywire performance from Rachel Sennott as Danielle, opposite Molly Gordon’s overachieving ex-girlfriend, Maya, is also one of its great strengths. Glee star Dianna Agron is the shiksa threat, Kim, while Danny Deferrari is Danielle’s hapless benefactor, Max. If that’s not enough? Polly Draper, Fred Melamed and Jackie Hoffman are also just there.

What do you think defines a Jewish sense of humor?
Emma Seligman: It’s morbid usually, and darker—generally uncomfortable and cringeworthy. I think about Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, and A Serious Man. It borders on, “Is this funny at all?” I think Jewish humor leans into the darkly funny British sense of humor. I’m Canadian, so I feel like I’m halfway between the UK and the US in terms of their sense of humor.

Was it always your intention to make a comedy that feels like a bit of a nightmare? You’ve mentioned Black Swan and Opening Night as touchstones…
Because I came from a short film, the question when expanding into a feature was, “How are we going to keep everyone interested in this day?” It’s got to be a significant day, it’s got to be that this young woman’s life has completely changed from this day. So what is it that changes? Why are we watching it? I watched a lot of movies that took place in one day, one of them was Trey Edward Shults’ first film Krisha. And then from there I realized that anxiety and this scary psychological feeling is a great way to have the audience stay there.

I watched Opening Night because there’s a shiva in it, but it was more the lobby scenes that were so claustrophobic and tense. And then each step of the way with each department, we were like, okay, it’s gonna be tense, but then we got to music, I was like, okay, this has become a full nightmare. Initially, I was just like, it’s got to be tense, but by the end, I was like, well, it does feel like a nightmare to a young woman sometimes.

Because you mention that, I have to ask whether you’ve seen Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade?
I have, it’s incredible. It’s so funny, they’re both coming-of-age [films], and one of them is about a fourteen year old and then the same sort of feeling exists when you’re 22. When you’re fourteen is when it begins, and when you’re 22 you’re sort of at the end of it and you’re like, “Oh, I thought I figured out what I was supposed to do when I started feeling insecure this way at fourteen about sex and boys.”

Diana Agron and Danny Deferrari in Shiva Baby.
Diana Agron and Danny Deferrari in Shiva Baby.

Let’s talk about Rachel Sennott, who you have describe as your “Virgo rock”. What do you bring one another in your creative partnership?
She’s a hustler, and she sets goals like nobody else. I think she moves very fast, and I’m more detail-oriented. I don’t know if the movie would have happened without her because she was like, “What are the goals to achieve this film?” After we made the short film, she just kept checking in with me. She goes well beyond what an actor does, which is why she’s an executive producer, because she was very, very invested in seeing the movie get made.

I think she pushes. We joke that she brings me out of my depression and I help calm her down. I feel like Taurus is a little more chill. Virgos are also earth signs, but they run on a faster frequency. So I think I calm her down, especially when we’re writing and bringing it back to structure. But she’s way funnier, she’s able to give jokes so quickly. We balance each other perfectly, for sure.

Do you think your partnership with Rachel is the kind of partnership you could see yourself maintaining throughout your career?
Definitely. I think it’s important to have a good friend and also a young woman. She’s got different career goals from me, but they’re aligned. And we’re not in competition with each other. I feel so grateful because so much of the time I feel like the world does make you feel like you’re in competition with your friends that are trying to do the same thing as you when you’re a young woman—or just maybe in general.

Rachel Sennott and Danny Deferrari in Shiva Baby.
Rachel Sennott and Danny Deferrari in Shiva Baby.

Her character in Shiva Baby completely subverts the idea of a “nice Jewish boy/girl” which can be a trope in movies, but also very much a real thing in life. Is that something you consciously wanted to subvert, or did it come organically from the story you wanted to tell?
I wanted to contrast that idea of a “nice Jewish girl” because every nice Jewish girl or boy has a sex life. I felt the sort of nice Jewish girl stressors on me were completely opposite from the NYU art school sugaring worlds, and hookup culture broadly. My family is such a huge part of my life and I think that those two sets of pressures are completely contradictory; to be a good girl or boy and have a stable career ahead of you, and to be finding, even if it’s at the very beginning, your eventual partner, or to just be in a relationship. And I felt like in school, no one wanted to date, everyone was hooking up. So many of my friends are sugar babies. I tried it super, super briefly.

I felt like the world was telling me to be like “an empowered, independent, sexy woman who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, and doesn’t abide by any rules”, and I was like, “This is the opposite of being a nice Jewish girl!” And I just felt like those two things were screaming at me. So I did want to play on that. But I don’t even think it’s playing, just because that felt like what I was trying to battle within myself. And I think a lot of young people do, whether they’re Jewish or not. That’s their family’s expectations. And then the world is like, “But don’t care and don’t commit…”

Writer-director Emma Seligman. — Photographer… Emma McIntyre
Writer-director Emma Seligman. Photographer… Emma McIntyre

But then you still have to go home to your parents at the end of the day and they’re going to tell you what to do…

What would you want viewers to take away from Shiva Baby about the sugaring community that you feel has been maligned in the past?
I’m not a sex worker, so I don’t want to speak on behalf of this community, but I definitely feel like there hasn’t been many positive portrayals of sex workers. So I just wanted to show someone—because I knew so many friends of mine who did it—who enjoyed it, or purposefully did it and didn’t feel bad or shameful about it. I think maybe a lot of people think that it’s always something that comes out of dire circumstances. But whether that is the case or not, I think there’s a lot of people who enjoy it and enjoy what they do like any other job. So I just hope that they’re able to sort of widen their scope of what a sex worker looks like and acts like. Every sex worker has got a family, friends, a full robust life, as we all do.

It’s time for your Life in Film questionnaire. Can you give me a few must-watch Jewish films for people who don’t know where to start?
Fiddler on the Roof, Yentl, Keeping the Faith, Kissing Jessica Stein, A Serious Man. Definitely Uncut Gems, and Crossing Delancey.

Shiva Baby has been described on Letterboxd, variously, as “Uncut Gems but make it chaotic bisexual”, “the most stressful Jewish movie since Uncut Gems”, “the chaotic successor of Uncut Gems”, “if Krisha and Uncut Gems had a baby”, and, of course, “Uncut Gems for hot Jewish sluts”…
Amazing, I love that. Extremely nice comparison.

Who is your favorite promising young woman? Not Emerald Fennell’s film, but a young creative or performer who you think is making waves.
I love Hari Nef—I think she’s amazing and am really excited to see what she does next. I loved her so much in Transparent and Assassination Nation, and I don’t understand why she hasn’t been the lead in a million movies.

Molly Gordon with Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby.
Molly Gordon with Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby.

What should people watch next after Shiva Baby?
Those Jewish movies would be a great start. And then Krisha, although I think a lot of people have seen it especially if they’re on Letterboxd! But then those Jewish romantic comedies, and then Obvious Child, all those movies are very sweet and endearing and helped me make it.

Separate from film, if it’s shiva-related then Transparent. If I didn’t have Transparent I don’t think I would have seen world of grounded, nuanced Jews that I could do comedy with. It would have been more in the Curb vein, which is also amazing, but a little more schtick.

What was the first film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
My parents are huge movie buffs so I’m not sure there was one moment, but I will say that when I was six there was a re-release of the 20-year anniversary of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and I was at a horribly packed bris and my uncle was like, “Fuck this, there are so many people here, I can’t even breathe. Let’s go see E.T.” That was the first moment where I was like, if I can skip a bris to see E.T., I like movies.

'Shiva Baby' is now in select theaters and on VOD in the US. Film stills by Maria Rusche.

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