The filmmaker sits down with Jewschool to discuss her much buzzed-about first feature, litmus tests for Judaism, and the false promise of sexual power for young women.
by Ursula Rigberg Wagner
Since its debut at South by Southwest last year, writer-director Emma Seligman’s first feature film, Shiva Baby, has deservedly been racking up nominations and awards all over the festival circuit. Perhaps more important, though, has been the word on the street among queer Jewish women that they feel especially seen by the film. This must be gratifying to Seligman, who says that while writing, rewriting, shooting, and editing the film, she kept a mission statement on her desk: “I want other young women to feel heard in their insecurities that have been inflicted upon them.”
I interviewed Seligman on the occasion of Shiva Baby being newly out on VOD and streaming. The film is based on her short of the same name, which she completed in 2018 while finishing college at NYU. In light of the challenges of turning a 7-minute short into a 77-minute feature, Seligman says she was nevertheless extremely excited by the opportunity to expand the film. In essence, she told me, “I was going to put in every awkward thing I’ve ever experienced at a shiva.”
Her main character, Danielle, is about to graduate from Columbia University and is working on the side as a “sugar baby,” i.e. trading companionship and sexual favors to more established men (“sugar daddies”) for financial support. Not that she needs the money – her parents pay all her bills. It’s clear that Danielle is more in it to explore and revel in her sexual power. This aspect of the film was also based on Seligman’s personal experience while she was in college. “At that time, some of my close friends were sugar babies,” she said, “and like many girls at NYU, I briefly tried to be one too.”
Danielle is played with intensity by Rachel Sennott, who also starred in the short and proves herself just as able to carry the feature. This is especially important because for most of the film, we are with her in close-up, her anxiety-ridden face nearly distorted by the anamorphic lens used by cinematographer Maria Rusche. Despite the close quarters (most of the action takes place inside a house), Seligman does not waste an inch of the ultra-widescreen aspect ratio, constantly showing the bustle of the shiva in the background even as the walls seem to be closing in on Danielle.
That bustle includes a host of nosy relatives and family friends, but also Danielle’s ex-girlfriend and – to Danielle’s mortification – her sugar daddy Max with his “shiksa” wife and their crying baby in tow. Danielle’s anxiety slowly reaches a fever pitch, unfolding so palpably that it can be almost unrelentingly stressful to watch her unravel.
Seligman, who is bisexual herself, says her favorite part of expanding to feature length was the ability to introduce the character of the ex-girlfriend (played by Molly Gordon from Booksmart). She also loved being able to explore the relationship between Max and his wife Kim (Diana Agron of Glee), as well as going deeper into the characters of Danielle’s parents, played to perfection by Thirtysomething star Polly Draper and veteran character actor Fred Melamed. Indeed, as Danielle’s anxiety ratchets up, so do her increasingly questionable decisions in response to it, and I came to feel much-needed comic and emotional relief whenever Danielle’s mom was on screen. Seligman spoke with me about casting a non-Jewish actor to play this quintessential Jewish mother. She also discussed the questions of Jewish identity the film hits on, her unintentional use of horror in a coming-of-age comedy, and her ultimate message to women.
I’m so glad you were able to expand the role of Danielle’s parents for this film. The mom especially provides such an emotional core to the movie. As a first-time filmmaker, what was it like working with Polly Draper, who has been at this forever?
It was amazing to work with her, and Polly Draper really pushed for this role. I was holding out for a Jewish actress to play the mom. I originally wanted Polly to play Maya’s mom. And my own mom said, “She needs to play me.” And I was like, it’s not you, Mom – it’s a character! But I had coffee with Polly while I was still casting the movie, and she asked “Who’s playing the mom?” And I explained we didn’t really have anybody for that yet. And she said “It should be me.” She really advocated until she got the part. But she’s also a writer and director, so she really helped give the mom’s character her arc, in terms of realizing that her daughter is just having a really bad day. I was like “No, no, she’s oblivious. She’s not gonna know her daughter is a sugar baby and having sex for money.” But it wasn’t about that. It was about realizing Danielle’s not okay. So she pushed for that. She was also hands down the best improviser – just sort of blew everybody else out of the water. What she would do with a phrase, or even just a meatball!
The meatballs! Food plays such a big role in this movie. There is so much agonized eating. Especially Rachel Sennott – she spends so much of it looking absolutely miserable while also stuffing her face. It’s great.
That’s also because food gave the characters something to do in a house where people are just standing and talking. No one’s running around, there are no car chases. Activity is everything, and the only thing that I could do to showcase any sort of character change was just how they’re interacting with food. And then it doubled down because so many of my awkward interactions [at shivas] that I was excited to include were all when I lost weight, all regarding food and eating. So in my head I almost didn’t realize they were related – that I was taking all these moments that had happened to me that were funny, and then I was also just on a practical level trying to figure out what to have characters doing. But then it all ended up as this huge other theme of the movie being food.
But it’s a big part of – I mean it’s part of so many cultures. I don’t wanna be like, “Something really specific and different about Jews? Food!” But I think it means and represents so much. It’s a huge piece of gathering and tradition and what I associate with being Jewish, so I couldn’t not focus on it.
Speaking of Jewish identity and of holding out for Jewish actresses, I was very surprised to read after watching the movie that your star, Rachel Sennott, isn’t Jewish – but that Diana Agron, who plays this shiksa goddess, is Jewish! The irony cracked me up.
Yeah, Diana Agron had never gotten the opportunity to be in a Jewish movie. I initially didn’t even want her because I thought, “Is she going to want to play this shiksa princess? Won’t she be offended?” And she was so excited because she was like, “My grandma’s rolling around in her grave because I’ve played a nun but not a Jew.” And she worked in those comments or notes in the movie where they’re like: “Oh, I heard her dad was Jewish.” “Well, that doesn’t count.” “Maybe she converted?”
And this will be so sad to hear, but because of her looks, Diana Agron’s Jewishness is constantly questioned by people. They’re like, “Well, recite your haftarah,” and she’s like, “Do you remember yours?” She always says that! So I think I was excited to poke a finger on that sort of thing for her. Which wasn’t intentional when I was writing the character, but we got to add this whole other layer to it, even if it was subconscious or went a little under the surface.
And then, yeah, Rachel’s not Jewish! She’s Italian. I totally thought she was Jewish when I cast her and then found out she wasn’t, but it turns out she’s incredibly anxious. And a lot of people tell her “Oh, your humor is Jewish!” because she’s a comedian. And I was talking to someone recently who said “Everyone from New York is Jewish, and everyone from LA is not Jewish.” I feel like it’s hard for Jewish humor to not permeate the New York comedy scene. So I did a little role reversal there with Diana Agron and Rachel Sennott.
That reminds me of this quote where someone said: “Italians are happy Jews.”
Oh my God, yes! That’s so funny because Polly Draper told me that the creator of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak – he said when he was growing up in the Lower East Side, he looked at the Italians and said, “I wanna go play with the happy Jews.” Happy Jews!
Even though it’s very brief, I think that conversation in the movie about Jewish identity is going to resonate for so many Jewish viewers because so many of us have had those moments. Like I’m Jewish on the “right” side, but I was never bat mitzvahed, so I’ve questioned if I’m Jewish enough. I’ve met so many people who feel like they’re not Jewish enough for a certain space, so that really resonated. I was so glad you had that in there.
Thank you, yeah it’s unfortunate, and I’m glad Diana felt comfortable sharing that and pushing for that because it is sort of ridiculous and outdated. It also comes from a place of internalized misogyny and just jealousy, you know what I mean? And also internalized antisemitism because we’re jealous of what is considered not “Semitic looks” or whatever. You know, just shit like that. But you’re bringing up that it’s much broader, it goes beyond that – having your Judaism come into question.
Yes, and per what you were saying about Jews and food, Polly Draper’s character is like, “Well, she can’t say ‘rugelach’ so therefore she’s not Jewish.” So there it is – our food identity!
Yeah, exactly. Which was Diana’s idea. We ended up not doing this, but Diana was like, “What if she says it correctly, and Polly just wants to fuck with her?” But then we ended up just keeping it the way it was in the script.
Also just the idea of a “shiksa princess” for me is so outdated. I don’t hear it anymore, but I remember hearing that as a kid and being like, “What does that mean?” Looking back, that’s clearly such a way that Jewish women have internalized their jealousy of when Jewish men “go beyond the faith” and date blondes who aren’t Jewish. And I was talking to another Jewish journalist about this, and she was saying that it’s because we’ve been taught our whole lives that that’s our prize – Jewish men – so then to see them choosing someone else feels like a huge blow. And I’m like, damn, this goes so deep! It goes back so far.
Switching gears just a little bit, during the pandemic I have been watching a ton of claustrophobic horror films, and this felt very much like one of those. Were you influenced by horror – in terms of the score, the cinematography, the makeup?
Thank you, honestly, I was inspired by a lot of psychological thriller kind of pieces. Like Krisha you could call a horror movie, but there’s no blood, and then Black Swan, and then a couple Cassavetes movies – movies that are incredibly anxiety-inducing. I was never a horror movie nerd. And I love horror movies when they come out, and they get good reviews, and everyone’s talking about them – I see them like I do any other genre. And some of my friends are horror movie nerds, and I love it, but that’s never been me. So I kind of feel grateful that I wasn’t thinking about that ahead of time, being like, “I want to make it a horror movie.” I feel grateful it came together in a way where each step of the way I was like, “Just focus on the anxiety, just focus on the anxiety, just focus on the anxiety.” And then by the end, when we were doing the score, and I told our composer [Ariel Marx] what I wanted, she was like, “So you want it to be a horror score.” And I was like, “Is it a horror score, though?” And she was like, “I don’t know what else to call it.”
So that’s the only time that I realized it might have horror elements. I wasn’t purposely trying to go for it. I just kept saying the word “anxiety” and then realized that’s what a horror movie does – it makes you feel anxious. That’s literally the point. And I think that’s why horror movies can succeed at such a low-budget level so much of the time, because they’re using film in the most strategic way to get an audience hooked. And I just tried to do that, without realizing that these are the filmmaking mechanisms of the horror genre. But no, I didn’t intend for it to be a horror, but now I can’t believe I didn’t think about that going into it.
I saw it in all those extreme close-ups, too, where you’re tight on Danielle’s face so much, and she looks so ghastly pale and sickly as her day gets worse and worse.
Yeah, I got a few comments about Rosemary’s Baby after that, which I thought was interesting. But I think for film references, so much of it is subconscious. I’ve been so disappointed in the past when I’ve been in Q&As and asked directors, “Were you trying to say this, and do this?” and all of them are usually like, “Not really, I don’t know…” Because you just don’t think too hard about it. And when you don’t think too hard about it, especially when it comes to references, I think that’s when you get the best results. But often I don’t realize how much is in my brain, in terms of my Rolodex of what I’m pulling out. So, you know, totally there’s Rosemary’s Baby or other horror movies coming into play. I just don’t think I’m really fully aware of what I was putting in.
And it definitely depends on what the viewer is coming in with. So I might come in with a horror lens, but I see coming-of-age in there, too. On that note, what hopes do you have for Danielle after the movie ends? It ends on such an ambiguous note, but it feels like she comes of age in an afternoon – if that’s even possible.
That was the goal: coming of age in a day. For me, the overall message and thesis of the movie is a woman realizing that her sexual power is limited, and that it’s so easy when you feel so powerless as a young woman to all of a sudden feel exhilarated by discovering that sexual power. And it can make you feel good about yourself in a world that makes you feel so shitty about yourself otherwise. It’s so much easier to have that validation given to you by sex, and it’s so much harder to build up your self-confidence just from scratch on your own.
So what I see for Danielle is that by the end of the movie she just realizes that she needs to do that. I don’t think she does it. I don’t think she’s like, “Great, well now I’ve found myself!” But I think she’s accepted where she’s at and accepted that she’s not in a good place, and it’s going to be OK, and she’s going to move forward from it.