If anxiety was a movie, then it would easily be Emma Seligman’s directorial debut Shiva Baby. Confidently directed and written, and with a phenomenal breakthrough performance from Rachel Sennott at the centre of the film, Shiva Baby tells the story of a college student named Danielle who bumps into her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend while dealing with her exhausting relatives at a Jewish funeral she attends with her family. What first started as a final project for the director’s film school now evolves into a sensational feature debut.
We recently had the opportunity to hop on the phone with Seligman to talk about the movie, her creative process of making her debut, as well as how she finds humour in anxiety.
I believe Shiva Baby first started off as your final project for film school, can you share a little bit about your creative process of expanding the short film into a full-length feature?
I always knew for my first feature that I wanted to go back into that short film to see if I could try to do that. So the process was interesting, and it was a lot harder than I thought, to expand a story that takes place in one day and in one location. The challenge was to find the right tone for the movie. Initially, I wanted to focus on this one crazy event where this person said this, and this person said that, but then it felt too slapstick, which would’ve been fine, but I just knew it wasn’t the tone that I wanted. And when I decided to pull back and made it a little more dramatic, it became not really funny anymore. So it was tricky at the beginning to figure out the right tone, to keep it grounded but not too boring. And then, of course, there’s the technical stuff and the finance, which was actually the hardest part of making the movie, even beyond the casting. So that was pretty much the main creative process of expanding the short into a feature, finding the right tone.
One thing that I love the most about the movie is even though it has a specific Jewish context to it, it somehow feels universal. On one hand, we have this story of a young woman figuring out that her sexual power is actually limited, then on the other hand, there’s a story about post-college anxiety. Were these two themes something that you consciously wanted to capture from the beginning or was it something that came naturally later on in the writing process?
I think as I was trying to get the tone right and as I also watched more movies that take place in one day, I began to learn that the way this kind of movies succeeded was from focusing on something more universal, which in this case was the anxiety that came out of the stories. So I was just trying as much as possible to go into that route and to communicate that the day in which the movie takes place is gonna be a horrible day for this young woman. I really wanted to just focus on Danielle and her internal issues as she’s sorta realizing that her sexual power is limited and she actually doesn’t have that much control over Max.
And in terms of the specific Jewish context in the story, my goal was to capture it in an authentic way. I just didn’t want to water it down, so I thought about how to use certain aspects of the Jewish experience to add to the plot, like a scene where the mother tries to clean up Danielle’s stain using this Jewish holy water or the scene where Danielle kisses these Jewish prayer books, the Siddur. Part of it is also because I wanted to search for activities to add to the story, because otherwise the movie would just be about people standing around and talking, and that’s not really exciting to watch. And stuff like that, I just thought would be useful to add into the movie. But I wasn’t trying to make it more Jewish or make it less Jewish; I just kept waiting for someone on the crew who wasn’t Jewish to say something like, “I don’t understand this,” but no one ever said that, and the people who are Jewish in my movie also never said stuff like. “I think this is too Jewish, you might need to pull it back a little bit,” or “This isn’t Jewish enough,” so I just keep going with it.
Initially, I wasn’t sure if the movie was gonna strike with other audiences beyond Jews, but I was so surprised and excited, even for the short film, to hear that it actually did resonate with people from outside of the Jewish community. So I just sorta went with that and thought that if the short was able to be universal, then the feature would be too. I feel that the more culturally specific a movie is, the more universal it will be. I love The Farewell so much even though I could not relate to the Chinese aspect of the story or the specificity of the family dynamic in the movie. And I just hope that people will feel the same way I feel about The Farewell.
When the movie begins, Danielle sorta sees her relationship with her sugar daddy purely as transactional. But then as the film goes on, there’s some kind of hurt that she shows when she realizes that Max has already had a wife, who is this girlboss Danielle most likely aspires to be in the future. Why did you decide to highlight this duality and even perhaps these multi-faceted personalities of Danielle?
I think that for all young people, especially young women, balancing who you truly are and the way you present yourself in front of your parents — or at least the way they see you or expect you to be — especially as you try to come into your own to be an independent young adult, feels completely contrasting, and the heart of this movie is actually about that, about having these multiple identities that you feel like you have to perform. Everyone has family, and everyone obviously has sex lives too, and sometimes it’s tricky and uncomfortable to bring the latter into the former, and in Danielle’s case, it’s even more complicated because she has this relationship with Max too. So I wanted to showcase all of that and focusing on Danielle as she’s realising her sexuality and her sexual power and issues that I think we all feel on some level. But I tried to do it in a manner where Danielle can’t really talk about any of that with anyone, so it creates anxiety and suffocation. And it’s also because personally, I feel that I’m the most suffocated and belittled when I’m at a family event and everyone is breathing down my neck at every turn and asking me how I am, when what I really wanna be doing is just texting a guy or a girl I wanna sleep with. [laughing] So that’s why I decided to focus on Danielle and her multiple identities.
The movie walks a tightrope between cringe comedy and anxiety-inducing drama slash family horror. As a director and writer, how did you maintain that balance?
In making the film, I knew the thing that I’m most comfortable with was comedy because I find my family members to be hilarious, and I just thought that if I can accomplish anything in this movie, I know that I can make it funny. The comedy side of the movie is something that I was never really worried about, so the challenge, as I said before, was more about how I needed to integrate the drama and the tension into the comedy. Then I realise that the more anxiety-inducing, the more uncomfortable, and the more horror the movie becomes, the funnier it gets. Comedy, basically, can become a source of discomfort, or the other way around, through discomfort, we can mine the laugh. To be honest, in the end, even though finding the balance and the right tone was a challenge, I was trying to not worry about it too much; I was just actually more worried about whether there was gonna be enough interest in the drama and more of how to make the audience feel and understand what Danielle is going through.
You mentioned horror earlier, and the score from Ariel Marx feels like something that came out of a horror movie. Can you share a little about how did the score come about?
Well, initially, I didn’t think I was gonna have a score, because the short film didn’t have any score and I haven’t really worked with it before in any of my shorts, so going into the movie, I didn’t think there was gonna be one. But as we were shooting one of the scenes where Danielle is having a conversation with a bunch of women but she really wasn’t paying attention to them because she’s thinking about Max’s baby across the room and just sorta processing about this guy she’s been seeing, I realised that having a score would help communicate what Danielle is thinking and reflect her anxiety and emphasise the drama and the tension.
I knew right away I wanted the score to be string-heavy and to sound like classic Jewish music. And our incredible composer, Ariel Marx, who’s specialised in violin, sent me a variety of violin sounds and she asked me to tell her which one was my favourite, and I eventually picked all of the uncomfortable ones. Then she told me that based on my choice, it was gonna sound a lot like a score from horror movies, and I just said, “Okay, let’s do horror!” [laughing] So that’s honestly what happened.
If you could program a double feature to watch with Shiva Baby, what movie from the last 5 years would you pick?
Great question! I think it has to be between Krisha and Uncut Gems. Krisha is actually the main reference for Shiva Baby, as the movie also takes place on one day inside a house and about a woman losing her mind, though of course, it’s very different as it’s full horror and not funny. While Uncut Gems is a good example of Jewish anxiety. And it’s also very sexy and exhilarating. So yeah, I think either of those would be a great double feature with Shiva Baby.
Shiva Baby is now available on VOD in the US, will be available in the UK on MUBI in June.