Interview with director Emma Seligman of Coming-of-Age Comedy ‘Shiva Baby’

vor 3 years

The plot may seem like too much at first:

A queer college student has to attend a shiva, a Jewish family event following a funeral, where she runs into her ex-girlfriend an her sugar daddy with wife and crying baby. And in fact, the plot gets crazier as the day goes on. Danielle is forced to give repeated responses to questions about her career aspirations and her love life, while she herself wasn’t very honest about her life and now has to keep up different stories with different people. It’s not helping that it’s mostly people she really doesn’t want to be with right now. Every encounter worsens the situation, and at one point, you really wish for her to have a freeing breakdown.

This coming-of-age movie looks deeply into the insecurity of finding yourself as a young woman. While everyone seems to have their life together, including her ex-girlfriend Maya and her sugar daddy’s wife, who is running multiple businesses, Danielle doesn’t know her path yet. Writer and director Emma Seligman wrote this story, based on her own upbringing, first as a short movie and turned it later into a feature film. It first was screened at Toronto Film Festival and is now available on Mubi.

Rachel Sennot plays Danielle

When developing the plot what came first, the shiva setting or the different characters, like sugar daddy and ex-girlfriend?
I think shiva came first, but the idea came sort of all in one. For a long time, I’d wanted to set something at a Jewish family function, particularly a shiva. But when it came to making my final project for school, which this is based on, I thought about what I could relate to and write well, so I knew it was gonna be a young woman, who is going through something that I was feeling in some way.

Why a shiva particularly?
Even though shivas are a mourning ritual they feel just as lively as other family events in the community where I’m from. I think that’s partly on purpose, because it’s a way of getting through the grieve, telling nice stories and keeping the vibe upbeat. But it’s just the same noisiness and bragging and definitely the same amount of eating, if not more, and that was always very funny to me.

What was your process of making the film, after you had the idea for the plot?
After I made the short film, I directly started writing the feature, and that took many drafts because I wanted it to stay in one location for budget reasons. But it’s definitely hard to create a story that is interesting enough to stay in one house. I had to try so many things to make it feel interesting. I was working with the producer, a friend of mine from school, and we tried to raise money, the toughest part of the process. It was all happening at once; we were also looking for the house and casting. So, the process was very chaotic, just like the film.

How important were a Jewish and/or queer background for your casting?
We definitely tried as much as possible to find Jewish actors, to make it as authentic as possible. I also wanted people slightly recognizable, helping us to promote the film at film festivals. We also needed them to be within New York, because we couldn’t afford to fly people out, put them in a hotel, pamper them and take them to work. We had difficulties finding a Jewish actor to play the mom, and eventually Polly Draper, who was playing another character, put herself up. She is married to a Jewish person, but it didn’t always work in terms of representation. But for me it worked at the end of the day. When it comes to queer representation, I think it’s tricky because you don’t always know someone’s sexuality, maybe the didn’t out themselves or don’t label themselves.

What makes developing a feature film different to making a shortmovie?
I think the main thing I took into consideration was how to make Danielle’s day as crazy as possible while still feeling realistic and grounded. For a short film you can make it however you want, but for a feature, if it’s longer than one day, the main character’s life has to change. Otherwise, why are we watching it? I thought, how is this woman change from this day, so she had to have a nervous brake-down.

Danielle’s mother still treats her like her little baby, while she herself wants to grow up and be a respected woman. As the story is in some parts based on your own upbringing, what were advices you would’ve loved to be given?
The advice her mom gives her at the end, is something my mom continuously tried to give to me: It’s okay, you don’t need to have everything figured out. You can’t be all the things different people expect you to be, and I would’ve loved someone to tell me that. Because this movie has reached many different people, I realized how universal this feeling is.

How do you deal with people trying to push you into different directions?
It’s a cheesy advice but stay true to yourself and what you want. Clear out the noise, be patient and put yourself first. Sometimes that requires taking breaks from people or activities. But knowing you’re not alone in this situation is very important, as well, it’s not just you having an internal crisis.

Danielle has various awkward encounters that day, have you been in a situation like this?
I’ve never ran into an ex or a sugar daddy at a shiva or family event before. But I’ve felt very awkward at family events, especially when I was getting older and my body was changing. And after I moved to a different country to go to university, and people were asking many questions about my future. Almost all the individual smaller characters Danielle rans into were written word for word based off of things that were said in conversation to me.

At one point Danielle says to her sugar daddy’s wife that she isn’t into the whole girl boss thing. What is your personal opinion on the term “girl boss”?
Well, Rachel Sennot actually said that line on the spot, I didn’t write it, but I kept it because I thought it was funny. At least my understanding of what Rachel was trying to speak to is the idea of having it all, that’s a lot to put yourself through in terms of your expectations. I think the idea that you are independent, you have no attachments and you’re like a business bitch, that’s a really unattainable goal. Being a woman in charge of your career is definitely a wonderful goal to try to achieve and it is really exciting to see so many women in various careers pushing forward and taking up that space. But the term girl boss makes it somewhat feel cute, and it’s not cute, it’s really hard.

Danielle is also talking about dating apps, the one where she finds her sugar daddies in particular. What do you think about those apps or platforms like OnlyFans?
When I was in college, I noticed a shift with online dating and dating apps. Previously, online dating was more for people in their late twenties or older, looking for partners and serious romantic relationships. Tinder, Bumble and everything that came out changed the game, they profit off of hook-up culture. It makes dating and looking at people on our phones much more common and setting a profile for yourself is much easier to do. A part of what makes sugaring so appealing to me and my friends is that it’s so easy to do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have considered that form of revenue. OnlyFans also made sex work really accessible to young women, and sometimes when you are that young you don’t know what you’re doing and what sex work really is.

At the end of the movie, she gets asked why she’s doing sugaring, she answers it’s because she felt powerful. Do you think women should use sex as a tool to gain power?
I don’t know if they should or shouldn’t, but I definitely did it for so long. I had a reverse reaction where I had to find other ways to feel powerful, because it was the only way and it’s not tangible, it can go away so quickly. When it’s another person giving me that power and validation, I don’t have control over it. Sex makes you so powerful if you feel so powerless in the rest of your life. When you are a young woman, that power feels so exciting, because you never had that kind of power before.

Will you explore your Jewish or queer background in future movies again?
I hope to, definitely. I have other stories I want to tell, some more personal that have those backgrounds in it, and others that don’t.

As it’s queer pride month right now, what does that mean to you personally?
Pride has come to be more and more important as I’ve gotten older. I feel so lucky that as I’ve gotten older, I met so many queer people from different backgrounds, so it feels like all year is pride. But it’s also nice having a month dedicated to that. Pride is also complicated because it brings up a lot of questions, under what circumstances we should be celebrated. I grew up in Toronto where we had a pretty big pride parade, well before I was out. Right now, I’m with my family in The Castro, the queer area of San Francisco, which feels very special, too. But I wish I could go to the big parade in New York, which is really fun to be part of. It’s a nice time to feel seen and celebrated.

“Shiva Baby” is now available to stream exclusively on Mubi

Interview: Hannah Sulzbach

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