We’ve all been at those family gatherings where awkward conversation dominates the room, with careers and life paths questioned in supposedly curious (but actually uninspired) ways. Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby brings that sense of tension to screen, throwing in the additional unexpected complications of an ex-lover and a sugar daddy, the result of which is a film filled with near anxiety-inducing hilarity. This uncomfortable comedy of colliding personas was developed by Seligman from her well received NYU Tisch thesis short of the same name. And DN invited the talented writer/director to join us for a chat about exploring gendered power dynamics, recreating the tension of secrets threatening to break cover, and her transition from shorts to features.
Where did the concept for the original short film version of Shiva Baby come from?
In my last year of university, the invalidation I was getting from hookup culture and the pressure from my family to figure out how to make money were stressing me out on an equal level. I thought it would be interesting to put a young woman in a situation where she has to confront both those anxieties and try to upkeep two different versions of herself in the same setting – the nice Jewish girl her parents see her as and the independent sexy young woman her sugar daddy sees her as.
I thought a sugar baby/daddy relationship would allow me the opportunity to explore gendered power dynamics.
On a practical level, I wanted to write something achievable and affordable for my thesis film in a world that I could write well. I always wanted to set a film at a shiva because I found there to be such hilarious and morbid contrast in the way they felt like any other family event with bragging, nosey questions, lots of eating, etc. even though we just put a body in the ground. Many of my friends at NYU were either sugar babies or had tried it and having a Seeking Arrangement account was not uncommon among female students. I thought a sugar baby/daddy relationship would allow me the opportunity to explore gendered power dynamics in a story about a young woman desperately trying to hold onto her ‘sexual power’ as her only form of self-worth.
Given that it was born out of your thesis film at NYU, was it always the plan to adapt the story to feature level?
I went into my senior year aiming to make my thesis a proof of concept that a feature could be based upon. Though it’s challenging, there have been many successful films (often based on plays) that take place in one location over a short time period. I didn’t know for sure if it was going to work, but the plan was always to expand it.
How did you find that transition from a practical standpoint? What are the challenges of getting a film like this financed and produced?
Financing this film was probably the hardest thing I’ll ever do in my career and I think my producers would say the same thing for themselves. In terms of finding the location and crew and even the cast, producing the film was not that difficult. However, finding the money took up almost all of our energy and time. After almost a year of getting rejected by all the producers we knew in our lives (former bosses, professors, etc.), we were encouraged by our third Producer Lizzie Shapiro to turn to people who had never invested in a film before and we simply started harassing anyone we had ever met. Five of us split this work and only once a real producer came on board, Rhianon Jones, did others feel encouraged to hop on.
You totally captured the tense atmosphere of a family gathering, compounded by Danielle’s compartmentalised worlds crashing together. How did you construct those moments?
While writing the script, I looked to films that also took place in one location over a short time period. Most of them were very tense, had claustrophobic cinematography and a lot of dramatic irony. Some of them also included family events like Rachel Getting Married, August: Osage County and Krisha. Krisha was the film I took the most from in the script, camerawork, edit and score. From there, I started watching more Cassavetes movies and psychological thrillers. These movies informed every aspect of the filmmaking.
Could you talk about working with Rachel Sennott to establish Danielle? How much of yourself is in that character?
I feel so lucky that I got the chance to build the character of Danielle with Rachel over the course of two years, between making the short and the feature. When I made the short film, I subconsciously put a lot of my insecurities and anxieties I was feeling at the time into the movie. As I got further away from that time, I related to Danielle less but Rachel started relating to her more, as she went through difficult experiences.
Since Rachel held me accountable to my goals in developing and producing the movie, she read all thirty drafts of the script so by the time we were ready to shoot the feature, we’d both gotten very close to Danielle. We spent a week before shooting going through how Danielle was feeling in each scene, where her power lied, and how she was going to get the power or use it. When we were on set, I felt like we could communicate telepathically.
I got the chance to build the character of Danielle with Rachel over the course of two years, between making the short and the feature.
Most of the film plays out roughly in real time, was that a challenge when it came to shooting and continuity?
This was a challenge and figuring out the continuity along with the scheduling and the cinematography took up most of our time in prep but thankfully we had a lot of time, though unpaid, at the house to figure it out. We had visited the house a few times beforehand. I then made a Lego set of the first floor and my DP and I spent a few weeks creating the shotlist. Once we got to the house, we presented the shot list to our assistant director and producers and they told us what was achievable based on which actors were available for which days and how many extras we could afford each day, which was usually not many. We’d end up changing the angle of a shot so we don’t see into another room that should be filled with extras or we’d have to cut up a oner if it contained multiple actors who couldn’t be there on the same day, etc.
You mentioned the score earlier, the tension it creates is so palpable. Who did you work with on it and what were you looking for when you approached them?
We worked with the incredible Ariel Marx, who is a string-based composer. When I approached her, I told her I wanted something roughly Klezmer inspired but not too much like Fiddler on the Roof and I wanted it to be extremely anxious to underline how Danielle feels throughout the movie. She sent me a library of violin sounds, I picked my favourites (a lot of screeches and plucks) and then she told me that this was going to be a horror score.
Is it too early to expect another feature from you soon?
Rachel and I started writing a feature called Bottoms together shortly after shooting the short film. This is a much funnier, less dark and less Jewish, queer teen sex comedy. I also am developing a pilot that is a very loose adaptation of Shiva Baby.
Shiva Baby is available to watch on MUBI from June 11th.