Emma Seligman

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Shiva Baby is streaming on Mubi.

Watching Shiva Baby feels like having a panic attack in slow-motion. Set mainly in a single location – the house where a shiva (the week-long Jewish period of mourning that follows the burial of relatives) is being held for someone who college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) isn’t sure she knew – the tension it induces is truly discomforting.

Despite her reluctance to attend, Danielle’s parents (played to kvetching perfection by Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) insist she comes along to be grilled about her future plans, weight and love life by an extended community of hyper-opinionated friends and family. In attendance is Danielle’s overachieving ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon of Booksmart fame) and – horror of horrors – her web-sourced sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), whose wife and baby also show up, adding to Danielle’s claustrophobia as different elements of her identity collide and implode. As Ariel Marx’s tense string score conveys her spiralling emotions, Danielle holds it together by an increasingly thin thread.

The film is 26-year-old Emma Seligman’s debut feature, one that balances a rich swathe of cultural influences with a perspective that is distinctly her own. She credits the TV show Transparent as an essential forebear, and also cites Joan Micklin Silver’s Crossing Delancey (1988), Edward Norton’s Keeping the Faith (2000), Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009) and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (2014) as her “Jewish comedic Rolodex”. There came a point, however, when Seligman says she had to put the Rolodex to the side, lest the influences “come in and take over the movie”.

What gives Shiva Baby its unique freshness is Seligman’s no-holds-barred observations about millennialboomer tensions, and the strange uncharted state of the romantic/sexual landscape for young women making their way in the world today. It’s an area she will continue to explore in a pilot on Jewish ‘sugar babies’ being developed for HBO, and a script she is co-writing with Sennott about two nerdy, queer high-school girls who start an underground fight club to win over the cheerleaders from the football players.

Polly Draper as Debbie in Shiva Baby (2020)

Sophie Monks Kaufman: The sound design and camerawork in Shiva Baby feel straight out of a horror film or thriller. What influenced these formal choices?

Emma Seligman: I was concerned about making a film that took place on one day in one location, and keeping an audience interested. So I started watching movies that had that framework – the same creative constrictions. Most of them were thrillers or very tense. The movie that helped me the most through every stage was Krisha [2015], Trey Edward Shults’s first film. I looked at that to ask, “How did he create tension within the script?” From there, I started watching Cassavetes movies. That reminded me of other movies and sent me down a thriller spiral. I kept coming back to these throughout every stage: cinematography, editing, music.

Which Cassavetes films did you watch?

Opening Night [1977] was a big one. I was like, “How did Cassavetes shoot the shiva scene?” but then I didn’t use anything from there. I took from the lobby scenes. Gena Rowlands fucks up her performance and everyone’s talking about it in the lobby, all the critics and audience members, and it’s so claustrophobic. The camera’s swinging and there’s so much movement. I also rewatched A Woman under the Influence [1974].

Rachel Sennott as Danielle in Shiva Baby (2020)

What qualities were essential when casting Danielle?

What I liked about Rachel [Sennott] is that she felt so natural – like I could run into her at a shiva or another family event. I felt this kinship with her. I didn’t realise I was looking for this, but once Rachel started working, I realised I wanted someone who was really funny. Rachel is a comedian on top of being an actor, and she’s great with improvisational dialogue. She’s so good at taking direction and throwing out everything she prepared and working on the spot. When you’re shaping a short or first-time feature, it’s important that the person playing your protagonist has those skills.

Like Danielle, you signed up for a sugar daddy site. Was it for the same reasons?

I had an account for a long time, but I only ever went on one date and was quickly like, “I can’t do this.” I had friends who did it as well – yes, for money, but also a lot of them, including myself, were looking for a romantic or validating experience that you could rely on. Hookup culture in college feels so dehumanising, random and out of your control. You don’t know if the person you want to be dating is going to want to see you this week or next month or not ever again. Whether it’s a good thing or not, the idea of a sugar baby-sugar daddy relationship seems like a setup where you know you’re going to be validated, weekly or monthly or whatever the situation is.

Shiva Baby (2020)

A lot of the anxieties in Shiva Baby are to do with the old jobs-for-life no longer existing, and it being impossible to communicate that to the previous generation.

I find it hilarious that older generations can’t understand that they left us with no options. I take pride in – or maybe I’m happy to communicate with – my millennial audience, and that’s more important than communicating it to an audience that doesn’t understand.

A lot of my parents’ generation love to make fun of millennials without remembering that we can’t achieve the things that they did. They can make fun of us for not knowing what we’re going to do with our lives, but there’s a reason we have difficulty with that. It’s something I take pleasure in exploiting and making fun of them for.

Further reading

Shiva Baby sees a young Jewish woman’s secret life unravel during a funeral

By Lisa Mullen

Shiva Baby sees a young Jewish woman’s secret life unravel during a funeral

Joan Micklin Silver made her own film ground

By Carrie Rickey

Joan Micklin Silver made her own film ground

Where to begin with John Cassavetes

By Oliver Lunn

Where to begin with John Cassavetes

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